Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Simple yet Sustainable Part II: for Advanced Beginners

Unless you’ve been living in a cave these past few months, you realize that the global warming and energy crisis have become big news. Last column I listed ten simple & sustainable actions; what follows is another ten habits that will help to reduce your resource consumption without taking a huge amount of time. Some will save time, in fact. These are not quite as easy as the first ten, but they’re not that hard, either. Essentially they are creating new habits. Note that the payback time for energy-reducing initiatives is a lot faster with our whopping energy price increases!

1. Replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs. Compact fluorescent technology has improved significantly. You can now purchase different spectrum lights, which are good for reading and overhead fixtures. They are available in hardware stores, Ikea, Home Depot, and online. Lowes sells a Sylvania "Warm White" bulb which people have given high marks. The initial outlay for CFLs is significant, but they have two huge advantages. First, they use only a fraction of the electricity that a comparable incandescent bulb consumes, which is why they are dubbed “energy misers”. Secondly they last about 5-10 times as long as a conventional bulb. This saves you a bundle of money by not having to continually replace them, and prevents all those extra bulbs from being manufactured, packaged, transported and ultimately discarded into landfill. Ikea takes back dead CFLs, BTW, which contain mercury.
2. Don’t wash bath towels after a single use. Many eco-minded households assign towels to each family member and reuse them. Generally one uses bath towels apr├Ęs-bath or shower, so they’re really not getting dirty. You could color-code the towels for little kids or assign towel racks. Wasteful American laundry habits gobble up huge amounts of resources: water and the energy to heat it, along with the energy to fuel the washer and dryer, much of which is really not necessary. [Unless you are a heavy exerciser, daily baths or showers are quite a luxury – certainly not known by those in most countries in the world, but I digress.]
3. Use the internet to comparison shop and make purchases. I love the convenience of online shopping. Instead of driving from store to store, I just surf the net and can usually locate useful information and better prices than in bricks-and-mortar stores. I figure the UPS truck is going by my house anyway, and it uses lot less fuel to deliver my package than my driving my car roundtrip to a store, not to mention all the time I’d waste. The shipping charge is well worth it, and man! I really hate malls.
4. Add more non-meat meals to your diet. Vegetarian cooking is easier now that there are so many delicious vegetarian food products readily available. As some of us older folk first learned a generation ago from Frances Moore Lappe in her classic Diet for a Small Planet, producing vegetable protein consumes significantly fewer resources compared to animal protein production, not even considering the ethical issues raised by factory farming. Farmed animals not only consume huge amounts of food themselves (which are in turn raised with the use of pesticides), but also require many questionable chemical inputs and generate hugely polluting run-off. Every meat meal you skip reduces your ecological footprint. For example, my son eats poultry (less resource intensive than red meat) but is not an actual vegetarian; he identifies himself as a “meat reductionist”.
5. Consider buying or acquiring second-hand items. We are a use-and-toss society, with constant encouragement to keep on buying. All those items we buy are created from extracted natural resources, manufactured in energy-gobbling factories, and shipped around in energy-consuming and pollution-spewing trucks, ships, or airplanes. When you need items, think Ebay, yard sales, Craig’s List, thrift stores, or a local Bulletin Board. Or better yet, acquire what you need no cost at all through Freecycle. Get in the habit of passing on your no longer needed items, too, and a virtuous cycle is created.
6. Buy organic food. This costs more but your food has the benefit of having been raised without pesticides. No one has been able to prove that organic food is healthier for the ultimate consumer (though gut instinct says - Yes!!), but it is unquestionably healthier for the soil and water run-off into streams and rivers. And it is much healthier for the farm workers. After spraying fields with pesticides, many farmers wait days before venturing back into their fields because of the product’s toxicity. Workers have less choice than owners and are often put at risk by these agricultural inputs. Think of normal produce as artificially cheap because it fails to take environmental degradation into account.
7. Buy local food. Though the local food concept is taking off, there is a large gap between intent and execution. The advantages of local foods are that they’re generally fresher, preserve regional farmland by helping to keep sprawl at bay, and require way less fossil fuel than produce flown or trucked in from the four corners of the earth. Why buy pasta imported from Italy when the United States produces a surplus of duram wheat? Why buy apples from Washington state when Pennsylvania and New York grow fabulous apples? The local food market will increase with consumer demand. Shop at Farmers’ Markets, and tell the stores you shop in that you want the produce labeled by origin – not just country, but specific state locales.
8. Bring your own containers for restaurant leftovers. This is a small thing, but once you cultivate the habit, you’ll cut your consumption of tinfoil, plastic and Styrofoam considerably. A zip-lock bag works well for small leftovers. Some people are clever enough to remember to bring Tupperware. So far I have been too embarrassed to do this, but maybe you are braver than I am. You can also travel with a mug and silverware, decreasing the number of disposable products you consume.
9. Sign up for clean, renewable electricity. Just as with organic produce, there is a surcharge for clean energy which is generated from renewable sources such as wind. Again, the price of conventional energy, generated by burning fossil fuels, is artificially low because global warming and air pollution is not figured into the costs; those external costs are born by the whole planet. Just ask anyone with asthma…. When I explained the concept of FairTrade coffee, someone remarked “Well, that means regular coffee is unfairly traded, doesn’t it?” Likewise, the opposite of clean electricity is dirty electricity. The dirt is the pollution created by burning coal to generate the power plant. The fact that it’s clean coming into your house doesn’t mean its production is clean.
10. (Big Ticket Item!) Get yourself an e-bike. This is something I’m dreaming of, and here’s why. The E stands for “electronically assisted” - these are lightly motorized, rechargeable bicycles with pedals. You bike normally and get exercise, but when the going gets tough, you can kick in the motor. Think Philly’s steep hills now being simple to navigate! Most often we drive alone – just look at the cars around you when next stuck in traffic. Most of the energy/fuel is going to propel the car itself, not the passenger, a huge waste. This bike can replace many of those one-person trips we have all come to take for granted. I also lust for a hybrid car, but they cost $23K+ while an EBike costs in the $1000-$1500 range. Of course while an electronic bike is costly, perhaps it could avoid a second car purchase for your household. Another alternative is using a car sharing service. In any event, employ strategies to get out of your car.

Obviously doing all ten items on this list would put you into the Platinum Eco-Citizen category. The point is, our life styles need to go on an energy diet if the planet is to survive. These are fairly painless strategies for maintaining a high quality of life in a more responsible way.

Share your list!

illustration by D. SIMONDS

1 comment:

Jo said...

An introduction to e-bikes:
http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/realmoney/articles/ElectricBikes.cfm