Friday, November 30, 2007

Environmental Reciprocity: What About Regular Stuff?

Today on the bus I was talking with my buddy Bart who works for the New England Grass Roots Environmental Fund or NEGEF about my ideas about "Environmental Reciprocity" and he helped me clarify some ideas that are honestly still forming. It's much easier to quantify "give back what you take" for something like carbon emissions, or mLs of spring water. But what about the everyday manufactured things like paper cups or dishwashers or cars (minus the fuel) for that matter? There has been some chatter about whether or not a Hummer is actually more environmentally friendly than a Prius just based on the energy it took to manufacture it. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to advocate for a Hummer, but it is a good idea to consider the embodied energy over the entire lifespan of an object. And for hybrids or electric cars, battery manufacture and disposal is certainly a major hang up. Let's hope battery technology improves.

Anyway, back to more generic stuff...

It seems like there are two options for sustainable types of products.
  • Products which biodegrade quickly from readily renewable resources
  • Products which are meant to last a really long time, from stuff that will last a long time (and the parts that run out first ought to be from readily renewable resources)

What does this mean?

It means that there's a lot of disposable plastic stuff which will no longer be the norm as oil gets more expensive. So what's on the out?
plastic flatware
plastic packaging
gosh, wouldn't it be great if there was a renewable resource-based tire! (besides just cannibalizing older tires...)
plastic fake plants? Please. These should be outlawed...

It also means that there will probably be an increase in temporary products made from plant-based material. Like this disposable flatware made by BSI Biodegradable Solutions.

Then there are those mysterious objects which seem neither here nor there - I haven't figured out how to think about them... stuff like CDs, or window fans, or lawn chairs...

Ok, I'm going to stop thinking about stuff and maybe close my eyes for a little while... :P

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tesla Motors

Just yesterday Bernie Sanders (a senator for Vermont - Independent) came to the high school to speak to the kids about whatever was on their minds. It was during this talk that my students and Bernie brought up Tesla Motors and their electric Roadster. This electric sports car isn't meant for mere mortals, but rather it's all souped up to make it attractive to that upper echelon who can afford carbon morality and (hopefully) will jump-start the industry to make it more attainable for us little people.

Their website touts some pretty impressive specs: 0-60 in 4 seconds, range of 245 miles per charge (granted, you're probably not going 60 miles/hour that whole time). This car seems to have the Zenn beat, but only if you're willing to part with nearly $100,000. oooohhh ouch. :/

They do claim, however that you effectively get 2cents/mile and that the battery is good for 100,000 miles. And now for a little math:

(2cents/mile)*(100,000 miles) = $2,000 operational costs over the life of the car

Ah, and how does that compare to my Honda Civic (35miles/gallon)?
(to do this right i ought to find the function which describes the rate of gas prices over the last 5 years), but for now let's make things simple and assume that the average price of gas over the last 5 years has been about $2.50/gallon. And that I'll probably drive it to 100,000 miles.

100,000 miles * (1 gallon/35 miles) * ($2.50/gallon) = $7,143.

I don't think anyone's going to run out and buy a Tesla Roadster for the operating cost savings, but it is a handy piece of knowledge in case they come out with a more affordable model.

Oh, right, one caveat: where does your electricity come from?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How many trees would it take?

The other day I did the research and the math to determine how many trees it would take to offset projected carbon emissions for an upcoming road trip.


400mi*(1gal/36mi)*(2.5kgC/1gal)*(1tree/6kgC)=4.6 trees growing for 25 years

So there it is! We'll need to plant 5 trees in a location where they'll be undisturbed for 25 years. (Though at this time of year, that might be tricky. Maybe I'll wait until the spring.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Environmental Reciprocity

About a week ago we Hal Colston from the Good News Garage and NeighborKeepers came to speak to my church group about his journey in starting these organizations and about what keeps people in poverty.

He said a prevalent attitude he has had to un-teach is the idea of entitlement. And in this case it means you fill out some paperwork, and you get your food stamps, because you have a right to that food. But Hal advocates for what he calls Reciprocity. If the Good News Garage gives someone a car then that person is now obligated to give back to the community in some way. Maybe it's giving someone a ride to work, or maybe it's volunteering at some local charity. It's the recipient's choice of what to do, but they have to do something in order to receive a car. "You have to give back".

Then I spent a few days at an Environmental Education conference and instead of coming away encouraged, I came away with that nasty twist in the stomach familiar to people who work in environmental advocacy. Perhaps for the first time I had genuinely confronted the question "Is what we're doing enough?" And I had to admit the answer which nobody wants to say out loud: No, It's not enough. If everyone changed their incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent, is that enough to save us? Of course not. Well then, what is enough? ... And so you see why I had this knot in my stomach.

The next morning before my head left the pillow a small part of the answer came to me: "Environmental Reciprocity." This is simply the idea that in an environmental context, if you take something you must put it back.

That 200 Mile Road trip I'd like to go on costs more than just gas; its costs CO2, and just like you remunerate the driver, you should also compensate the atmosphere by removing that same amount of CO2.

The scary part is that the earth will reach equilibrium eventually whether we like it or not, and either we will reciprocate voluntarily, or the resources will be taken from us involuntarily, and I don't think anybody wants to see that.

True Environmental Reciprocity is daunting. For every car ride, for every hot shower, every kWh used in microwaving dinner, we should remove the emissions that we incur.

I don't think Environmental Reciprocity is a new idea. In fact I'm certain that any kindergartner could have told me this. It's funny how that idea seems to have been selectively applied.

So, of course, now that we have a measuring stick (and we are so off of the mark), how do we start? System-wide change is starting (with flex-fuel cars and increased public transit), but while I wait for that to take hold, my attention has been turned towards carbon sequestering projects. But I'll save that for a later post.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Said the Electric Car was Dead?

Hey Folks!
I've got a lot bubbling around my brain lately since I just got back from the annual conference of the North American Association of Environmental Education (or NAAEE for short). There's lots to be said, but let's start with the simple stuff.

I'm seriously considering buying one of these for my next car:

This car is better than a hybrid. It's electric.

Zenn Motor Company is based out of Toronto, with a its manufacturing plant in Montreal. For a Vermonter like me, it doesn't get much more local for auto-manufacturing. I met reps from this company at the conference, and they explained that the battery technology limits the range to 35 miles, and no one's going to take a car on the highway if its range is only 35 miles. And who knew? If a car is only rated for 25 mph it doesn't have to be registered.

Again, it's not that an electric car is 100% clean, it's that your getting your energy from an electric utility. It should still cost you less per mile than gas, though. And for a place like Vermont (where most of our electricity is generated by Vermont Yankee (nuclear) and Hydro-Quebec), kWh for kWh an electric car is *much* cleaner.

At $11,000 (affordable even for a teacher), they said they can't keep them on the lot!