August 02, 2007

More Energy Calculators

There are, of course, a huge number of calculators online that offer visitors the chance to discover just how nasty or nice to the environment our living habits actually are. My beef with these calculators is twofold:
  • They rarely explain the math behind the calculations.
  • They often gloss over many of the ways in which we impact our environment.
I've just stumbled across a calculator that seems to address at least this latter problem. The Personal Environmental Impact Calculator breaks down your energy use into transportation, recycling, water, and energy. It's not exactly the sexiest calculator out there, and there are a few broken links but most of the results are well documented, and provide helpful conservation suggestions and further reading.

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July 06, 2007

Yesterday's Technology Today! Beer Bottle Solar Panels

Not everybody gets hot water when they want it. Ma Yanjun, of Shaanxi Province in China, was a farmer with a cold family. So he did the only logical thing one could do in such a situation: he built a solar panel out of beer bottles and affixed it to his roof. Now his family of four can each get a warm shower in the morning.

As The Beer Activist points out, "it's a great example of small-scale sustainable technology." Ma Yanjun managed to solve a pressing problem by using found materials and a little ingenuity. His solar panel depletes no resources, uses "unwaste" that would have otherwise been sent to a landfill, and it has even inspired ten other families in his neighborhood to do the same.

The science behind it is so simple that anyone can make one of these things. I couldn't find a step-by-step tutorial for this particular model online, but I did find instructions for making a hot water heater using reclaimed materials, as well as a great tutorial for a hot air heater. Of course, this might be a little more hands-on than most want to take on, but what a cool excuse to work your way through a case of beer!

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April 03, 2007

A Little Maintenance Makes a Difference

I've recently begun the process for getting my writing and design studio certified by the city of San Francisco as a "green business." The process starts with an eight page checklist of steps to take to make my premises greener. Within these pages are some things that both homeowners and renters can do to help reduce their footprint:
Ban the draft.
  • Add a draft blocker to your door. [different styles;DIY]
  • Close the flue on your fireplace when not in use.
  • Weatherize your windows.
Lose the leaks.
Tune in, clean up, turn down.
  • Do an energy audit on your home to get a handle on where your utility money is going each month.
  • Clean the vents on your appliances and replace their filters to make them run more efficiently (check your fridge, your water heater, and your washer and dryer).
  • Turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater instead. Also turn down the temprature on your water heater (you may need to do some adjusting to find the right level, but there's no reason it needs to be going full blast).
  • Add low-flow showerheads, faucets and toilet tanks.

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January 06, 2007

Cool Jerk: Control Fridge Waste

What is it about the Quest for the Holy Snack? You know exactly what I'm talking about: you're craving something delicious—maybe sweet, maybe salty, maybe crunchy, maybe ice cream—so you open the refrigerator door to see what you've got. And then you stand there and stare.

How many times a day do you do this? If you're like me, you do it a fair amount. But I'm on a new quest now—one to change my fridgerly habits. Surprisingly, I've discovered that it's really quite easy...


Step 1: Clean the fridge outside
Refrigerators are remarkable easy to move. They generally slide right out from the wall. From there, you can see all the nasty bits and dust that collect along the coils. Clean it up! This stuff keeps the fridge from running at maximum efficiency. Do it once a month (that's about 5 minutes of your time), and you're good to go.

Step 2: Clean the fridge inside
Nobody likes a casserole dish full of mystery loaf. When you get rid of old and expired products, it becomes much easier to see what you actually do want eat. Try storing items in clear glass containers—they're reusable, and you avoid the out of site, out of mind phenomenon.

Step 3: Close the damn door!
This one's easy. Now that your fridge is clean and organized, and you can see all your food through glass bowls, it shouldn't take you long to decide what you want. Why is this important? Because your fridge loses a lot of cold air when you open it even for a minute and it takes extra energy to re-cool once you close the door. It's been reported that the standard snack-seeker increases their energy use by 5-10% through the simple act of routinely opening and closing the fridge door.

Step 4: Turn it down
How cold does your refrigerator run? If you can stand to turn down the temperature even a single level, you'll save a lot of energy. Do the same for your freezer if it has a seperate control.

Step 5: Fill 'er up
While normally I would never recommend simply filling your fridge with useless foods that you'll probably never eat, I can't deny that a full fridge uses less energy than an empty one. This is because the air required to stay cool takes up less volume than the food itself. This is particularly useful for your freezer, where you can store food for longer and waste less.

Step 6: Replace it altogether
Not everyone can do this—us renters are stuck with the fridge we've got. But if you're a homeowner, consider replacing your fridge with an Energy Star rated appliance. Not only will you use less energy, but some gas & electric providers actually offer additional discounts on your bill when you buy these products. You can download a handy Excel spreadsheet to calculate just what you'll save.

Aside from replacing your appliance, all of these steps require about 10 minutes of your time per month. So what are you waiting for? Once you're done, you can reward yourself with some cookies—and you don't even need to open the fridge to get them.

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December 31, 2006

Reuse Reaps Rewards

The green marketplace is growing, and there are plenty of fantastic sites out there who feature green businesses and products for those of us driven to consume. But, ultimately, consumption lies at the core of the problem—the more Stuff we buy, the more they make and the more Stuff we end up throwing away.

One alternative is to simply reuse old Stuff. Some fancier folks like to call it "repurpose" or "remix," but let's not get all high-falutin'. Before Henry Ford perfected the assemply line, Stuff was made by hand. The time, effort and resources put into each piece dictated that it not be simply thrown away when its initial use was over. Stuff was either repaired, or used for something else to get more life out of it.

These days, what with our busy schedules and the sheer accessability of Stuff—all kinds of Stuff—we tend to run out and replace instead of simply reusing what we already have. But there are some folks who actually get a kick out of saving their dimes and altering the Stuff they already have—and maybe don't want anymore—to become other Stuff.

Some of the following sites border on arts 'n' crafts, but getting your hands dirty is what is so rewarding about reusing old Stuff. And a lot of these sites don't necessarily focus on resuing old stuff so much as customizing new stuff. After this list, I've included some tips for keeping your project as sustainable as possible.

Most reuse projects take just an afternoon (if that). You can customize them as much as you want, to suit your schedule, budget and personal taste. And the result is one-of-a-kind Stuff made just for you!

...Recycle This?! How Can I Recycle This gives you loads of reuse tips and projects.

Ikea Hacker: A great resource for breathing new life into that old Ikea furniture you were going to throw away.

ReadyMade: Their blog often features easy DIY projects and the magazine does the same.

Curbly: More of an Apartment Therapy-type site, Curbly frequently offers ideas for DIY and reuse projects.

Acorn Studios: Acorn sells new Stuff made from old Stuff and they have a small section of fun DIY projects.

Dendrite: Dendrite's Reuse/Recycle section features some brilliant examples of what you can do with old Stuff.

Glitter: Get your craft on at this forum of DIY freaks.

In the Wake: A list of random projects for resuing old Stuff.

CraftZine: Yep, more wicked randomness made from old Stuff.

As you'll likely notice, most of these sites don't actually focus on reusing old Stuff, though they may touch on that here and there. But here are some tips when tackling any project to help you make it more sustainable:

  1. Use old Stuff! Instead of buying new materials, reclaim the things you don't use anymore. Old containers become planters, salvaged lumber becomes shelving, and so on and so forth. The idea is to stop thinking about objects as though they have a limited lifespan.

  2. Beg, borrow or steal. There is no reason that the old Stuff has to be yours. Yard sales, trash collections days, Craig's List, etc., are all great resources for picking up old Stuff to make new again.
  3. Consider your methods. Be mindful of the accessories and tools you use in your projects, such as using nontoxic glues and materials.

  4. Just don't throw it out. Even if you can't think of a new use for that old Stuff, someone else might. Try giving it away on Freecycle.org, Craig's List, or to a local shelter, school or thrift shop.

What have you reused? I'd love to see your own projects in which you've given new life to old Stuff. I'm in the process of trying to design a desk made from old Stuff, and once I get around to completing it I'll be sure to post. In the meantime, show me your old-to-new Stuff!

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November 28, 2006

The Sustainable Home, Room-by-Room

When touting sustainability it becomes easy to step up onto a soapbox and preach away. And no matter how hard I try to avoid sounding self-rightious, one of the most common laments I hear from friends and colleagues is how hard it is to "live sustainably." It's true—we live in a culture that functions on consumption, making it extrememly hard for "normal" folks to live a completely sustainable lifestyle. As a result, many of us get overwhelmed and just give up trying altogether.

But even the smallest choices can yield big results over time. Here are just a few tips that you can implement at home, whether you rent or own, to increase your sustainability and decrease the size of your environmental footprint:
  1. In the kitchen:
    Reuse plastic and glass food containers instead of throwing them away;
    Reduce your usage of ziplock baggies by using those containers you just saved;
    Turn off the kitchen faucet as you scrub your dishes;
    Wait until the dishwasher is completely full before running it;
  2. In the bathroom:
    Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth;
    Opt for baths over showers whenever possible;
    Fix that running toilet or leaking faucet ASAP to conserve water;
    Install a water-saving shower head
  3. In the bedroom:
    Buy organic or recycled bed linens;
    Hang heavy curtains over windows to keep the heat in
  4. The whole home:
    Change your lightbulbs to warm, energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs;
    Open your curtains to let in natural light instead of flipping the light switch;
    Use rugs and carpets on hardwood floors to help retain heat;
    Bring in living plants to help the air quality;
    Use non-toxic cleaning products whenever possible;
    If renovating, consider non-toxic, sustainable or salvaged materials and energy-efficient appliances
Implementing just a few of these things into your daily life can make a real impact and chances are you'll never even notice the difference.

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November 14, 2006

Renters Can Be Sustainable, Too!

There is certainly a bias toward homeowners when it comes to energy efficiency—a lot of the steps one can take to make a home more sustainable and energy efficient require permanent or semi-permanent alteration. But what about all of us renters who would like to make less of an impact? Here are a few ways renters can get in on the action:
  • Waste not, want not. Start with yourself and not your home, since you have complete control over your own actions. Reduce your waste output by purchasing only what you need. Recycle as much of your waste as you can.

  • Get lit. Replace all of your conventional lightbulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Don't be put off by the cost or the name: the light they give off is actually quite warm and inviting, and they last up to four times as long as standard bulbs.

  • Educate your landlord. Knowledge brings change, so share what you know with your landlord. Do a little research on your own, provide specific ideas, and phrase it in terms of what they will save by taking energy efficient steps such as replacing old appliances with Energy Star rated ones, and so on.
Have more ideas for renters? Post a comment!

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