Regarding Using Shipping Containers for Homes

When talking about alternative materials and forms for housing, the question of using shipping containers as structural framework often arises.  I have seen some examples of this, and apart from the basic problems of removing toxic residue, adding insulation, and solving flashing challenges, these could be a viable form of alternative housing forms. However, there’s one more consideration that might be worth investigating further.
From September of 2010 to September of 2012, I was the Program Manager of Green Initiatives courses at Palo Alto College in San Antonio. A colleague of mine was the Program Manager of industrial courses including courses related to Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) skills. His line of work included becoming familiar with activities at drilling sites. One day, he mentioned that they had discovered that a load of tracking sand delivered to one of these sites was measurably more radioactive than the usual delivery of sand. Just to keep this story short, they had determined that the fault wasn’t in the sand, but of the shipping container that delivered the sand to the site.  According to what I heard, which admittedly was second hand, radiation coming from the container itself contaminated the sand that was packed close to the walls of the container with the sand located closer to the center of the container was being shielded by the sand closer to the contaminated sand. They had therefore assumed the container at one time or another was in service in China or another country with nuclear capability (and lack of public oversight). This speculation included the possibility that the container was used to transport nuclear waste, either of the medical variety or even much more dangerous spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. And then, like the millions of other non-descrip shipping containers, the contaminated shipping container was returned to the shipping channels totally undetected.
This story seems possible, but I had thought that somewhere, someone would have been more diligent with regard to detecting “hot” containers making their way to American ports. I wonder, in the years since 9/11, if American ports ever managed to put into place strategies to scan 100% of incoming containers for radioactivity. I would imagine that if indeed containers could be so contaminated by being used to haul poorly shielded spent fuel rods between power plants and some remote dumping ground, that the containers themselves could be as dangerous as mobile “dirty bombs” whether or not they were intended to be used in that way.
I’m not currently proposing anything related to more global-political-mercantile issues. I’m just putting this admittedly speculative tale out there just as something you may want to consider if you are considering living in a shipping container someday. I would think at the very least that finding or borrowing or renting a geiger counter before purchasing a shipping container might be a good idea.

A Wolf in Green Clothing

This morning, I received from a recommendation for a book, “LEED Materials, a Resource Guide to Green Building,” by Ari Meisel. To be honest, the only thing I know about this book is the information provided by Amazon. I have not read this book. However, part of the information supplied by Amazon included sample images of the cover and inside sample pages of the book indicating specific materials and the LEED categories each of the materials can claim LEED points for.

One of the materials highlighted was a particular brand of artificial turf. “Artificial turf” is a euphemism for “plastic ground cover” just as much as “downsizing” is a sanitized way to say a company fired a lot of people.  So, besides the color, what’s green about plastic ground cover? The obvious answer is that with nothing but plastic to eat, there are no pesky bugs or weeds, so there’s no pesticides or herbicides needed. Hooray. With no need to grow or maintain anything, there’s no need for fertilizer, mowers, trimmers, and blowers. Big woop. Water for irrigation is forever eliminated. Everybody rejoice! We now have the ultimate green lawn solution handed down by DuPont, to free us from our awful, problematic, and polluting lawns, right?     Not so fast.

For starters, with intelligent landscaping practice, beautiful lawns can be established with safe, natural methods that do not require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, high water demand, or gas guzzling machinery. It’s possible, because examples of natural holistic landscaping exist. Lawns do not have to require more water than is expected to fall from the sky in any of our climate zones. Only those who insist on having monoculture lawns using turf species native to (usually) someplace else with more rainfall than us would require excess irrigation. Regarding plastic ground cover, some residential installations are actually watered by homeowners who report the plastic ground cover gets too hot.  Imagine that. Here in Central Texas, where cool is king, there are some who will give up cool grass lawns for hot plastic lawns. Why is the plastic hot? Simply put, physics and biology. Plastic ground cover is dark green and does not use solar energy to absorb carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. It just sits there, gets hot, and adds to the urban heat island effect.  Yes, that’s right, living plants absorb carbon dioxide (and other pollutants), produce oxygen, and reduce temperatures. LIVING PLANTS TRUMP PLASTIC EVERY TIME. Period. If I were writing the LEED guidelines (and unfortunately, I did not take the opportunity to comment on the documents as they were being written), I would not allow any project that installs plastic ground cover to earn any LEED certification. I am shocked that LEED points may be available for plastic ground cover.

Let’s talk about the health impacts of plastic ground cover compared to living plants ground cover. Look at the life cycle of both. Which is petrochemically based, contains lead (more on that later), needs to be totally replaced on a regular basis, and is not likely to be recycled? Uh huh. And which one has the capability to provide a wide range of beneficial inter-dependent biological cycles of flora, fauna, and water?

Let’s take a look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) summary on plastic ground cover. After testing a number of installations, and talking with representatives of companies that produce plastic ground cover, they determined the lead level in plastic ground cover might be transferred to children, but in acceptable amounts.  How much lead do you want your kids to be exposed to? The CPSC says that lead content of 10 micrograms per liter of blood is cause for concern. Any lead ingestion of 15 micrograms per day may lead to a lead content of blood at that concentration. To be fair, the major plastic ground cover manufacturers are now installing lead-free plastic turf. Still, in the summary, the CPSC recognizes that there are still older installations in place and that children should wash their hands after playing on these surfaces “especially before eating.”  In a letter written to CPSC Chairman Thomas Moore on May 15, 2008, Synthetic Turf Council President Rick Doyle expressed his appreciation that the CPSC would “ensure” that artificial turf would not be categorized as a “children’s product” and therefore would not be held to the same level of lead content limitation as required in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (HR 4040). For a look at this letter, scroll down to the bottom of this link.

Before this blog descends too deeply into details, I want to end with an observation relating to the question at the top of this page. Is the Ari Meisel book accurate? Are there LEED points available to the installation of plastic ground cover? If so, this is an outrageous example of poor green choices being awarded by the USGBC. I’m going to have to look once again at the latest versions of the LEED books to see if there exists language in the guidelines that reward this or any other greenwashing materials or systems. Perhaps I’m being unfair. I still believe in the core efforts of the writers of the LEED guidelines, that they have the best of intentions. I want to believe this is not a deception on the part of the USGBC, but merely another example of a product manufacturer able to use the language of the LEED guidelines to achieve favor; a wolf in green clothing in other words.  If that’s the case, hopefully, the USGBC will be able to find a way to rectify problems such as this. After all, plastic ground cover does eliminate pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation, but at what environmental cost?