A Little Solution to 88 Tons of Plastic Bags

Oh those ubiquitous plastic grocery bags! While inroads have been made, such as recycling and reuse programs (New York, Maine) and banning their use (California, Hawaii), plastic grocery/take-out bags have a large presence in our lives. Every year, 88 million tons of them are manufactured. And, every year, they continue to strain landfills and harm oceans, rivers, forests and wildlife.

Have you heard that it takes 500 or even 1,000 years for a plastic carryout bag to degrade? And, have you wondered, as we haven’t been using them for more than half a century, how would anyone know?

The answer is scientific testing. Carryout bags, being made of man-made polymer – polyethelene – are not degraded by microorganisms as, say, an apple core or paper will be, because said microorganisms don’t recognize polyethelene as food. But, while the bags don’t biodegrade, they do photodegrade, taking those estimated 500-1,000 years for the sun to break down polymers until they become brittle and crumble.

Now, because of an observation during a beekeeper’s cleaning of her hives, a new environmental hero has emerged. Literally. It’s the lowly, one-inch wax worm also known as the honey worm caterpillar that loves to make its home and hatch its eggs among the delicious goop of honeycombs.

As it happens, the beekeeper also happened to be a research scientist in Spain. Upon finding the worms within her hives’ honeycomb panels, she put them aside in a plastic bag while finishing her cleaning. When she went for the worms, they’d tunneled out of their plastic prison.

Subsequent research studies showed that it’s not just about eating the plastic; cocoons placed on the plastic also degrade it, leading to the conclusion that the worms have an enzyme that does the swift degrading.

One interesting connection is that the plastic shares a similarity to the chemical compounds of beeswax, of which wax worms are especially fond. The hope is that researchers can isolate and reproduce the enzyme on an industrial scale and ultimately make inroads into the persistent environmental problem of plastic bag waste.

Environmental pollution is way up there when it comes to complex problems. Which is why is would be immensely satisfying if the (relatively) simple answer to the use of 500 billion plastic bags per year is the taste proclivities of an unassuming one-inch caterpillar.

With acknowledgement to the Live Science website, if you’d like to see a video of the caterpillars degrading a plastic bag, you can click here: http://www.livescience.com/58812-watch-amazing-caterpillars-degrade-a-plastic-bag-video.html

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And We’re Solarizing!

More than a year ago, I wrote: “To lay the foundation for a city whose future will be considerably more sustainable, green cannot be limited to luxury residential developments, nor Class A office buildings. The future must also embrace, encourage and fund sustainable initiatives in lower income areas of New York.”

I went on to say that The Bronx had shown considerable progress, buoyed by from both the public and private sectors.

Now, the city has announced two new programs in their “Solarize NYC” initiative focused on residents and businesses coming together to achieve community (lower) pricing from solar power companies. What is strategic about the program is that it addresses two of the city’s urban characteristics, one physical, one social. The first is the extreme density of our City’s buildings; and the second is that so many city residents are renters or otherwise do not have access to solar power.

What is brilliant about the “Solarize NYC” program is that you don’t need a roof to install solar – impossibly expensive for many buildings and out and out impossible for renters. The City estimates power cost reductions of 10-20%.

“By making solar more accessible and affordable, we are combating climate change and reducing the burden of air pollution,” the mayor said in statement.

The recently announced programs are in Harlem and Downtown Brooklyn and both, though similar, are also distinctly different in their goals that go beyond solarizing.

Brooklyn is, of course, becoming increasingly gentrified. But Downtown Brooklyn has long been the civic and commercial hub of the borough – courthouses, borough hall, federal buildings, colleges, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, Metro Tech Center and certainly not the least of them, Barclays Center – as well as the third largest business district in the city.

This “Emerging 2030 District” solarizing program encompasses Community Board 2 which includes the Tech Triangle, DUMBO, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and parts of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Boerum Hill, Atlantic Yards and BAM. According to the 2030 District’s website, the area was selected because of “…its diversity, a characteristic which facilitates the modeling of sustainability and resilience planning for the entire city in this compact area.”

Harlem, on the other hand, is part of the WEACT (for Environmental Justice) program focused on “building healthy communities for people of color and low-income residents in Northern Manhattan. “ It will provide the opportunity to bring clean and sustainable solar energy and its reduced costs into the homes of low to moderate income families.

It’s energizing (pun intended) to watch the impressive steady progress of the City in making New York a leader in sustainability. The goal for solar is to increase use to one gigawatt by 2030.

If solarizing interests you as a NYC resident, worker, property or business owner, you can spearhead having your neighborhood (no matter how you define it) participate in the Solarize NYC program. You can find the application at solarizenyc.com.

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Well, WELL. A new certification.

I’ve been the only commercial real estate appraiser in NYC with a LEED-AP BD+C designation for a long time. Taking that course was one of my biggest professional challenges. The language easily understood by architects, engineers and even interior designers, was foreign and difficult for me.

LEED is challenging, as it should be to be meaningful. But that may be one of the reasons there has been a proliferation of new and different, some much more specific, designations such as Green Globes and Net Zero Energy Building. Like all things, certifications have evolved.

The newest is WELL from the International WELL Building Institute. Their standard is simple: prioritize health and well-being in a building and the people who use it. Simple, but powerful and, in my professional opinion, the one to watch.

All of us in the profession have, at some point, either heard of or experienced, sick building syndrome. It’s usually an unspecific malaise (but most often about poor air quality and ventilation), where being in a building causes health problems or discomfort that can include headache, fatigue, nausea and breathing issues.

But meeting The WELL Building Standard ™ provides proof that your facility is the exact opposite: healthy, such that it contributes to users’ well-being and productivity.

The WELL certification can be sought for a building, a building interior or core and shell. The website (wellcertified.com) provides information on how it aligns with other certification systems such as LEED and what it takes to become a WELL AP.

In our increasingly tempeh-is-the-new-tofu, chia seed, kale and black lentil world, this designation can be gold (pardon the pun) for marketing your property. Certainly it positions your company and property as being a leader in healthy spaces.

Imagine you are sending your child to school and the reassurance you would feel knowing the facility was WELL certified. Or that a new restaurant. Or a hospital, lab or research facility. Or residential building. In fact, less than a week ago, New York City’s first WELL-Certified, luxury multifamily building was announced in the Flatiron District – 21W20, a development of Gale International.

Remember, as the WELL Certification becomes more prevalent and recognized and the correlation between health and wealth becomes clearer, you heard it here first. Namaste.

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Green Certification on the Wane?

Green projects are, pardon the pun, as healthy as ever in the marketplace. No longer a trend, they’ve reached their final destination as a key component of new commercial construction, retrofits and institutional projects.

What may be on the wane – unless it isn’t – is not green, but certifications, at least in the U.S. which seems to be lagging behind certification growth in the rest of the world.

An interesting market shift appeared in a recent report from Dodge Data & Analytics which can be summarized as more projects in the U.S. will be green, but less of them will be seeking certification. According to Dodge, the figure for certification will be fewer than 15%, a decrease from 41% in 2015 – a rather stunning decline. As the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was a partner in the Dodge “World Green Buildings Trends Report”, we assume the aforementioned statistic refers to LEED certifications only.

LEED standards have become tighter. As the USGBC said about v4, “…credits and prerequisites were designed to raise the bar.” There’s been conjecture about whether the design and construction industries would and could meet new credit requirements; that there is not enough customization for climate zones and markets, i.e., what works for a suburban office park in Arizona is not going to be the same as what works on a zero lot building in New York City; and that with the work and time entailed, pursuing certifications may not be profitable based on a cost benefit analysis.
While LEED is still the U.S. and global standard, there’s also been a groundswell in other certification models.

EnergyStar, from the U.S. EPA and U.S. DOE, is well known. Green Globes, which gives environmental credits, has no prerequisites and is less stringent than LEED, is an alternative developed by the Green Building Initiative. But, have you heard of the Living Building Challenge, NZEB (Net Zero Energy Building), Passive Home Institute, SITES (sustainable landscapes) or the WELL Building Standard (focused on health and well-being)?

Two things seem perfectly clear. For one, green buildings themselves are not on the wane as they have shown to decrease energy costs; reduce operating costs; be the favored choice of tenants; and increase property value.

Secondly, the certification field is growing in choice and specialization. Generally, competition tends to spur greater effort, improved efficiencies and innovation. Specifically, the greater the green options, the better the opportunity to determine whether and how your project will be green certified based on location, size, budget, goals, new construction or retrofit and type of property.

Thus, to answer our own question: green certifications aren’t necessarily on the wane. They’re simply evolving.

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