Monthly Archives: December 2013

My 2013 Word of the Year

transparency sm

When I posted around this time last year that the word of the year, at least according to me, was resilience, I wasn’t sure whether I’d make the word of the year a continuing event. I mean, who needs yet another commitment?

Nevertheless, I’m going to use my mini bully-free pulpit and anoint a 2013 word of the year. Here it comes.


The word’s been tossed around a lot for a while now, most commonly in regard to government and making information and processes available. What makes it new and timely for us is its application to the businesses and manufacturers that make and sell the materials, chemicals and products that so heavily impact our lives.

For years, our ability to select products that are safe in terms of environmental and human health has been hobbled by businesses’ claims to proprietary information. Frequently, if you wanted to know, for example, what chemicals were used in a paint, that information was unavailable because it was considered a trade secret in the same way that the formula for Coca Cola is kept under lock and key.

We’re not about to learn exactly what’s in Coca Cola (or Pepsi, if you prefer). Nor are we going to find out the exact make up of every material and finish in our buildings. But the advent of two types of product information labels, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), may change the information and transparency landscape dramatically.

EPDs and their more recent complement, HPDs, are often compared to food nutrition labels. They aren’t the type of green labels we’re used to in that they don’t tell you whether the product meets a green standard such as Energy Star. Rather they tell you what’s in the product and how much of it there is. Equipped with this information, which has been verified by a third party, the idea is that you can come to your own conclusions.

First page of a fictional Health Product Declaration

First page of a fictional Health Product Declaration

Another newcomer in the product and material transparency movement is the Living Building Challenges’ Declare label. With the introduction of another transparency label, the risk arises that the number of labels could start to get confusing and off putting, as has happened with the world of green labels. It’s good news, therefore, that Declare and HPD have formed a partnership.

LBC Declare label

The transparency movement dovetails with another concept, one that I wish I could label the word (or phrase, to be more precise) of the year: the precautionary principle. I’ve discussed this concept previously. Basically, the precautionary principle states that an action or policy or, more relevantly here, a product or material must be proven safe before use or implementation. This principle applies elsewhere in the world, but not in the US.

While information transparency, as provided by EPDs and HPDs, doesn’t directly invoke the precautionary principle, it does enable wider availability of information such as Red Lists so that we can exercise our own precautions.

Can there be too much transparency? One potential issue is information overload. How many people really make use of nutrition labels on foods? Who has the time or the inclination? But it doesn’t matter that many folks won’t take the step of diving into these labels. The fact that they exist and are getting notice is proving to be an incentive for companies to pay attention, to open a window onto their products’ make up as well as altering those products and, in short, to  “come clean.”


Space Missions: the ultimate disposable packaging?

I love the space program, having grown up steeped in it. (Those of you who know me, know it’s “in my blood.”) But it occurs to me on this anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission – and the Blue Marble photo*  that has been credited with increasing our environmental awareness of the Earth’s fragility and loneliness in space – that space missions are an unintentional analogue for our methods of manufacturing and consumption.

*OK, that was really Apollo 17, but Apollo 8 was the first time humans saw the Earth from a distance as an entire sphere.  And the Apollo 17 photo’s anniversary was December 7. Image: NASA via Wikimedia

* The Blue Marble photo was taken during Apollo 17, but Apollo 8 was the first time humans saw the Earth from a distance as an entire sphere. And the Apollo 17 photo’s anniversary was December 7. Image: NASA via Wikimedia

If we focus on the Apollo lunar missions, they started with this:

Image credit:

Image credit:

Mere minutes after launch, the majority of the “stack,” as the Apollo capsule and lander sections combined with the Saturn 5 rocket were called, was ditched into the sea after the stages of the rocket had done their work — a lot like the packaging that many of our products arrive in: used briefly and thrown out after shipping is complete.

Saturn 5 First Stage separation. Image: Wikimedia.

The three stages of the Saturn 5 were jettisoned after each did its job in lifting the Apollo spacecraft into orbit. Image: Wikimedia

The Apollo components of the stack were encased in a protective housing for launch. Inside it were the Command Module, the Service Module and the Lunar Module. Think of it as that little packet of critical parts that comes inside the Ikea package.

Image: Wikipedia

The housing was left in Earth orbit and the modules rearranged for transit to the Moon.

Image credit:

Upon arriving in Lunar orbit, they separated again and the Lunar Module descended to the Moon. To return to the Command Module (which remained in orbit with one astronaut aboard), the Lunar Module Ascent Stage blasted off from its landing base Descent Stage. The base remained on the moon as, essentially, discarded waste. (I’m imagining a Moon alien with a tear running down one – his only? – eye.)

Lunar liftoff. Image credit: Wikimedia

Lunar liftoff. Image credit: Wikimedia

The Ascent Stage, meanwhile, was abandoned after the two astronauts transferred back to the Command Module. (Except in the case of Apollo 13, where it served as the survival craft.) Lunar Modules were then either sent into solar orbit or crashed into the Moon, and only the Command and Service Modules remained for the transit back to the Earth.

Finally, when the crew prepared to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the Service Module was jettisoned and all that remained and returned to the Earth was the tiny Command Module.

Base diagram credit:

Base diagram credit:

If you want to look at this in an even more extreme sense, you could think of the whole thing, from the Saturn 5 booster stages down to and including the Command Module, as packaging for the round trip of three people to the Moon and back. Almost makes you see that UPS package, the one that contained a single Christmas tree ornament within a gallon of foam peanuts in a shroud of cardboard bound together with plastic packing tape, as efficient.

The final frontier of garbage. A depiction of debris in low Earth orbit by NASA

The final frontier of garbage. A depiction by NASA of debris in low Earth orbit

More relevant to my somewhat dramatic point, though, is the comparison to our modern industrial manufacturing methods combined with our often non-essential consumption of short-lived products: the processes by which raw materials are crudely excavated out of the Earth, then subjected to “heating, beating and treating” involving energy and more materials to transform them into a product that may be used for only a brief period before being discarded itself.

The difference — because I don’t want to equate the Apollo program with a disposable razor blade — is that the space program yielded immense amounts of knowledge while embodying the optimistic nature of humanity. The products in our landfills and in the recesses of our closets and garages, and the industrial waste created along the way, do neither. They may seem optimistic in their moment of purchase – that brief sense of happiness and fulfillment we get from, say, that new cellphone, before it becomes old hat and we want a newer one – but they aren’t actually optimistic, let alone EcoOptimistic, in their legacy.