Sustainability is not new.
As the earliest members of humankind faced the challenges of their environment, sustainability was not an option but a survival requirement. Over 100,000 years ago, early Homo sapiens focused on reducing wasted energy and re-using resources as a default. The early “cave” dwelling men and women only had so much energy in a given day to hunt and care for their families. So, they sourced local food or moved to find better sustenance and shelter. Today, buying local products is one of the strategic directions of 21st century sustainability. Only since the industrial revolution and the advent of transportation and food preservatives, have we as a species eaten food that was not primarily sourced locally. Everything used to be organic, because there were no processed foods. American grade school students learn about how Native Americans, for thousands of years, refined the ways that they used every part of the bison. The animals were not just a source of protein, but the parts were used for tepee covers, bedding, belts, footwear, glues, thread, bows, and more. They used and re-used the resources at hand, without creating toxins or waste for landfills.
Overall, our ancestors at different stages have lived relatively lightly on the land. As recently as the middle of the last century, the “milkman” was a reflection of the spirit of re-use. The milkman would take the empty bottles back for cleaning and refilling rather than undertake the much more energy intensive melt-down and recycling process. The same was true for the longneck beer bottles, which were designed so that they could be cleaned and refilled as well. Plastics changed the game. While adoption of recycling is increasing, billions of plastic bottles and packaging materials end up in the landfills each year.
Perspective is the key to finding balance in a modern world with global trade and advancing technology. We do not want to go nostalgically backwards, but we should also be careful not to steam ahead without learning how to apply relevant lessons from the past. Here is a small example of sustainability move with a high ROI. When my wife Cynthia and I were renovating our home outside of Philadelphia, we priced out the new driveway and back patio. The gravel for underneath the driveway asphalt and the patio flag stone was going to come from a local quarry and it was more expensive than I had expected. Having lived in the heart of Philadelphia for my Masters of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, I remembered occasionally seeing row homes and other dilapidated buildings demolished for new construction. In many cases dump trucks full of crushed bricks and concrete blocks would roar out of the city in a cloud of dust.
I found out that the vast majority of the debris was just going to landfills. The American Institute of Architects estimates that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the national solid waste stream is building-related waste and only 20 percent of construction waste or demolition debris is actually recycled. After a few calls, I was able to find a demolition company that would sync up the “drop” of the crushed masonry debris at my home on the day that I had the excavation team on-site with the backhoe and front-end loader. The results: I paid less than buying newly quarried gravel yielding a high Return on Investment (ROI) on the brief time to source and coordinate the demolition stone delivery. The overlay asphalt and flag stone look great, and no one could ever see what is beneath. The demolition company did not have to pay to dump the debris, and the landfill has less waste. This approach to cost-effective sustainable ROI was a key driver for over a hundred different decisions in the construction of our eco-smart solar home that we transformed from an old 1950s house. Many of the lessons learned over the two decades of travel that are documented in this book influenced the sustainability choices for our home and my career as an architect and U.S. manufacture of energy saving LED lights.
Dating back to the origins of humankind, we have had sustainability in our DNA. Now, we can take a harder look at what we have and what we need. We can then analyze the true cost impact to determine the mix of conserving resources, managing consumption, and investing in new technology. We are fortunate in America to have such a breadth of natural resources and energy options. Intelligent strategies with cost-conscious tactical deployment plans and incentives will enable us to thrive for generations to come.
This book keeps ROI at the center across a broad range of sustainability initiatives that can build toward a triple bottom line: People, Planet, and Profit.