Designs on a Green-Friendly Future

 Article from The Sun

Legislation: Two General Assembly bills take modest steps toward a new environmental vision.

Tom Horton: On the Bay

Just as the best, most thoughtful writing in a newspaper isn't always the front page story, so the most visionary environmental legislation isn't always what grabs attention in Maryland's General Assembly.

That's not to say this session's big issues weren't critical: trying unsuccessfully to put the brakes on polluting power plants; trying with some success to slow the erosion of farmland and open spaces.

All credit to the mainline environmental groups who fought those battles. But long-term, focusing just on making things less bad is only a slower way to hell.

Indeed, with a growing population, and expanding per-capita appetites for consumption of natural resources, how do we get ahead of the curve instead of playing catch-up?

Dr. Dan K. Morhaim, a delegate from Baltimore County, has made an exemplary if modest start with two bills during the past session. Both are expected to be signed into law.

The first, supported by the Ehrlich administration, local governments and business interests, creates what could well make Maryland a national model for computer recycling.

For all their smarts, the people who brought about the personal computer industry loaded the machines with toxic materials; and they did not bother to make them easily recyclable, Morhaim says.

His bill requires all manufacturers selling computers in Maryland to have an easy-to-use "take back" program when consumers finish with their machines.

Alternatively, they could pay $5,000 a year to the state, which would generate $400,000 to $500,000 annually - enough money, Morhaim says, to fund computer recycling around Maryland.

Morhaim, who's spent three years getting this passed, says it's "a baby step.... We need to extend it to televisions and all the other consumer electronics that are now landfilled, with all their toxics."

He thinks the real payoff will come from such a law spreading nationwide, ultimately pushing computer makers to make a less-toxic, easy-to-recycle product.

What Morhaim's really talking about is remaking the way we make things - the central theme of one of his gurus, William McDonough.

McDonough is a Virginia-based design expert who envisions an economy where products are infinitely recyclable, and their manufacture so clean that there's no waste stream to regulate. "Regulation," he is fond of saying, "is simply a failure of design."

As impressive as his vision is, more important is the fact that McDonough and like-minded collaborators have actually put these principles into practice with clients ranging from Ford and IBM to Nike and Oberlin College.

Morhaim's filmmaker wife, Shelley, has produced an excellent documentary on McDonough, The Next Industrial Revolution. I'd also highly recommend McDonough's book, Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press, 2002).

A second bill that Morhaim worked on for years before gaining passage of a watered-down version this session involves making state construction adhere to "green" standards.

"Green" can encompass everything from energy efficiency and use of local, nontoxic materials to siting projects where they minimize sprawl and recycling old buildings that are being knocked down.

We shouldn't need a law. An executive order requiring green standards is on the books from the Glendening administration, but it's simply been ignored by the current administration.

That means the state always goes with the lowest up-front bid when spending its construction billions. That usually eliminates significantly green construction.

Green building costs an average of 2 percent more, according to California, which has embraced it extensively. But it recoups this by tenfold over 20 years, according to that state's Sustainable Building Task Force.

Green savings, Morhaim says, don't just come from lower energy costs: "A big part is higher worker productivity and less absenteeism. High-performance [green] buildings tend to be healthier places to work."

If it became the norm, green building would hugely benefit the environment. Energy use alone is a major polluter of the bay. And sprawl is rapidly consuming our open spaces.

The bill that passed this year in Maryland merely allows state agencies and school districts to try to justify green building.

"It's a first step in a long journey; years from now people will wonder why anyone didn't build that way," Morhaim says.

That recalled my experience a few years ago, at a conference in the Southern Progress publishing company's lovely, eco-friendly offices in Birmingham, Ala.

The building, though fairly new, looked as if it had been dropped amid a mature forest. A stream rushed through its central core, cooling it so air conditioning wasn't needed.

"We think a building reflects how an employer values its employees," a company official said.

Around the table, I could see us all thinking of our own corporate work spaces, suddenly seeing things in a new light.

Originally published May 13, 2005