Can lighting a match help the environment?

Photo courtesy of green lit at Flickr.com. Even if you have a high-tech, earth friendly toilet, how many times have you heard someone say “Light a candle” after you use the bathroom? Not only does lighting a candle reduce the unpleasant smell, but it also burns up a lot of stinky hydrogen sulfide as well as odorless methane gas. Methane is the second worst gas causing climate change, responsible for climate change, and it has a much stronger heat trapping effect than CO2:

Molecule for molecule, methane gas is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a warming agent. However, since methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long – around 12 years, on average, compared to a hundred years for CO2 – and human activities do not produce all that much of it, concerns about climate change have mostly been focused on carbon dioxide. The one big worry was that warmer temperatures might cause massive releases of methane from natural sources.

Burning up the stink not only reduces the greenhouse effect but it can also reduce some friction in your household. That said, be careful with matches. Don’t burn a candle if your bathroom always smells funky – that could be a sign that explosive sewer gas is leaking into your house from the pipes. Also, don’t spray any deodorant before lighting that match. No one wants to find out the hard way that fire and aerosol cans are an explosive mix. Photo courtesy of Poet for Life at Flickr.com.

News that has nothing to do with Election 2008


Photo courtesy of ecupaintingguild at Flickr.com.

With all the news coverage focused on the election, there are a lot of important and/or awesome things that have escaped attention. Here’s a quick overview of environmental news that’s worth following:

First off, it’s common to get a craving for pumpkin pie around this time every year. But it would take hundreds of people to eat a pie made from this enormous 1,900 lb pumpkin. This behemoth is expected to set a new record for giant pumpkins (a record that has grown bigger every year in recent memory). Maybe this is the monster that Charlie Brown’s been waiting for.

I’m sure that pumpkin wasn’t grown naturally, but no one tried to stick an organic label on it at the store. On the other hand, some businesses have been caught making false environmental claims to sell their products. It can be challenging to tell greenwashed products apart from their legitimate green competitors, but one way to make informed choices is to research the companies involved. Many large companies now publish yearly ‘Corporate Sustainability Reports’ that describe their environmental track record. Corporations are also assigning a dedicated board member to oversee environmental performance. Many of the pro-environment changes that companies are adopting also contribute to the bottom line, and make great economic sense while money is in short supply.

On a related note, the credit crunch is slowing down plans to build new wind farms. Even though wind power accounted for about a third of all new power capacity built last year, the credit climate is making it really hard to line up investors. Wind energy is also running into some problems of scale. Windy days in Washington state are causing salmon deaths in a weird series of unintended consequences. As the wind picks up, wind turbines generate more and more electricity. The excess electricity floods the transmission lines, and automatic controls kick in to shutdown other sources of power. In some cases, this causes hydroelectric dams to idle their turbines and dump water over spillways. If only there was an efficient interstate transmission system, or a better way to store electricity, this whole chain of events could be avoided.

But what if we lived in a world without any need for a power grid? Bloom Technologies is trying to create a lower pollution future based on efficiencies of micro-scale. With small fuel cells, the company hopes to eliminate power loss from transmission lines and bring electricity to the third world. As a bonus, they are designing fuel cells that produce hydrogen as a byproduct – that waste gas could be used to warm homes and fuel vehicles.

Whether cars burn hydrogen or gasoline, tailpipe emissions are pretty much inevitable. This waste product has something that is surprisingly useful though – untapped energy in the form of heat. Researchers are developing new thermoelectric systems that can harvest electricity from tailpipe emissions. If they can keep cost and weight to a minimum, these devices will likely be incorporated into a wide range of hybrid vehicles to boost mileage. The energy recovery isn’t 100 percent, but it can really add up to a serious boost in efficiency:

GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.


Photo courtesy of fensterbme at Flickr.com.

Bottle caps and recycling – are they recyclable?

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Photo courtesy of Jeremy Brooks at Flickr.com.

Bottle caps are surprisingly difficult to recycle. Many curbside recycling programs ask that you remove any lids or caps from bottles. For one thing, this allows the bottles to dry out (reducing transportation costs by reducing weight). Also, open bottles are easier to crush and bale. And some recycling machines are easily jammed by plastic shards and tiny lids.

Most importantly, plastic bottle caps are often made from a different type of plastic from the bottles they’re attached to. Soda bottles are generally made from Type 1 Plastic (Polyethylene Terephthalate) while bottle caps are made from Type 5 Plastic (Polypropylene). These different types of plastic have to be recycled separately. If the bottle and the cap were recycled in the same batch of plastic, the two different plastics would melt unevenly and the whole batch would be ruined.

For this reason, bottle caps are often removed at the recycling facility. People are paid to hand sort the recyclables and remove unwanted trash. Contamination of recycling bins with garbage is a huge problem. Mixing the wrong kinds of plastic with recycling significantly increases the cost of recycling because when workers hand sort the entire bin it slows down the process and increases the cost to such a degree that it’s cheaper for most recycling organizations to simply toss the entire bin as waste material.

But what about metal bottle caps? These are often made of steel, with an attached plastic seal. This mix of plastic and metal isn’t universally recycled, so the first thing you should consider is re-using the bottle caps for homebrewing. This will keep the bottlecaps out of the waste stream for a few more uses (without any energy used to melt and reform the metal) and it can also save you a few bucks (each re-used bottle cap will save 2-3 cents). Just make sure to boil the caps between uses, and don’t re-use lids that are wearing out.

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Photo courtesy of jnhkrawczyk at Flickr.com.

Steel bottle caps can also be made into other things. They make interesting artistic crafts, such as bottle cap jewelry, checkers, or paint mixers. There’s even a company that sells fishing lures made from bottle caps.

If your recycling center can process metal bottle caps, all you have to do is put loose caps in the recycling bin. Before you recycle your bottle caps, check with your local recycling program to see if they accept bottle caps. Many programs sort steel bottle caps using magnets. If the recycling center in your town is unable to process the bottle caps, you can also check and see if neighboring towns are equipped rather than throwing them away.

Whether you’re using steel or plastic bottle caps,

…the best way to reduce all kinds of container and cap recycling is to buy in large rather than single-serving containers. Does the event you’re holding really require dozens and dozens of 8- to 16-ounce soda and water bottles, many of which will get left behind only partly consumed anyway? Why not buy large soda bottles, provide pitchers of (tap) water and let people pour into re-usable cups?

Do you recycle at your house?

If so, you might be interested in these home recycling products like a cool aluminum can crusher that comes with a collection bin, a three bin system for sorting your recyclables, or a multi-can crusher that can crush 10 cans at once.