Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dumb eco-questions you were afraid to ask

[Especially note the very last question/answer. Seattle has recently outlawed the use of plastic bags (if I understand it correctly). Turns out to be a complicated isssue than we thought.] Joan R. Saks Berman, Ph.D.

New Scientist offers the definitive guide to everything you wanted to know about being green but were too embarrassed to ask!

If I switch the light on and off every time I enter and leave a room, does this use more energy than leaving it on all evening?

Switching the light on and off does saves energy, but there is a catch. Every time you flip the switch, the bulb takes a jolt of electricity, which shortens its life. Studies by the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, found that turning low-energy compact fluorescent bulbs on and off at frequent intervals can shorten their lifespan by as much as 75 per cent. The institute's director of energy utilisation, Tom Reddoch, suggests leaving energy-saving bulbs on if you will be out of the room for less than 15 minutes.

How clean does the pizza box have to be for it to be recyclable? Likewise cans and bottles

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), based in Banbury, UK, pizza boxes are often not recyclable. That's because grease from the toppings contaminates the cardboard, making it useless to paper mills - though it can still be composted. Such impregnation is not a problem when it comes to cans and bottles. Nevertheless, they should be rinsed to remove food remnants so as not to attract vermin.. Plastic should also be clean, and lids removed from bottles so they can be squashed flat. WRAP recommends rinsing waste items in old washing-up water to save energy.

Are laminated juice cartons recyclable?

Yes - but only if you separate them out. Placing cartons lined with polyethylene or aluminium foil into your ordinary paper recycling devalues the load and, depending on the mill it reaches, may mean it ends up in landfill. However, the drinks carton industry has taken steps to recover their product for recycling. In the UK, manufacturers have funded a local collection scheme. The empty drinks cartons are shipped in bulk to a processing mill in Sweden, which turns the fibre into plasterboard lining while burning the plastic and aluminium to fuel the plant.

What's the most fuel-efficient way to drive?

Smoothly. Avoid dramatic braking and acceleration and use cruise control if you've got it. Move through the gears as quickly as possible, changing up before you hit 2500 revs per minute (2000 rpm for a diesel). Where possible, drive at a steady 55 miles per hour (90 kilometres per hour). It is up to 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than driving at 75 mph. Check your tyre pressure once a month because underinflated tyres can raise fuel consumption by 6 per cent. Don't carry excess baggage. Each extra 25 kilograms decreases fuel efficiency by 1 per cent. And avoid short trips - a cold engine uses twice as much fuel as a warm one.

Is it worth recycling when stuff gets shipped to China and back in the process? Given the carbon footprint of all that, maybe we should just let the stuff rot

With recycling rates going through the roof, some countries don't have the capacity to process all their waste. In the past 10 years, for example, waste paper exports from the UK have risen from 470,000 tonnes to 4.7 million tonnes per year and exports of used plastic bottles have gone from under 40,000 to 500,000 tonnes. China has a big demand for both materials, and its trade imbalance with Europe and the US means container ships would be heading home empty if they didn't carry waste. According to a recent study by WRAP, shipping waste to China in this way uses 10 per cent of the carbon saved by recycling.

Can I save the planet by staying slim?

It's unlikely. In May, Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine did link obesity and global warming (The Lancet, vol 371, p 1661). They argued that obese people consume around 18 per cent more calories than the average and their greater mass means their vehicles require more fuel, so policies to encourage walking and cycling would not only improve people's health but also be good for the planet. Perhaps such policies would provide short-term benefits, but in the long run they would be more than offset by the fact that people who stay in shape are likely to live longer, emitting tonnes of CO2 for every extra year of their lives. So being slim may be good for you, but is unlikely to benefit the planet.

What's worse, the CO2 put out by a gas-fuelled car or the environmental effects of hybrid-car batteries?

According to the UK-based Environmental Transport Association (ETA), the most efficient conventionally powered cars are slightly less detrimental to the environment than hybrid models. However, it points out that the current crop of hybrids won't evolve without customers willing to invest in what is still frontier technology.

What is recycled organic waste used for?

There are three main uses. Treated aerobically, organic waste is composted to produce soil conditioner or landscaping mulch, returning carbon to the soil. Under anaerobic conditions, it can be digested by bacteria to produce methane, used to generate electricity. Through a combination of biological and mechanical processes, it is also turned into fuel that can substitute for coal or coke in power stations or cement kilns.

If I offset my flights, can I fly as much as I want?

Yes. And no. Offsetting can work but it is based on a series of untestable assumptions. One of these is that offsetting activities, such as planting trees or installing energy-efficient light bulbs, wouldn't have happened otherwise. "We can't prove that," says Paul Hooper of the Centre for Air Transport and the Environment at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Another problem is the huge variability in the schemes. Different carbon calculators cough out wildly different emissions figures for the same flight, and the cost of offsetting a tonne of CO2 ranges from about £2 to about £18 depending on how it is done. "It's a minefield," says Hooper. His advice is to use the carbon calculator provided by the International Civil Aviation Organization and then offset your flight with a UN-certified scheme. Better yet, he says, don't fly in the first place.

If I'm stuck in a stop-start traffic jam, do I use more petrol turning my car on and off repeatedly or leaving it running?

Unless you are certain you won't have to pull away at short notice, the inconvenience and tiny amounts of fuel involved make stopping and restarting the engine hardly worthwhile. The UK Automobile Association (AA) recommends switching off if you are likely to be stopped more than 3 minutes. Technology is already providing a better solution, though. Recognising that many hours of urban driving are spent at a standstill, several car manufacturers have started to introduce so-called "stop-start" technology. In fact, Volkswagen recently mothballed plans for a hybrid car, preferring to invest in stop-start technology on its standard models to achieve fuel efficiency savings of between 10 and 15 per cent in urban traffic.

Can I put window envelopes in the paper recycling?

Envelopes are tricky devils to recycle because of their transparent plastic address windows and sticky seals. Latex gum from self-sealing envelopes clogs machines, and plastic degrades recycled paper quality. Both have to be extracted. However, different paper mills have different tolerances to contaminants, depending on their cleaning equipment, the product being made, and the grade of recovered paper being recycled. That's why recycling agencies have differing standards. In the UK, you can check whether your local authority will accept any type of envelope by using the postcode checker at Otherwise, you'll have to remove the window and the gum before recycling - or simply reuse your envelopes.

How long does it take for a micro-windmill to pay for itself?

That depends on where you live and what you mean by paying for itself. Last year the UK Building Research Establishment compared the payback times of different turbines in different locations. In inshore urban settings, it found wind turbines produce such puny amounts of juice that they struggle to recoup their cost and, after allowing for manufacturing and distribution, end up costing more carbon than they save. On the coast it's different. The study showed a turbine at Wick in the Scottish Highlands generated 3000 kilowatt-hours a year, about 40 per cent of an average household's needs. Payback time for the investment could be as little as a year.

Is it better to buy an eco-friendly car, with all the energy that is needed to produce it, or just run my old one into the ground?

According to the ETA, when the average new car leaves the showroom, its manufacture, design and marketing have accounted for up to 6 tonnes of CO2 emissions. "Nevertheless, swapping a thirsty and polluting older car for a lighter, more fuel-efficient model makes environmental sense," says Yannick Read of the ETA. But, he adds, gains made from exchanging a five-year-old family car with a similar-sized, brand-new model are likely to be negligible.

Will washing my clothes at 30 °C really get them clean?

If the reaction of consumers is anything to go by, washing powders formulated for use at lower temperatures do work. In a 2006 study by the UK's Energy Saving Trust, 89 per cent of families who had been asked to test Ariel at 30 °C said they would continue using it. Likewise, while only 2 per cent of UK households were washing at 30 °C in 2002, five years later that figure was up to 17 per cent. Meanwhile in Germany, where people have traditionally used lower washing settings than in the UK, they are turning down to 20 °C, and in North America growing numbers are doing their laundry in cold water. Unfortunately, there are some nasties that low temperatures may not remove. Researchers from the University of Seoul, South Korea, found that washing with biological detergent at 30 °C only killed 6 per cent of dust mites, compared with 100 per cent at 60 °C, and leaves traces of other allergens, including pollen grains and dog skin cells. The global detergent manufacturer Unilever, which has been keen to promote the eco-message, still advises customers to run one wash per week at 40 °C to ensure bacteria don't have a chance to grow in the machine and cause unpleasant smells.

Why can't the machines in my gym be used to generate electricity?

They can. The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon, which opened in August, is the first in the US to convert the efforts of gym bunnies into electricity. Its three specially adapted bikes and the four-person "Team Dynamo", which combines cycles with hand cranks, can generate up to 1000 watts. What's more, you can emulate them in your own home by investing in a Pedal-A-Watt. When hooked up to a normal bicycle on a stand, this device allows a cyclist to generate up to 200 watts of electricity. That's enough to power a large TV while you go. Or you can store the energy you produce in a battery and use it later. An hour's worth of cycling could power a low-energy light bulb for 8 hours.

Does switching from bus to bike really have any effect? After all, cycling isn't completely carbon neutral because I've got to eat to fuel my legs

You are much better off cycling. A 12-kilometre round commute on a bus or subway train is reckoned to generate 164 kilograms of carbon per commuter per year. Somebody cycling that distance would burn about 50,000 calories a year - roughly the amount of energy in 22 kilograms of brown bread. A kilo of brown bread has a carbon footprint of about 1.1 kilograms, so switching from public transport to a bike saves about 140 kilograms of carbon emissions per year. Although this only really works if enough people cycle to allow public transport providers to reduce the number of buses and trains they run.

Is a full commercial plane more fuel-efficient over long distances than a car?

Not if the car is also full. Consider this. EasyJet, which claims to be 30 per cent more fuel efficient than other carriers, largely because it packs in more people, calculates that on an average flight each passenger accounts for 957 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, compared with 164 grams for someone travelling by car. That flight will be around 80 per cent full, so the figure would fall to 76 grams per person if every seat were taken. What's more, most EasyJet flights are either short or medium haul, making them one-third less efficient than long-haul flights (over 4000 kilometres) Long-haul flights could bring the figure down to around 50 grams per passenger. However, using EasyJet's own figures, a full car would produce just 41 grams of CO2 per kilometre for each of its four passengers. So cars win no matter what the distance - although clearly planes have the edge when travelling over water.

If I turn my appliances off but don't unplug them will they still use up some electricity?

No. And that applies even if the plug is switched on or if the socket has no on/off switch. The exceptions are appliances with a standby mode, which include most battery chargers. As a rule of thumb, if there is a light on, a clock ticking or the transformer feels warm, it is using electricity. And that can be a substantial proportion of the amount the appliances consumes when in use. A television set-top box, for example, uses around 18 watts while it is on and almost 17 watts on standby.

Does it really take more energy to recycle an aluminium can than to make a new one?

No, absolutely not. According to Alcoa, the world's third-largest aluminium producer, manufacturing a can from recycled aluminium uses only 5 per cent of the energy of making one from scratch - an energy saving that could power a 100-watt bulb for 4 hours.

What is the single most effective thing I can do for the environment?

Over a 75-year lifespan, the average European will be responsible for about 900 tonnes of CO2 emissions. For Americans and Australians, the figure is more like 1500 tonnes. Add to that all of humanity's other environmentally damaging activities and, draconian as it may sound, the answer must surely be to avoid reproducing.

How environmentally damaging is barbecuing?

Tristram West from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has calculated that on 4 July - when over half of all American households fire up their barbies - the grills release 225,000 tonnes of CO2. The emissions from these estimated 60 million barbecues would still be less than 1.5 per cent of the nation's daily output. Not too high a price to pay for a whole lot of fun, you might think. However, West also points out that this is equivalent to burning 2300 acres of forest. He says that if you do choose to barbecue, the most eco-friendly method is to use charcoal as opposed to the propane burners favoured by most Americans. Food grilled over charcoal made from locally grown coppiced wood may actually have a smaller carbon footprint than if it were cooked conventionally, since sustainably grown wood is carbon neutral and transport is minimised.

When and how is the most energy-efficient way to defrost my fridge-freezer, and is a self-defrosting fridge more eco-friendly?

The frost in your freezer forms when warm air condenses and freezes on the cooling coils. Self-defrosting fridges generally use more energy than manual models because their coils are automatically heated every few hours to melt any frost that forms on them. But a manual-defrost fridge is only better if you defrost it before the frost starts to take over, because the coils have to work harder to cool the air if they are covered in ice. How often you need to defrost depends on how often you open the door and the humidity of the air. As a general rule though, you should defrost when the ice gets to 5 millimetres thick. The best way to do this is to turn off the freezer, put pans of hot water inside to speed up melting, and then remove the big bits of ice with a plastic scraper.

What does the circling-arrows logo on European packaging mean?

Hands up everyone who thinks the small, round symbol of two arrows circling each other means that packaging can be recycled. Wrong! In fact, this so-called "green dot", or "grĂ¼ner punkt" - which is often printed in black - originated in Germany and indicates that the manufacturer has paid into a scheme to meet the general costs of recycling under the terms of European Union legislation. So particular packaging bearing the logo may or may not be recyclable. In countries such as the UK that have not adopted the system, the logo is especially perplexing, as its use appears quite arbitrary. "We typically deal with multinational suppliers that often sell the same product in multiple countries and therefore include things on packaging that may be irrelevant in one of those markets," explains Katherine Symonds of the supermarket chain Tesco. Recognising that this can lead to confusion, she says Tesco has now established a working group with other retailers to make labelling "clearer and more intuitive".

What's greener, paper/cardboard or plastic packaging?

Many people choose paper over plastic, figuring that being renewable, degradable and recyclable, it is probably the greener option. In reality it's not quite that simple. Paper is heavier and bulkier to ship than plastic, takes more energy to produce and uses damaging chemicals in its manufacture. Overall, the best packaging choice is the one that has the least total impact over its life - from raw materials and shipping emissions to toxicity and waste - and that depends on where it comes from and what you plan to do with it. Consumers often don't have the required information to work out this trade-off but there are some things to keep in mind. Check whether the paper or plastic has already been recycled, and whether you can reuse or recycle it. Also, if you tend to avoid packaging altogether, consider this: if it reduces the chances of a product perishing or breaking before it can be used then it is almost always better to have packaging than not. Just choose products with the smallest amount possible.

a.. From issue 2682 of New Scientist magazine, page 36-42.

No comments: