On a good day, Michelle Charak might haul away 300 boxes of outmoded buttons from a factory that's all too happy to lose the clutter.
At her shop in New York City, she'll hand-stitch the buttons into chic necklaces and bracelets, then sell them on her company's website, Chelcnyc.com, for hundreds of dollars a pop.
Is that a "green job"? Charak says so.
"They think it's junk. So I take their junk and I make something," she says. "It's not your typical green job, but it has probably a lower environmental impact than most of the green jobs out there."
According to the Department of Commerce, she may be right. Last month, the agency released "Measuring the Green Economy," an early attempt to take inventory of how many "green jobs" exist today -- and what should count anyway.
The report says selling "used merchandise," including toys, books and jewelry, can be thought of as a green job.
But even by a generous count, one that adds such jobs to other, commonly cited occupations like installing solar panels and weatherizing buildings, green jobs make up only 1 to 2 percent of the workforce.
Is the job category half empty or half full?
"In some sense, it's just not very big," said Mark Doms, chief economist at Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration and a co-author of the report. "You could look at that and be a pessimist, and say it's small, or my second point is, well, there's potential for growth here."
Doms said the size of the sector isn't surprising: For most Americans, the biggest-ticket expense is housing, but few live in energy-efficient homes. Few own hybrid cars or ride public transit. Many drink beer, but few quaff the organic kind.
Nevertheless, the report's authors said they wanted to prove that green jobs are more than a ginned-up political label. That can invite controversy because the issue and many of the job definitions were first framed by environmental groups and politicians.
"Part of the point of the report is to respond to the critics that all of this green economy stuff is rhetoric ... [that] you can claim anything you want to claim," said Rebecca Blank, Commerce's undersecretary for economic affairs.
The report fit green jobs into two categories: "broad" and "narrow." Into the "broad" category went jobs like selling bicycles, long-distance tour packages by bus and showing films at the zoo. The "narrow" category focused on more tightly defined jobs, including those like selling recycled glass, building power lines and fixing mufflers and exhaust pipes for cars.
Nuclear power and biofuels, two controversial energy sources, didn't make the "narrow" cut. Blank said "the broader category are things that there may be some disagreement on, but some people do agree may belong in the green category."
Moving hazardous waste by truck made the "broad" category but didn't meet the "narrow" criteria: The Economics and Statistics Administration said one could dispute its "greenness," since trucks usually run on fossil fuel.
And what of live performances at nature parks? These made the "narrow" category, ESA said, because these establishments focus on preserving and exhibiting natural areas, "so most performances at nature parks would probably have an environmental focus."
Blank admitted there's room for debate on what constitutes a green job, and she said the report used publicly available data, so anyone can come up with his own count.
Used-car dealers are green; miners aren't
Kate Robertson, an energy efficiency specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said advocates of green jobs should be careful not to define them too broadly.
She noted that Commerce's "broad" category included used-car dealers, janitorial services and snow plowers. "The danger here is that if we overreach, we may end up fueling the flame of critics who don't think green jobs exist," she said.
At the Labor Department, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has begun a similar project. In March, it released a list of job categories it considered "green," and it has since invited public comment on the list.
Some of the broad themes echo the Commerce report: recycling, public transit, renewable energy and organic food all count as green jobs. But producing lead-free bullets, environmental films and nuclear power also count.
Not included: Mining, even for uranium; hunting; drilling for natural gas or distributing it; building machines that make semiconductors; or manufacturing gloves and mittens. Labor counts being a broker or a trader in a cap-and-trade system as a green job. Commerce doesn't.
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the association has never attempted to classify mining as a green job, though its output can turn up in decidedly green products. She noted that hybrid electric vehicles use double the copper of regular cars and a wind turbine can require over 300 tons of steel. "It seems to me, therefore, to be a silly distinction," she said.
Luke Popovich, another NMA spokesman, said "Our jobs may not be green. But color them real."