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Our Sustainable Business Utopia

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We often discuss how people can take care of the Earth on an individual level, but companies have the greatest impact on the environment. While the industrial world has been an opponent to sustainability, companies can employ a number of strategies to combat their enormous carbon footprint.

Ardent Vox asked Samantha Brown, Recycling Coordinator for the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority, what sustainability practices an ideal business might use: “If we’re going to confront issues with the ocean level, the frequency and intensity of storms, the overall temperature, the unpredictability of droughts and flooding, the hole in our ozone layer then there needs to be more than one solution. The best thing to do is to mimic what nature does. Does nature have one solution to fix all the problems? No. Diversity is key.”

She continued: “You can’t think that only recycling and having a solar panel will fix this.”

Samantha explained the dangers around this simplistic approach to sustainability. 

In the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” “Recycle” is the last “R,” meaning it’s the last-ditch effort to minimize our damage to the environment. Recycling plastic bottles will never be more helpful than it was harmful to have used the plastic bottles to begin with.  

Solar panels have become a beacon of light in our nightmare of wasteful living. They’re a comfortable idea, because they’re a simple change, but we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket when it comes to solar panels. Solar panels have a lifespan of 25-30 years. At their inception, they use a lot of energy and cause a lot of environmental stress; miners use dangerous practices to obtain the rare materials that solar panels are made of, resulting in carbon emissions and habitat loss. Once solar panels expire, there are few resources for recycling, and they often end up in the landfill; they pose a massive toxic e-waste problem, as they’re partly made from lead. There needs to be a more efficient and accessible system to recycle solar panels, and their entire life journey needs to be considered when measuring their net benefit to the Earth. 

Recycling is vital, and solar plans are still a promising alternative to fossil fuels, but knowing their drawbacks can feel discouraging. If anything, these flaws should only further illustrate that we need to get serious about sustainability by deferring to the experts for complex action plans, and we oughta do it fast.

On the plus side, innovative Australian researchers have recently found a way to repurpose one of the most common and difficult products that end up in recycling plants, glass. 

“Glass is dangerous, hard to clean, expensive to sort and transport, and not very valuable in our market,” Samantha explained. 

Currently, Andela Products in Herkimer County recycles glass for filtration systems, art applications, and more. As for the newly-found potential for glass, it can be turned back into sand, and then transformed into polymer concrete for construction. By repurposing recycled glass, we can scale back on our sand mining. And the icing on the cake, polymer concrete is stronger and lighter-weight than the industry standard.

So that’s where companies can start in their sustainability efforts — by building mindfully with greener materials. But the materials aren’t the only building components that impact the environment; the design of the building plays a part as well.

“When you’re building a parking garage, it’s better to make it tall(er) than wide. Parking lots reduce the amount of porous area for water to go. Soil is nature’s sponge. That’s why you’ll see flooding around parking garages so often,” Samantha warned.

You can also strategically plant trees around parking lots to reduce heat and flooding. 

So, what else would we have in our dream city? On top of our polymer concrete buildings, next to our tall, tree-lined parking garages, we could have living roofs. 

“A living roof turns untapped space into a home for plants, like produce for a community garden or wildflowers for local pollinators. This would reduce the carbon footprint of the building by sequestering carbon in the atmosphere and producing oxygen. These gardens also insulate the building to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer, which reduces the heat island effect,” Samantha said.

The function of the phrase “heat island effect” is to point out that city infrastructure absorbs and re-emits heat more than natural landscapes, like greenery and bodies of water. This can put physical distress on people, such as by causing heat-stroke. Heat also intensifies air pollution by creating toxic smog, and it leads to higher energy use by way of our efforts to stay cool.

When it comes to insulation, architects can also consider how the building will be oriented in relation to the sun. If, throughout most of the day, the building is in the face of the sun, then the building will be hotter. 

Better still, geothermal heating and cooling units insulate buildings by using a network of pipes underground; this loop system acts as a heat exchanger with the Earth. Resource Center for Independent Living’s (RCIL) Dorothy Smith building in Utica uses geothermal heating, which has met all of the facility’s energy needs since 2007.

The current conversation on sustainability is oftentimes framed around finding a solution, but some of our best efforts are modeled after tried-and-true practices.

Samantha offered this example, “Today, things are made to break and be replaced. In the past, things were made to last and to be fixed. Furniture would be passed down over generations. A washing machine used to last 40 years. Now, you’re lucky to get 10.”

So, for the building itself and the company’s inner workings, it’s best to invest in materials and products that will be durable and long-lasting. 

While many of these methods are costly at the start, they will become more affordable as they become more commonplace. Investments in sustainability will pay for themselves over time not just monetarily, but also with greater quality of life. Individuals can continue to do their part, not just in their daily lives, but also in taking opportunities to push the government to set a green standard and offer incentives for sustainable businesses. We can also seek to be patrons of those businesses that reflect our values, because more businesses will follow close behind after they see the growing profitability of a green brand.

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