Category Archives: Green Living

Sustainable Off-grid Homes

Notwithstanding the references to “poisoned city water” and terrorists, this is an excellent video that demonstrates the integration of sustainable practices and technologies to create a mass-produceable off-grid home. The home is Robert Plarr and Michael Fulton’s Angel’s Nest/WorldNest Telsa research home in New Mexico.  It’s self-sufficient in energy, water, waste management and to some extent, food production. They use recycled and low-impact materials as well as improving indoor air quality.

They touch on a lot of different areas of sustainability and some of the controversial choices. I especially like their concept of creating a rainforest inside the home which is irrigated by treated grey water from the shower, creating humidity in the atmosphere, which, in turn, is extracted to generate drinking water. I haven’t seen their book, “The Secret of Sustainability” on Amazon yet, but it is available on the WorldsNest website.

 

The Meat-Lover’s Sustainability Dilemma

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is set to announce that “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

By contrast, transportation contributes 13% of our greenhouse gas footprint.

Greenhouse gases are released throughout the meat production cycle, during land clearing, making and transporting fertilizer, feed antibiotics and hormones, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and emissions from the animals themselves, which is a major proportion of gases emitted. Refrigeration and transportation of the meat for processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and to the consumer are also huge contributers.

Population growth and changing consumption patterns in developing countries will continue to increase pressure on global food supplies and food security. Livestock production has increased all over the world as demand for meat rises. The resulting increase in water scarcity, land degradation and soil erosion are key threats to productivity of farmland, not to mention the effects of loss of biodiversity associated with deforestation for high-maintenance agricultural land. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that increases in global temperature adversely affects soil fertility, reducing crop yield. Water runoff from livestock farming can cause significant contamination and eutrophication of surface and ground water if the solid waste generated is not managed properly. Farming subisidies (like other poorly applied subsidy programs) tend to create an uneven playing field, further exacerbating the problem.

Possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals include genetically engineering strains of animals that produce less methane and ammonia. Organic farming is not a feasible option globally, due to the comparatively low productivity and yield.

We all know by now that eating less meat is better for your health. A price on carbon could cause the price of meat to rise, people would eat less, and, at the same time, reduce associated emissions of greenhouse gases and other adverse environmental impacts. This might just be the added incentive that ardent meat-lovers like me need to make another personal choice that contributes to the sustainability of our planet. Given the magnitude of the impacts, reluctantly, I’m adding eating less meat to my list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Green your landscaping practices and reclaim your life!

Over the years, it’s become harder and harder to motivate myself to regularly mow, fertilize, weed and water my lawn and garden. With all the extreme weather that seems to be the norm these days, even my best efforts seem to be wasted. Some years, the only reason I dragged myself out to do it or paid someone to do it is to avoid the occasional evil eye from my neighbours. I’ve become acutely aware of how much water, air and noise pollution is generated from conventional mowers, fertilizers and pesticides, in our society’s quest for the most lush, green, weed-free lawn. I used to look at the bags and bags of yard waste waiting for collection day, and wonder how fast the grass clippings were filling up the landfill before we got our municipal composting program.

According to the EPA, 30% of water consumption in urban areas in the eastern United States is for watering lawns, and an average 1-acre lawn costs $700 and requires 40 hours of labor each year to maintain. Not that my lawn is anywhere close to 1 acre… but I’ve decided to reclaim that wasted time and money and do a good turn for the environment by switching to more sustainable landscaping practices.

Slowly, but surely, I’m replacing some of the lawn turf with attractive, low-growing, traffic-resistant groundcovers and my garden beds with a greater variety of native, non-invasive, drought and pest-resistant plants. I like the natural, “woodland” look, which blends naturally with the mature trees in my neighbourhood without looking overgrown and unruly.

I use a push mower for the remaining small patches of lawn, having traded in my old gas mower and storing away my electric mower which never did do a great job, even after it was fully charged.

I dropped off all the leftover pesticides in my garage and garden shed to the hazardous waste depot. I spend just a few minutes every few days monitoring and physically dealing with any signs of disease, pests or weeds.

I compost my grass clippings and most of my yard waste right on site and use it to replenish the soil in the garden and I use almost no soil amendments, fertilizers or plant food.

I’m looking into installing a simple irrigation system with a timer, soil moisture sensor and controllers for more efficient watering, before dawn or after dusk. I’m sick of seeing water from the sprinkler running off my neighbour’s lawn and driveway straight into the storm sewer.

I used to cringe whenever my neighbour picked Saturday afternoon to mow his lawn, just when my guests arrived for a barbecue and a relaxing evening. We couldn’t hear each other speak over the din, with the nasty smell from the gas mower overpowering the tantalizing aroma of whatever was on the grill.

But I have the last laugh, because I’m spending only a fraction of what he’s spending on fertilizers and weed control. I figure I use about 35% less water than he does for his lawn and garden. Not only that, I now delight in the fact that I’m lolling around with a tall, cool drink watching the butterflies attracted to my perennial wildflower garden, grilling freshly picked vegetables or dreaming of a quiet, peaceful warm day in the neighbourhood during my nap (with earplugs on), while he’s hard at work on his lawn.

In praise of eco-friendly hotels

While I was travelling through Spain this past week, I stayed in four different hotels. All of them had the usual linen and towel program, with cards that communicated the option to have your bed linens and towels replaced less frequently. All of the hotels had a slot by the entrance to each room which activates and deactivates the power to the room when you insert or withdraw your electronic room key each time you enter and leave the room.

One of them went a step further and had a card that suggested limiting heating temperatures in the winter to 20°C, cooling temperatures in the summer to 25°C, turning the lights off when not needed and relying more on the natural daylighting in the room and also practicing water efficiency. They had electronic shutters on the exterior of the windows that you could use to keep out the scorching midday sun more completely than the drapes. All of the toilets were dual-flush toilets. They stated that this was not all about saving money, but for all of us doing what we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are harming our planet.

Needless to say, I was impressed. The potential environmental and economic benefits and the increase in awareness should be quite significant. North American hotels should follow suit. North American consumers could use a good dose of awareness about the unsustainability of our culture of rampant consumerism and waste and small actions that can make a big difference.

Water, water, not everywhere…

Few things are taken for granted as much as clean water. We see downtrodden nations fighting for it to survive, and the mere mention of a power outage has people running into stores hoarding bottles of it. However, as the world is busy fighting over other natural resources and developing fuel alternatives, we are letting our most precious natural resource go down the drain (pun intended).

Did you know?

  • A water-efficient washing machine uses only one-third the water of an inefficient model?
  • An old-style single-flush toilet uses up to 12 litres of water per flush, while a standard dual flush toilet uses just a quarter of this on a half-flush?
  • A standard shower head uses up to 25 litres of water per minute, whereas a water-efficient shower head uses as little as 7 litres per minute, which is less than a third?
  • A standard faucet aerator on your taps can reduce water consumption by 25 – 50% per tap?

Water heating is the second largest energy user in the average home, just behind operating appliances. With higher hot water usage, come higher energy bills. Even the inefficient use of cold water can cost you, since we still pay water and sewer fees—and believe me, these costs will only continue to rise as the scarcity of our clean water supplies dwindle with time.

In the meantime, here are a few simple steps that will help reduce your water consumption, and consequently bring down your monthly energy and water bills:

  • Install a low-flow showerhead. At a cost of approximately $30/shower head, a family of three can easily save $200/year in energy costs alone.
  • Aerators are a great way of adding bulk to your water, without compromising the flow and/or pressure. At a cost of between $2-4, these can quickly reduce your tap consumption by half, and do not require a handy-man to install. In fact, here’s a great article on how to install aerators yourself.
  • Replace that old 6- or 12-liter toilet with a dual-flush toilet. Switching from a 12-L to a dual flush will save you almost 70% water consumption, while the switch from a 6-L to a dual flush will save an additional 26%–of course translating into more money in your pocket. A quick scan of online forums seems to suggest Toto has the best brand of dual-flush toilets—and here’s a nifty comparison of Toto toilets based on a variety of factors, even letting you see the toilet in full 360 degree rotation!
  • Consider a front-loading washer instead of a top-loading version. Not only will you save $50-90/year in direct water costs, you will use less laundry detergent because the rinse cycle is more efficient and less water is needed to wash your clothes. Clothes come out of the washer with less residual moisture, cutting your drying time in half and saving you more money on your electricity bills.
  • Consider running your dishwasher with fewer, larger loads, instead of frequent, emptier ones. If you wash your dishes manually, turn down the water to a gentle, laminar flow and enjoy how easy it is to remove the soap instead of allowing water to gush down the drain needlessly.
  • Water your lawn in the late evening instead of the morning or afternoon. This allows the water to actually seep into the ground instead of evaporating from the heat and sun. Your plants will thank you for it!
  • Install a rain barrel—I bought one for $50 from a local vendor and have enjoyed watering my plants all summer without having to turn on the tap! There are many new versions being introduced into your local hardware store that incorporate planters and exquisite designs that mask that “cylindrical” look.

REBATES:
Municipalities are always offering rebates and programs for interested water-conscious consumers (here’s an example of one in Canada, and another in the U.S.) Contact your local authorities to find out if you can receive some money back for investing in a water-saving device, and reap the rewards of saving even more money!

Hydrogen Fuel Cells—Hit or Hogwash?

A recent online poll asked whether people should pay an additional tax to drive their gas guzzling vehicles – or as I call them, mini-tanks. The results showed that 60% thought it was a terrific idea that would “encourage the shift toward more efficient cars”. That got me thinking about hydrogen fuel cells and their touted efficiency and place as so-called green fuel-of-choice.

Then it hit me – hydrogen fuel cells are in fact not efficient or green when you consider their footprint over their life cycle (also known as “well to wheel” for cars). In fact, a careful analysis shows just the opposite—hydrogen fuel cells are far less efficient than conventional gasoline-based engines, and require much more energy to even make this hydrogen “usable”. Let’s see why…

Hydrogen does make an emission-less fuel cycle possible, but there’s a catch: hydrogen must be extracted from biomass or by electrolysis of water using …electricity! The statistics below are drawn from simple mathematical analysis using the known BTU of energy per barrel of oil, the energy needed to run a car, and process efficiencies for gasoline- and hydrogen-powered cars:

  • Gasoline-powered cars in 2007 had an energy efficiency of about 25%, well to wheel.
  • Hydrogen-powered cars, where the hydrogen is extracted by electrolysis, has an efficiency of about 12%–less than half that of gasoline-powered vehicles.

Why the pronounced difference? After all, isn’t hydrogen supposed to be a “green” fuel? In theory, hydrogen is a clean fuel. It’s the extraction of hydrogen that makes it dirty. Here’s why:

  • Electrolysis, used to extract hydrogen, is a 70% efficient process.
  • Within the fuel cell itself, some of that energy is converted into non-usable water vapour, and the potential energy yield drops by another 15%.
  • The best fuel cell we have is also about 70% efficient, lowering the potential energy yield by another 30%.
  • Because hydrogen is a gas, it takes up 3107 times the space of its gasoline equivalent. The energy needed in compressing it to fit in a tank is huge and further reduces the potential energy yield by another 27.4%
  • The U.S. relies on its supply of coal and coal-fired stations, which run at only 40% efficiency, to produce the electricity needed to extract the hydrogen.

Taking all the factors into consideration, it takes twice the energy that was used for gasoline-powered cars and one third that of the entire energy consumption of the U.S. to produce the hydrogen used in cars. Not to mention the little fact of increased CO2 emissions of about 270% from the coal-powered plants to produce hydrogen.

Even if we were to scrap the coal-fired stations, and go for renewable resources to muster up the huge energy (think 1.53 trillion kwh) needed to fuel this hydrogen production “process”, we wouldn’t be able to achieve it. It would take the entire area of the U.S. covered with solar panels to make a dent in the amount of energy needed to produce hydrogen for its cars. In such high numbers, wind power and solar would show the carbon payback and GHG contribution from the manufacturing process to be counterproductive and extremely high.

***

So there you have it—half the efficiency of gasoline-powered cars, and much higher carbon footprint once life cycle considerations are taken into account. I guess it’s back to skateboards for everyone!

If you’re interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of the numbers presented above, the New Atlantic Journal of Technology & Society has a great article titled, The Hydrogen Hoax.

Lightning electric cars available for pre-order

The Lightning GT is a new 100% electric car, now available for preorder in the UK for delivery in 2009. They’re working on bringing it to the US market.  It really is a sexy-looking car with all the usual bells and whistles and some special, noteworthy features:

  • Can be charged by simply plugging the car’s charging lead into your home’s electric power, as well as a mobile charging system. It can be charged in approximately 10 minutes for up to 200 miles of driving.
  • 0-60mph in 5 seconds for the standard version and less than 4 seconds for the sport version.
  • 10 x cheaper to run, using domestic electric power for charging as compared to the equivalent conventional gasoline engine.
  • Zero CO2 emissions, compared with 106 g/km of CO2 emissions for the Toyota Prius Hybrid.
  • State of the art NanoSafe™ battery system uses more thermally stable nano titanate materials instead of graphite and contain no toxic or heavy metals.  The battery lasts for 15 years.
  • The NanoSafe™ batteries are designed for temperatures between 75°C and minus 30°C, whereas standard Lithium-Ion batteries need to be kept cool when used or heated to perform in sub zero temperatures.
  • Enhanced occupant safety, with its composite monocoque structure, and aluminium honeycomb crushable impact cells in the bodywork; the same technology that’s used in Formula 1.
  • Advanced motor technology integrated right within the wheel assembly, eliminating the mechanical complexity and power losses of gearboxes, differential, axle and drive shafts.

The price? Apparently it’s £180,000 pounds, or $220,000 and counting (with the dollar continuing its downward slide). Talk about deflating your enthusiasm!! Picture a noisy, squeaky, stressed-out balloon… that was me when I found out.  Although exciting, the technology is still far from economically sustainable for the masses.  

Bottle or tap? Income, education influence choices: StatsCan

A report released by StatsCan has correlated how family income and education levels influence whether we choose tap or bottled water. To read the full article on CBC News, click here. In summary, it states the following

  • Higher-income households and those with children were most likely to drink bottled water.
  • The higher bottled water consumption among high-income households was driven by households where no one completed a university degree.
  • Households where at least one member had completed a university degree drank less bottled water than their counterparts who had no post-secondary education.

Surprising? I think so. As a university-graduate myself, I never would have thought to correlate education with bottled-water consumption, but it does provide me with some relief. I always wondered whether I was just a nagging “logicalist” or perhaps a perturbed environmentalist—and now, I can claim neither. I’m simply a university graduate. Yippee!

In all seriousness, bottled water just doesn’t seem to make sense. It costs over 1000 times more than its municipally-treated counterpart from the tap, is regulated and tested far less (read: in some cases, never), and is leaving an environmental disaster in its wake. With hundreds of tons of plastic basking in our landfills, and now reports about the plastic additives leaching into the bottled water, why are we still apprehensive to switch to the tap?

Leave it up to the marketing gurus and today’s age of overconsumption, and you have a match made in the French Alps. Consumers believe that bottled water is cleaner, tastes better, and even looks better. Why? Because it’s being sold in brightly lit, clean supermarkets, has a crisp, colourful label on it, AND they’re paying more for it—feeding into their appetite for exclusivity and luxury. The marketing hype convinces consumers that this stuff is better for you than good ol’ tap water. With social thinking dictating that “we get what we pay for”, it’s no wonder consumers believe that bottled water is “better” than the infinitely cheaper municipal tap water.

Check out this rather telling (and somewhat potty-mouthed) video comparing people’s perception of tap vs. bottled water. Then come back with a tall glass of water (I won’t tell you which), and give me your thoughts on the subject.

Green living in the country

Many North Americans realized their dreams of moving to the country to escape the pollution, traffic and crime that goes along with city living.  An article in today’s New York Times proclaims:

“Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan areas.”

The article quotes Phil Doyle, a homeowner in the countryside of Denver, who says about his daily hour-long commute to the city, “Before it was ‘we spend too much time driving.’ Now, it’s ‘we spend too much time and money driving.’ ”

In less than five years, the average suburban household is paying more than double what they used to pay for their gasoline consumption, amounting to a yearly increase of over $1700.  This contributed to larger and earlier drops in the prices of these homes than those in the city. 

I’m all for city living, reducing urban sprawl and densification if you live AND work there.  However, a lot of infrastructure has already been built out to suburban areas, including multi-billion dollar investments in mass transportation systems to increase access to the city core.
 
Maybe it’s time to start investing in renewable energy technologies for lighting, heating and cooling in these faraway developments, to offset the higher costs of commuting.  It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the household payback of installing solar photovoltaic panels, solar hot water heating systems and geothermal systems for homes in these areas.  I’m sure it’s a lot more attractive than it was just a year ago.  If you also eliminated all the long-distance commuting, you would spend less time and money driving and be doing the planet a big favour too.  

So— my dream house is a net zero energy home in the boonies that’s totally self-sufficient in water use and onsite waste management.  I can grow much of my own food onsite.  And I don’t have to commute anywhere for a living.  :)

Making sustainable food choices

Granted, the global food supply is not one of the most significant contributors to climate change and emissions of greenhouse gases. However, in the spirit of maintaining awareness and doing what we can as individuals to mitigate the impacts of climate change, becoming aware of more sustainable food choices is a relatively easy action to take. I don’t believe in randomly curbing consumer choices (I love having access to the most exotic foods from around the world!), but just knowing about the factors that impact those choices can help to shift our mindset in meaningful ways.

It seems perfectly logical to start with organic, in-season, locally grown food. This addresses the importance of reducing the transportation distance from the farm to your supermarket and minimizing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, foods grown in climates and soils that are naturally most suited for their production can have a much lower environmental impact than local products grown under artificially enhanced conditions, even if they’re shipped across great distances. There are other factors to keep in mind to ensure that you’re reducing the carbon footprint of the food you consume:

  • irrigation requirements
  • methods of harvesting, processing, preservation and storage
  • minimal packaging, or at least reusable and recyclable packaging
  • climate and growing season
  • mode of transportation (air, water, rail, etc.)
  • fair trade and sustainable agriculture practices

Your method of cooking can negate all the effort you put into sourcing your food, if you’re not conscious of the energy and water consumed in its preparation.

Finally, coming soon to a supermarket near you— a carbon label for your food products.