Electricity is not the Enemy

There’s nothing like an extended loss of power to illustrate just how much energy we consume.

Once Hurricane Ike finished with Texas, it wound its way up through the Midwest, and knocked my electricity out for close to three days. Living in the dark offered some interesting insight into the various reasons we use power – essential and frivolous – and a clearer view into just how difficult it will be to revamp our current energy system to be both reliable and efficient.

As you might imagine, when we first lost power it was the obvious things we missed.  Television, lights, etc. We grabbed up the flashlights and candles and solved the one problem we could.  Our other biggest immediate challenge was the loss of Internet service.  Laptops will work on batteries, but our DSL router and modem are pluggers – which means even wireless Internet doesn’t work.

We’d have had no access to news, weather and emergency info without our hand-crank radio. (Get yourself one of these – ours offers radio and tv audio, as well as access to weather stations.  It also has a cell phone charger.  www.llbean.com.)

There was the “to-open or not-to-open” refrigerator debate.  Normally, if you can keep the fridge and freezer closed, contents can survive for about 48 hours.  But we, and more importantly our two toddlers, needed to eat, so we opened – and subsequently closed as quickly as possible.  We spent the next two days trying to keep our kids from opening the fridge, and trying to survive on things we found outside its doors.  Eventually, for safety’s sake, we went to the giant white fishing cooler and ice purchased from a grocery store.

Like a surprisingly large number of Americans, (somewhere around 50 percent in my state of Pennsylvania), we get our water from a well.  Not the kind with a bucket and a rope.  Modern wells are operated with electric pumps.  So for those of us who live in the deep suburbs or more rurally, no power means no water.  No water means no showers/baths, no toilet flushing (unless you help it along with buckets of water – which you can only get if you’re a little more industrious than most, since your pump is off), no water to drink or wash hands unless you have some bottled on hand or wait for store bought ice to melt, no laundry, and no water for cleaning.  Living on a farm, we also had no water for animals and pets.

What surprised me most perhaps was how many “mission critical” items in a home rely on electricity.  We’ve no doubt come to take the blessings of refrigeration for granted.  Having to empty our fridge/freezer, and storage freezers of contents on day three drove that point home.  Few of us likely think too hard about food safety until faced with an emergency – its one of the things electricity has eased from our minds to some degree. 

For those of us using wells, electricity has allowed a level of sanitation once not available.  Together with refrigeration, it’s made suburban and rural life more practical – and likely added to overall life expectancy.  Had this been winter, we’d all have been freezing as well. Electricity has also made us more comfortable – and much safer – when getting warm in extreme temperatures.

The point being this – electricity is not the enemy, green friends.  Yet how we produce is problematic.  But for those advocating a sudden death to all coal-fired power anytime soon, it may be time for a reality check.  The benefits of electric power to human life have surpassed our current ability to produce enough clean energy to reliably service everyone at the current time. 

I’m not talking about the “comforts” of energy guzzlers like plasma televisions, video game systems, and various chargers for all of our wireless gizmos.  I’m talking about simple basics electrical needs – refrigeration, heat, light and water.  Even with everyone on board, transferring from fossil fuel electricity to clean technology will require a transition period, phase out and turn over – so in the meantime, coal is going to need to part of our plan if we’re all going to have RELIABLE power. The coal problem is a big one – and while I hate to say it, we may not be able to solve it without relying on those black rocks a little longer.

The role of us small people is more important than every while things get sorted out.  Get compact fluorescents in all the lights in your home.  Buy Energy Star and use appliances correctly.  Get media plugged into a power strip that can be turned off when not in use.  Unplug chargers when not charging.  Teach your children about energy conservation.  Pass on the new plasma – and demand manufacturers find ways to make these things more efficient.  Demand “kid powered” toys. Get a programmable thermostat.  Recycle. Run your laptop on the battery.  Run only full loads in your washer, dryer and dishwasher. Take colder showers. Wash in cold water. Do everything you can to keep your consumption down until better methods prevail. 

If we all did, King Coal’s retirement may come a bit earlier.

Raising environmentally responsible kids starts with a solid personal commitment

Let’s face it – many of the concepts surrounding environmental responsibility can be quite complicated, even for those of us who have some scientific know how. All of that heavy material, combined with legitimate and not so legitimate public debate on the validity of sustainability initiatives can confuse just about anyone – especially children.

Common sense tells us that to raise an environmentally conscious child, we need to start early on in their development.  But with such dense subject matter, where is a parent to begin?  The answer is easier than you may think.

As with any skill or ideology parents look to instill in their children, environmental responsibility starts with a good example.  Parents interested in raising green kids need to start with their own habits, and be sure that their children regularly catch them in the act of loving the earth. 

For instance, if you compost, make collecting table scraps and other compostable kitchen materials part of an after meals routine.  Get a kitchen composter, and be sure your children see you use it regularly.  As your children grow, invite them to help and involve them in emptying the collection bin into a larger, outdoor compost bin.  Be sure they understand how the raw materials break down into compost, and how it helps to improve soil and return necessary nutrients to the earth.  If your children are young and you are just starting a compost regimen, think about using a worm bin – kids everywhere love the idea of feeding newspaper and banana peels to hungry worms.

Recycling is an activity almost hand-made for toddlers who are big on sorting and filling bins, so be sure to get them in the habit of helping.  Set up a home recycling “center” with specified containers for aluminum, plastic, cardboard, paper and whatever else you may recycle.  Once rinsed and ready, allow your toddler to place items in the proper bins – not only does the child learn to recycle, he or she learns to differentiate between like and unlike materials.  Be sure to explain how recyclables are made into new products. Anytime you buy a product made of recycled material, be it cereal in a box made from recycled paperboard or rubber mulch for a under a swing set, share that information with your child, and be sure to reference how they are playing a role in “making” something new.

Energy and water conservation are also easy concepts for children to learn if they are part of how their parents and caregivers do things.  Always turn off the water when you brush your teeth, and teach children to do the same.  Even young children are able to help with the laundry – be sure they always see you wash full loads, and rarely, if ever, use the hot temperature setting. 

Be sure children see you turn off lights and electronics when you leave a room.  When they begin to show interest in turning the lights on and off (about 2, if not earlier), remind them to use electricity only when needed.  Let them catch you adjusting thermostats and turning off electronics before bed, or when leaving the house.  With older children who play video games or use computers for long periods of time, set limits and encourage them to engage in other activities.  Better yet, hold back on introducing energy hogging toys and games when children are younger to curb their interest.

Instead of using brown and individual plastic bags, teach children to cut back on waste by using an insulated lunch box with reusable containers for sandwiches, snacks and drinks.  Encourage them to use reusable drink bottles during activities and sports, instead of individually bottled beverages.  Buy bulk sizes of snacks, condiments and drinks to reduce household waste and be sure children even at the youngest ages see you put litter and trash in the proper place no matter where you are.

By exposing your children to good environmental habits early on, you can provide the foundation for a lifetime of eco-responsibility and play a part in building a better and cleaner world.

Some great tools for teaching children environmentally responsible concepts:

The Lorax, Dr. Suess

Dora Saves the Mermaids, Nick Jr.

It’s A Big, Big World, PBS Kids Series

Everything Kids’ Environment Book, Sheri Amsel

Child’s Introduction to the Environment, Michael Driscoll, Dennis Driscoll and Meredith Hamilton

Planet Earth Gets Well, Madeline Kaplan

The Amazing Adventures of Annie Adair, A. Hartzell

The Tree Farmer, Chuck Laevell and Nicholas Cravotta

Happy Feet, Warner Home Video

Ferngully – The Last Rainforest, 20th Century Fox

Planet Earth – The Complete BBC Series, BBC

Higher Education: Green 101

Recent research by the Princeton Review suggests that parents and college-age students are more likely to pick a school based on its environmental record and initiatives than ever before.  Media coverage of late shows that colleges and universities admit they are using the green phenomenon to attract students with sustainable buildings, academic programs and other offerings.

Yet just last year, researchers found themselves somewhat surprised to tell the world that the younger demographic – including the college-aged – were the least likely group to recycle anything.  So what gives?

Obviously, green is cool these days.  It’s also politically correct, if you will, which may have us all fibbing a little on our interest in really doing the right thing when it comes to Mother Earth.  Let’s face it – we’re all a little more interested in our pocket books these days, and overall, we’re always more interested in what makes our lives most convenient. 

But it’s possible to help yourself and the environment at the same time – even with a college student’s budget and lifestyle.  Here are a few ideas – some are even educational:

First things first – if you’re really not recycling, start there.  Plastic bottles and packaging; cans, beer or otherwise; cardboard boxes from care packages – what ever you have that can be recycled.  If you’re campus does not offer a comprehensive recycling program or for that matter any recycling program at all (don’t be shocked – everyone thinks college’s are the cradle of the environmental movement these days but there are administrators who still don’t get it), look outside the boundaries.  If you find the right recycling facility, you may even get some cash for your cans.  Even without the financial incentive, consider organizing campus drives where you collect recyclables from the student body and staff and transport them to the local center.

Second, use foot power.  Don’t be lazy on a pedestrian campus.  Chances are, in wooing you to enroll, your college or university has found ways to offer almost everything you may ever need within walking distance.  If not, local entrepreneurs are probably filling the gaps.  If you have a car on campus, don’t drive it two blocks to a drive through, or for that matter around campus to an academic building you don’t feel like walking to.  Get up and walk.  Or bike if you have one.  Find a job you can walk to, and consider transportation when looking for off campus housing.  The only exception to this rule comes when safety is of major concern.

Third, be progressive.  It may surprise many to know that old “activist” tactics are wearing thin on the world. Most have heard the green message – they just want to know how they can help sans the lectures. Many groups still use publicity stunts – think PETA putting naked women in cellophane wrappers like grocery store meat – but the truth is, many are realizing that hard-line demands and silly antics only create more distance between “greenies” and their goals.  If you want something green done on your campus, find out who to talk to and make an appointment to discuss it.  Again, no demands – make a case for what you want.  Show financial savings, show good public relations, show great interest on the part of the student body.  You just may get what you want.  If however, your administrators are more archaic than most, feel free to revert to the old school protest model.

Fourth, think.  Colleges and universities, with multitudes of students, staff and faculty living out most of their day on campus are ripe for waste and actions that are not exactly environmental.  So look for opportunities like these: 

Need a charity project for your sorority or fraternity?  Collect athletic shoes for Nike – if the shoe giant has a gear contract with your athletic teams, they may even help you promote it or cut you some breaks on shipping what you collect to them.  Collect used fleece in the spring and get it to Patagonia to use in the manufacture of new clothing. Look for ways to reuse and recycle the things you and your fellow students use most.
No brainer – buy used books and sell them back when you can.
Inventory your room.  Consider downsizing your mini-fridge, or purchase and Energy Star model.  Are there electronics you can share with roommates? Take shorter showers and watch what you’re sending down the drain – certain substances and chemicals can wreck havoc on sewer systems. Don’t run the water while you’re brushing your teeth or applying beauty products. Plasma televisions are one of the greatest energy hogs of the current era– limit your time in front of the tube.  Unplug the appliances and electronics you leave behind over breaks.
Invest in a refillable drink bottle or two, and ditch the single serve bottles of water and soda, and the individual coffee cups at your favorite barista.
Precycle – when mom and dad visit buy the things you need in bulk or in sizes that use less packaging.  Take reusable bags to the market and even to the bookstore when you need something.
Paper is the most landfilled item in the country.  Do as much work as you can online, and try to avoid printing hard copies when you can. If you need to print, do it double-sided.  Cut back on flyers to advertise your campus organization’s events, and find viral or alternative means to do so. Use a white board instead of sticky notes to leave messages for friends and roommates.
It should go unsaid, but don’t litter.  If you’re tailgating at a sporting event, bring a bag for trash and recyclables.  Don’t toss cigarette butts, gum or wrappers as your traversing the campus.  If there’s a need for more trash receptacles in high traffic areas around campus, talk to someone in the physical plant.  And don’t leave random trash in classrooms and public areas either.
If you’re campus doesn’t have a student group dedicated to the environment, start one.  Show students how small actions can make a big difference. Work with – not against—your campus administrators to implement sustainable living initiatives.  Invite environmental professionals to talk about their careers on campus, and find ways to activate environmentally minded citizens and businesses in the greater college community.

Have a great idea about how to live more sustainably on campus?  Are you attending a school that’s really progressive?  Let us know!


Constructing a Better Environment

The Los Angeles Times ran a story recently about illegal dumping in neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles.  It seems funds and manpower diverted from public works to fight crime in the city have lead to severe delays in picking up trash and refuse dumped in the streets, causing an increase in illegal dumping in some less fortunate neighborhoods.

The Times offers two reasons. One, a rather interesting if perhaps city specific idea – L.A. gangs are known to block alley ways and streets with refuse (items like furniture, junk cars, appliances) to slow down police. The second is dumping by building contractors who leave construction debris in public places for municipal cleanup in order to avoid the costs of disposing of it themselves. 

Illegal dumping, unfortunately, is quite common in the construction industry, according to Mary Wilson of Pennsylvania Cleanways. The illegal dumping, or “midnight dumping” problem, is often complicated. As a result, and because much illegal dumping happens traditionally in rural or underprivileged areas, well meaning, green minded folks can inadvertently contribute to illegal dump sites without even knowing.

Considering the popularity of home remodeling, the temptation to dump construction debris may be getting to more of us.  If you’re dedicated to a true neutral existence, and are planning a construction project, there are a few ways to ensure that debris from your next home improvement project doesn’t wind up in a rural ravine, in a vacant city lot, or even in someone’s yard.

For true do-it-yourselfers, do your homework. 

1. Build the cost of debris disposal into your budget.  Call your nearest landfill to calculate tonnage fees so you’re prepared when taking construction waste to the site for disposal. Or simply have a dumpster or roll-off box delivered to your construction site, and picked up when you’re done.  Check out Dumpster.com for an easy online option for ordering.

2. Consider opportunities to recycle, and look around your area for centers and organizations that encourage the reuse of architectural items.  This works particularly well if you’re remodeling or dismantling a vintage home. Architectural salvagers will often accept and in some cases even pay for older wood moldings, railings, doors, cabinets, and flooring. There are also markets for older house fixtures like sinks, door knobs, fireplace mantles, cabinet pulls, etc.

But don’t think you need an old house to recycle.  Someone may be interested in your kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanity, carpet remnants, appliances, furniture, light fixtures, and mirrors if they are still in good shape. Some places will even accept unused wallpaper rolls, unopened cans of paint and the like. Some communities have construction depots that accept salvage and resell it to do-it-yourselfers or contractors. If your community doesn’t have a salvage depot,  look into places like Goodwill and Web communities like Freecycle.

3. Know what your municipal waste hauler will and will not accept.  In most cases, don’t expect yard waste and soils, major appliances, and furniture to get picked up during regular service.  Depending on the contract your municipality has with your waste hauler, it’s unlikely your curbside pickup will accept construction debris – even the smallest or what may seem to be the most benign scrap. 

And there are good reasons.  According to Lynn Brown, spokeswoman for Waste Management, Inc., some materials can be damaging to refuse trucks, including compaction blades, hydraulics, and side walls. Construction waste can also be dangerous to drivers and waste workers – some materials can be injurious to workers lifting them into trucks, and others, under the pressure of truck crushers can create harmful projectiles.  Browns says in some areas, construction debris is not permitted in local landfills at all, and that most residents are not aware that there are limits on the amount of trash that can placed at the curb for pickup.

Wilson says some larger communities have special contracts for larger items – check in with your local public works department.  Some municipalities also have special pick ups for larger, hard-to-dispose-of items, or schedule pick ups by appointment.

4, Metals are sought after these days. Scrap dealers are quite interested in larger appliances (not refrigerators) for their metal value, and can help you defray remodeling costs.  Some will even pick up. But be sure your dealer is licensed and not simply taking payment and dumping your washer or dryer over a hill side. You also may want to check with your state environmental agency to make sure your dealer is reputable as well as licensed.  Scrap metal collection can be a front for junkyard operators and is often a contributing factor to the growth of such established dumps and the development of new ones.

5. Home improvement projects can generate what is commonly referred to as household hazardous waste.  These items include unused portions of paints and stains, paint strippers, chemical cleaners, thinners, and other items that should not be tossed in your curbside trash, or washed down a drain (they can pollute waterways and cause serious problems in the wastewater treatment process).  For a complete list, visit http://www.epa.gov/garbage/hhw-list.htm.

To dispose of these items, check around your area for a household hazardous waste collection day.  Most event carry a small fee for disposal, and you’ll likely have to wait in line to dispose, as the expense of these events makes them few in number, but more and more popular with responsibly-minded individuals and families.

6. Remember, if you’re disposing of a refrigerator or an air conditioning unit, you’ll need to have the Freon removed before disposal.  Check in with a local appliance dealer, and be sure to confirm that the technician and his or her equipment is licensed to recapture Freon.  The easiest way to deal with major appliances, even those without a Freon component, is to purchase your new one from a major retailer like Lowes, Sears, or Home Depot that offers to take away the old when they deliver the new.  According to Wilson, companies like these can more easily absorb disposal costs because they work with bulk quantities.  You can rest assured a major appliance source wouldn’t tarnish its name by dumping illegally.

If you are planning to employ a contractor for your project, check the initial estimate for a disposal cost.  If you don’t see one, talk to the contractor, or consider getting another estimate.  The exclusion of disposal costs in the project estimate can be a red flag that your contractor engages in illegal dumping of construction debris, Wilson says.  Be comforted when a dumpster shows up on your property, instead of embarrassed by the eye sore it causes for a short period.

Why Wal-Mart isn’t as Bad as You Think

Wal-Mart.  It makes many an environmentalist see red.  But like it or not, the retail giant, the biggest in the US, if not the world, and those like it, have an important role to play in the neutral living revolution.

Those inclined to live their lives in a more earth-friendly way often have the tendency to assume the entire population of Spaceship Earth has heard the news.  And they likely have – if not they may have been visiting another planet for the last few years.  But hearing the message and making the commitment to “do your part” are different things.

Consumer behavior is most often driven by the economy. When purchasing anything in tough economic times, consumers are obviously more likely to buy the least expensive items they can find. Most grocers and retailers, working hard to survive a tough economy as well, probably aren’t pricing or stocking items based on their environmental impacts.  As a result, being “green” in many stores requires a shopper with more green in his or her pocket, supporting the long-held assumption that shopping for the earth is a pastime for the affluent.

Enter Sam Walton’s much maligned yet often shopped-in chain of discount stores.  All criticisms aside, everybody knows one thing about Wal-Mart.  It’s a great place to get almost anything you can think of cheap.  As a result, large numbers of Americans find themselves in its aisles quite often.

Wal-Mart’s pledges to green its operations have met mixed reaction.  Some have denounced any of Wal-Mart’s efforts as green-wash.  Others have heaped kudos on the retail giant, some of which are deserved, some of which may not be.  But there is one thing Wal-Mart’s greener retail strategy does that few other corporations or organizations can – it brings environmentalism to the masses by making it affordable to care about the planet.  The promotion of compact fluorescent light bulbs in its stores alone has spread the benefits of energy efficiency to a wider audience.  Wal-Mart offers apparel, bedding, and home linens made from sustainable fabrics, and Forest Sustainability Council certified furniture, and now carries only concentrated liquid detergents in order to minimize packaging waste.

Additionally, Wal-Mart’s corporate side is using its retail weight to encourage its product suppliers to significantly cut product packaging, and continually re-evaluates business practices to find more ways to cut waste, recycle and reuse.  Adam Werbach, who gained famed in the environmental community years ago as the youngest ever president of the Sierra Club, was once a fierce Wal-Mart opponent.  The company changed his mind, and hired him on as a consultant for its green efforts – Werbach has become a force behind the company’s green efforts, much to the chagrin of many of his old-school fellow activists and one-time friends. (Check out a great story on Werbach and Wal-Mart at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/118/working-with-the-enemy.html) 

Wal-Mart is far from perfect – it’s probably impossible for a retailer its size to offer the prices it does and receive all A’s on its corporate responsibility report card. And its job on the environment is far from finished.  Among issues still to be addressed fully are concerns related to new store siting, development, and construction.  But it deserves the respect of the green community for making clear strides toward a notable goal – bringing the spirit of environmental responsibility to millions of American consumers.  Love it or hate it, shop there or snub it, Wal-Mart may well be remembered for providing millions of Americans with an education in greener living.

First Tesla Dealership Opens For Business

After many years of development, the long awaited Tesla all electric vehicle is now a reality. Tesla opened their first flagship dealership in Hollywood Thursday and plans to open the next dealership in a couple of months next to their home base in San Carlos.

For those of you who know nothing about the Tesla, it is a high end all electric vehicle made primarily of carbon fiber and runs entirely on a 6,831-cell lithium-ion battery. The Tesla will go 225 miles on one charge and can be recharged in approximately 3.5 hours. The Tesla is fast too, this is not the electric car of yesterday, the Tesla gets from 0 to 60 in just under 4 seconds and has a top speed of 125 mph. It is these stats which put the Tesla in the same category as Porsche and Ferrari however its $100,000 to $125,000 price tag makes it significantly more affordable than a high end Ferrari.

The Tesla, of course, is not for everyone as the high price tag and the Hollywood location tends to lend itself to the more glamorous movie stars who wish to advertise their “greeness.” However, Tesla is planning to produce a more affordable family size electric vehicle and according to Snyder, head of client services for Tesla, “There’s a model in the works right now, a five-passenger sedan that will be styled comparable to the roadster but a lot roomier to accommodate families, and that is slated for 2010.” Until 2010, we will see the Tesla roadster being driven around by stars such as George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kelsey Grammer and even musicians such as Flea and Will.i.am.

Via Yahoo News

What’s in Your Garbage?

Most of us don’t like to dwell on the topic of garbage – it’s messy, often stinky, and we want out of our homes as fast as humanly possible. 

The garbage is a place we tend to put all kinds of things we don’t know what to do with, and things we’re unaware should be put elsewhere.  Perhaps the reason we don’t know the answers to many “trashy” questions is because we’d just rather avoid the topic.

Where do we put all of this stuff?

Waste has likely been a problem since humans began roaming the Earth.  After all, it bows to the most basic tenant of science – matter cannot be created or destroyed – just modified.  As it piled up around us, we noticed a few things. One, its almost always ugly.  Two, it almost never smells good.  And three, everyone seemed to be getting sick from it.

We tried burning it – sometimes we even still do. (Those of you living in the city and suburbs who think everyone puts a can at the curb, think again.  There are rural areas where the right to burn trash ranks up there with the right to own property.)  But burning has its own set of problems, not the least of which is toxic air. And of course, the boredom of watching stuff burn has lead to a few fires over time.

Someone then got the idea to bury the stuff in a big hole – probably someone watching another someone heave a refrigerator into a remote ravine full of Maytags, Kennmores and Amanas. The big hole was a good idea – put the stuff in, cover it up, never worry about it again.

Until we learned about things like leachate, the liquid that results from decaying garbage and finds its way into our streams, creeks and waterways, and methane, that greenhouse gas byproduct of decaying organic matter, which we now know contributes to climate change. Many primitive, unlined landfills have been deemed toxic sites, were cleaned up, or are now in the process of being cleaned up.

The Modern Landfill

Today’s landfills may not look it, but are engineering marvels, lined, either with clay or plastic liners, to isolate trash as much as possible. Liners are also meant to kept trash dry and limit air contact – that, in turn, slows decomposition of trash – you’ve likely heard stories about excavated 30 year-old newspapers that look like they came from the corner news stand. 

Generally speaking, many factors, quite a few related to groundwater and geology, must be considered during the landfill siting and proposal process (check out http://science.howstuffworks.com/landfill4.htm for details).  Aside from liners, landfills are composed of a series of cells, which, as they are filled, are compressed with heavy equipment to conserve space, and closed off with a cover of soil, usually about six inches.  Additionally, landfills contain drainage and collection systems for storm water and leachate, and in some more progressive designs, methane recovery systems allow collected gas to be used for energy. 

Landfills are not designed for quick decomposition – in fact, even after they are closed, most must be monitored for years to detect possible environmental impacts.  Even organic material and biodegradable items break down slowly in these low-moisture, low-oxygen burial chambers.  But that doesn’t mean the “biodegradable” moniker is just greenwash.  Some trash inevitably ends up floating around in the world, outside of landfills, be it from our own carelessness, escape from trash trucks, whatever.  Better it break down quickly than collect vectors, mosquitoes and the like.

There are some that would have us believe that the “landfill space shortage” crisis is an exaggeration created by activists.  After all, in the great big US of A, there is plenty of ground left for us to bury our trash in.  Perhaps. More likely, these folks have never been to a community meeting for a landfill siting or expansion permit.  Regardless of the wonders of modern engineering, landfills will likely always bring odor, blowing trash, unwanted animal life, and increased truck traffic, among other potential nuisances. 

There’s always the argument that we put our trash in places where no one lives anyway – ala Yucca Mountain.  But, regardless of population, what state or states would volunteer to be the country’s garbage can?  Anyone who remembers that famous New York trash barge floating up and down the East Coast looking for a landfill that would take its cargo knows the answer.

Amazon.com Widgets

Rethink your trash.

So, what’s a large country of consumers – Americans generate about four times more trash per person than the citizens of any other country – to do?  Here are a few ideas:

Compost organics: Get a countertop compost pail (around $25 at Amazon.com) and start saving organics.  Most pails come with odor-killing filters, so have no fear of keeping them in the house.  Then, either purchase an out door compost bin, or build your own. Details on keeping compost are available all over the Web. 

According to Mike Forbeck, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, composting is one of the best ways to limit the amount of waste going to landfills.  “New products like cups and bottles made of cornstarch polymer can be composted along with leaves and yard wastes to produce richer soils,” Forbeck said.  “Some major venues are converting to these products, like PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Precycle: When you purchase products, look for those that use the least amount of packaging, or use packaging made from recycled materials.  In the grocery store, look for cereals, snacks, beverages, and frozen foods in boxes made of recycled material.  Buy in bulk – for instance, two liter bottles of soda instead of individual serving bottles or bundles of aluminum cans.  Avoid convenience packaging when possible.  “Reduce first,” Forbeck says.  “Be a smart shopper.  Buy recycled products, or those that use less packaging.”

Purchasing items that use packing made with recycled content can actually save energy, too.  According to Forbeck, in glass plants, it takes less energy to make new glass from recycled than from virgin resources.  Making aluminum cans from recycled cans can use as little as 5 percent of the energy it takes to make a new can.

BYOB: Bring your own bags. If you attend conferences and workshops, save those canvas bags they give you to tote around all of your paperwork, and toss them in your trunk. Dig out that L.L. Bean Boat ‘n Tote from your last beach adventure.  Make a commitment to use them at the grocery store, discount stores, department stores, the farmers market – wherever someone is likely to load your purchases in a plastic or paper bag. Some grocers offer a small discount to customers who bring their own bags – in the neighborhood of five or ten cents per bag. Even Macy’s is promoting this practice.

Buy only what you need and use what you buy: Families often stock their refrigerators only to find it full of rotten or expired food after a busy week of evening activities and late nights at the office.  Try to plan ahead as much as possible – anticipate how many meals you’ll be eating at home as a family, how many lunches need packing, etc.  Buy what you need until you can make another trip to the store.  Store things properly – tomatoes keep longer on the counter, other fruits and vegetables do better in the fridge crisper.  If you have questions, ask your grocer.

Recycle:  The golden rule of environmentalists.  Follow the directions provided by your collector and make sure your recycling center or facility follows proper practices. “One of the most common misconceptions among the public is that their recyclables are always handled properly,” Forbeck said.

Go beyond plastic bottles and aluminum cans.  Recycle plastic containers from single servings of fruit, yogurt, and pudding, as well as plastic containers from health and beauty products and household cleaners.  Check in with your recycling center or collector to find out which plastics they accept (that little number in the triangle on the bottom of most packaging) – most take numbers one and two, some take others.  If your recycler does not, ask where you can take numbers like 5, 6, and 7.  Find out if your recycler takes corrugated cardboard – if they don’t, it’s likely someone in your community does.  Look for neighborhood bins for phone books, newspapers and magazines, often located at malls and shopping centers. 

According to Forbeck, recycling can play a key role in saving energy, as well as landfill space. “Every pound of steel recycled saves 5,450 BTUs of energy, enough to light a 60-watt bulb for over 26 hours,” he said.  “Recycling a ton of glass saves the equivalent of nine gallons of fuel oil. Recycling just one can saves enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb for 3½ hours.”

Cut back on paper use: Contrary to conventional wisdom, paper takes up the most space in landfills, not soiled diapers or plastic bottles (read more about what’s really in our landfills in Rubbish!: The Archeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy of the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project).

But don’t stop at that catalog cancellation site (junkmailstoppers.com; catalongstoppers.com, catalogend.com).  Make it a practice not to sign up for mailing lists.  If you really want information from a vendor, give your e-mail address instead.  Consider buying only from retailers who use sustainable practices for their mailings – like sustainable forestry paper, or post-consumer recycled paper.  Don’t sign up or drop your business card into bins for product drawings or sweepstakes – this is a classic marketing tool for gathering names and growing mailing lists. Always print double-sided, or give paper printed on one side to children for art projects (some elementary schools collect this kind of paper for this purpose). Shred newspaper and use it for pet bedding, or offer it to local farmers for livestock beds.

Use Your Head:  Don’t put things in the trash that don’t belong there.  Solvents, oil-based paints, motor oil, wood stains, tires, pesticides, herbicides, etc. should all be saved for a local household hazardous waste collection event.  Call your municipality to find out if an event is planned (they often happen in the spring and summer when people are spending time in their garages and sheds).  If not, ask that one be established, or find out if communities with collection days will allow you to participate (costs for these events are high, so they are often closed to residents of sponsoring communities).  Also, if you’ve actually been using compact fluorescent bulbs long enough that they’ve started to burn out, be sure to dispose of them properly. CFLs contain mercury. Visit http://ww.epa.gov/bulbrecycling for tips.

Be creative: Find new ways to reduce and reuse.  Crafters can easily reuse discarded fabrics, clothing and linens, turning them into quilts, dolls, and other saleable items.  If you’re not the hobby-type, consider asking a friend or relative who is if they’re interested in items your considering tossing.  Give clothing you’re no longer using to Good Will, or other local charities.  Many groups collect professional clothing for out of work women to wear to job interviews.  Some charities even collect cars – make sure to get the proper paperwork for a tax write off.  Check out the Freecycle network where people trade useful items within their communities – www.freecycle.org.  Hold and promote a neighborhood garage sale or fleamarket – cottage and country decorating enthusiasts love these events, and often look for new places to “shop.”  Check out Nike’s shoe recycling program.  Collect used and worn out athletic shoes from friends, families, and people in your neighborhood, and send them back to Nike (the brand doesn’t matter).  Nike uses the shoes to make NikeGrind, a special athletic surface used to build safer sports surfaces in lower-income neighborhoods.

Trash will likely always be a problem as long as there are humans – but with some planning and foresight, we can likely minimize the implications of our consumption.  Trash collectors themselves are getting into the act – in some California communities, residents receive three collection bins – one for landfill, one for compost (the trash hauler collects it, cures it, and bags it for sale) and one for recycling.  Those who request smaller landfill bins and bigger compost and recycle bins see discounts on their trash bills.  Consider lobbying your trash company or municipality for a similar program, and look for more ways to limit your landfill contribution.


Is Recycling Really Better For The Environment? Part 3: Aluminum

This is part 3 of our “Is Recycling Really Better For The Environment” series and today we are going to talk about recycling aluminum. In the previous two articles I have shown that although recycling is definitely a good thing, in some cases, as in the case of plastics, recycling actually increases plastic usage and plastic waste.

When it comes to aluminum, this is an entirely different story as aluminum is 100% recyclable and re-enters the product stream in approximately 6 weeks. Unlike plastics, who’s chemical bond weakens each time it is remelted, aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times making it a true recycled material. So, by throwing your aluminum cans into the recycling bin, you are contributing to a process that conserves natural resources and saves money compared to manufacturing cans from virgin materials.

Recycling aluminum into new ingots to be used for manufacturing takes less than 5% of the energy it takes to manufacture aluminum from bauxite ore. It only requires melting down the recycled aluminum and removing impurities, which is much less energy intensive than mining bauxite and refining it into alumina to be used to create aluminum. In fact, for every pound of recycled aluminum the industry uses, it saves over 7.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity it saves 4.5 pounds of bauxite ore from being strip-mined. To put it in human terms, by recycling one aluminum can you can save enough energy to light a 25 Watt CFL bulb for over 14 hours.

Currently Americans are recycling approximately 45% of all aluminum beverage cans and 36% of aluminum found in containers and packaging. Fortunately, the largest concentration of domestic aluminum use falls in these markets, so the individual has much more control over the end results than manufacturing industries. Unfortunately, the demand for recovered aluminum is shrinking because of an increased use of plastics in beverage bottles over other packaging applications. Hopefully the demand for recovered aluminum will increase again because of the new CAFE mpg standards, which will require auto makers to use lighter materials to achieve higher efficiencies in their vehicles.

To answer the questions of whether recycling is better for the environment when it comes to aluminum, the answer is absolutely yes. However, it does not stop there, if you really want to make a difference, try to NOT buy plastic beverage containers and opt for the aluminum containers instead and then recycle the aluminum container. This will not only reduce the use of virgin aluminum, but it will reduce the use of oil that is used to produce the plastic container which ultimately ends up in a landfill regardless of whether or not you recycle it. Remember, aluminum is 100% recyclable and can be continually recycled an infinite number of times and plastic is not and will generally be recycled 1 or 2 times before it is discarded.

Stay tuned for Part 4: Glass, coming soon…

Green Still Pulling In Green In Midst Of Recession

According to a recent article over at Newsweek, green homes are very hot right now, despite what is going on in the real estate market. While typical homes drop in value, energy efficient, environmentally friendly homes are not only retaining their value, they are now in demand and are selling at premium prices. The National Association of Home Builders, released some survey results showing that the average home buyer was willing to spend an additional $8,964 on a green home, if it would in fact save them money on their utility cost.

Unfortunately, the average person knows very little about green building, and that is probably because it is such a broad topic which covers many different facets. When thinking of the term “green”, most people instantly picture huge solar panel arrays and wind turbines.  However, true green building techniques are executed well before these types of expensive additions. From site selection, building placement, energy efficiency and indoor air quality, real green building starts before the ground is even broken. It is only after these green building techniques are put in place that is it cost effective to start adding alternative energy sources. My rule of thumb is every dollar spent in energy efficiency will save four dollars on alternative energy.

Architects(me:-) and builders are working very hard to educate consumers about which products and techniques will give them the biggest bang for their buck. In the meantime, organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council and Energy Star are offering certification programs to help rate the greenness of these homes. These certificates will allow home owners to receive additional tax breaks from the Federal government, and in some cases, they will be eligible to receive state tax breaks.  Green building advocates are hoping that these certificate programs will become widely accepted, like Consumer Reports, and create higher resale values for the home owners.

This shift toward green building just might turn around this broken industry and many smaller builders will attest that their numbers are supper hot. Unfortunately, most of the larger builders are still only scraping the surface, doing just enough to get by.  However, as this market shifts, I believe that larger builders will be following suit. The simple fact is that people are becoming educated and they know that this “green stuff” means more money stays in their pockets, regardless of their political or environmental views.

Bottled Water: Bad Investment And Bad For The Environment

I saw a wonderful little editorial cartoon sketch by Steve Greenberg over at http://www.greenberg-art.com about how silly bottled water really is. I have posted before about bottled water and how “not pure” it really is, but people continue to buy and defend it.
I cant stress enough how terrible bottled water is for the environment. They are made using oil and most of them do not get recycled, and those that do get recycled, only get turned into secondary products that are then thrown away. I urge you to quit buying bottled water and instead, take the same money that you would have spent on bottled water and invest in a good water filtration system. If you check out our Eco Store, you will see that I have added a special section just for water products in hopes that we can help to curb peoples addiction to plastic bottled water.