Are you a cheapskate? Living green can be thrifty too!

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Around the country, times are tough. The US economy is losing more jobs than it’s creating, and retail sales are down sharply from last year. There’s been a run on piggy banks and belts are getting tight. If you’re looking for ways to be frugal without sacrificing hard earned comfort, here are a couple of ways to help the earth while trimming your budget at the same time:

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1) Shop local!

Have you ever looked at the labels in your pantry and tried to figure out where your groceries came from? With high gas prices, we’re starting to see transport costs reflected in the cost of food. Vegetables that travel across the country (or across the planet) often cost far more than local produce, and that cost reflects the carbon footprint of transporting the goods. If you drink less Fiji water and eat fewer bars of Belgian chocolate, you can save some serious green. Local foods are often fresher, free of dangerous pesticides, and more connected to our roots. As a bonus, local foods are often grown by our friends and neighbors, so buying local helps build community and food independence.

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2) Shop at salvage stores

Did you know that stores throw out millions of pounds of food, cleaning supplies, and seasonal items every year? When a can gets bent or a product is discontinued, grocery stores often take these ‘less desirable’ items off of their shelf to make room. While some of these supplies really are junk, there are times where the blemishes are purely cosmetic.

Surplus items often end up at charity or salvage stores where you can get amazing deals. When was the last time you went to a Goodwill, Salvation Army, Dollar Store, or other business with a grocery list in hand? You my be surprised by the savings – imagine paying 5 cents for a family sized can of soup where the only problem is a torn label, or $5 for a new and unused cooking pan that someone got for their birthday. Just keep an eye out for your own safety – there’s no law against selling expired foods, and if cans are crushed enough that the metal comes in contact with other metal, that can pose a health risk.

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3) Re-use items to get the most life out of them

Before you throw something into the recycle bin, have you tried thinking outside of the box? For example, plastic bottles can easily be turned into bird feeders, and you can cut down on ziplock bags by reusing airtight food containers. Just because a manufacturer claims that an item is single use, that doesn’t mean it should be thrown away. Some common items that can be used more than once include dryer sheets, rubber bands, shoe laces (when you throw out one pair of shoes, save the laces!), and even car oil!

Try finding new uses for packaging and other trash. Popsicle sticks are great for craft projects, and twist-ties from bread bags are a great way to organize your computer cables. Those junk mail envelopes can be saved from the trash too – just put a label over the barcodes and you’ll never have to buy letter envelopes again!

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Can water hogs be shamed into changing their ways?

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A man in Georgia was recently called out on news shows around the country for being the biggest water hog in his county. News vans parked in his driveway, his behavior caused the city to introduce new rates for excessive use, and Chris G. Carlos was too embarrassed to even step outside. Many of his neighbors were interviewed for their opinion about watering a palatial lawn and running fountains during the worst drought Atlanta has seen in recent memory:

“I think it’s absurd, I really do,” said Ken Scott. Scott lives across the street from 4151 Thunderbird Drive. It’s a single home that uses as much water as a 60 home subdivision. “With all the pressure on everybody not to use water and to conserve…I think it’s ridiculous,” said Scott.

The good news? Public shaming apparently works! The water hog hired a PR company to tell the world that he’s changing his ways. That’s what you do when you’re rich and really make a mess – you hire a professional to apologize for you.

This begs the question – can public shaming be used to change other people’s wasteful habits? Many cities cite businesses and homeowners for wasting water (Las Vegas even has a dedicated water police force). What if the database of offenders was published online, for everyone to see?

Many celebrities are also guilty. Would fans still buy merchandise if they knew the extent of water wasted by Celine Dion and Tiger Woods?

The Palm Beach Post did a study of local water usage and found Celine Dion’s 5.7 acres in Jupiter, Florida, used about 6.5 million gallons of water in a year. That’s more than 250 times the amount of water the average resident uses, or equivalent to filling a 50-gallon bathtub every four minutes.

The reputation of public figures is essential for selling their “product”. Even a hint of scandal can undermine sponsorship deals or delay financing for tours. So, it doesn’t require a country club membership or private audience to gain leverage over most celebrities. We ask performers to be our role models, and many of them may not even know that they’re wasting water on a flood-like scale.

When Kathie Lee Gifford was interviewed about sweatshop conditions among the workers who made her branded clothes, she probably had no idea about the true situation. But, the scandalous news coverage quickly changed her business habits and also made Americans more aware of worldwide labor conditions. Perhaps a frank discussion about the bad habits of water hogs can encourage all of our neighbors to adopt water saving devices and get runoff out of the streets.

And don’t forget Lance Armstrong, who used the most water of any individual home in Austin, Texas! Five gallons a minute, anyone?

“I need to fix this,” Armstrong said. “To use that much more water (than most residents) is unacceptable. I have no interest in being the top water user in Austin, Texas.”

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Links, links, green links. Get them while they’re hot!

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Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

Discarded fishing gear is a major problem in the ocean. Lost nets and traps can get tangled with animals, catch boat propellers, and damage fragile coral reefs. Covanta Energy is doing something interesting – they’re offering a free waste disposal service that converts marine waste into electricity by incinerating it and filtering the emissions. The Fishing for Energy program is about to get a windfall too – thousands of yards of fishing line are about to become obsolete due to new laws about floating rigs. Instead of paying disposal fees, many fisherman were expected to dump the line overboard. Now, that rope can be used to reduce the amount of coal and natural gas burned in 2009:

Derelict fishing equipment can threaten marine life, impair navigational safety, and have serious economic repercussions on shipping and coastal communities. Since the program was launched in February, more than 80,000 pounds of fishing nets, trawl gear, crab pots, and fishing line have been collected and converted into energy.

Speaking of the ocean, new studies have shown that methane gas trapped under the ice caps is escaping. As glaciers recede, this greenhouse gas is accelerating the melting process. Since methane has more than 20 times the heat trapping powers of carbon dioxide and the amount of methane involved is enormous, this could have serious climate effects.

Since the news lately has been a bit dark and scary, it’s important to focus on some of the amazing things that are also going on. For instance, have you seen what kids these days are up to? What were you doing when you were 12? This kid won a prize for designing next generation solar cells. That certainly trumps the tree house I built back in the 90’s.

There are also some exciting things happening in our neighbors yards. Believe it or not – it’s possible to grow more than 10,000 tomatoes in a typical yard. Wouldn’t you get tired of eating tomatoes after about the 5,000th one? And, the next time you’re mowing grass or digging holes for new landscaping – keep an eye out for Paleo-Indian artifacts. That, and buried pirate treasure.

Ever hear the adage “Everything that’s old is new again”? Companies catering to green tourists are using this truth to their advantage, with a rise in carbon neutral activities such as geothermal steam cog railroad trips, sky trams powered by water pressure, bookings on river steamboats, and even horse riding tours! Although, if you’ve ever been on the south bound end of a north bound horse, you know that carbon emissions aren’t the only thing there is to worry about.

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Queen of England plans array of offshore wind turbines, including biggest turbine ever built

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The Queen of England once enjoyed direct rule over 2/3 of the earth’s surface. Her personal authority is a bit less these days, but she still has control over the territorial waters of Great Britain. And, with the backing of the Crown Estate, Queen Elizabeth II can afford to do some really impressive things in her domain. Like building an array of offshore windmills, including the biggest individual windmill in the world.

Her Majesty’s windmill will produce 7.5 megawatts, which is more than twice as much as the previous record holder (GE’s 3.6 MW Offshore Turbine). The company that’s producing the turbine is Clipper Windpower, based in California. They have a proven history building monster wind turbines – including the largest turbine built in the US: the 2.5 MW Liberty Turbine. Details are still being worked out about where the giant wind turbine will be produced, and how it will be shipped to England.

The average British person uses 10-15 kilowatts per day (half of the average American energy consumption), which means that on a windy day this monster turbine will meet the needs of roughly 500-750 people. And the British Crown plans to build multiple turbines, all far out to sea. Many will be invisible to people on land, but the biggest windmill in the world will be nearly 600 feet tall and should be visible for about 18-19 miles.

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Is there a green lining to the economic bailout package?

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The $700 Billion bailout bill has stirred up mixed emotions. On one hand, relieved sighs have been heard from Wall Street, but many people are spitting mad. In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, some key sections of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 have been overshadowed by chaos in the stock market.

From an environmental standpoint, the biggest news is that the bail out bill renews the tax credits for alternative energy. After the bailout bill was defeated, language from the recently defeated Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 was added to the second version. It provides tax credits for wind, solar, fuel cell, micro turbines, co-generation, and geothermal systems and the benefits have been extended as far as January 1, 2017. Also, tax incentives were added for “marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy” (new technologies that capture energy from waves and tidal forces).

The bill contains a few other surprises. The ceilings were raised on just about every type of tax credit. For instance, the maximum incentive for fuel cells was raised from $500 to $1,500. Wind turbines that produce less than 100 kW are now eligible for up to $4,000 of credit (that means projects up to $13,333 are eligible for a full 30% tax credit). Heat pumps qualify for up to $2,000 of credit. And solar panels now have an unlimited credit. Here’s a concise summary of the new tax benefits and other impacts.

Also of interest – the Emergency Economic Stabilization Bill allows for up to $800,000,000 of Renewable Energy Bonds, with those bonds split between public energy providers, government bodies, and private energy providers. There are also tax breaks offered for “clean” coal, coal liquefication (for use as a gasoline substitute) and coal gasification (a process that improves burn efficiency within coal turbines). One of the biggest surprises is that the bill now rewards power companies and steel producers for capturing carbon emissions. There’s a requirement that 65-70% of carbon dioxide produced from coal must be captured and sequestered to receive credit, and the projects that sequester carbon better than their competitors are given the highest funding priority.

That’s right – the benefits offered to coal producers and consumers come with strings attached. The bill even gives a tax credit for carbon sequestering! From page 175 of the 451 page bill:

(a) GENERAL RULE.—For purposes of section 38, the carbon dioxide sequestration credit for any taxable
year is an amount equal to the sum of—
(1) $20 per metric ton of qualified carbon dioxide which is—
(A) captured by the taxpayer at a qualified facility, and
(B) disposed of by the taxpayer in secure geological storage, and
(2) $10 per metric ton of qualified carbon doxide which is-
(A) captured by the taxpayer at a qualified facility, and
(B) used by the taxpayer as a tertiary injectant in a qualified enhanced oil or natural gas recovery project.

Since many oil companies are injecting CO2 into the ground already to boost production, it’s questionable whether the second half of this carbon credit will create any new benefits to the environment. There is also some concern that carbon dioxide injected into the ground can increase the acidity of groundwater and escape over time. But, if you have any great ideas about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, now is the time to put them into practice. It may be a bit tricky to get financing though – despite the passage of the alternative energy friendly bill, many green companies are having trouble securing financing and now might not be the best time for an IPO.

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