Comments: It's Not Easy, Being Green

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