Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Day Without A Bag

I just wanted to pass this along: Heal the Bay is promoting “A Day Without a Bag” this coming Thursday, December 18th.

The day may come when we’ll have bioplastic bags that are both biobased (versus petroleum based) and biodegradable; but, in the meantime, it is probably best to find some other way to transport our groceries and reduce the waste we dump into our environment.

The thing about living in suburbia or in the city is we don’t actually see where our waste goes. We just put it out in our trashcans, and it magically disappears. In rural areas, people aren’t so lucky. They actually have to look their garbage in the face and figure out what to do with it. For the most part, they end up reusing what they need, recycle what they can, and burning the rest.

The problem is plastic doesn’t burn. It just sizzles and smolders and emits noxious fumes before melting into the ground, where it most likely leaches into the soil and contaminates everything around it for years to come. It’s not pretty.

If we all had to actually figure out what to do with our garbage, we’d probably generate a lot less. In the meantime, give the Earth an early Christmas present this year and BYOB (bring your own bag).

Monday, December 15, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas

My favorite Christmas was on a farm in southern Illinois. The farmhouse where we lived was a 900 square foot, two bedroom, one bathroom brick home, with a hand-dug well, a cistern to collect rain water, and a septic system that would overflow if we used it too much. There were only one or two electrical outlets in each room, which meant we couldn’t turn on too many lights. We had one telephone, one TV, and one computer for our family of five. If we tried to cheat and put in a power cord to accommodate, say, the lights on a Christmas tree, we’d blow a fuse.

We were naturally green because we didn’t have a choice. The way our house was structured, we simply couldn’t use too much of anything. We had enough and no more. And, you know what? That was fine. In fact, it was great. Our kids had a ball there, even without all of the latest, greatest electronic gadgets. We grew closer as a family because the living space was such that we had to spend time together.

Now, we live in the OC in a 3,000 square foot home with more bedrooms and bathrooms than I care to count. We have phones and TVs and computers, and we can turn on our Christmas lights anytime we want. We never have to think about the fuse box or about a septic system or anything else. And maybe that’s part of the problem: When everything is this easy, we tend to take things for granted and keep using more. There are no natural barriers to consuming too much energy or water, so we simply don’t live within our environmental means. We don’t even think about it.

But this year, I’m going to think. I’m going to look at the way we’re celebrating Christmas and find a way to do it with more care and less waste. For me, being green this season isn’t just about buying energy efficient LED Christmas lights or recycling my Christmas tree or even donating to an environmental cause. It’s about having enough and no more. It’s about having a little less than we want so we can really savor what we get, instead of having so much we don’t even notice.

So I’m not going to buy everything or do everything this Christmas, which most likely means my family isn’t going to have as much stuff as we usually do. But I am going to think of one thing we can do together to make that day memorable. Maybe, instead of going ice skating in the back forty like we did at Christmas on the farm, we’ll have a bonfire by the beach, California style. Who knows? But I’m sure it’ll be fine. In fact, it’ll be great.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Legislating Innovation

There are two environmental propositions on the California ballot this year, both of which promote the use of alternative energy. Unfortunately, both of them are expensive and neither of them will necessarily get the job done. As we say, here in So Cal: “What a bummer.”

California already has a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in place that will require utilities to get 20% of their energy from renewable sources by 2010. Prop 7 will go even further in requiring utilities to get 50% of their energy from renewable sources by the year 2025.

However, one of the problems in changing from conventional to renewable energy is that the steady transmission of that renewable energy from its source to the end user is not always possible. Or, if it is possible, it will cost more than any of us can afford to pay. Either the energy source itself is intermittent or the ability to transmit it from point A to point B is not there. Looking at it that way, mandating an RPS of 50% is like trying to get blood out of a turnip. Without a reliable energy source or an adequate transmission infrastructure in place, it’s just not going to happen.

A similar argument could be made against Prop 10, which wants the state of California to pick up the tab for alternative fuel vehicles by offering rebates to those who purchase those vehicles. That may sound okay at first glance, but what it really translates to is a lot of natural gas vehicles on the road…and not a natural gas station in sight.

Politicians just don’t seem to realize that their job is not to mandate change or to make a market for a particular product but to facilitate change and allow the market to do what it does best – address people’s needs during times of change.

People will change if the change makes sense. If my electric bills jump from, say, $100 to $200 per month, I’ll start looking for ways to conserve energy and also start looking at alternative energy sources…if they are available at a price I can afford.

By the same token, if I’m driving a gas guzzler and gas goes up to $4 or $5 per gallon, chances are I’ll consider making a change to a more fuel efficient vehicle. If gas goes up to $10 per gallon, I’ll definitely make that change. Why? Because it makes sense.

Mandating utilities to purchase a fixed percentage of energy from renewable sources or paying companies to purchase a fleet of alternative fuel vehicles, however desirable those actions might be, is like building a dam. It solves one problem but doesn’t take into consideration the downstream effects on the natural ecosystem…or, in this case, the free market ecosystem.

If we really want to switch to renewable energy, then our focus should be on ways to incentivize the production and use of renewables and to implement a “full cost” accounting of fossil fuel production. That way, consumers can make the best choices given the technologies at hand.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Same Planet, Different Worlds

In spite of reports that Sarah Palin is not convinced that global warming is man-made, Republicans still appear to embrace the basic concept of energy efficiency. Why? Because it makes sense. It reduces expenses. It saves money. It’s cost effective. And, as people are starting to realize in today’s economic climate: It’s not only how much you make that’s important, it’s how much you spend.

A number of conservatives, including Palin, take energy efficiency very seriously. Their desire to be energy efficient – to reduce energy waste and to increase our productivity in relation to our energy consumption – could be a common link between Democrats and Republicans.

The Republican National Convention earlier this month provided a Green Fact Sheet for how they are running an Eco-Friendly Convention by using flexible-fuel and hybrid vehicles, developing a paperless system for recruiting and registering volunteers, and using the internet and other modes of communication that do not involve physical travel.

The Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul-Minneapolis, which was the hosting venue for the RNC, also boasts of an extensive recycling program for plastic, glass and paper as well as for used cooking oil. Hot water is produced by District Energy , which uses wood chips (biomass) as well as natural gas, oil, and “clean burning coal” to fuel its heating and cooling systems. And low-flow faucets are installed in all the restrooms.

Given a choice between something that is cost effective and something that is not, both Democrats and Republicans will apparently chose the former. And that may be our common ground.

In his August 29, 2008 post on EcoGeek.org , Hank Green (cool last name) wrote: "It's not about asking people to choose, it's giving them a better choice. If you build a light bulb that's cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, has better light quality, and works exactly the same, people won't be choosing a better technology, they'll be choosing the only technology left."

Regardless of their political ideology, most people admit that the way to an American’s heart is through his or her wallet. Provide people with an alternative that makes financial sense – especially in hard times – and they will take it every time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Accidental Environmentalist

This past week the official site of the Democratic National Convention offered an entire “Greening” page on their website, which included several useful Green Tips of the Week

My favorite is Tip #38:

Stop Mail Delivery of Catalogs
Catalog Choice is a FREE service which offers participants the ability to choose which catalogs end up in their mailbox. The steps are simple and you can opt out of most catalogs through one comprehensive website. Visit http://www.catalogchoice.org/ for more information and to choose which catalogs you wish to discontinue. The mission of Catalog Choice is to reduce the number of repeat and unwanted catalog mailings, and to promote the adoption of sustainable industry best practices. Choose to shop online at your favorite retailers rather than using their catalogs!
Source: www.catalogchoice.org

I'm not a big fan of catalogs anyway, so this is a win-win for me and for the environment. And really, at the end of the day, that is what will inspire me to be more green. Like most Americans, my sense of altruism only goes so far. At some point, I have to see a clear, positive outcome in order to stick with a learned behavior.

I am not an environmentalist by nature (no pun intended); but I am concerned about what is happening to our planet, and I do want to help make things better. I won’t debate with anyone whether global warming is real or not. The fact of the matter is, regardless, we are polluting our planet and squandering our natural resources to such an extent that even the most hardened skeptic must at some point address the issue of sustainability.

On January 26, 2007, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13423, which states:
…“sustainable” means to create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans…

If we stop bickering about the topics of the day and start dealing with the real issues – that is, what each of us can do, personally, to reduce, recycle, reuse, and rethink our current lifestyle and business choices – we might all become accidental environmentalists…and improve our bottom line while we’re at it.