It’s Not That Easy, Being Green . . .

by Rick Stryker, P.E

Almost forty years ago (!), a certain celebrity frog first sang a melancholy tune bemoaning being overlooked because he shared his color with so many other things. His contribution to the balance of life seemed lost. In a wash of introspection, he seemed to feel very small and insignificant. In a world of more than 6½ billion people, it's easy to wonder whether we or our individual actions or contributions matter at all. At the same time, the green-and-white "Think Globally, Act Locally" bumper stickers abound. Can both perspectives be right? Can both be right for me and for my organization? The ideas seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum almost too broad to comprehend. Or perhaps there's yet another alternative. Maybe, like so many other things, could they simply be at opposite ends of a spectrum with an infinite number of shades between them? Can we find a place in between the extremes where we can participate, make a difference, and even effect change, at our tiny level?

Although contemporary activists would like to lay claim to "green" as a mindset or practice, the roots of conservation and ecology are deeply set in the human psyche. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind quickly as an early conservationist, from a time when the country's resources were largely thought to be inexhaustible. And while Poor Richard's axiom "Waste not, want not" seems outdated for today's throw-away society, the conservation movement continues to gain momentum. But what, exactly, is "green" as it's being used today? Is it recycling, conservation, sustainability, pollution abatement, what? Each individual or organization must decide whether to make resource stewardship part of its personality or culture. Within that context then, camp leadership must choose which aspects of resource management fit appropriately into the camp's operation, budget, and probably most importantly, its program and culture.


At its core, the soul of green is "stewardship," the idea of making the best use of the resources available. Unfortunately, consensus ends there because everyone has a different sense of what the "best use" may be for any particular resource. The disagreement comes as we struggle to reconcile what's worth saving with all of the apparent costs.

Stewardship is the act of managing the assets or affairs on behalf of another. This concept cuts to the heart of the matter since the effects and benefits are best considered as part of a widespread effort, and when taken in concert with many others with a similar aim. For issues "green," though, the idea is that the most widely shared and universally needed resources should be managed with an eye to making them last. Fundamentally, these are water, air and soil, but others like energy/ fuels, trees, and even undeveloped space have become part of the common understanding of the green lexicon. We can say, then, that green products and practices aim to stretch the limited supply of those constituent parts.

Green Products and Practices
Consider photovoltaic cells ("solar panels") as an example. Beyond augmenting the power supply in houses, many household installations are configured to deliver excess generated electricity back to the power grid. This return makes the electric meter slow (or even reverse direction), simulating a lower electrical consumption. The consumer sees a reduced electric bill, the power grid gets a little more power to pass around, and the company has to consume less fuel to meet demands. The question that needs to be asked is whether the cost of the installation and maintenance would, in fact, "pay for itself" eventually.

The mathematics here can be pretty complicated, and in its simplest form involve some assumptions about the rate of inflation, the cost of buying electricity over the usable life of the equipment, the expected service life of the equipment, and the efficiency of the equipment. The details of those calculations are beyond the scope here, but a detailed analysis will show that the equipment will be worn out and need to be replaced before it's generated enough income to cover the capital cost. Each part of the equation (equipment, maintenance, installation, and power prices) needs to continue moving in the direction that they have been for fifty years: The price of electricity from the grid and the efficiency of the equipment need to increase and the cost of the equipment needs to decrease before the economics of solar panels become a "financially smart" installation.

But aren't they still green? Sure! Let's go back and look at the scenario where solar panels generate electricity and sell it back to the grid. We've seen that the financial costs are greater than the benefit to the individual, but what about the effects on society as a whole? What if half of all of the meters were turning backward at any one time? In the Northeast where "coal is king," less fuel burned translates to fewer emissions which can mean (among lots of other things) lowered rain pH (less acid) to impair lakes and streams. From the fish to the municipal water supply, everyone benefits!

The owner of the equipment gets the intangible benefit of having made a contribution to the greater good as well as the added bonus of having the electric bill reduced. However, the fiscal balance sheet cannot put a price on the intangible benefits of cleaner air or the "contribution to the greater good," so from a financial perspective, the costs outweigh the return on the investment. The federal government has provided some tax incentives to encourage this sort of "bigger than just me" action. But these are only incentives and don't approach reimbursing the actual hard-money capital or operational cost of these sorts of commitments. The not-for-profit organizations are quick to point out that "tax breaks" don't help them much at all.

Unintended Consequences of Thinking Green
There is also the idea that there are unintended consequences and unexpected outcomes each time one alternative is chosen over another. Wind energy is a great example. Advances in technology and engineering have brought the ancient windmill into focus as a modern power supply alternative. Current designs deliver more energy, with lower wind and slower blade speeds. What could possibly be a downside to that? There are two issues that have come to the forefront as more installations are proposed. The first is that they're large and present a distraction, and are even an eyesore to some. Their very nature requires that windmill "farms" are placed in open areas and ridge tops where winds are frequent and steady. The second is their effect on wildlife, particularly birds.

The rotating arms of windmills do, indeed, take a toll on bird populations, and are indiscriminate since sparrow or bald eagle alike could fall prey to the fast-moving blade tips. Wind farm opponents (including some of the most vocal "green groups") contend that mortality of raptors is particularly high since rodents, the birds' primary food source, congregate in large numbers at the base of the windmills, luring the hunting birds into what amounts to a well-baited trap. Other studies have concluded that raptor mortality for windmills/wind farms is actually no more significant than mortality from vehicle strikes, but that the dead birds are simply concentrated in a very small space, making the effect seem much larger. So the debate continues and despite the "green" nature of a windmill, it seems that even here, there remains a cost.

What's In It for Us?

So where does that leave camps? In the tough reality of camper revenue versus capital expenditure, it may seem impossible to justify any capital investment without a significant direct return, an identifiable benefit to the campers, or accepting the unintended consequences of trying to be more environmentally conscious (dead birds, for example).

Probably the most difficult hurdle to clear when considering going green is the "me" syndrome, because when put on a financial spread sheet, incorporating green strategies will cost money. "Where is the benefit to us?" may be a question that you'll hear. Stewardship, by definition, refers to the "assets or affairs of another." The key word here is another, and not self.

Stewardship transcends the organization. Leadership puts the larger community before itself. Your organization has chosen and is following this particular path. Like clean water, hot food, and quality programming, it is simply the right thing to do. The cost to the organization is part of the cost of being a leader in your business and community.

The Green Philosophy
Without a doubt, that perspective allows us to try to frame the investment into program-smart, efficient, and well-planned green projects in a whole new way. This idea transcends the idea of "me first," and instead embraces the idea of community, nurture, and caring, not at all unlike the ideal environment to which camp should aspire. "Green" then evolves from being a gimmick to being a corporate philosophy permeating the organization, its operations, management, marketing, and culture. Once the aims and mission of the organization are reconciled with the opportunities for environmental stewardship, incorporating strategies that are appropriate and sustainable becomes a matter of course. That word "sustainable" is an important piece of this puzzle. Many conservation efforts and programs are forced into an organization like a square peg into a round hole. Typically, they are only marginally successful any way that it's measured because the philosophy and mindset aren't part of the fabric or culture of the whole organization. When the champion is no longer pushing, driving, and demanding participation, the effort simply falls by the wayside, and all of the progress is lost. The "champion" may not even be a person. In some places, state and local governments have provided financial incentives, and when the money has dried up, programs have withered and gone away. Again, before your organization adopts any new "green" strategy, product, or approach, make certain that the culture will sustain it not because "we have to" but because "it's who we are."

Where Do We Begin?

Despite extending for relatively large distances, a spider's web, strands interconnected and interrelated, notify the spider that dinner has arrived. Each fiber must work in concert with the next to snare, hold, and then pass notice to the spider. In the same way, your facility is intimately connected to the environment through occupancy, use, and configuration. Facilities only enhance program.

For many, there is at least a certain degree of the chicken-or-the-egg paradox. And just like most things worth doing, this is absolutely one which is best done once and done right that first time. Incorporating more environmentally friendly practices and products at camp has to be part of the overall operations of camp, from support areas like food and administrative services through facilities planning, maintenance, and capital investment. This begins as simply as adding a line to the mission statement, but has to be followed with forethought and planning to research and implement the strategy across the property. It may seem like a monumental task, but this is a paced effort with many, many intermediate milestones along the way.

Remember the answer to the riddle, "How do you eat an elephant?"? That's right: ONE BITE AT A TIME! Each of camp's small steps toward the green finish line is another bite of elephant. Every guest who is introduced to the benefits of conservation and stewardship is another potential ambassador for the cause, as well as a spokesperson for the place where they saw how smart planning and a willingness to step up to the plate can make a difference.

Green Strategies Can Work at Camp

Once the organization has committed to bringing green strategies to camp, the real work and test of that commitment begin. There are as many ways to bring this to life as there are people with ideas, and the limitations are only the creativity of the individuals involved and the commitment to execute the plan.

With gas and electric costs in the news, energy generation and power consumption are the two areas of "green" facilities that have probably gotten the most attention over all. So it's no coincidence that electricity is where your organization can enjoy the largest direct return on the investment. The diversity of electrical "contributors" to the grid has prompted the government to require that electrical utilities allow the consumer to "choose" their source of electricity. This choice is very similar to choosing long distance and local telephone service. Better than in the phone industry, though, is that you're directing the purchasing utility to get your "share" of the power demand from a source that you find most environmentally acceptable. You, then, are able to decide the value of, and therefore the cost to, your organization for using a "greener" power supply. Beware! It probably will not be the cheapest source from which you have to choose. That additional cost is your contribution to the greater good, beyond your property boundaries and program offerings. You can offset that increased cost per kilowatthour (kW-h) by installing fluorescent fixtures, and dusk-to-dawn motion sensors on area lights, to name just two possibilities.

Propane is a perfect example of the paradox that links "green" and "efficient." Long a staple of camps everywhere, more than 90 percent of propane is produced during natural gas processing and petroleum refining, with less than 10 percent imported as a finished product. It is highly efficient to transport and store because it's handled almost entirely as a liquid under pressure. For example, a 1,000-gallon tank of propane gas would supply a family's cooking needs for about a week. A thousand gallons, stored as a pressurized liquid and delivered to the stove as a gas, however, could supply that same family's cooking needs for five years, or 260 times as long. If a leak develops, the gas is lost to the atmosphere and dissipates and so does not pollute water, soil, or air. When burned, it heats water and air very, very efficiently and quickly. So propane and its close cousin natural gas are well suited for on-demand needs such as instantaneous hot water heaters and cooking; the fuel is used only when you need it.

As we've seen, though, there are environmental trade-offs for its other efficiencies. Complete combustion of propane creates water vapor and carbon dioxide. If your organization's "green mission statement" includes working toward reducing carbon emissions, there is much study, consideration, and mathematics ahead to weigh the benefits and costs to the environment.

For example, what if the cabins use conventional, tanked hot water heaters for showers? This traditional configuration keeps water hot in an insulated tank, in anticipation of someone opening a hot water tap. When the water temperature drops in the tank, either through demand or through heat loss through the side of the tank, the unit heats the water inside. This cycle would continue as long as the electrical power or gas was supplied, regardless of whether any one opened a faucet and derived a benefit. One alternative is to install tankless (or "instantaneous") hot water heaters. Water is not heated and stored, but is heated only when a tap is opened. When the tap is closed, the unit shuts off. So fuel is only consumed when hot water is required. Because of the heater's efficiency, only gas is used as a heating method; electrical units don't exist. Clearly, the tankless unit is a better environmental choice when replacing a gas-fired hot water heater. However, if you choose to replace an electric heater with a propane unit of any kind, it is very likely that you've replaced one carbonproducing source with another. The question to be answered is whether the new installation will produce less carbon overall than the electric power plant would when making the same amount of hot water.

This line of thought isn't unique to hot water supply, either. Many camps use golf carts on their properties. Electric or gas (including propane!) is the common question. Without a facility environmental mission statement, the pre-purchase questions might include comparing the capital costs of the equipment investment and perhaps the staff's ability and skill in maintaining one type over the other. But if the green objective is truly part of the organization's culture, someone needs to evaluate and include considerations about the impact of each alternative. Superficially, the electric cart may appear to be a more "friendly" choice, but depending on the source of your electric power generation, demanding electricity to charge the batteries may actually be a much poorer choice than even a gasoline-powered vehicle!

Let's Build!

There are a number of alternative materials from which to choose when considering a construction project. Traditionally, the final appearance, function, and budget would dictate the materials to be used for the project. But the increasingly competitive building materials business would have consumers considering other factors including recycled materials content and the energy efficiency of their production plant. Some claims are nothing more than marketing spin, where others are certifiably delivering benefits far beyond the area where the products are made.

Plastic Building Materials
The products that use recycled materials including plastics and wood waste typically cost more than their traditional material counterparts because of the labor and energy required to sort, clean, and process the used materials into their new form.

There is another class of claim that's deeply disturbing, however, and that is the rumor. Unscrupulous sales people and uninformed customers can combine to create a climate of half-truths and misconceptions. For example, in the past five to ten years, "composite lumber" has been the subject of a number of these fallacies—the most blatant of which is that the plastic used is old soda bottles, milk jugs, and grocery bags.

Although there are some product lines which incorporate post-consumer products, this is largely the exception rather than the rule. Plastics are hydrocarbons (combinations of hydrogen and carbon, mostly) and on a molecular level derive their physical properties from the arrangement of their molecules (long strands or chains). Each time the material is heated to allow a manufacturer to rework it, the length of the chains is shortened and the strength of the material is reduced. This is very similar to when metal is heated or flexed back and forth repeatedly. The difference between these materials, though, is that metals can be reworked into products which are as strong as or stronger than they were before. At present, very few plastics can mimic that property. For plastic products, most often the most structurally consistent products use new (or "virgin") resins because of the predictability and repeatability of the manufacturing process when used materials are excluded from the mix.

Is there benefit to using plastic or plastic composite materials? Certainly, if the organization's green mission is focused on the timber, logging, and wood-processing industries. Well-made plastic products installed into well-designed projects can match the performance of their wooden counterparts, with lower maintenance costs and a longer lifespan. Also, if a stated objective is to reduce landfill contributions, then recycled plastic products (like carpeting/flooring, picnic tables, and benches) may be well worth the additional cost. However, to purchase plastic building or landscape products because you think that it has been recycled or because it could be recycled may be shortsighted at best, or at worst, simply a poor choice. Carefully consider the alternatives, do the research, and make an informed selection that best fits the organization's green mission statement.

Wood or Metal Frame Construction
One very straightforward illustration of an organization's long-term commitment to a certain philosophy is the selection of one framing material over another. In the past decade, angular galvanized steel has replaced traditional wooden studs in some areas and applications. In some circles, this change is being embraced as an alternative to logging and the idea that the metal is recycled.

If saving forests is part of the green mission, then this logic works well to justify the choice. However, there may be costs to the environment that are unaccounted for as part of the decision process. For example, when used as framing on exterior walls, extra effort and care is required to ensure that these metal parts don't wick energy from the inside space directly to the outdoors. The additional cost (in utility bills and emissions) to heat or cool such a structure could quickly overtake the value of the environmental savings to not choose farmed timber. Again, neither selection is either right or wrong, because what's "best" depends on who is making the judgment within the larger context of his or her organization.

What Your "Homework" Might Uncover

Have you ever wondered why recycled paper costs more? The environmental regulations on the paper industry apply equally, and the hard cost of making paper is almost the same regardless of the post-consumer content. A number of studies have looked at that very question and concluded that it's largely a supply and demand issue. Since many government agencies operate under a "recycled content" mandate, the price is higher simply because the supply is lower. So, armed with that knowledge, are you really getting more for the extra money you spend buying "recycled" copier or printer paper? Not really. You're simply paying a premium because the supply is scarcer than the other kind. If you doubt the truth of this, compare the content and prices of toilet or facial tissue. What about "saving trees?" Interestingly, most of the paper produced from virgin pulp is farmed. Trees which are cultivated and harvested for this purpose are promptly replaced with new seedlings. One writer concluded that "…to claim that paper recycling saves trees makes about as much sense as a claim that a ban on corn would save cornstalks."

Choices, Choices, Choices

Like so many other decisions when running camp, being environmentally smart is much more complicated than it appears at first glance. Once the organization has committed to a set of environmental priorities that suit its operation, program, and facility, evaluating the alternatives is a more straightforward process. To be effective, environmental stewardship must be a way of life and part of the daily routine for your organization and staff. It will come at a cost both financial and in labor-hours, but in the things that really matter, doesn't everything? Yes, the famous frog did, indeed, begin his first solo lamenting the hardships of being green. But you should also remember that he concludes with the affirmation: "I am green and it'll do fine, it's beautiful! And I think it's what I want to be (Raposo 1970)." Today's green is waiting for you and your camp to find a shade that works for you.

Opportunities to "Be Green" at Camp

Raposo, J. (1970). Bein' Green, sung by Jim Henson.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer who specializes in serving the camp industry with analysis, design, and site and infrastructure planning services. He can be reached at campfc@ or 570-828-4004.

Originally published in the 2007 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.