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April 07, 2006
It's Not Easy, Being Green

I can't actually recommend reading this entry. Just so you know.

I bought myself one of those coffee pots with a "permanent filter" so that I'd stop tossing paper filters into the trash every day. Sadly, it turns out that, sans filter, a sludge of coffee grounds makes its way into the pot each time, rendering the last cup undrinkable. Generally I wind up making another half-pot just to get that last cup I want so badly. (So. Is it worse for the environment to use the paper filter or is it worse to waste the potable water on coffee I can't drink and to make more coffee each day?)

I'm very concerned about toxic pollution from common household items. I'm gradually switching from "miracle" cleaners to more environment-friendly substances. (But is it worse for the water supply for me to wash away 1/16 cup of "miracle" cleaner each day or the two cups full of less-toxic but less-efficient "enviro-friendly" substitutes that aren't non-damaging to the environment, just a lot less damaging?)

And then there are other cleaning supplies. Using up paper towels is a no-no, I get that. Even if I use recycled paper towels, there's damage from the processes used to reclaim the paper, not the least of which are the necessary chemicals that are released into the world's water supply. (But is it really an improvement to use "cleaning cloths" that can be washed? If I wash them every time I use them, am I doing more or less damage to the water supply than I'd be doing if I used a paper towel and threw them away?)

And, of course, there's the cleaning process itself. How often should I be cleaning my house? Does the USofA have a phobia about germs that's out of proportion to the danger? Do I really need to clean my bathroom twice a week just to keep it "sparkling" or would cleaning it once a week (or once every ten days) be enough since most of the "dirt" consists of water or soap splashed around the sink? Is it worth the extra chemicals I'm tossing into the environment to keep my personal environment shiny or, since I'm the only one using my bathroom, should I worry less about the embarrassment I'll feel if I have a guest and the porcelain isn't "sparkling"?)

What about garbage? We throw too much garbage away, we all know that. Fortunately for me, the recent (three years ago) Dietary Switch to eating a heckuva lot less than what the average USofA citizen considers a "portion" means I'm using less food overall, which leads to me cooking less, having fewer leftovers, and throwing less away. But when I do have scraps, is it better to toss them into the trash or is it better to put them down the garbage disposal? One goes into a landfill and one pollutes our limited fresh water supply. Where's the "green" alternative?

Is eating out more efficient than eating at home because the restaurant kitchen uses more energy, but serves proportionately more people per kilowatt? (Does a restaurant's mass-feeing practices conserve energy?)

Is it better for the environment that food is bulk delivered to the restaurant, meaning only that much gas and road wear-and-tear, as opposed to 100 of us driving to different grocery stores and buying various ingredients from a lot of different places?

If I eat at the restaurant and take home leftovers (because the portion sizes are always absurd), does that make it more efficient, that I'm eating two meals from the energy consumed to produce one? Or does re-heating the leftovers negate any potential savings?

And how about energy? I've recently learned that appliances not in use but nevertheless plugged in and ready to use suck down about 5% of our nation's total energy expenditures. So I should unplug computers and the microwave and the coffee pot and the television and clocks when not actively "in use," right?

If I want to watch Stargate: Atlantis, I can plug in the TV five minutes before time and wait for everything to cycle up. Which, just for the record, I'm not doing. Not yet, anyhow.

Also, I won't be unplugging and replugging my alarm clock every day because that would really be annoying.

But what about lamps and that little floor fan? They don't eat electricity when not in use, right? Not like computers and things that stay "ready" to be used at any moment?

And we're advised that leaving an outdoor light on overnight cuts crime. So, how many hours do I have to spend sitting in the dark, using no electronic gadgets to make leaving the (environment-friendly) porch light on all night? (Or, should I bitch out the apartment people for destroying the massive sticker-bushes that used to protect the entire base of the apartment building from anyone getting within six feet of the wall or first-floor patios?)

And what about that battery-operated things like Game Boys? How evil are battery-operated devices, even if you use recyclable batteries? (And is it a false savings since the electricity required to recharge the batteries is more than the batteries put out? Or is it a good thing because the toxic chemicals in batteries should be kept out of the environment, so never throwing away a battery is a good thing?)

Should I cease to run errands on my days off and, instead, arrange my daily commute so that I can do all of these things going to and from work (and, not incidentally, turning my 40-minute commute into a 1-2 hour saga and me into a bitter, rage-filled commuter)? I

hear you saying, "public transport"! The last time I checked, my 40-minute commute would have been an hour and forty minutes (each way) by public transport and I'm just not willing to spend an extra two hours of my life in doing nothing but moving from one place to another five days a week.

I could take the "express" bus service and walk a mile or so to my office, a thing I'm not adverse to doing, but that would require me to drive to where I could pick up the express bus, which seems a bit counter-intuitive.

Or, I could walk the couple of miles to the express bus pickup, but what damage am I doing to my health by walking next to a traffic-and-smog choked street for forty minutes each morning and afternoon? Not to mention that I'm back to an hour+ commute each way although with the benefit of some exercise twice a day unless inhaling all of that pollution is going to kill me ten years sooner in which case it's not really healthier, is it?

And if I use public transport all week, how much driving can I do on the weekends before I'm obligated to start feeling guilty again?

(Our public transport drivers are on strike right now, so the whole question is moot.)

I ask these things because I need to wash my car, but I have to drive to the car wash because I live in an apartment and don't have a hose and other things I'd need to do it here. Is it better to drive around in a filthy car and risk paint damage that will require an environment-damaging re-spray job or to use up the gasoline to drive to the carwash and then contribute to water pollution with the dirt and soap that washes from my car? Should I avoid the "hot wax" cycle? Is it evil?

If thinking about all of this makes me feel tired and discouraged and my first impulse to cheer myself up is to go shopping, does that indicate I'm already too far gone to bother with?

Would world be a more interesting place if I stopped blogging unless I actually had something to say?

Posted by AnneZook at 06:23 PM


Apparently there's considerable debate about cloth v. disposable in this same vein, and at least one analysis I've seen suggested that it was pretty much a tossup. I don't entirely buy it, because the tradeoffs are not all equal: there are natural water filtration systems, and we process most of our waste water before it returns to the environment, so it's not the same thing as throwing away diapers. In energy terms you come out about equal, I can buy that, but since the disposables depend more heavily on petrochemical inputs, we made a conscious choice to shift our energy consumption in the direction of electricity which can come from other sources.

For the record, we went with cloth, and I think we saved about 50% over using disposables (would have been more if he hadn't grown so fast that we needed bigger and bigger covers, or toilet trained earlier; Wouldn't change a thing, of course, but it does have costs) and that's worth something, too.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 7, 2006 11:29 PM

The outside light thing has other costs as well: light pollution is making it harder for astronomers (not to mention us civilians) to see the night sky. I seem to recall some research as well, which suggested that low-level outdoor lighting was actually better, in terms of anti-crime safety, than bright lighting which creates deep shadows....

I'm hoping some engineering/science types can actually answer some of these questions, though.

Posted by: Ahistoricality at April 7, 2006 11:31 PM

I tried the "permanent" filter thing for coffee and ended up going back to the compromise of unbleached coffee filters. And my outdoor light is a fluorescent bulb, as are most of my indoor lights.

For the car wash, I buy gas at a place with a car wash, so I pay them the $4 and drive on through, getting only the basic wash.

I refuse, however, to unplug my appliances when they're not in use. Too many of them have clocks and programming that I'm absolutely unwilling to re-do every day.

Posted by: Dail at April 8, 2006 07:59 AM

I had the same experience with public transport. My 20 minute drive turned into 90 minutes of busing, and at least twice the milage. Recognizing that the bus will run whether I'm on it or not, do I really save energy that way?

Posted by: Walter at April 8, 2006 01:27 PM

The new compact florescence daylight bulbs are great - less money, less hassle, better light.

Old cloth diapers are the best cleaning rags going and you can get them at thrift stores. They do a better job.

Always use car washes. They have to deal with waste water treatment, while the hose in the parking lot runs everything into the storm drains.

If we had public transit like they have in Europe, I would use it because it is cheaper and faster than a car. In the US they just don't understand how to design a system that doesn't take at least twice as long to get where you want to go.

Posted by: Bryan at April 8, 2006 10:15 PM

It's not so much a problem of lack of understanding, but of demographics. Here in Denver, like many American cities, the population is dispersed. Public transport works just fine in the immediate downtown area, but out in the scattered suburbs buses run far between and empty most of the day. There's really no design solution to that problem.

Posted by: Walter at April 9, 2006 09:34 AM

Public transport works just fine in the immediate downtown area, but out in the scattered suburbs buses run far between and empty most of the day. There's really no design solution to that problem.

Actually, there is, but it's a zoning issue more than anything else. Having permitted and even abetted the creation of suburban sprawl, governments are often loath to take the actual actions necessary. One that did was London, which imposed a "use fee" on all vehicles entering downtown: immediately cut down on traffic, raised public transport ridership, etc.

It's basic economics, which sometimes works in our favor.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 9, 2006 05:08 PM

Goodness, what a lot of comments.

Okay, responses in order:

Jonathan - I've heard that cloth is better, of course, but I hadn't considered the "treated water" issue. Of course, we haven't addressed what happens to the waste that results from 'treating' water. Those are all pollutants and it's in a very concentrated form.

Posted by: Anne at April 10, 2006 10:03 PM

Ahistoricality - My building does use low-level fluuorescents that are supposed to save energy. But I maintain that those giant sticker-bushes that used to surround the base of the building were probably a better theft-deterrent than anything else. I miss those bushes (even though I don't live on the first floor).

Irritatingly enough, the only one they haven't cut down is the one that covers over half the sidewalk and forces people to walk in the vehicle traffic lane to get to the front door.

Posted by: Anne at April 10, 2006 10:05 PM

Bryan - Again, good point about water treatment plants. (And a good tip on the cleaning cloths, thanks.)

Walter - You unquestionably do save energy using public transport. You not only save the gas your own car would use, but you cut down on wear and tear on your vehicle, making it last longer.

Posted by: Anne at April 10, 2006 10:07 PM

Jonathan - All that "fee" system does is punish the drivers who are, after all, only trying to get to work.

Cramming 50 people onto a bus instead of 5 doesn't change the basic fact that the bus takes over an hour and a half to get downtown when you can drive it in forty minutes. People have lives. It seems a bit harsh to say people should spend an extra two hours a day to go to and from work. Especially parents wanting to be with their kids after school or something.

I'm willing to spend extra time going to and from work if it means I can use public transport, but look at the facts. I spend 9 hours a day at the office already. (Like many of us, I eat lunch and my desk and frequently keep on working.) Right now, my commute adds an hour and twenty minutes to that, for a total of 10 hours and 20 minutes. If I move to public transport, that's over half of every individual day, or almost 62 hours a week.

(I'm looking forward to what Denver's Light Rail system turns out to be like. That's a real public transport solution. One that moves on its own tracks, instead of adding to the congestion on city streets. As I understand it, my commute via Light Rail would be under an hour each way. I can do that, even if it does mean I still have to drive to the Light Rail station every day.)

Posted by: Anne at April 10, 2006 10:22 PM


Actually, the fee does considerably more than "penalize" drivers. It generates revenue, shifting the true cost of road maintenance, etc., to users. It reduces congestion, which should reduce travel times for buses (which are particularly vulnerable to congestion, being stuck with fixed routes) and drivers willing to pay the fee. It raises bus ridership so that route frequency goes up (which makes them easier to use) and express buses (which reduces travel time) and light rail (I love light rail, trolley, commuter train and subway systems; buses should only be used for short distance intra-urban travel) become economically viable.

The increased travel times should also decrease the value of sprawled suburban living conditions, promoting higher-density (also more energy efficient in other ways, not to mention less environmental footprint) development.

The microprocessor revolution -- laptops, palmtops, mp3 players, etc. -- makes it possible to use public transport time much more efficiently than driving time; not all the "extra" time is "lost" time.

It also makes "flex time" and "digital commuting" more viable, which can be a great boon to the families you mention.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 11, 2006 02:16 PM

Jonathan -

I'm not debating that it raises money for the government. That goes, I think, without saying. And I don't doubt that eventually public transport would improve, although I do doubt that any money raised from these fees will be sufficent to cover more than a tiny fraction of what's needed to fund such improvements.

No doubt the "small government" crowd who objects to paying for education, health care, and social security will find it in their hearts to approve raising taxes to pay for these expansions.

In the meantime, who's going to explain to the mother who is missing two hours a day of time with her rapidly developing two-year old that it's all going to be fabulous in ten years?

Who's going to make the father who can no longer get home in time to see his daughter's basketball games see that he's not being penalized for decades of someone else's poor civic planning?

The microprocessor revolution -- laptops, palmtops, mp3 players, etc. -- makes it possible to use public transport time much more efficiently than driving time; not all the "extra" time is "lost" time.

Your suggestion is that we should all work an extra two hours a day? (If you'd suggested we all use the time to read an improving book or learn a second language, I wouldn't be frowning at you right now.)

(Flex time is a nice concept, but many people have jobs that simply have to be done in the office.)

Posted by: Anne at April 11, 2006 06:35 PM

(If you'd suggested we all use the time to read an improving book or learn a second language, I wouldn't be frowning at you right now.)

That's exactly what I was suggesting. (though I was thinking more about writing, e-mail, blogging, audio-books, podcasts (NPR's getting good at that), making digital art, sorting pictures, and generally having fun, though good books and language tapes are fine, too)

And fathers miss their children, too. In fact, I'm going home. By car.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 11, 2006 09:42 PM

Well, I'm still considering public transport.

I don't know about audio entertainment. Past experience suggests that the ambient noise from a bus means you'd have to have the volume loud enough to damage your eardrums, but friends assure me that earphone technology has solved that problem.

I do, however, look forward to the idea of having some extra reading time. Magazines, books, anything from my ever-growing to-be-read pile.

Posted by: Anne at April 12, 2006 08:22 PM

Anne: it occured to me, after my last post, that we've had this argument before. I have a tendency to emphasize structural issues and long-term solutions; you focus more on the immediate problems and people; we talk past each other sometimes.

Happy Passover!

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 13, 2006 03:39 AM

Heh. I was thinking that last night myself.

As usual, I agree with your solutions in broad and in concept. However, I can't fully support them unless there's some short-term alleviaton of the immediate problems included.

Posted by: Anne at April 13, 2006 08:10 AM

Which is why you're so much more electable than I am....

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 13, 2006 02:56 PM

Or maybe it's just another sign that I want everything, and I want it now. :)

Anyhow, too much short-term thinking is what got us into this mess.

Posted by: Anne at April 13, 2006 08:15 PM