Adventures in Ethics and Science

Another Earth Day rolls around, and I still have major qualms about the typical American approach to it (which seems to boil down to “Consumer choices will save the world!”). Possibly, viewing ourselves and each other primarily as consumers explains how we have had such a dramatic effect on the environment in the first place.

Still, while we try to muster the political will and get ourselves together to respond collectively to the challenges to the Earth we all share, it’s undeniable that our individual choices do have impacts. Here in the U.S., some of those impacts can be pretty big. So, I’m marking this Earth Day by taking stock of some of the habits I’ve tried to cultivate to lighten my impact.

1. Driving the speed limit.
Sadly, I live too far from my workplace to walk or bike, and using the available mass transit would double my transit time, so I drive to work. But, I drive a hybrid, and despite the fact that some of our California freeways seem engineered to feel their best at 80 miles per hour, I’ve been keeping pretty close to the speed limit. (Yes, this means I’m sticking to the right hand lanes — I try not to be a jerk.)

In theory, I could be driving my hybrid in the carpool lane — that was one of the incentives to get people into hybrids — but people in the carpool lanes want to drive fast, and very high speeds bring a hybrid’s miles per gallon down to about what you’d be getting in a regular (non-Hummer) car.

This habit has also made me better at leaving on time — if I’m driving fast to make up time because I got a late start, there goes my mileage.

2. Keeping the heat down (and putting a sweater on).
Our thermostat, on cold evenings, is set to a sweltering 68 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, it’s set for 60. If you’re cold, you put another layer on, or a hat. With the programmed thermostat, we don’t even need to think about this one. (Come summer, given our temperate location, we’ll maybe have a day or two when we wish we had air conditioning, but we’ll get by with the box fan.)

3. Lights out when no one’s in a room, curtains open when natural light is available.
Natural light is free, after all. We’re still training the sprogs on this one.

4. Laundry in cold water.
I love our front-loading washer (which will turn 9 this summer). Not only does it use less water than a top-loader, but it gets the close cleaner while simultaneously being gentler on them. (A friend of mine who’s a mom and a rocket scientist explained the physics behind this to me a long time ago.) Among other things, this means that cold water does a fine job getting our clothes clean, so we’re not putting resources into making hot water.

5. No more sandwiches in plastic sandwich bags.
We’ve switched to wrapping the sandwiches in the sprogs’ lunches with waxed paper. It’s still not resourceless, but we think it’s slightly lower impact.

6. No more paper napkins.
Paper napkins are extremely convenient, but I didn’t feel good about how much they contributed to our waste stream, so since December we’ve gone with cloth. It’s been a much easier habit to maintain than I expected.

7. No paper or plastic, thanks.
I’ve been using canvas and string grocery bags for something like 15 years now. Just keep them in a regular spot, grab them on your way to the store, and you’re good to go. (Also, I avoid those plastic bags spooled in the produce section whenever possible.)

8. Fill your own water bottle.
We don’t buy bottled water (which not only comes in individual plastic containers, but takes fuel to ship to the store). Rather, we fill our own bottles, over and over and over, with filtered tap water. (Yes, I’m watching the research on health effects of BPA that leeches out of these bottles. I’m not convinced the bottled water from the store is necessarily any safer.)

9. Avoid disposable coffee cups.
My morning coffee rides in a travel mug, and I bring a ceramic mug with me to meetings where coffee will be served. I’m keeping this habit to a caffeine habit, not a paper cup habit.

10. Eat as locally as possible.
Sadly, coffee doesn’t grow locally here, but where produce is concerned, we’re doing what we can. We’re not buying fruits or vegetables that have to ride on a plane to get to us. As attractive as those Chilean or Kiwi blueberries and raspberries have been, we’re waiting until we can get them from a source closer to home.

11. Meatless.
I know not everyone can cultivate this habit, but for me it’s been pretty easy (especially given the abundance of local produce in California). Eating lower on the food chain means fewer resources have gone into producing your food, so we do.

12. I haz a bukit
During our hot summer months, I plunk a utility bucket in the shower to catch the warming-up and getting-wet water, then use that to water the yard. When the sprogs were bath-takers, I’d actually make multiple trips to the yard with buckets of bathwater.

Now they take showers.

13. Kitchen scrap composting.
For a long time, we’ve been putting our fruit peels, vegetable trimmings, and coffee grounds into our backyard compost pile. Then, our city instituted curb-side kitchen waste composting (mixed in with the yard waste). Because the city has a seriously “hot” composting set up, they can accommodate pretty much any kitchen scrap — moldy pasta, pizza crusts, ancient yogurt — stuff you’d never put in a backyard compost pile for fear or attracting vermin.

You’d be amazed at how much it can reduce your household waste stream to divert all the kitchen scraps to municipal composting.

14. If it’s yellow, let it mellow …
Our house is old enough that it still has 6 gallon per flush toilets. At some point, we’re going to install low-flow toilets. Until this upgrade happens, we flush … somewhat less frequently.

None of these measures is going to save the environment for future generations, but none of them is especially hard on us, either. If I can find more ways for us to tread lightly that can become habits for us, I’m going to cultivate them.

What habits have you fallen into to cut back on your use of resources?

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    April 22, 2008

    What kind of mileage deficit do you find in your Prius for driving fast? I haven’t done a systematic study, but anecdotally I haven’t found much difference between, say 60 MPH and 75 MPH. I recently did a round trip to D.C. at speeds over 70 MPH and averaged 49 MPG the whole way, which is about as good as I ever get in the Prius. Are you going slower than 60?

  2. #2 Karen
    April 22, 2008

    We had to replace the plumbing in our house several years ago, and we put in recirculating hot water. Inexpensive timers in the kitchen and bathrooms allow you to turn on the timer, wait a couple of minutes, and have hot water without any wasted water. Using the timers automatically guarantees that the recirculation pump gets turned off.

    We also have a submersible pump in a large plastic garbage can next to our washing machine, which pumps wash wastewater out to the yard for use on non-consumable plants.

  3. #3 Donalbain
    April 22, 2008

    I am already a paragon of green. In fact, I am cycling to power a generator to use my computer as we speak. But can I offer a suggestion about the water usage? Drop a brick or two in your toilet cistern. That will naturally lower the amount of water you use per flush which is, usually, too high anyway. If it doesnt do the job with one flush, then a second one will do the job..

  4. #4 brandon
    April 22, 2008

    great suggestion! happy earth day!

    i’ve become quite fond of the “navy shower” – that is, running the water only when i need it (rinsing, etc.). It was December when i started this; North Carolina was (and still is) in the midst of it’s worst drought in a long while. I thought I’d give the navy shower a try. It was really cold and difficult to get used to… until my father suggested i plug the drain and let the hot water sit in the tub and keep me warm (also providing me with hard proof of the water I’d used.

    your town’s composting program sounds really cool.

    take care.

  5. #5 Jimmy
    April 22, 2008

    My biggest new habit: all of my electric appliances, except the refrigerator, are plugged in to power strips which are kept switched off when not in use. Many electronics consume a non-trivial amount of power to stay in some kind of “standby” mode. This is especially true for entertainment devices like TVs or DVD players, which need a certain amount of power to do things like receive “power on” signals from remote controls. Using a power strip does remove some convenience (I have to walk across the room to turn on the TV), but if you’re not at home often it does some good over time.

  6. #6 Lethe
    April 22, 2008

    A big part of the reason we bought the house we have is that we can do a number of errands on foot, including buying groceries. My wife even got a job working for our city, so she walks to work as well. (I’m still stuck in my car, but at least it gets 35 mpg.)

    When we moved in, I put compact fluorescents in every light fixture in the house. Exactly one has needed replacement in the past four years.

    Like the Free-Ride clan, we leave the house very cold (think 62F all day) in the winter, and despite the fact that we live in the Cesspool on the Potomac Greater Metropolitan Area, I try very hard to limit how much I run the AC in the summer.

    We lack the fortitude to go completely meatless, but we try to make half our dinners vegetarian, and I try to use meat as a flavoring for the dish (e.g. a bit of ham in scalloped potatoes, or cooking greens with bacon) rather than as the main ingredient as much as possible.

    As for the garden, we water very little (again, vicinity to the city built on a “stagnant swamp”), and use no pesticides or fertilizers. As we are extremely lazy gardeners, this means our yard is more an exercise in mown weeds (cut with a push-reel mower, of course) rather than a proper bed of grass, but that doesn’t bother us too very much. I’ve been sorely tempted to go to chemicals to kill the thrice-damned invasive English ivy, though.

  7. #7 Laura
    April 22, 2008

    Lots of great ideas! I’ve tried to do some of the same things that you do — bring my own bags to the market (I even have some small mesh bags that I use instead of the plastic produce bags), eating local and lowering meat consumption, etc. I’ll be moving from the Northeast to the Southeast this summer, so the water conservation tips will come in handy. We’ve had heavy precipitation in New England this year, but after watching stuff about Georgia’s water crisis on the news, I may find myself getting a shower bucket. (Did you use “dirty” — i.e. soapy — bath water in the yard? I think if one used natural soaps like Dr. Bronner’s it wouldn’t hurt plants, but I don’t know…)

  8. #8 Chuck
    April 22, 2008

    Compact fluorescents, audit appliance power usage (sometimes they use more as they age), led lighting, audit home’s air leakage, use LCDs instead of CRTs, close doors, automatic thermostats, proper water heater insulation, cold showers in the morning (invigorating), lower fridge/freezer temp (if doing so is viable for you), get a new water heater every so often (old ones significantly lose efficiency.. at the very least flush your water heater every year or so), buying things that last, etc.

    Also if you’re worried about plastics and what harm they could cause, you can find stainless steel water/coffee bottles and mugs. They vary in price quite a bit depending on where you buy them. Surprisingly my local Home Depot has some for a pretty good price (I think it was around $5 per mug). The fully sealing bottles are usually considered a ‘sports/hiking’ thing.

    To measure regular power usage in regular 15A sockets, there’s a cheap little tool called the Kill-A-Watt, which can be found for around $20. It shows voltage, amperage, KWH, and a couple of other metrics I think. It’s great for auditing all of your regular electronics.

    Often times your local electric company will come out and audit your house for energy efficiency. They will inspect your appliances (mainly your water heater), check insulation, and even pressurize your house and check for leaks.

  9. #9 Anna
    April 22, 2008

    In winter when I come home I put on a bathrobe (over my clothes). It wasn’t quite long enough, so I sewed one of those $5 fuzzy throws into it just below where the sleeves come in. Viola, no cold legs.
    (Slippers too, of course; with handmade thick felt insoles)

  10. #10 Art
    April 22, 2008

    You might consider the old-time way of wrapping a sandwich, a reusable piece of cloth with the four corners tied together. Interestingly I have found that it keeps the lettuce a bit fresher. When the cloth gets soiled a quick wash with a spot of bleach restores it.

    Also, IMHO the best coffee mugs for home use are available at the local convenience store in the form of a 12 once LDPE travel mug. LDPE is supposed to be BPA and phthalate free and, after long use, recyclable. These are all plastic, microwavable, and much better insulated than most metal or ceramic mugs. Less need to reheat means less energy use. I don’t use the ‘sippy’ top intended to make them spill resistant. You can store the top in the bottom compartment.

    Mine cost less than $3 and came with 12 onces of coffee and Has lasted for better than a decade of heavy use. The logo has worn off and the outside is a patina of fine scratches. The inside is permanently stained, even after its bi-monthly scrub and bleaching, a light amber from the coffee and tea. But it just keeps working.

    If the handle comes lose, as mine did after five years of abuse reattach it with nylon nuts and bolts, available at the local hardware store, so it remains microwave friendly.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    April 22, 2008

    I think plastic bottled water is the devil’s invention. I fillup with tap water as you do. One of my plastic bottles is more than 15 years old. Noticed in the grocery store plastic bottles of water from New Zealand. Is that stupid or what? If it gets down to it, on the road, say, I will buy a plastic bottle of water rather than become dehydrated. I do occasionally buy a styrofoam cup of coffee. Then I reuse the cup with my own coffee while driving. Eventually they start leaking, and then I throw them away. I have a stock of plastic drink cups which I use for beer and water at home. Some are 20 years old.

  12. #12 chezjake
    April 22, 2008

    I put in an “on demand” hot water heater last fall. That’s already reduced my hot water energy consumption by at least a half. (Mine is propane fired, since I live outside the range of piped natural gas.)

  13. #13 Anna K.
    April 22, 2008

    Re the cloth napkins — we started doing this some years ago, and I bought napkins (factory seconds from a discount store) on the advice of my Southern mother-in-law. She suggested I buy all white ones, because: “When they get dirty, you can bleach the Hay-yell out of them!”

    Not sure how good Clorox is for the environment; but in fifteen years I sure have bleached the Hay-yell out of hundreds of loads of napkins.

  14. #14 Art
    April 22, 2008

    Another place you can shift from what is essentially disposable to long-term reusable is in shower curtains. Most people use PVC plastic curtains that get caked with crud and usually they get discarded after just a few scrubs. Even cleaned often the plastic soon gets stiff. Which means a fairly large and heavy sheet of plastic ends up in the landfill.

    An alternative is to use a cloth shower curtain and to simply toss them in the wash regularly.

    You could install a solid enclosure but IMO your still behind the curve. The enclosure and door has to be cleaned. Which means strong chemicals and/or a lot of physical effort.

    With a cloth curtain the chemicals are normal laundry detergent and bleach, cheaper and a lot easier on the environment, and less effort so it gets done more often.

  15. #15 Rebecca
    April 22, 2008

    A great alternative to sandwich bags is those semi-disposable (though I wouldn’t be caught dead disposing of one) lunch containers made by Ziploc or Glad or Rubbermade. They have lightweight, cheap containers that accommodate a sandwich (or lunch-sized serving of leftover risotto) perfectly. And if you don’t throw them out, they cease to be semi-disposable!

    Going vegan or vegetarian gets you the biggest bang for your effort/financial investment. Even if it’s one day a week, it makes a huge difference.

    If you put a brick in your toilet, wrap it in some water-tight material first. Otherwise clay will weather and erode from the brick and settle under the seal in your toilet tank, creating a leak from your tank to the bowl.

  16. #16 Dino
    April 23, 2008

    Instead of a brick just fill a couple of those evil disposable plastic bottles with water and sink them in the water reservoir. Clean, lasting and no brick rubbish.

  17. #17 Pete M.
    April 23, 2008

    My wife and I are trying to be more green. We recycle, use compact fluorescents, tote our water around in Nalgenes, eating more vegetarian dishes (though we still do eat meat as well), and so on. We’re somewhat limited by our city’s lack of green support and our lack of a yard (we live in an apartment building). But I really appreciate Janet’s list of concrete suggestions, since many of them are things we can do.

    I have a question though. We use the “semi-disposable” gladware mentioned by Rebecca, but we also use ziploc bags. We wash the ziploc bags and reuse them. Is this in any way worse than using (and reusing) the gladware stuff? The bags work better for some things: Ciabatta rolls, for example, don’t fit easily into the gladware, but the ziploc bags are the perfect size. Is it lower impact to use the wax paper that Janet mentioned, instead of using and reusing either of the plastic products? Thanks…

  18. #18 Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde
    April 23, 2008

    We shower every other day, rather than every; especially since our hot water takes a while to warm up, this saves gallons. (Every day at conferences though….best nonsmelly foot forward and all that.) We’re renting so we can’t try any of the nifty hot water heater ideas described above.

    Eating fruits and veggies from our local CSA insures they haven’t been shipped miles and miles. We deliberately chose a quasi-urban neighborhood so we can walk or bike for groceries.

    Oh, and we vote Democratic. Duh.

  19. #19 Nic
    April 23, 2008

    Thanks for the great post. I think one of the biggest things we have been able to change is the amount of garbage we produce. Our co-op allows us to refill our laundry detergent, hand and dish soap and other cleaning supplies so that we do not have to dispose of the container whenever we run out. We have also been able to take advantage of the co-op’s bulk bins which saves money and reduces waste. Selection is great and is not limited to granola, tea, coffee, spices, any baking staple, rice, pasta, nuts, beans, peanut butter, maple syrup, and oils. We try to be car-lite as frequently as possible, trying to achieve 1 tank of gas/month.

    For sandwiches we use tupperware.

  20. #20 Barn Owl
    April 23, 2008

    I’ve been using canvas and mesh bags for grocery shopping for years-I got in the habit while living in England during my postdoctoral years. About a year ago, I started turning plastic bags saved by others to create “yarn”, and to crochet tote bags. I’ve made about 15 of them so far, gave most away as gifts; each one keeps 60-80 plastic bags out of the landfill and waterways. When i got bored with crocheting tote bags, I started creating jellyfish for my lab decor.

    I really dislike paper napkins, and I’ve been using cloth for years. My mom makes napkins and placemats from leftover fabric yardage, in all sorts of prints and seasonal colors-it helps if you have a serger to bind the edges.

    Styrofoam cups set my teeth on edge. I don’t know how anyone can stand to drink coffee or tea from them. Sales reps for scientific supply and pharmaceutical companies give away coffee mugs all the time, so there’s really no excuse to fail to keep one in your office or lab, if you’re a biomedical research type.

    Water conservation is an important consideration here, so all newer houses have low-flow toilets. I like the bucket idea-I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been gradually xeriscaping my backyard, to replace the stupid St. Augustine grass that the builders planted.

    If you like sodas more for the fizziness than for the taste, or if you just enjoy sparkling water, I’d recommend buying a carbonator. You can get a home system for about $300- mine included 3 refillable CO2 cartridges, and two glass carafes with stoppers. I just keep the carafes filled with tap water in the fridge, ready to be carbonated.

    If I could ride one of my horses to work every day, I would definitely do so. I live about the right distance from the university for that to have been a great option (about 100 years ago, of course).

  21. #21 laundry
    April 24, 2008

    Totally disagree with doing laundry or dishes in cold water. The energy used is not that much, and it’s not worth the risk of getting bacterial or fungal contamination/infections. Particularly things like sheets and underwear should ALWAYS be washed at high temperatures. It just takes warm/hot water and a bit of soap to kill the majority of bad germs.

  22. #22 Barn Owl
    April 24, 2008

    Hybrid vehicles are great, and the technology seems to improve every year. But it’s probably worth considering the energy costs and savings to purchase a new hybrid, especially if you already own a reliable car that gets decent gas mileage. Of course, driving a new Prius screams “I’m environmentally friendly!!!”, while continuing to drive your old Toyota Echo or Honda Civic for a few more years does not.

    This is an extremely unpopular suggestion, but some academic scientists are reconsidering attendance at annual meetings, and the number of invited talks they will present at outside universities. Traveling to a meeting across the country, staying in a hotel, and dining out at restaurants leave a pretty good-sized carbon footprint, and I don’t happen to think that the “carbon offsetting” programs offered by some meeting organizers are socially and environmentally just solutions. I realize that the groupthink in academia is that we “deserve” to attend these meetings and enjoy the luxury for a few days, and that it’s critically “important” that we schmooze and BS and present our research and ideas in meatspace. My impression is that these attitudes are unlikely to change any time soon… intelligent people are pretty resistant to confessing any little hypocrisies in their behavior.

  23. #23 Lab Cat
    April 24, 2008

    Great post with lots of ideas for me to try, some of which I do already.

    I turn my heating down to 50 oF during the night and during the day when I am not at home. At night I just add blankets to keep me warm.

    Another tip is not to run the water while brushing your teeth. You waste a lot of water that way – put the plug in when you brush your teeth next and see how much the sink fills up.

    I would love to get a greywater system fitted in my house some day then I could reuse the water.

  24. #24 Matthew L.
    April 24, 2008

    Just to demonstrate that usage patterns can easily dominate technological ones, I think it’s worth pointing out that a Hummer would get about 90 passenger miles to the gallon if you filled all five seats inside. Still wouldn’t be a wise car to buy though.

  25. #25 APic
    April 25, 2008

    And if you fill up the seats in a 35mpg, 5-passenger car you get 175 passenger miles to the gallon. Still no reason to buy a Hummer :o)

  26. #26 Carrie
    April 25, 2008

    As HI residents, we don’t have a need for a thermostat. However, the things we do include: solar hot water heater, reusable grocery bags, walk to school/work or drive the Prius. We are fortunate that it rains at our house at night at least once a week. We made our own cachement tub at the base of one of our downspouts to collect rainwater for watering the plants. We use that water 90% of the year — there’s only about one month where we don’t get enough rain to support the cachement.

  27. #27 MikeP
    April 27, 2008

    APic, somehow I doubt that 35mpg car is still getting that with 5 adult humans inside, although your point is made.

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