Save the planet with motor oil

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Photo courtesy of kendrak at Flickr.com

Eco-conscious drivers pay a lot of attention to how much gasoline their cars use, but what about the motor oil? When cars are properly maintained, they use far more gasoline than they do oil, and driving a car requires more trips to the gas station than the service station. An unfortunate side effect is that our attention is focused on gasoline and oil isn’t something that the average driver thinks about unless there’s a problem.

Let’s say that you’ve got your ducks in a row. You’re driving a fuel efficient car and getting the best mileage possible. Even if you’re a fuel frugal hypermiler, there are still a few things you can do with your oil to reduce your car’s impact on the planet.

Oil is not a generic product – there are oils with different viscosity, oils made from different sources, and oils with more endurance than others. Here’s a good primer on the different types of oil out there. Of note:

Group IV oils… flow more freely at extreme low temperatures and don’t break down at very high temperatures. As a side benefit, they generally can be specified one or two grades lighter than a mineral oil, which consumes less energy as friction inside the engine and saves fuel.

When was the last time you changed the oil in your car? 6 months ago? 5,000 miles ago? The frequency of oil changes can have a huge impact on the environment.

On the one hand, excessive oil changes are wasteful and use up a limited natural resource. On the other hand, changing oil infrequently can cause damage to a cars engine, increasing pollution from your engine and causing additional pollution from the factory that makes replacement parts. Finding that sweet spot is important.

The majority of drivers play it safe and change their oil more than necessary. Roughly 70% of drivers surveyed changed their oil too often. This results in excessive consumption of oil, magnifies disposal problems, and hurts the pocketbooks of drivers nationwide.

A major cause of this overconsumption is the idea that cars should have their oil changed every 3,000 miles. At the service station, mechanics often put a sticker on the windshield reminding drivers to return for their next oil change in 3,000 miles. When you see that sticker, bear in mind that it was put there by someone who will make money every time you buy more oil. Consumer Reports studied taxi cabs in New York City and found that extending the interval did not affect performance or wear on the engines. They also found that oil additives had no noticeable effect on engine wear or oil endurance.

There is no catch-all rule for drivers to follow – every car has different needs and requires oil changes at different intervals. Read the owners manual for the best information about your specific car, and follow its guidelines. If the manual suggests changing the oil every 7,500 miles, changing the oil every 3,000 miles will only drain your pocket book. Many cars now have an oil change sensor that will notify you when the oil needs to be swapped out.

About half of the oil changes in America are performed by do-it-yourself mechanics. Many drivers change their own oil, or rely on a friend who knows how to change oil. There’s a problem though – few people know about the harms caused by dumping their oil down the drain or bagging it up in the garbage.

Every year, more than 300 million gallons of used motor oil are disposed of improperly. Oil that ends up in the sewer or landfill often seeps out into the water table. Just one gallon of oil can contaminate 600,000 to one million gallons of fresh water. That’s enough drinking water to supply 50 people for a year! The amount of oil in an average car can contaminate 4 acres of farmland and make it useless for a century.

This is a big problem. Less than 5% of used oil is currently recycled. The majority of used oil is burned for fuel or dumped. That’s an easily preventable waste, because there are more than 30,000 oil recycling centers nationwide!

The best way to dispose of used motor oil is to take it to a chemical disposal facility. It’s easy to find a disposal location – find an oil recycling site near you at Earth911.com. By recycling the oil, you’ll reduce the need for drilling for oil and help protect local waterways from pollution.

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Photo courtesy of Spiritwood images at Flickr.com

Earth Friendly ways to mow the grass

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Photo courtesy of AbracaDebra at Flickr.com

Everyone loves a well manicured yard, and there are a multitude of power tools that make short work of trimming, mowing, and edging. A surprising number of green options also exist, and more people are setting aside diesel powered leaf blowers in favor of lawn friendly tools.

At this minute, the majority of people use gas powered lawnmowers. It may not be a coincidence that sales of riding lawn mowers are rising along with our obesity rate. Gas powered riding mowers are the tricked-out SUVs of lawncare. The average lawnmower uses only 0.5 gallons of gasoline per hour, but self propelled mowers can use 200-300% as much fuel while delivering only a fraction of the exercise.

Even gas mowers that have to be pushed produce a lot of pollution. They emit approximately 11 times as much pollution per hour as a car. Most of this pollution is in the form of volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Lawnmowers emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful hydrocarbon compounds. After they settle on the yard or filter into local rivers and streams, these toxins work their way into our food and drinking water.

Most of this pollution could be avoided if the lawnmowers had catalytic converters, but very few lawn mowers include even rudimentary pollution controls. Some of the worst lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines. This older technology relies on lubricant mixed with gasoline in the fuel tank. This mixture of fuel and oil eliminates the need for a dedicated lubricating system, which makes 2 stroke engines weigh less. Since 2 stroke engines have fewer components, they are also cheaper to build. Unfortunately, these costs savings have an environmental cost. 2 stroke engines burn oil along with their fuel supply and put out far worse fumes than 4 stroke engines or electric drive trains.

Do you want to breathe diesel fumes or poison your yard with partially burned gasoline? There are much better, greener options out there. Some alternatives to gasoline powered mowers include natural gas mowers, electric mowers, push reel mowers, livestock, and even using native plants for landscaping.

Cat staring at a lawn mower and jerry can
Photo courtesy of cheryl at Flickr.com

Fuel alternatives for gas lawnmowers
Unleaded gasoline is one of the most popular fuels for lawnmowers, but mowers also exist that are designed to burn other compounds. Some mowers can be converted to use cleaner fuels. Check with the manufacturer – not all leaf blowers, edgers, and lawn mowers can burn ethanol or bio diesel. Other models are made specifically to burn methanol, propane, or methane. These alternative fuels still produce pollution, but they produce far less (especially if you have a local fuel source with a lower associated carbon footprint).

A propane riding mower - with large tanks on either side of the driver
Photo courtesy of jgoverly at Flickr.com

Electrical mowers

Electric mowers come in two varieties – battery powered mowers and plug-in mowers. If you want freedom from cords, battery mowers are the way to go. They have some drawbacks though, including limited endurance, reduced torque, and increased weight. Mowers with batteries are also less eco-friendly than plug in mowers. Manufacturing batteries is a dirty business, and batteries also waste a lot of power while charging up (20-80% depending on the type and age of the battery).

If you’re using an electric lawn mower, the source of electricity at your home determines the footprint of the mower. More than 80% of the power on the US power grid comes from coal, and that power is only slightly cleaner than gasoline. If your home is supplied with green electricity from solar arrays, wind turbines, a hydroelectric dam, or similar sources, then a plug-in lawnmower is much cleaner. You can get even more green out of an electric mower by converting it to run on solar power.

An array of solar panels, charging the 36 volt battery of a lawnmower
Photo courtesy of M.Barkley at Flickr.com

Push reel mowers
People powered lawnmowers are even more environmentally friendly than electric mowers, because they’re powered by human muscle power. Rather than burn calories on an endless climb on the stairmaster, why not use your muscles to accomplish something? Manual mowers have several advantages – they produce no exhaust fumes, they don’t ever need to be plugged in, and they are far less dangerous than other mowers. Even if you run the mower over pebbles, the slow moving blades aren’t going to throw rocks.

Push reel lawnmowers are pleasant to operate. Since they have no engine, they are almost completely silent. You can listen to birds in the trees while mowing, or bring your phone along and talk to friends while doing lawncare. If you’re an early riser, you can mow at 7am without waking up your neighbors.

A push reel mower - spinning scythe blades mounted to an axle with a long metal handle for pushing
Photo courtesy of Beaker’s Glassworks, Jewelery & Things at Flickr.com

Lawn mowing animals
If pushing a mower (of any kind) isn’t your idea of fun, you could always outsource the work. Livestock is nature’s own solution to overgrown grass. If you’ve always wanted your own full-time gardener, don’t forget that ruminants make a really cheap labor force.

Sheep and geese are happy to trim the yard, and they produce wool and down feathers as well as meat. Sheep ranchers are having a tough time with falling prices, and some are making ends meet by leasing out their sheep herds as expert mowers. If you have a larger area, cows are four legged mowing machines. In Australia, wallabies are becoming increasingly popular for their lawnmowing skills.

Some towns and HOAs have started keeping herds of farm animals instead of sheds full of gardening equipment. On the Google campus, a trial is underway using goats to keep the lawn trimmed. Several urban homesteaders have reported problems with goats though, because they’re escape artists and they can be unpredictable eaters. That means that they’ll eat some weeds while ignoring the grass, or that they’ll chew one area down to the roots while ignoring thigh high blades of grass on the other side of the yard.

sheep and geese on a lawn
Photo courtesy of albatrail at Flickr.com

Slow growing / native plants
Another way to control your landscape is to use alternative plants. Some species of grass grow at a much slower rate than the popular St. Augustine and Bermuda. These slow growing grasses require less maintenance, and they often require less fertilizer (further reducing their environmental impact). Clover and bluebonnets are popular alternatives because they naturally fertilizes the soil.

When choosing plants, think about using native species. Native plants are very well suited to the climate and wont run out of control like invasive plants. Xeriscaping your yard will also reduce the amount of water needed to keep the landscape lush and green in the middle of summer. Cactus and wildflowers aren’t the only native plants to consider – moss works surprisingly well and prairie grass also has great eye appeal.

Native grass growing in Lurie garden with skyscrapers in the background
Photo courtesy of one2c900d at Flickr.com

Greening the Military

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Photo courtesy of Army.mil at Flickr.com

When you think of environmentally friendly groups, Greenpeace, REI, the Sierra Club, New Belgium Brewery, and Seventh Generation are some of the green companies and organizations that are likely to come to mind. But what about the US military?

The armed forces are surprisingly green. For example, the Air Force is the third largest buyer of alternative energy in the US. The US Army is also rapidly seeking energy alternatives. Officers are trying to adopt solar, wind, and bio-diesel energy sources to reduce logistics problems and conserve resources:

The effort will have to be really serious, as their energy costs have increased a full 40% during the last seven years, even while they have cut consumption by almost 8%. According to their latest numbers released this week in Washington, D.C., right now they are spending $2 billion on fuel every year.

Reducing energy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is a top priority. By reducing the need for fuel convoys, energy efficiency reduces exposure to IEDs. It also protects soldiers from toxic emissions that come along with diesel generators. In recent years, the focus on energy conservation has really started to pay off.

That’s all well and good, but helping the environment is clearly a fringe benefit for most military planners. There are signs that a green culture is growing within the armed forces though. Several branches of the military are working to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everything from paint and electronics to fuel and explosives. For example, the US Navy is testing lead-free bullets.

If these bismuth alloy bullets perform as expected, there’s a good chance that shooting ranges will soon be lead free. Cleaning up lead is a huge expense, and lead dust is a major health danger that affects cleaning crews at every gun range. Also, lead can leak into groundwater from outdoor berms and harm the environment.

In recent years, environmental activists have also been successful in forcing the military to adopt several earth friendly policies. Protesters are increasingly likely to raise environmental issues. While the supreme court rejected arguments against the use of high intensity sonar, other efforts have resulted in legislation prohibiting sewage release in the ocean and disposal of toxic paints in furnaces. Due to environmental concerns, the US Marines are currently looking for eco-friendly ways to dispose of toxic ordinance and recycling mothballed equipment.

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Photo courtesy of ScottPartee at Flickr.com

Activists are crucial to enacting change – just look at Vieques. Vieques is a small island in Puerto Rico and the area was used as a naval firing range for most of the 20th century. After decades of public outcry, the Navy was forced to stop using Vieques as an ordinance testing ground.

There is a surprising twist to the story. Due to the Navy’s use of the island, Vieques has higher biodiversity than many surrounding areas. The firing range prevented development while most of the Caribbean was covered in resorts and boardwalks. Believe it or not, firing high explosive at wildlife is less destructive than building permanent structures. As a result, Vieques is currently booming as an eco-tourist destination.

The military still has quite a ways to go, but there are encouraging signs that the armed forces are becoming much better stewards of the planet.

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Photo courtesy of Brent and MariLynn at Flickr.com

How to use solar power without installing a solar panel

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Photo courtesy of London Permaculture

Under new Federal laws, you can get tax credits for 30% of most solar panel installations. Some states have additional incentives, and many utilities are also encouraging customers to install solar panels so that they don’t have to build new coal power plants.

Even with these incentives, photovoltaic panels are pricey. In these tough economic times, it’s important to remember that there are many other ways to take advantage of energy from the sun. Here are a few low-cost options:

Install a solar water heater – Passive solar systems cost a fraction of what solar panels cost and they are much more efficient at heating water (because they generate heat directly, without the need for inverters or battery storage of energy). Solar water heaters are also eligible for a 30% tax credit, the same amount that photovoltaic panels can earn. There are many different designs for solar water heaters, and some are more suitable for different parts of the country.

Use a clothesline – For the cost of a sturdy rope and some clothespins, you can unplug your electric clothes dryer. Even on a cool day, a gentle breeze will suck the moisture out of clothes. Clothes that are dried on a clothesline last longer (there’s less wear and tear from tumbling in the dryer), they smell better, and they’re naturally sterilized by UV light from the sun. Switching to a clothesline can cut your electric bill by 10-15%.

Turn out the lights – When the sun is shining, there’s no reason to keep the curtains closed. Instead of using a couple of hundred watts of electricity to power lightbulbs, turn off those lights and let the sunlight in! If Peeping Toms are a worry in your neighborhood, install slats or polarized window coverings for privacy. These window treatments will also filter out UV light and reduce carpet fading. Or, you can plant a window box full of kitchen herbs and obscure the view with tall plants while still letting in natural light.

Build to take advantage of the sun – When drawing blueprints or choosing a place to live, remember that a building’s layout can make a major difference in the amount of air conditioning and heating that’s needed. One thing to consider is orientation – building short walls on the east and west sides reduces the surface area that’s exposed to early morning and late evening sunlight. Another thing to consider is solar massing – using thick, heat absorbent materials like adobe can insulate a building against hot weather during the day and cold weather during the night, cutting heating costs by up to 65%.

Use trees – Trees provide wonderful natural shade, and they also capture solar energy the old fashioned way, by converting sunshine into firewood. Tree choices can also complement the way that buildings capture sunlight in the winter and block sunlight in the summer. One popular landscaping choice is to plant deciduous trees on the east and west sides of a building. That way, the leafy trees block sunlight in the summer (when leaves are full) and let sunlight through in the winter (after the leaves fall off).

Try a solar cooker – Sunlight is a great way to boil water and cook food. It’s easy to focus sunshine with collectors, and simple solar cookers can be made for less than $15 using just about anything and aluminum foil. Here are instructions for making a solar cooker out of a used pizza box. There are compact solar cookers tailor made for camping and larger models suitable for crock pot cooking.

In many developing countries and off-grid locations, solar cookers are reducing indoor air pollution by replacing firewood, charcoal, propane, and other fuel sources. These solar cookers can save thousands of lives each year, while also reducing deforestation and reducing conflict over limited resources. Since sunlight is free, solar cookers drastically cut the cost of boiling water for sanitation purposes. If you want to take advantage of sunlight without buying a solar panel, here’s a great recipe for Solar Baked Brownies!

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Photo courtesy of AIDG

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

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. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!