The human race faces two huge problems; overconsumption of natural resources (a developed world problem) and overpopulation (a developing world problem). Both lead to the same results: pollution, environmental degradation, the depletion of natural resources, and the loss of plant and animal species due to habitat destruction. With the human population now over 7 billion, we have to wonder how long this growth can continue, and whether the world we're creating is one we want to live in. Perhaps we need to be thinking more about sustainability and less about growth? Take this quick survey to determine your own household's ecological footprint. Many people don't realize how easy it can be to make small changes in our daily routine that will save us money, make us healthier, and improve the world in which we live so we can all enjoy it more. All of these small things we do are interconnected, and the benefits multiply when we work on them together.
Your Assignment: Think about the three Rs of conservation: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. These are listed in order of priority. For this assignment you will monitor your household's resource consumption in detail and, in the analysis, identify the things you and your family are doing now that are the most wasteful and that you could permanently change. For an average week, make an effort to reduce your consumption, reuse things you purchase, and recycle everything you can, keeping detailed records along the way. At the end of the week, examine your data and write up a brief report, indicating your family's most wasteful habits and the things you plan to do to fix them.
1. Reduce: Where can you reduce resource use, or reduce the waste of resources in and around your home?
Heating/Cooling: Replace your furnace's manual thermostat with a programmable one that adjusts your home's temperature according to your habits. Do you have enough insulation in your walls and attic? Although the up-front cost is high, replacing your windows can save you energy and money in the long run. Use blinds or curtains, and open or close windows to regulate temperature, rather than using energy for heating and cooling. Turn down the thermostat or air conditioner a bit by adjusting what you wear.
Electric: Maybe it's time to retire an old appliance in exchange for a more energy efficient model? Look at the EnergyStar rating when shopping for appliances, because the cheapest isn't always the best over the long run. Could you install solar panels on your roof? Maybe an electric car would be a good substitute for a gas powered vehicle? Use rechargeable batteries in your small electronic devices. Turn the heat down a bit on your hot water heater (to save energy and avoid accidentally scalding yourself). When the time comes, replace your hot water heater with an on-demand system.
Water: We take clean fresh water for granted, but it is a limited resource. Where can you reduce water use? Perhaps a gray-water irrigation system is a possibility, or rain barrels for collecting runoff? Water your garden or lawn in the morning or evening rather than mid-day to reduce water loss due to evaporation. Consider drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Get rid of your lawn and plant drought-tolerant landscaping. Install a water saving dual-flush toilet. Take shorter showers! Use a timer and try to get them down to under five minutes. Try a "navy shower" where you turn off the water except to rinse off. Turn off the water while brushing your teeth, and just use it for a rinse at the end. The fairly recent practice of natural gas extraction, known as fracking (hydraulic fracturing) may reduce our need for foreign oil, but there are serious concerns about what it may be doing to our water supply. The history of water rights in the Southwest U.S. should be required reading for anyone who lives here, and has a lot to do with "how the west was won."
Shopping: When you buy things, where do they come from? How much energy did it take to get the product to you? How far did it travel? Who was employed? Where did the money go? Read the labels. The cheapest items often have hidden costs. Is the product safe? Will it last as long? Were the workers paid a living wage? Was it manufactured in accordance with our environmental and safe labor standards? Was it manufactured or grown just down the street or shipped here from half a world away? The less you consume, the less you have to throw away, and the more money, energy, and other resources you can save. Some people refer to this as "pre-cycling." You don't have to dispose of something if you didn't acquire it in the first place! Many products come encased in excess plastic and cardboard. When you have choices, select products with less packaging. Tell companies you'd prefer their products if they reduced the packaging. Maybe writing a letter or starting a petition can make a difference?
Food: Buy local. This is especially true for food, as it is generally fresher, contains fewer preservatives, and has less packaging. Tell your grocery store manager that bananas and zucchinis don't need to be shrink wrapped; they already have a wrapper! Bring reusable cloth bags to the grocery store and avoid the "paper or plastic?" dilemma. Try to avoid purchasing food and beverages from places that use disposable single use cups, plates, and utensils. Just say no to clamshells. Re-heating food in plastic or styrofoam containers may result in the consumption of harmful chemicals that leach out of the containers. Bring your own reusable storage containers to the restaurant if you anticipate leftovers. Better yet, cook at home and bring your leftovers to work in a reusable container. Eat meat less often for your health and for the environment. Take a cooking class! You can save a lot of money by eating out less often. Drink tap water instead of bottled water or soda. Visit your local farmers' market or start your own backyard garden next spring.
Hygeine: If you have small children, consider washable cloth diapers or a diaper service to reduce the use of disposables. (A slightly disgusting, but important aside for parents of diaper wearing children: Even if you use disposables, human waste needs to go into the toilet, not the landfill! Empty your kids' diapers before you dispose of them or you risk spreading disease and contaminating the groundwater we all drink.) When possible, hang your laundry on the clothes line to air dry instead of using the dryer.
Transportation: This may be the hardest one of all, but transportation is one of the biggest uses of fossil fuels. Can you reduce your annual air travel by avoiding a trip (teleconferencing perhaps?) or by taking a bus or train instead? Can you reduce the amount of driving you do each week by carpooling, combining trips, using public transportation, bicycling, or walking? Can you lobby your city council for more and safer bike lanes and bike trails, and better public transportation options? Can you trade in a gas guzzling vehicle and replace it with one that gets better mileage, preferably without spending a lot of money on a brand new car, because that's also counter-productive? Buying a slightly used car is one of the smartest financial decisions you can make! Even if you can't do any of these things, there are still plenty of ways you can improve your driving habits to save yourself money, reduce wear on your car, and burn less fuel. For example, turn off your engine instead of letting it idle while you wait for someone. Roll down the windows if it's hot; you can survive without the air conditioning for a few minutes. Don't speed up and brake. Driving at the proper speed lets you take advantage of synchronized traffic lights. Check your tire pressure regularly (pressure is affected by temperature) because driving on underinflated tires reduces your mileage. Reducing the number of cars on the road reduces the need for paved parking lots, which helps with drainage during heavy rainfall or other flooding, reduces the creation of urban heat islands and reduces the the need for air conditioning, which cools by throwing heat outside, and which consumes large amounts of electricity during peak hours. Can you see how one small change, like riding your bike, can have big effects if everyone does it? And don't forget the health benefits of being more physically active!
2. Reuse: Anything that only gets used once and thrown away is wasteful. Bring your reusable beverage container when you go to the coffee shop or, better yet, make your own at home and bring it to work in a thermos bottle. Buy used items instead of new items whenever reasonable. Consider repairing a broken item instead of replacing it. That can be really hard these days, particularly with electronics, but buying used is also good for your wallet and the environment because it extends the life of something already produced. Think about secondary uses for things you might ordinarily throw away, like glass jars that could be used for storing dry goods (like rice, beans, or pasta) purchased in bulk, or for canning fruit or pickling vegetables. Another benefit of storing foods in glass jars is that they are insect and rodent-proof. When you reuse things, it's not just that you're saving something useful from the landfill, but you're also avoiding the energy and resource costs of replacement.
3. Recycle: Everything you recycle reduces what ends up in a landfill, saves energy, reduces the need to harvest more resources, and prevents our waste products from contaminating our air, our soil, and our drinking water. Ultimately this helps keep costs down and keeps us all healthier. In terms of energy, it is approximately 95% more efficient to recycle aluminum, about 70% for plastics, 60% for steel, 40% for paper and 30% for glass. Energy is expensive. Think how much less foreign oil we'd need to import if we were better about recycling. Think about how many recent wars we've fought, at least in part, to secure the continued flow of foreign oil. When you consider those facts, it's not such a stretch to say that something as "optional" as recycling could save American lives. By avoiding these conflicts, we also save money and improve our status in the world community. Much of our recycling used to go to China, but the Chinese have recently become pickier about the impurities that come from improperly mixed recycling and contaminants mixed in with the recyclables that reduce the value. Perhaps we need to get better about sorting, or start taking care of our own waste?
Type Abbreviation Name Found In PETE Polyethylene Terephthalate Soda bottles, juice, and cough syrup containers, clear mustard and ketchup bottles. HDPE High-density Polyethylene Milk jugs, containers for laundry and dish detergent, fabric softener, shampoo and conditioner, bleach, motor oil PVC Polyvinyl Chloride plastic pipes, shower curtains, shrink wrap, rigid plastic containers, cooking oil bottles, baby bottle nipples, clear medical tubing LDPE Low-Density Polyethelene grocery bags, sandwich bags, newspaper bags, margerine tub lids PP Polypropylene food storage containers, syrup bottles, yogurt tubs, deli trays, diapers, outdoor carpet PS Polystyrene Styrofoam coffee cups, to-go containers, disposable cutlery and cups, bakery shells, meat trays, packing peanuts. Other Mixed resins Mixed plastic containers.
Extra Credit: Take a tour of your local dump, sewage treatment plant, slaughterhouse, or recycling facility. I guarantee it will leave a lasting impression.