Can gifts be green beyond the wrapping?

‘Tis the season to buy copious quantities of glorious gifts (many of which will promptly land in a closet or Goodwill donation bin). But before you pepper spray yourself to the front of the shopping frenzy, what’s the best way to make both your loved ones and the planet feel warm and squishy inside?

There are a plethora of products marketing themselves as green, as well as sites with green shopping tips for everyone on your list, but even green(er) stuff still generally takes lots more stuff to make it. In theory, a well-picked present could make the recipient’s life greener, particularly if it’s something that saves water or energy. For the gizmo geeks in your life, energy-saving power strips, LED lights and watt meters can make spiffy little bundles of negawatts.

If you don’t think a low-flow showerhead will put a twinkle in Grandma’s eye, you can always cut out the supply chain by employing your own crafty or culinary talents. Or you can just pretend you’re crafty and buy something off Etsy (though, as with food, often doesn’t mean lower impact). Then there’s the vintage route, which cuts out all the production impacts from making new stuff (and rebirths treasures the world really shouldn’t live without, like Mr. T Water War).

But even lovingly crafted goodies take resources to concoct, and The Economist tells us a lot of our gifts aren’t really wanted (our homemade jam collection dates back to 1974!). So unless you gift wisely you’re wasting money, time and resources. Perhaps then a donation is the greenest gift you can give, with plenty of stupendous social and enviro orgs out there, like Kiva and NRDC. Heck, you could even buy offsets for Grandma’s carbon footprint from folks like TerraPass (for those of you who believe in such things).

Of course you’ll always have the Grinches, who insist you don’t gift them anything. And you’ll probably gift something anyway, stubborn treehugger that you are. We suggest a poem or interpretive dance performance. Or a large can of Defense Technology 56895 MK-9 Stream to keep the holiday cheer at bay.

Keep cozy without your energy $s leaking out the window.

The average American family spends about $1,900 per year on home energy bills. Much of that goes out the window, quite literally. According to the Department of Energy, over half of home energy is wasted in inefficient appliance and under-insulated abodes. On the bright side, most efficiency improvements will pay for themselves quickly, and save you loads of cash in the long run. And there are plenty of free home energy assessment tools out there for owners and renters alike, as well as billions of dollars worth of state and federal incentives.

Heating & cooling make up the largest slices of the home energy pie.

A great place to start is the Home Energy Saver site, which will help you do a detailed home energy audit, then connect up with tax credits, rebates, and financing for efficiency upgrades. There’s also EnergySavers.gov, which has handy tips for greening both your home and your ride. Suggestions range from big investments (replacing windows and adding insulation), to quick fixes that pay for themselves in less than a year (or immediately), like weatherstripping, turning down your water heater, and slashing ~$200 per year off the vampiric tendencies of undead electronics with a power strip diet. If you prefer to be in the hands of a startup instead of government researchers, take a look at WattzOn, which hooks you up with personalized home efficiency and cash incentive suggestions.

Dear Not-So-White House, what’s the R-value of bulletproof glass?

If you want to go the high tech route, you can also take a thermal image of your personal palace with an infrared camera, which will give a stark visual of where heat leaks out while Jack Frost is nipping at your nose (which happen to be the same spots where heat sneaks in during the summertime). As a bonus, renting a thermographic camera will help you investigate paranormal activity, as well as spy on Obama’s R-values.

Undead DVRs!

A vampire lurks in your DVR! (and cable/satellite box too!)

Which appliance consumes the most power in your home? The refrigerator? The washer, dryer, or TV? The culprit may be a much less imposing energy beast, if you (like over 80% of Americans) have a DVR and set-top cable or satellite box. That’s right, those seemingly innocuous glowing little boxes can combine to suck more electricity than an Energy Star refrigerator, according to a study by NRDC.

The ~160 million DVRs and set-top boxes in the US now drain about $3 billion worth of electricity per year, the equivalent of nine 500 MW coal-fired power plants. That’s more power than used by the entire state of Maryland! And the real kicker is that 2/3 of that energy is consumed when these devices are supposedly “off.” Unfortunately, these little buggers never really die: the lights may go off, but they’re still sucking over 90% what they would while on. And that power drain happens 24/7, 365 days a year. Thus, an HD DVR typically consumes more power than the TV it’s connected to.

So the trick-or-treaters may be long gone from your doorstep, but you’ve still got some big energy vampires lurking in the darkness. The good news is that Buffy [the vampire slayer] is now on the way via a new EPA Energy Star 3.0 standard that mandates substantial improvements over the 2.0 version, and the cable industry (which owns most boxes) recently announced voluntary efficiency measures after all the bad press. But the only way to truly curb your boxy vampires’ appetite is to put them on a power strip that you switch off when you’re not watching TV or recording Buffy reruns. Or join the hipster kids and just stream it all online.

Green Your Ride

A sexy green Tesla Roadster won’t save you $, but plenty of other eco autos will.

Need a whiff of new car smell in your life? Wondering how auto options shake out for both your pocketbook and the planet? Well, your tax dollars have funded a handy tool to help you green your wheels. Coming courtesy of EPA and DOE, fueleconomy.gov allows you to compare how different models stack up in terms of operating cost, gasoline consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The site includes electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, so you can see that an all-electric Nissan Leaf will cost about $600 per year in fuel, compared with ~$1200/yr for a Toyota Prius hybrid, and ~$1,600/yr for a basic Honda Civic (based on average US gas prices and 15,000 miles per year, which you can personalize). Greenhouse gas emissions are a bit trickier to compare for electric vs. gasoline guzzlers, since there’s wide state by state variation in carbon emission intensity for electricity. So a Leaf may be neon green in Seattle (which gets most of its power from hydro and other renewables), but turn a much muddier color when driven in West Virginia (which still relies almost exclusively on coal to make electrons flow).

Don’t want to drop bling on a new ride? Fueleconomy.gov includes used cars too, so you can see how your old pickup performs alongside that sweet vintage Mustang on craigslist. Or, if you’re happy with what you’ve got, you can also check out tips for improving gas mileage (and saving money), like driving more efficiently and keeping your tires inflated (which can save $0.10 per gallon).

Waste Not, Want Not

Up to 40% of food is wasted on its way to your plate.

We’ve already blogged about how eating less red meat and cheese does more to reduce the environmental impacts of your diet than eating all local and organic. Turns out there’s an even easier way to green up your groceries: only buy what you’ll actually eat. A new study by NRDC estimates that up to 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, which includes waste at the farm, supermarket, in your fridge, and scrapped off your plate. All this rotten rubbish adds up to a tremendous waste of resources each year: 25% of all freshwater used in U.S.; 4% of total U.S. oil consumption; $165 billion in food costs; $750 million just to dispose of the food; and 33 million tons of landfill waste (leading to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas ~25 times more potent than CO2).

While part of the problem lies with inefficiencies in our food production and distribution infrastructure, which could be rectified with some government intervention, the good news is that you can also be a big part of the solution. Only buy and cook what you’ll eat and don’t shun imperfect produce (that’s still perfectly edible) and you’ll go a long way towards improving the efficiency of the whole system. Efficient eating is made extra enticing by the fact you’ll even save money in the process. And perhaps you’ll also avoid packing on pounds from polishing off overly-plentiful plates, a win for both the wallet and the waistline!

To LED or not to LED?

LED lighting is getting cheaper, "warmer", and more efficient. Time to switch?

An offshoot of the semiconductor industry, LED lighting technology is already abundant in our lives, from traffic lights to flat screen TVs and computer displays. That’s because LEDs produce are about 10 times more efficient than conventional incandescent lighting, and they can last up to 100 times longer, equating to substantial energy, cost and eco impact savings over time.

So is it time to re-illuminate your home sweet home? The downside is that LEDs still aren’t cheap, with standard socket LED bulbs costing anywhere from $5 to over $50. LEDs have also struggled a bit matching the “warm” light put off by incandescents, the same problem faced by compact florescent lamps (CFLs) when they first hit the market. But LED prices are coming down quickly, while both efficiency and light quality are improving. The typical LED is now twice as efficient as a CFL, and takes roughly the same amount of energy to manufacture. LEDs also last 2 to 3 times longer, and they’re better than CFLs at dimming (“dimmable” CFLs still tend to flicker, while LEDs are better at maintaining smooth illumination and color temperature, though some brands still have kinks to work out). LEDs also have a leg up on CFLs in that they don’t contain mercury, a toxic component of all CFLs that subjects users to special recycling and breakage clean-up recommendations.

If you’re ready to dive into the future of light, sites like Amazon are of course awash with LED options. Beyond price, pay close attention to customer ratings, “dimmable” claims (if you need dimming), and color temperature (2,700-3,300 K will match standard incandescent lighting, while higher numbers mean a “cooler” color). The EPA award-winning Light Bulb Finder app is a great way to quickly see how options stack up, and there are a number of fabulous online calculators out there that estimate how LED when investments will payback and start turning a profit (vs. both CFLs and incandescents). When both energy savings and longer bulb life are factored in, replacing an incandescent with a $25 LED should save you at least $150 over the 25-year life of a frequently used LED bulb, and if you’re willing to get a bit more creative with your lighting you can save even more.

Bottled Water Blues

Bottled water keeps selling BS by the billions.

At about $100 billion in 2010 global sales, projected to rise to $125 billion by 2015, bottled water is big business. The average American consumed over 28 gallons of the stuff in 2010, which starts looking low compared to an average German (34 gallons) or an average Mexican (64 gallons). But is that H2O in a bottle any better than what comes out of the tap? Well, first there’s the fact that you’re paying between 240 and 10,000 times the price you’d pay for the same quantity of tap water, despite the fact that over 25% of bottled water is actually just repackaged tap, and the bottled stuff is less regulated (and therefore often more contaminated) than fluid that flows out of your kitchen sink.

Then there’s the environmental footprint of making a bottle plus trucking that bottle around for your consumptive convenience. A 2006 Pacific Institute study estimated that just producing the bottles for water sold in the US consumed the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil, emitted more than 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gas, and wasted 2 liters of water in the production process for every one liter that ended up on store shelves (and that’s NOT counting refrigeration and transportation energy). Of course these bottles can be recycled, but about 75% of them still end up in a landfill, and (as any enviro-hip elementary school student will tell you) it’s better to reduce and reuse to render that third “R” unnecessary. Adding it all up, the environmental footprint of bottled water is over 1000 times greater than running the tap.

But that refreshing bottled stuff tastes better, right? According to a highly unscientific televised study by renowned investigators (Penn & Teller), over 75% of people in a blind taste test preferred New York tap water (out of a hose) over “premium” bottled brands. So better taste is probably more in your head than on your tongue, and brands that claim otherwise are likely selling a load of BS (which, given the lax FDA oversight of the bottled water industry, bacteria from that BS may even end up in your cup). So forgo the bottles of blues, and equip yourself with a groovy green refillable canteen.


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