Green your life at home, work & play

The Greening of the U.S. Car Industry April 10, 2012

The car industry in the United States isn’t known for its particular environmentalism, especially compared to European or Japanese cars. Fortunately, recent regulations have caused great changes in how cars must be made. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE regulations mandate the number of miles per gallon (MPGs) cars must achieve. In 2009, President Obama announced an increase in MPGs of 30% by 2016, which was agreed upon by the auto industry and environmental activists. This raised MPG to an average 39 for cars and 30 for light trucks and was the first increase in MPG since 1985. More recently, there is speculation that the administration will try to increase MPG again to 56 or 62 by 2020.

Any increase in MPG standards is great for the environment because it significantly decreases carbon dioxide emissions from cars. Burning a gallon of gasoline releases 19.4 pounds of CO2 and a gallon of diesel releases 22.2 pounds. 27% of the U.S.’ emissions are from transportation, so a decrease in emissions in this industry would help significantly.

Some, such as the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), argue that enforcing an overall standard of 62 MPGs for vehicles would be too expensive for the car industry because it would require more fully electric cars (which are more expensive) to make up for the less efficient cars that would still be manufactured. However, the EPA’s study shows that the additional price of cars would increase by only $3,000 instead of the almost $10,000 suggested by CAR.

Whichever price increases that actually occur, the average MPG of cars is definitely increasing, which is good for the environment as well as buyers, who can save money at the pump. What still needs to be determined is by how much our cars’ MPG will increase, and whether it will be from a significant increase in manufacturing all-electric cars or more conventional hybrids.

Photo Courtesy of Planet Green


Greening Hospitals April 6, 2012

The health care industry has a great, untapped potential to be more environmentally friendly. Currently hospitals in the U.S. create 6,600 tons of waste per day. There are many problems that the health care industry faces that others do not, such as infectious and hazardous waste. The proper disposal of these items is important for both human health as well as the environment. Current methods of disposing of infectious or hazardous waste, although effective, are not the best for the environment. Incinerating waste is important to not spread infectious diseases or have chemicals leach into the ground in landfills, but this causes air pollution from mercury and dioxin.

Contrary to what many may believe, a large amount of waste created by the health care industry is actually regular trash and recyclables – plastic, cardboard, etc.  The need for sterile instruments has led to the “single-use” culture, which has been facilitated by prevalence of plastics. In certain instances this is necessary (needles, etc). However, in other instances, reusable products could be utilized. A re-assessment of how hospitals use materials is necessary to find this difference. For example, plastic is commonly used for packaging, but glass or other materials can be a substitute when there is less risk of breakage. Glass is a great material because it can be recycled infinitely without degrading, unlike most other materials.

Fortunately, some people realize the great impact that the health care industry can have on the world’s carbon footprint. In 2000, the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care was created to promote eco-friendly practices, which include pollution prevention and resource conservation. There are also many hospitals in the U.S. that are going green as well.

Photo Courtesy of Planet Green


Does Purchasing Eco-Friendly Products Go Against the Basics of Environmentalism? March 30, 2012

The green movement has created many options to help the environment, including green consumerism, which entails buying products that are more environmentally friendly than their conventional counterparts. The theory behind this idea is, since we have to buy products, we might as well buy products that hurt the planet less. But is this concept fatally flawed? Doesn’t the whole culture of consumerism go against the green movement, which emphasizes using fewer materials, not more? A New York Times article points out how even though people may buy green products, our level of consumption is still dangerously high. “Buying as much as we want because we can” has been a staple of American culture for some time and green consumerism continues to fuel this. Is it truly helpful to the environment for us to encourage such behavior? More importantly than what we purchase is how much we purchase.

As the article points out, most complaints against green consumerism don’t come from major green organizations, like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. This is probably because green consumerism does do something beneficial: brings the environment and global warming to people’s attention. Even if they aren’t dedicated to the environment as activists, at least they are aware of the problems it faces when they pick up an organic cotton t-shirt instead of one made out of conventionally grown cotton. Businesses also argue that green consumerism can be beneficial  because they are more effective at solving climate change than governments since they are more focused on the long-term and don’t face reelection every four years. They were not clear on the how, but they emphasized that the solution to our environmental problems is economic growth fueled by eco-minded consumers.

My conclusion from all this is that green consumerism is a good strategy, but it is not the solution in and of itself. If people need and want to buy products, they might as well buy those that are better for the earth than those that are not. Green consumerism isn’t the only answer to our current environmental situation, but it can help. Hopefully, by becoming aware of part of their purchasing habits (what they buy) people will also become aware of another part (how much they buy).

Photo Courtesy of Holos: Ecologia Integral blog


Energy conservation or energy efficiency? Or both? January 20, 2012

Saatchi & Saatchi’s  Strategy for Sustainability winter 2012 newsletter featured a recent article featured from the Guardian  that highlighted the fact that we now use 15 times more energy than we did prior to the industrial revolution. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that fossil fuels are involved in most activities – from growth and transportation of the food we eat, to the hot water for our shower, the fuel for our transportation (unless you walk or bike), and the power for our computers, phones, printers, etc… The article points out that although the majority of conversations are focused on finding alternative forms of energy supply, reducing energy demand is largely overlooked and should be something that is incentivized and regulated.

Speaking as someone who spends a lot of her time educating and encouraging organizations and individuals to reduce, reuse, repurpose and really, rethink, their energy, water, waste and product use, I agree that conservation is important. Regardless of whether you believe in Peak Oil or not, the fact remains that the earth’s population is increasing at an exponential pace – in the 1950’s, there were about 2.5 billion people on the planet, and now, a mere 60 years later, there are 7 billion. We are utilizing a finite resource and our needs are growing exponentially. Conservation is certainly important, as are finding alternative energy solutions.

Although it would be great for energy to be considered as a public good, as the article states, this will likely not happen in the near future, so energy conservation is one of the ways to stem the growth of energy use, at least for the short term.  Energy efficiency, of course, is a great first step in that discussion. Energy efficiency can reduce direct energy consumption by as much as 20-30%. Steps for this are more or less widely known – for commercial buildings, they range from switching to more energy efficient lighting, installing occupancy sensors and installing an energy management system, to looking at more holistic smart building solutions.

Once these measures are in place, it is time to look at energy conservation. This involves getting people on board – and this can be a tougher proposition, one that requires not only education but ongoing cheerleading, for lack of a better term. I have had CEOs and COOs tell me that their staff will ‘do as they are told’. Even if this is the case (which in most cases, it is not), obedience to mandated rules will be short-lived and will cause ill-will. I recently went to a Sustainable DC Energy Workgroup, one of nine workgroups convened with the end goal of providing an innovative plan to ‘make DC the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation’. The question was raised there as well –  ‘how can we get people to change their behavior – why is it so hard to do?’

That is a great question, and one that I find many organizations struggle with – once they realize the importance of it. Behavior change can add another 10-15% , if not more, in energy conservation, so it is certainly something that should not be ignored.  There are no easy solutions to successful behavior change.  Answers range from educating and incentivizing to recognizing to challenging individuals to conserve energy. It all depends on the organization’s culture –whether it is hierarchical or flat, its size, and its vision. These, among others, are all ingredients to the recipe that will, ideally, result in reduced energy consumption.

Another way to conserve energy, indirectly, is to look at the embodied energy from all the products that are used in a regular office environment or at home. This is a tougher one to measure, but, as a starting point, it can be addressed by following a couple of basic rules: simplify and buy ‘green’ products.

Simplifying means less stuff in your life – whether that is at your office or your home. It means thinking twice about whether something is really needed before you hit the ‘Buy’ button or put in a purchase order.  It means reusing items and again, rethinking.

As for buying ‘green’, this means what I’m sure many of you have already guessed – purchasing items that are made of 100% recycled content, that are sustainably harvested and produced, and that can be reused or repurposed.  The energy required to recycle a product is less than the energy required to make a new one.

So, conserving starts with getting people on board and simplifying processes and your life. And, although it sounds simple, it is tougher to do than installing energy efficient mechanical equipment, but it is just as important – if not more.


Too Dry or Too Wet? January 13, 2012

Depending on the difference between the humidity of the outside and inside air, your house can either be too dry or too wet. In the winter time, outside cold air is drier than that in your house, which causes the air in your house to dry out. If your home is too dry, a humidifier can help, though you may need to weatherize your home to better seal it from outside air. However, most often a too wet home causes the most problems, such as mold and mildew growth, infestation by dust mites, cockroaches and bacteria, and structural damage. There are many causes of excess moisture, including leaky plumbing, a wet attic or basement, humidifiers, gutters, downspouts and drains, and of course flooding and sewer backups. Anything made out of wood, paper or cardboard in damp areas can also create mold growth, which can cause asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.  Maintaining appropriate moisture levels in your home is important to keep it healthy and green:

  • Find and fix all plumbing leaks (even small leaks can lead to mold growth)
  • Install and use exhaust fans in kitchen and bathrooms (especially when cooking or after showering)
  • Change the water in your humidifier once a day and clean weekly
  • Open windows or use fans to increase air circulation
  • Direct water away from your home’s foundation with landscaping and correctly situated downspouts
  • Repair all cracks and holes in walls
  • Keep gutters clear to prevent water buildup
  • Ensure that dryers have external exhaust fans

Just a quick walk around your home can save you thousands of dollars in repairs if you catch the problems early. For more tips on how to identify and fix moisture problems in your home, check out this article from Oregon State University.


Which is better for the environment-using paper or a computer? January 6, 2012

With the rise in popularity of mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets, and e-readers, the question of whether it is better to read something on an electronic device or in print has become even more complicated. The answer is just as confounded. To truly know the environmental impact of a product, you need to assess it from production to disposal (which hopefully involves recycling!). Although a full environmental assessment of all options is not possible here, I will attempt to give an overview of the environmental impact of electronic devices and paper.


A piece of paper releases 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (the amount of greenhouse gases in terms of carbon dioxide impact). If the paper has 100% recycled post-consumer content, it produces a lot less-0.017 pounds of CO2 equivalents. In terms of newspapers, 1 ton of newsprint kills 12 trees. The average recycled content for newspapers in the U.S. is only 35%. Creating wood pulp out of the trees is very energy-intensive and produces large amounts of pollution. In fact, the pulp industry is the third highest polluter in the U.S.

Farming trees specifically grown to produce paper also reduces biodiversity. Some tree species provide better quality paper, so we plant more of those and cut down old-growth trees to make space. This emits carbon dioxide into the air that had been stored for hundreds or thousands of years, and which these new trees can’t hope to recapture during their short lifespan. Pesticide and herbicide use is also a problem, since these are required to maintain the monoculture of tree farms.

The moral here is, if you are going to print something, please use recycled content paper, or better yet-reuse paper by printing on the blank side (though this strategy doesn’t really work for books).

Electronic devices

Alright, so everyone probably knew that making paper kills trees. But do you know what impact computers, e-readers and other mobile devices have on the environment?

Electronic devices are usually made out of plastic, which biodegrades extremely slowly, and also often contain rare metals like coltan that require mining. They also require a lot of energy to manufacture, ship and discard, and sometimes include toxic chemicals inside. Using a computer or other mobile device also requires a lot of electricity, which in the U.S. mostly comes from coal. The energy goes towards powering the device itself, but a significant amount also goes towards powering internet servers, even more so now that the use of “cloud computing” has increased in recent years. In terms of CO2 emissions, Apple has announced that using an iPad only releases 0.004 pounds of CO2 equivalents per hour and that over its lifetime (including manufacturing, transport and recycling), an iPad will produce 231 pounds of CO2 equivalent, which is the same as 7,700 sheets of regular paper or 13,600 sheets of recycled paper. In this comparison, the iPad comes out on top if you think of the number of pages you can read on an iPad during its lifetime without killing one tree.

However, International Paper,  a world-wide printing company, argues that the large energy consumption of devices such as the iPad makes paper a better choice. Powering a computer for five months requires the same amount of energy used to produce a year’s worth of paper for the average person. It also points out that paper has a much higher recycling rate in the U.S. (60%) compared to electronic devices (18%), which are instead often shipped to third-world countries where they contaminate landfills.

To sum up, the answer is complicated. If you read thousands of pages a year on your electronic device, then it might be better than printing thousands of pages. But then in four or five years (or probably sooner), you’ll have to buy the newest iPad, so what happens to the plastics and chemicals used in your original tablet? If you don’t read quite as many pages, then paper might be a good choice, but you would still be killing trees, encouraging biodiversity loss and increasing pollution from the pulp industry. Ultimately, whether to read print or electronic versions of your favorite newspaper or book is really a personal decision. If you already use your computer or tablet often, then also use it for reading. If you prefer the feel of a newspaper or book in your hand, then make sure to plant some trees.

Photos courtesy of Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and Building Green 


12 Great Alternatives to the Usual Office Holiday Gifts December 16, 2011

In addition to the annual Christmas party, many organizations have a tradition of gift giving.  You may feel pressured to buy something for everyone in your department  – and that is one more thing that you may not want to add to your holiday ‘to do’ list.

One company decided to change that tradition, and figured out an alternative to buying for the 30 plus people in the organization. Some of the employees met and decided to start making gift baskets of consumables, cookies, breads etc., that would not clutter the office all year.  The baskets werea hit, and started a trend.

Still, people felt they had to give a basket to everyone. The next year, the Secret Santa concept was floated – this is where everyone picks a name out of a hat, and buys only that person a gift. The company voted, and everyone agreed to the Secret Santa idea. Even though there was now less stuff, people still tried to outdo each other with the gift they would give. Finally, the company put a $20 cap on the gift value. That is one alternative for your office – and below are 12 more:

  1. As an office, adopt a school, hospital or collect money for the homeless or needy families.  Resource for adopting a school:,
  2. Donate to a charity in the name of a colleague who cares about that issue. For example, Rescue Gifts:
  3. Give reusable items that can be used all year long, like water bottles, mugs , reusable shopping bags or solar rechargers:
  4. Give gifts of recycled, reused and natural materials like
  5. Give fair trade and organic items such as tea, coffee, or chocolate.
  6. Give homemade baked goods, potpourri, or a dried herb wreath: and
  7. Create a special memory by giving activities, a ball game, museum tickets, or another fun activity: or
  8. Send a card to a soldier overseas or an injured veteran spending the holidays in a military hospital:   or
  9. Make a special emergency kit gift basket with a blanket, flashlight, gas can, jumper cables, and flares – do it yourself or go to:
  10. Give away that great book you enjoyed to someone who shares your taste. Or give the gift of reading to a child in need:
  11. If you must shop, buy at a local small business:
  12. Look at your suppliers and see what can be changed:

Not to employers: Don’t forget to still give cash bonuses or other incentives for all the good work over the year!

Also, check out:
Happy Holidays!


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