Clever tricks to help you reduce your ecological footprint...
...including a few you've probably never seen before.
Author: Ryan Geiss
Last updated: 3 May 2009
1. saving electricity & money
2. the washer / dryer
3. staying warm
4. for your health
5. packaging and recycling
6. the big picture
7. in the kitchen
8. on the road
SAVING ELECTRICITY & MONEY
WASHER / DRYER
- Switch over to compact fluorescent light bulbs - those funky spiral-shaped ones, which use only 25-30% of the energy that their incandescent equivalents use. Normal light bulbs are only 5% efficient, which means that 95% of the electricity they consume is wasted -- as heat. CFs, on the other hand, are about 20% efficient (about four times as efficient). Switching your bulbs to CFs can very quickly cut your electric bill in half.
COLOR TIP: if you want a nice warm color that matches your old incandescents, get the "warm white" (2700K) bulbs. A lot of CFs are blue-ish or white-ish in color and are marketed as "cool white" or "Day Light" bulbs; although they sound nice, they are just awful - I don't know anyone who prefers them.
Also - try to buy short bulbs, to make sure they fit in your fixtures. The 15W Maxlite Micromax Spiral (60W equivalent) is a favorite of mine - it's 4.25" short (...an incandescent is 4.0"), comes on fast, has great color, and comes in reasonable packaging.
Caution: dispose of CF bulbs properly, as there is a tiny amount of mercury in the tube. Lighting stores will usually take them.
- Avoid halogen lamps. Halogen bulbs are even less efficient than regular incandescent bulbs, and just 1/8th as efficient as CF bulbs. Although nice and bright, they have an enormous cost, both ecologically and economically.
But light is good! How can we win here? Well, if you want a nice bright room, find a standing torch lamp that takes one or two regular light bulbs, rather than a halogen bulb, and just put CF bulbs in it. Get one with a deep dish so the slightly-longer CF bulbs won't stick out past the top.
Or, if you're hardware-oriented, you can convert existing halogens by ripping out the halogen bulb and rewiring it to take dual CF bulbs, as I did in the picture to the right. It's quite a gratifying conversion! Be sure to wire them in parallel so both bulbs so that each bulb gets 120 volts. Also, if the lamp has a dimmer switch or a "half-brightness" state, try not to use those - those will decrease the voltage going to the CF bulbs, which will dramatically decrease their lifespans.
- Avoid using electric heat - it produces four times as much CO2 as burning natural gas directly. Whenever possible, use natural gas to heat your home, water, cook your food, etc. This only applies while we still generate our electricity from fossil fuels -- however, as of 2009, over 90% of our electricity does. Why the disparity? Consider how electric heat works. First, fossil fuels are burned (at a power plant) to create heat. That heat is then used to boil water and spin turbines, to create electricity; however, that process is only about 35% efficient. In addition, you then have to transport the electricity for hundreds of miles, which causes further losses. Finally, when the electricity reaches your house, an electric heater (which is 100% efficient) turns it into heat. However, the net efficiency, from fossil fuel to heat-in-your-home, is below 25%. This means that to produce one BTU of heat in your house, the power plant had to burn over 4 BTUs worth of fossil fuels. However, if you burn the fossil fuels (such as natural gas) directly in your home, you only need to burn 1 BTU of fuel to get 1 BTU of heat - it's 100% efficient. As a result, you only produce 1/4th the carbon. In addition, you're burning natural gas instead of coal, which is cleaner.
- To save water, get a low-flow showerhead. I recommend a 1.5 gpm (gallon per minute) showerhead, which will provide a very nice shower. 2.0 is more than you need, but 1.0 usually can't provide enough pressure. The trick is to get a showerhead that creates high pressure despite a low flow rate. From my experience, the style to the right is (by far) the most effective. What I recommend most is to get the 2.5 gpm one with a throttle bar (shown); we have one, and we usually use it at about half-throttle (~1.3 gpm), but in case you need it, the full flow is there. (The pressure, however, is always there, and that's the important part.) These cost about $18, but will pay themselves off in just a few months (see next tip!).
- Some people like to say, "don't take such a hot shower." I strongly disagree; my advice is to turn the FLOW down, long before you turn the heat down. The vast majority of the energy is spent bringing the water from 65 degrees (ground temperature) up to body temperature (98.6); so, even when taking a shower that doesn't feel hot at all, you're actually using gobs of energy, to raise the water from 65 to 98. The jump from 98 to 110 (lukewarm to burning hot) is marginal, by comparison, even though it makes all the difference to your experience. If you turn the dial left (hotter) but cut the flow rate in half (via a low-flow showerhead), you'll be using about 44% less energy, and 50% less water. For visual learners (and skeptics), see the diagram below:
click below for a|
more detailed graph:
- If your toilet seems to use an excess of water when you flush it, stick a brick in the tank. It'll work just the same but use less water with each flush.
- Make sure your computer monitor automatically shuts off after 10-15 minutes. If you work in an office, try to encourage others there to do the same. Typical monitors (CRTs) use 100-150 watts; LCDs (the thin screens) use far less, only 60 watts, and have the added benefit of far less eye strain. Don't throw your old CRT away though - they have 3 pounds of lead in them! - make sure they get recycled.
- Put your computer in standby mode when you won't be using it for a few hours. It will only consume a few watts (vs. the regular 100 or so), and will come back on within seconds. On a PC, you can use "Hibernate" for a deeper sleep; this mode uses zero power, but is still comes back much faster than a fresh boot. Note: to make the Hibernate option appear, hold down the SHIFT key during the 'Turn Off Computer' options screen.
- Slow down your CPU when your computer is idle so it doesn't waste power, especially if you have an Intel CPU (they run very hot - AMD is just as fast and much more efficient). The EPA estimates that most computers are idle 90% of the time, so this is quite a significant savings. I found a wonderful program called WinThrottle that does exactly that; as soon as you start doing anything, the CPU instantly ramps back up to full speed. (I liked it so much, I recently helped the author add a bunch of cool new features to it!)
- Consider investing in efficient household appliances (washer, drier, fridge, water heater, dishwasher). Refrigerators with the freezer on bottom are far more efficient, as are front-loading washers. Install low-flow showerheads and if you replace a toilet, get a low-flow model. Also, check your state for hefty rebates on all of these things; they're common these days.
- Buy thinner, smaller towels for after you shower. Most people buy gigantic, thick towels, but these take a ton more energy to wash and dry, and because they don't dry quickly after a shower, they tend to get skunky very quickly. (ew) If you have short hair, you can get completely dry with just a hand towel.
- If you use a clothes dryer, keep the lint trap clear. Notice that when the lint trap is covered in lint (which only takes a few loads), it takes clothes twice as long to dry - which means the drier is using twice as much energy as it needs to - and you have to wait around longer.
- Set up a small clothesline, or use one of those accordian-like wooden rack things, if only for just for the big & heavy stuff - towels, sheets, sweaters, etc. These few items take little time to put on the line, but save a disproportionate amount of energy because of their size and weight.
- Wash clothes in cold water; they get just as clean. Don't do the extra rinse unless the clothes were super-dirty and you used huge amounts of soap. Buy phosphor-free, biodegradeable, eco-friendly detergents - they work wonderfully and are much healthier for you and the environment, especially aquatic life.
FOR YOUR HEALTH
- In the winter, when it's cold indoors, wear a hat... inside the house! It will keep you much warmer than you probably would have guessed. Long underwear gives you another 5-degree advantage. These can also help you stay healthier through the winter.
- For your bed, use a thin synthetic (fleece) or down comforter, with a heavy cotton blanket on top of it. The fleece/down layer does the insulating (cotton is utterly useless in that respect - ask any backpacker), while the heavy cotton layer keeps it pressed down and conforming to your body.
- Invest in double-pane windows. Most people don't realize how little insulative value single-pane windows have; a double-pane window, with its air buffer, is really almost magical in how much energy it saves (and how much warmer you'll feel). Single-pane windows should be abolished! (in cold climates, at least)
A cheap and easy alternative for renters is to buy clear plastic sheeting from the hardware store (usually $0.40 cents per square foot) and pin it tightly over the window recesses. Because it's plastic (synthetic) it has superior insulating properties, and it's fairly robust so you can reuse it over many winters. It's almost as good as having double-pane windows, but it only costs about $10 per bedroom, so it pays itself off in just 2 or 3 months. We recently did this to my house ($50 total, 5 bedrooms) and the heat now runs about 40% as often as it used to... the house is more of a home and our gas bill should be going way, way down. Note that you can also put this stuff behind blinds, so they're still operable - it's quite bendable and malleable. Also notice that where your windows before were freezing cold to the touch - meaning they were sucking lots of heat away - the plastic is at room temperature. Amazing!
- If you have cold tile or wood or linoleum floors, that represents a huge draw of heat away from your house; putting down some rugs or carpeting will save you lots of money and make the house more comfortable. (Do you see why? The floor temperature will be closer to the temperature at the thermostat sensor. Same goes for the double-pane windows.)
- In the winter, open all drapes in the morning, and close them at night - especially on south-facing exteriors. During the day, the sun will hit the inside of the house and the heat will be absorbed, keeping you warmer all night long. At night, the closed drapes will block heat leaking out into the cold night.
- Install a programmable thermostat. If you live in a hot or cold climate and have no pets, there's no reason to keep the hot warm (or cool) during the day when no one is home; it's a huge waste of money (it'll pay itself off in two months, then perpetually save you money). Also, set it to around 65 (or lower) when you sleep; a little cool night air is healthy. Make sure you have a nice synthetic comforter (fleece, etc.) to keep your body toasty, though.
- If you have high ceilings, installing a ceiling fan can drastically reduce your heating/AC bills. Run it at a high speed in the summer; the convection will keep you cool. Reverse the blades & run it at low speed in the winter to push all that heat that drifted up back down to where the people are. Fans use very little electricity compared to heaters and A/C units, which are energy monsters.
PACKAGING AND RECYCLING
- Buy eco-friendly cleaning products. Use baking soda and apple cider vinegar for cleaning; use phosphate-free, biodegradable laundry detergent; natural soaps; recycled paper; etc. And for the love of God, do NOT use RAID or other poisons in your home, or anywhere! After experiencing numb arms and legs and total impotence for four months - due to RAID exposure - I feel more than qualified to make that statement. (For my story go here.)
- All rechargeable batteries that eventually die are toxic and should be recycled; take them to any Radio Shack, Sears, Home Depot, or Best Buy store and they'll take care of it for you. This is any kind of rechargeable battery (NiCd/NiMH/Li-Ion) as well as cordless phone, cell phone, laptop, etc. batteries. Non-rechargeable (alkaline) batteries can be thrown in the trash. (click here for more info)
THE BIG PICTURE
- Buy the product with less packaging, when other factors are equal.
- "Paper or plastic?" Try neither! Buy a few of those $1 "Green Bag" totes at Whole Foods, or some $10 cotton/canvas tote bags, and keep them in your car for carrying groceries (or other things); over a lifetime you'll save tens of thousands of plastic and paper bags. If you're really serious, buy your grains, cereals, nuts, teas, rice, pastas, beans, etc. from the bulk section of a health food store, and reuse those clear plastic bags, for produce & bulk dried foods. [For produce, once I'm done with the bag, I just rinse it out and hang it from the fridge with a magnet to dry.] You'll save *tons* of packaging, and money too, because buying bulk is often very cheap.
- Don't buy beverages in plastic; go for glass. Glass is made from an abundant source (sand) and recycles well, whereas plastic is made from precious oil and recycles poorly; it never becomes "new" plastic - it can only be remade into industrial plastic like in picnic tables, plastic decks, and insulation - and all too often, there is far more than is needed for these purposes, and it goes into the dump.
- Better yet - just drink water. Most juices are mainly sugar water anyway; they're expensive to buy, require a lot of energy to transport, and leave you with a container afterwards. Drinking water with meals is often healthier anyway (...than drinking sugar water).
- On the road a lot? Keep a water bottle and/or a good metallic coffee cup, and take it with you; use it instead of throw-away bottles and cups. I also keep a tupperware container (actually a cool porcelain one) in my car, for leftovers at restaurants. (It always impresses.) I also bring my own chopsticks (when I think to).
- Who needs paper towels? In the kitchen, use a real cloth and wash it. In public restrooms, shake your hands dry in the sink, then pat them on your clothes. Your body heat will dry your hands off completely in about 30 seconds. I haven't used a paper towel in a restroom in 5 years (except once at a wedding when I was wearing a suit), and frankly, I don't understand why anyone does...
- If you have to get disposable plates or cups for an event, get paper instead of plastic. As mentioned, plastic doesn't recycle as well, and is a limited resource, whereas trees are renewable. (And believe it or not, forests in the U.S. are regrowing; deforestation is only a problem in developing countries. However, they're often deforesting to use the land to make products that we buy!)
- Buy local. In general I try to vegetables grown, and beer brewed, in the state I live in; who needs their food and drink trucked thousands of miles? It's a big waste. Some say eating local foods is better for your allergies, as well.
IN THE KITCHEN
- Less is more - keep in mind that everything manufactured has a significant ecological cost, from the rainforests cut down to make palm oil plantations for cosmetics, to those cut down so cattle could graze, to streams poisoned and habitat destroyed by mining operations and timber harvesting and paper making and a million other things. The less we all consume (or the more we salvage), the healthier our planet and all of its inhabitants, including us, will be. (Not to mention the mental health benefits of simplifying.)
- Vote with your dollar - when you buy an ecologically conscious product from an ecologically conscious company, you're supporting them; if you don't, it supports irresponsible companies. The world is driven by money; industries (eco or not) can't exist without customers. Who we buy from makes a huge difference and determines, directly, the size of these companies.
- Buy used (don't buy things new). As often as possible, pick it up second-hand. The amount of stuff that's manufactured is determined by how much [new stuff] people are buying; as we cut back, they produce less, and less resources (energy, materials, eco damage) are used. I pick up almost everything I can second-hand now (garage sales, thrift stores, free from friends, mom & pop computer stores, or good will stores) except high-tech gear and maybe an annual piece of clothing or new shoes.
In Santa Cruz, we have a special Good Will "warehouse" called the Bargain Barn; this is where, twice a day, they clear it out & fill it up (with a few dozen 5' tall mountains of clothes and other things) with the stuff the local retail Good Will stores had no shelf space for. You wouldn't believe the amazing stuff that gets rejected - because not enough people are buying from the Good Will retail stores, and there's nowhere to put it! And even better - the Bargain Barn only charges $1 a pound. It's ridiculous what you can find. Many of my favorite clothes I found there (you easily come out with 5 awesome articles of great clothing for $1.25) and I even found a perfectly good wetsuit there (probably a $150 value - 99% off!). It's unbelievable. Most towns have a place like the Bargain Barn, you just have to find out where it is. Find your local Bargain Barn (or whatever they call it), and shop there - and tell your friends!
- Not everything has to match. It's very wasteful if you have to buy all new plates because one of them broke, or if all your cups have to match each other, or if you have to buy new drapes to match the new dog, and so on. By rethinking what we perceive as beautiful, we can save a lot of energy and resources. Think eclectic, colorful, and unique!
- Don't buy into the culture of compulsive and expensive gift-giving. Keep the holidays simple, more mindful, and more intentional, as they used to be, before corporations started pouring billions into marketing them and manipulating our culture. It's out of control, but not so hard to fix. Talk to your family. Do things together instead of buying each other gifts; or pool your money and give it to charities you all want to support. You can also ask for - and buy (for those who would 'get it') - second-hand gifts.
- Buy organic when the price is right for you. 'Organic' means pesticide-free and not genetically modified. It's better for the planet (and the people downstream) and better for you.
- Sign up for Ideal Bite, a brief daily e-mail with clever ideas to help you reduce your impact (much like the ones I've given here).
ON THE ROAD
- Use a lid when cooking. Most heat escapes through the top (heat rises), so with a lid, you can turn the flame (or current) way down and easily save over 50%.
- Let hot foods sit out for a while before you put them in the fridge.
- Leave some space behind your fridge so the air can circulate; unplug it and wipe off the condenser coils once a year, to keep it operating efficiently.
- If you do nothing else, make a CarbonFund donation each year, which will make your car carbon-neutral for the year. The average car driver shoves about 12,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, contributing to global warming. But for only $30 (tax-deductible, too!), you can pay CarbonFund to make your car climate-neutral for the year by financing projects to sequester 12,000 pounds of CO2 during the year. Very clever, and very cheap! (...twice as effective as buying a hybrid, but far less expensive!) They also make great gifts.
- Fly less. This is very important! Many people don't realize that flying produces even more CO2 (per passenger, per mile) than driving. If you do fly, consider buying a Flight Terrapass to cover it.
- Slow down. Wind resistance increases with velocity cubed, meaning that when you double your speed, your wind resistance increases by a factor of eight, lowering your gas mileage. At low speeds (under 50) it doesn't matter much - wind resistance is not a key factor. But above 50, the difference is quite noticeable - as much as 20%, depending on the car. (Interestingly, hybrids tend to be so efficient, internally, that the wind resistance factor becomes a larger, more noticeable efficiency bottleneck.)
- Pump the air in your (car) tires up to the recommended level every 3rd fill-up at the gas station. It'll make a big difference in your gas mileage! Also keep in mind that most manufacturers err WAY on the side of caution and tell you to leave your tires practically flat. Ask your mechanic what you should really pump them up to!
- Throw some low rolling resistance (LRR) tires on your car for an extra 2-3 miles per gallon.
- Carpool; use public transportation; consolidate errands; keep "to buy" lists, and let 'em get long, 'til you must go.
- Check out a fuel-efficient hybrid gasoline-electric car like the Honda Insight (60-70 mpg), Honda Civic Hybrid (46-51 mpg), or Toyota Prius (45-52 mpg); they capture energy when you brake, and re-use it to help you accelerate. Several Volkswagen diesels (golf, new beetle, jetta) get good mileage but are *really* dirty. For lower budgets, check out the (regular) Honda Civic (up to 44) or the Toyota Echo (up to 43). Click here for complete listings. But the best thing you can do is drive less (which is free!). Carpooling is especially effective; when you carpool with another person, it's the equivalent of doubling your gas mileage, because it takes the other car off the road. (The real measure of gas mileage is "people miles" per gallon.)
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