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A sneak peak at Oroeco's spiffy new Dashboard, which automatically tracks your personal climate impacts, compares you with your friends, and gives you personalized tips for saving carbon and money.

A sneak peak at Oroeco’s spiffy new Dashboard, which automatically tracks your personal climate impacts, compares you with your friends, gives customized tips for saving carbon and money, and rewards you and your friends for taking action.

Earth Day 2014 is upon us! We’re marking the auspicious occasion with the launch of Oroeco BETA, the world’s first service that automatically tracks your impacts on climate change, then rewards you and all your friends for taking actions that lead to a happier, healthier planet. The journey has really just begun. Oroeco’s team, advisors and intrepid beta testers have put in long hours to get us where we are now, but Oroeco is still only scratching the surface of the transformative tool for sustainability we think it can be. We’ll always remain a work-in-progress, as we hope to be adding a LOT more functionality and improving your user experience for many years to come.

Whether or not Oroeco puts a dent in climate change really depends on you. We’re only as powerful as the number of you using us, the amount you decide to take meaningful action, and the friends you encourage to do the same. So go ahead, sign up to take us for a spin; then invite all your friends. If you don’t have one already, you’ll also have to create a (free) Mint.com account to get started, and our About page and FAQ will fill in some details about how and why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’d also love to hear your feedback about what you like, what you don’t, and what we should add next to make Oroeco as awesome as can be!

And if you dig Oroeco BETA, stay-tuned for our first awesome mobile app, launching soon(ish)! OK, we’ll get off our self-promotional soapbox now…

We’ve been a bit delinquent about blogging while diving neck-deep into Oroeco’s web app, but we’ll be reentering the blogosphere soon. We’re planning to delve deep into the nitty gritty scientific details of personal sustainability, but we could use your ideas for what you’d like to see us research and write about. So tell us, what burning climate conundrums keep you up at night? Paper or plastic? Trains, planes or automobiles? Cow-fart collectors? We are at your blogging disposal!

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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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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.

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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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Roses are red, violets are blue(ish); our heart is green, and yours can be too(ish).

Want to win the undying affection of that special green someone? If gifts are your style, there are plenty of guides to V-Day green goodies, ranging from fair trade chocolate, to organic wine and sexy bamboo lingerie. Heck, there are even eco sex toy options (jolly green fun for you and/or your significant other)! Of course, as we’ve pointed out before, it takes stuff to make stuff, so the simple gifts that show you care through craft and prose are often are best at expressing your love for both your beau and the planet (call us cheesy, but it’s true).

Activities and services are generally greener than products too, so go ahead and book that massage and take that long walk on the beach (provided you don’t fly half way around the world to get there). If you absolutely must take that romantic getaway to Micronesia, consider at least calculating and offsetting your carbon sins. And try not to get so liquored up on mai tais that you inadvertently bring a bundle of joy into the world. Turns out babies are the least green thing of all (though we still think they’re cute… at least when they’re not screaming, releasing bodily fluids, and belching GHGs).

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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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