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Archive for the ‘Live’ Category

Not all foods are created (climate) equal. Reference: EWG 2011

Ever wonder how much it matters to eat locally produced organic foods? From a climate change standpoint, turns out what you put on your plate matters a lot more than where it came from. Specifically, avoiding lamb and beef (+ other red meats) will score you the most climate brownie points. This is partly because sheep and cows are not particularly efficient at converting the vegetable protein they eat into animal protein in their muscles (so you need a lot of grain to produce a little bit of lamb and beef). But another important factor is the fact that sheep and cows are ruminant mammals, which during food digestion produce large amounts of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than CO2.

Since dairy products also come from ruminants, they suffer the same methane emissions problem, though to a lesser degree which varies depending on the type of dairy product. Cheese looks a lot worse than yogurt and milk, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which fashioned the spiffy graph you see above.

A study out of Carnegie Mellon University compared eating local to eating less red meat, and concluded that “shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” Yes, that’s all locally sourced food, as in everything you eat (bananas and coffee included) comes from your friendly farmer down the road.

We point this out not because we don’t love the ethos behind local and organic as much as your average treehugger. There are still plenty of compelling reasons to eat local and organic, like reduced chemical pesticide and fertilizer use, building community, supporting your local farmers, and becoming more connected to your food. Organic farming does have climate benefits, which can come from eliminating chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) and no-till cultivation techniques that enhance carbon storage in the soil. The Carnegie study also showed that eating local can have significant climate benefits, but since only 11% of the climate impact of food comes from transportation, there’s not a whole lot of room for improvement.

So you don’t have to become vegetarian overnight, but if you fancy yourself a mealtime climate warrior then cutting back on your red meat intake should rise high on your to-do list. You can join the “Meat Free Monday” movement, or (if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious) become a “Weekday Vegetarian.” Regardless of where you live, typing “vegetarian” into Yelp will find great options down the street, and that magical system of tubes called the Internet is also awash with advice and recipes for cutting down on meat without your taste-buds skipping a beat.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A few tips to ensure our world doesn’t come to an end this year.

We’re not really the gloom and doom types, so despite what some apocalypse-happy interpreters of the Maya calendar may say, we’re pretty sure our wonderful world didn’t come to an end in 2012. More likely this 3rd rock from the Sun is sticking around for at least the next 7 billion years, all the more reason to make it a more pleasant place to reside. Resolutions in 2013? We’ve got too many, but (keeping in theme) here are 13 to kick off the new year and round out a baker’s dozen. Unless noted otherwise, numbers below are based on calculations from UC Berkeley.

1) Eat What You Buy, Buy Only What You’ll Eat (or Compost)

The average American family throws away $2,100 worth of (what was once) perfectly delicious food each year, according to NRDC. All that wasted food annually sums to a tremendous amount of wasted resources: 25% of all freshwater, 4% of US oil consumption, $90 billion in economic losses, and 31 million tons of landfill waste (which releases the potent greenhouse gas methane as it degrades). If that moldy can of cranberry sauce has truly transcended the bounds of edibility, toss it in the compost bin instead of the trash (which won’t revive the wasted resources, but will significantly reduce methane emissions).

2) Become a “Weekday Vegetarian”

We’ve written before about how meat makes up the largest part of food’s footprint for most of us. So the less (red) meat (and dairy) you eat, the better your dinner looks for the planet. If you don’t already have vegan tendencies, start with meatless Mondays and work your way up to become a weekday vegetarian, which allows you to eat as omnivorously as you please over the weekend. Besides cutting support for inhumane factory farms, weekday vegetarianism should save you over $1,000 and ~2 tons of CO2 per year.

3) Live Close to Work (&/or Telecommute)

The closer you live to your place of employment the better it is for all of us: you waste less time commuting, save energy, save money, and contribute less to congestion. So live within walking or biking distance of the office, if possible, or scheme up ways to telecommute. If you can’t cut out your fuel-fueled commute entirely, carpooling and public transportation are the next best things. Here are some tips to help you calculate how your options stack up.

4) Bike for Buns of Steel (& a Better Tomorrow)

That’s right, biking is not only the greenest way to roll around town, it’s also great for your gluteus maximus (and pretty much all your other parts, assuming you can avoid agro taxis, rail ruts, and car doors). Who knows, pushing pedals may even inspire you to become the next Danny MacAskill. If not, you’ll at least look less ridiculous than these guys.

5) Take the Pedal Off the Metal

When you do have to drive, try to resist the hot inner Indycar driver. Cutting down on speeding, excess cargo weight, sudden acceleration and deceleration will save both gas money and break pads (and perhaps your life as well). Just reducing highway cruising speeds from 75 to 65 MPH will save the average driver about $500 and 2 tons of CO2 per year. Properly inflating tires and changing air filters can lop off an additional annual savings of $200 and 0.75 tons of CO2.

6) Cash-in That Clunker (for a Fuel-Sipper)

Upgrading from a car that gets 20 MPG to 35 MPG will save the average driver about $750 and nearly 3 tons of CO2 per year. Really want to blow your neighbors’ minds in a cacophony of cognitive dissonance? Try an electric Hummer HX-T. Euro pop techno music apparently comes standard!

7) Cool Water + Warm Sun = Lasting Laundry

Your clothes really don’t need hot (or even warm) water to clean, thanks to the miracles of modern laundry detergent chemistry (including the best biodegradable brands). That’s good, since washing hot means 90% of the energy in a load of laundry goes to heating water. Then there’s the dryer, another major energy hog. Line drying (either outside, or indoors on a rack) saves not only energy and emissions, it also extends the life of your clothing, avoiding up to $70,000 over 30 years (if you believe estimates from The Daily Green).

8) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

It’s cliche to say, but the less stuff you buy the less of a footprint you leave behind. When you do buy, try to buy reused (Goodwill and Craigslist being great places to start). If you’re not motivated by things like climate change, resource scarcity, and habitat loss for cuddly critters, consider the human cost of making cheap stuff via the Slavery Footprint calculator. Recycling is great too, though many products can only be recycled into lower value materials, so even better to have less to recycle to begin with.

9) Slay Your Energy Vampires

We’ve already warned you that your DVR and satellite/cable box may be sucking more energy than any other appliance in your home (refrigerator included!), even when you think they’re switched off. You may also have plenty of other appliances out there sucking electrons in stand-by mode, adding up to hundreds of dollars of wasted energy. The only real way to stop the energy vampires is by putting everything you can on switchable power strips, which you turn off whenever you’re not putting gizmos to use. There are now even smart strips that cut phantom power to other plugged-in electronics once a controlling device (like a TV or computer) is turned off.

10) Don’t Procrastinate, Insulate (& Go Solar!)

A well-insulated home is a happy home, since over half of home energy use leaks out the cracks. If you really want to upgrade your crib into the green stratosphere, ask your utility about buying green power or put some solar panels on your roof. With prices below $1 per watt, solar PV has never been cheaper, and you can virtually eliminate your home’s carbon footprint with the right set-up. Group buying services like 1BOG can help you get the best deals out there.

11) Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is

If you’re a lucky ducky with a nest egg to hatch, make sure it’s incubating in companies you believe in. We’ve compiled a few tips to help you green your 401(k) portfolio. Give ‘em a gander (or a goose, if you prefer).

12) Take a “Staycation”

The more scientists look at aviation impacts, the less friendly flying looks for the planet. It’s not just CO2 emissions from jet engines that are a problem; high altitude NOx, soot and water vapor also directly contribute to global warming, potentially doubling to quadrupling the impacts from CO2 alone. So a roundtrip flight across the US is at least akin to driving a 15 MPG Chevy Suburban all by your lonesome, or worse. Perhaps a staycation is in order instead? Just kick back, relax, catch up on your blog reading, and enjoy the fruits of your post(poned)-apocalyptic resolutions!

13) Kill Your Catalogs

Each year about 19 billion catalogs are mailed in the US, chopping down 53 million trees and guzzeling 56 billion gallons of wastewater to produce piles of paper that mostly go straight to a recycling bin. Go to catalogchoice.org to stop the madness in your mailbox.

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Dirt cheap solar panel prices and government rebates mean home solar systems can now pay for themselves in a few years (and continue to save you bundles of $ after that). Here’s a graph of solar savings for a typical home in Los Angeles, CA (green means you’re saving money beyond your initial investment).

Once upon a time home solar PV systems were only the playthings of off-the-grid hippies and Hollywood celebrities. But now a dramatic drop in the price of solar has made it a sound investment for nearly all of us (as well as a major win for the environment). This is thanks to a cornucopia of national and local installation incentives, as well as improvements in PV technology, and competition from a massive oversupply from China.

If you live in a sunny part of the U.S., a typical home solar installation will now pay for itself in less than 10 years. Sites like find-solar.org can calculate how quickly solar will payback for you based on your average monthly electricity bill, local incentives, and the amount of sunshine your home receives each year. There are also now a number of companies (like 1BOGReal Goods, Brightstar, and CSS) that will install solar systems for free, provided you sign a contract to purchase power for a fixed period of time (with electricity prices that are still typically cheaper than what you get charged by your utility). It’s also worth checking out crowdfunding platforms that finance solar in both the U.S. (Mosaic) and the developing world (SunFunder).

Of course it takes energy (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) to make solar panels, but with improvements in technology the energy and emissions generally get paid back in carbon-free electricity production in less than 4 years, and future efficiency improvements could decrease this payback period to about a year. So, although the current low solar prices are hard on manufactures, the future for solar has never looked brighter for both the planet and your pocketbook!

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To e-book or not to e-book? It's an open question.

So with iPads and Kindles abounding, what’s the greenest way to read these days?

A (relatively) recent NY Times article by Daniel Goleman and life cycle assessment guru Gregory Norris dug into the question. Turns out it depends on what timeframe you use for your calculations. Any e-reader certainly takes a lot more energy and resources to produce than a book, but when you factor in the fact that a book is limited by the sum of its pages while reading on an e-reader is (almost) infinitely expandable, then an e-reader starts looking greener the more you read.

How much do you need to read to break even? Energy, water, and mineral consumption should balance out after reading 40 to 50 books. However, toxic emissions linked to cancer and other human health concerns don’t register a net improvement until you’ve read ~75 e-books (assuming you’re replacing new book purchases with e-book purchases), and greenhouse gas emissions don’t balance out until you’ve read over 100. Dealing with electronics waste is a particularly vexing problem, though companies like Apple are starting to offer rebates when you turn in your old gizmos for recycling.

So if you’re a voracious devourer of text then an e-reader may win the eco day, but the best pick is probably still a trip to the library, or bumming a good read off a friend. Last time we checked though, our well-worn Harry Potter collection didn’t offer Facebook and HD movies on a plane, so we’re not entirely convinced a spiffy new iPad isn’t still an utmost necessity.

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Example of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) steps for the clothing industry.

You’ll hear us refer to “life cycle assessment” a fair bit here at Oroeco (or LCA, for acronym aficionados). So what exactly is it? In its broadest sense, LCA is the detailed accounting of something you care about related to the existence of a selected product or service. Sometimes also called “life cycle analysis” or ecological “footprinting,” LCA is most frequently applied to environmental indicators, particularly embodied energy, toxic pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. But LCA can also be applied to indicators without direct environmental links, like labor hours or raw material inputs.

LCA is essentially just accounting, but where traditional accounting deals with relatively well-documented costs and revenues, LCA typically requires substantial additional data collection to convert process input-output data into the metric(s) you’ve selected. Methodology details matter, sometimes immensely.  Just as unaccounted costs and revenue can dramatically alter a corporate balance sheet, what goes into (and gets left out of) any LCA can have profound impacts on LCA results and presumed implications.

Why care about LCA? First off, it’s quite hard to improve what you can’t measure. LCA is a powerful tool to get you information about the true impacts from a pair of Levi’s jeans, a carton of Tropicana orange juice, and all sorts of other consumables, impacts that aren’t otherwise apparent. LCA can be great for producers too, because looking closely at a product’s life cycle highlights where energy, water, and other inputs can be saved at each stage of production, either by upgrading to more efficient techniques, or by switching to more sustainable suppliers. These resource savings often also translate to cost savings, which hopefully get passed on to you. These savings, combined with growing consumer scrutiny of the “green labeling” movement, have pushed retail giants like Tesco and Walmart to start requiring LCA data from their suppliers.

The pic above illustrates the life cycle of a clothing product. If you’re interested in the life cycle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions linked with owning a T-shirt, for example, you’d start by calculating all the material and energy inputs (and associated CO2) that go with production of raw materials (e.g. cotton, wool, or oil for synthetic fibers), and then include energy used in manufacturing of intermediate products (like yarn and cloth), clothing assembly, and retail sales. You’d also need to add on all the transportation and packaging energy needed to move stuff between each step. In some LCA calculations, known as “cradle-to-gate” LCA, accounting stops there at the checkout counter. But a complete LCA, known as “cradle-to-grave” or “cradle-to-cradle” LCA, will also include all the energy and material inputs linked to using your T-shirt, as well as what goes into disposal.

The results of LCA can be quite informative, and often surprising. For your T-shirt, chances are the use phase of the life cycle will have the largest climate impact, since you wash and dry your shirts many times before they find their way to the landfill (or Goodwill), with each load of laundry requiring a substantial amount of electricity and/or natural gas (as well as embodied energy in laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, etc.), though you can reduce your use phase impacts by washing with cold water and hanging your clothes to dry. If you care more about toxics than CO2, it’s the pesticide-laden production of cotton that looks particularly incriminating, though that can also be avoided by buying organic.

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Annual CO2 emissions for an average U.S. household (blue = direct; green = indirect). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

For those of us concerned about climate change and other global issues, the challenges can feel overwhelming. Despite solid scientific consensus that our world is warming from fossil fuels and deforestation, there’s been a lot of talk but very little action to foster sustainable solutions and let cooler heads prevail. The sickly state of the global economy has led many to assume we can’t afford to do anything anyway.

But the good news is we don’t need to wait for politicians and corporations to clean up their acts. We can do it ourselves. The power plants, factory farms, timber mills, and industrial smokestacks are all ultimately producing things that we use. While the Oroeco crew aspires to live by the original Golden Rule, there’s also wisdom in its cynical parody: “(s)he who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s your gold that companies are trying to get, so we think you should also be the one making the rules. The power to change things is ultimately in your hands, and your wallet. It’s both a daunting and an empowering revelation.

Which decisions matter most? Well, the answer depends on where you live, what your lifestyle is like, and what you care about. A great place to start (at least as far as climate is concerned) is a study by Chris Jones and Dan Kammen from the CoolClimate Network (a research team based out of University of California, Berkeley). The graph above shows how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (measured in annual metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, mtCO2e) look for an average US household. While transportation and housing represent the largest categories of emissions, it may be surprising that food and other goods and services also have substantial GHG footprints.

What makes the CoolClimate study particularly appealing is that it not only shows where there’s room for improvement, it also illustrates (in the graph below) how saving carbon can end up saving you a lot of money. Some savings can come simply from buying less stuff. Additional savings comes from investing in more efficient products, like energy efficient appliances and a low-carbon diet (e.g. more veggies, less meat). Curious where the most carbon and cash can be saved in your life? Take the CoolClimate carbon calculator out for a spin to get a personalized ranking of the actions which maximize your savings based on your lifestyle.

Average $s saved from CO2 reducing actions (green = diet; yellow = transport; gray = home). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

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