Thursday, April 23, 2015

What I Did for Earth Day 2015

This year's Earth Day, like last year's, didn't involve any grand gestures for us. We didn't spend the day cleaning up a river, or planting trees, or upgrading to more efficient appliances, or doing anything extra-specially green. In fact, Brian couldn't even ride his bike to work, due to predictions of thunderstorms and high winds in the weather report. He'd already missed his ride on Monday and Tuesday due to rain, and it was perfectly sunny and nice when he went out the door, grumbling, "If it doesn't rain today I'm going to be pissed." But fortunately, the thunderstorms and high winds showed up as promised in the afternoon, so he didn't have to feel any guilt about driving. And he's making up for it by riding to work this morning, even though he has to be in by 8am for a meeting and the temperature is currently around 45 degrees.

Nonetheless, I did manage, as usual, to do a lot of little things in honor of the earth. Here's my Day in the Green Life:

1. I learned to say "climate change" when I mean "global warming." Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, they don't really mean the same thing. Climate change is any long-term shift in the earth's overall climate. Global warming is a specific type of climate change: the long-term trend toward higher average temperatures over the past century or so, which virtually all scientists agree is a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to a poll at Cornell that I read about on Accuweather, "global warming" is an issue that most people have firmly made up their minds about, one way or the other: that is, with the scientific consensus or against it. (See, I just proved the point.) When you use that phrase, people are likely to respond by citing and sticking firmly to the opinion they've already formed, no matter what evidence you may cite to the contrary. By contrast, when you use the phrase "climate change," people are more open to hearing about the data and possibly altering their views in response. So the Cornell professor who ran the study suggests using the term "climate change" in place of "global warming" if you want to get a real discussion going, rather than just, "Is not!" "Is too!" (Of course, Governor Scott of Florida has apparently anticipated this strategy and banned both phrases—along with "sustainability"—in any documents issued by his staff. But that just shows that there are some people it really isn't worth trying to reason with.)

2. I ran into some problems with paper reuse. Brian and I routinely use one-side-used paper (scavenged from his office) for our printer at home, but our new 3-in-one printer seems to have some problems with it. When I try to print out my daily crossword puzzle, the printer sometimes grabs multiple sheets and spits out blanks along with the printed page. This isn't a big problem, since I can always just feed the blank ones back into the paper tray, but this time it actually spread the crossword across two pages instead of one. This used to happen with our old printer too, but we thought it was the printer's fault; now we have to consider the possibility that there's something wrong with the paper. Brian thinks the problem may be that the used paper is sometimes bent at the corners, so the printer is mistaking two sheets folded together for one extra-thick sheet. So it looks like we may just need to be more careful when feeding paper into the printer, making sure the sheets are all neatly aligned and leaving out any that are too badly bent or torn.

3. I corrected a misapprehension about energy use. An article in the Dollar Stretcher about quick tricks for trimming your budget mentions unplugging off any electronic items you're not using, since many of them continue to draw a trickle of power even when they're shut down. This is perfectly sensible advice, but the article goes overboard by advising readers to "pull the plug on the toaster oven, coffee maker, [and] lamps." The author seems to be under the impression that all electrical devices use power whenever they're plugged in, not just electronic ones. A fact sheet from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory about standby power use explains that you can usually identify phantom power users because they have "an external power supply, remote control, continuous display (including an LED)," or internal batteries that require charging. Now, I suppose some ultra-fancy modern toaster ovens or coffee makers might include a display screen (though my 20-year-old models definitely don't), but a lamp is basically just a wire that you run a current through to produce light. There is no way it can draw power when it isn't switched on. There was no place to leave comments on the article itself, so I sent a gently worded note to the editor asking him to let readers know that there's no need for them to go around unplugging all the lamps in their houses in order to save electricity. Instead, they can just focus on electronic devices, which are easy to power down by plugging them all into power strips that can be switched off at night.

4. I got my first quote on a solar power system. Last Tuesday, I got a preliminary estimate on the cost of solar power from a website called EnergySage, and the numbers were encouraging enough to convince me to register with the site and let solar installers contact me with quotes. So far, two installers have expressed an interest, and one has actually come forward with a quote on a 2.5-kW system. The bad news is that their quote was quite a bit higher than the initial estimate I got from the site; they say it would cost $10,600 to install, or $7,420 after the tax rebate. The good news is that in addition to the $500 or so we could save on our electricity bills each year, they think we could also earn about $420 (at least the first year) by selling SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) to PSE&G. Thus, they claim, over the course of 20 years, the system could net us $11,200, for a return of better than 10 percent on our investment. Of course, that's assuming an annual increase of 3.5 percent in electricity costs, which may or may not be right. But at least it's a starting point for figuring out whether this is a plunge we want to take.

5. Following a link from Google's home page, I rechecked my global environmental footprint on the Earth Day Network site. I've used this site before and been frustrated that, despite all my green lifestyle choices, my footprint still comes in at more than 3 Earths. A few years back, I discovered that this appears to be less because of how I live and more because of where I live; there's simply no way to live as an American without weighing in at 3 Earths or more. A person living only a moderately eco-friendly lifestyle in South Africa, by contrast, would have a footprint of just over 1 Earth. So this time, just for the heck of it, I decided to see how my current lifestyle would measure up if I were living exactly as I do now, but in Ontario. And I noticed that, first of all, the questions the quiz asked were different for Canadians than for Americans. Instead of asking how much I spend on my utility bill, for instance, it asked what temperature I heat my home to (which is a good thing, because I have no idea what my heating bill would be in chilly Ontario). But even so, answering the questions just as I would in real life, I found that my footprint had magically dropped from 3.3 Earths to only 2.1. The biggest section of U.S. Amy's ecological footprint, shown in pie chart form, was "services," which the site defines as "governmental and social service activities" that "can only be indirectly altered through social influence for governmental change." By contrast, Canadian Amy's footprint was about 1/3 services, 1/3 food, and 1/3 for everything else. So apparently, Canada's social policies make it an inherently greener place to live than the US, despite its shorter growing season.

6. While I was at it, I also rechecked our carbon footprint on the EPA website. It, too, has changed its format in the past year. The new version says our household carbon footprint is now 12,143 pounds per year, which is an improvement from last year's estimate of 13,575 pounds. However, we're not doing as well in relation to the average American, who now uses only 28,919 pounds per year as opposed to around 36,000 last year. But then, I guess that's good news, right? Also, unlike the earlier version, the new edition of the planner actually offered some useful information about reducing our footprint. It says, for instance, that we would have saved about 728 pounds of carbon a year with a high-efficiency boiler (though I think that estimate is high; my calculations last year showed a savings of only 351 pounds per year). However, this pales in comparison to the amount we could save by replacing our windows with Energy Star versions: a whopping 2,947 pounds per year. Of course, this estimate is probably high as well; the site may be assuming that our house has more windows than it really does, and that they're old single-pane windows instead of the fairly modern double-glazed ones we really have. (The calculator also claimed that this move would save us $150 a year on our energy bills, but a more precise estimate on the Energy Star site shows that in our area, upgrading double-pane windows will save only $91 a year.) But it's still interesting to know that the energy-efficient windows offer bigger savings than an energy-efficient boiler. After all, we'll have to replace these windows some time, and since the costliest part of that job is probably labor, it might actually be worth going for the super-duper-efficient ones. Another interesting detail gleaned from the site: the green steps we already take (such as washing our laundry in cold water, line drying, maintaining our car, recycling, and using green power) are saving us about 4,000 pounds per year.

7. To protect our supply of local produce, I planted my second installment of arugula and lettuce in the garden. Staggering the plantings like this, planting one square each week instead of the whole area at once, allows us to spread the harvest out over a longer period, instead of ending up with 36 bunches of arugula in one week. While doing this, I discovered a downside of the "carpet bombing" method we've been using to grow plants from seed. It's great for choking out the weeds and ensuring that we have enough healthy plants, but it also makes it harder to allocate the seeds over the numbers of squares to be planted. I discovered when I'd finished planting this batch that I had just barely enough arugula seeds left for the one more square I still need to plant, and even less of the lettuce. So I'll have to fill that last square by combining the few Blushed Butter Oaks lettuce seeds I have left with the remainder of my Tom Thumb Baby Bibb seeds from last year, throwing it all in there, and hoping for the best. And next year, I should either husband my seeds more carefully or just buy a bigger packet.

8. I sent off a sample of our household water for testing. On our last visit to Home Depot, there was a display near the checkout with packets labeled "FREE WATER TEST," each containing an envelope and a small plastic vial. You just fill the vial with your household water, fill out a form with your contact information, pop them both in the prepaid envelope, and get back a report on your water quality. We already get regular water quality reports from the local water department, and they always say that our town's water meets or beats all federal and state standards, but I figured it couldn't hurt to find out how the numbers look for our specific location. So I popped the envelope in the mail yesterday, and if the results reveal anything interesting, I'll share them here.

9. I did a little reading about asbestos. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance contacted me last week, asking whether I'd be interested in doing a post about asbestos and its dangers. Since I've been fortunate enough to have no personal experiences with asbestos in my life, I did a little research to learn more. I was surprised to discover that asbestos hasn't actually been banned in the U.S. The EPA tried to ban it for most uses in 1989, but a court overturned the ban, so now it's only banned for a few specific uses, like pipe insulation. Though it may be found in homes, most people who develop asbestos-related illnesses were exposed to it at work, particularly in the shipbuilding industry. Wikipedia reports that lawsuits over asbestos exposure are "the longest, most expensive mass tort in U.S. history." If you'd like to know more, you can find lots of information on the MCA's asbestos page.

10. Finally, during my afternoon walk, I made a deposit with Terracycle. When I first learned about Terracycle back in 2011, I didn't think it would be very useful for us, since the only packaging they were taking at the time was things like juice packs and candy wrappers, which we didn't use. More recently, however, we've learned that there's a bin at one of our local churches that will take lots of stuff we actually use, including toothpaste tubes, cereal bag liners, deodorant tubes, and all sorts of foil-lined wrappers (including the ones from Fiber One bars, which have lately become a minor obsession of mine). So we now keep a small basket on the shelf with our other recycling bins in which we deposit all items of this sort, and whenever I notice it's looking a bit full, I dump the contents in a bag and cart them off to the bin. Yesterday, I dropped off a dozen or so bag liners, several foil wrappers, one toothpaste tube, and one deodorant tube—about a pound or so of waste that will now be kept out of the waste stream. (Of course, on the way home, I got caught in the promised thunderstorm that had kept Brian from riding in to work that morning. But thanks to my raincoat and sturdy umbrella, I only really got soaked from the knees down. Which, I guess, is one way of getting in touch with nature.)
Post a Comment