How to Buy Eco Friendly Paint

Eco-Friendly Paints
CC flickr photo courtesy of ewan and donabel

Painting the interior of your home should be a wonderful experience. It makes everything look new again, brightens up a room, and helps you create the ambiance you envision. Common commercial paints can do all that, but at the same time cause dangerous problems from fumes that can harm both you and the environment.

What Is Eco-Friendly Paint?

Eco-friendly paints are specifically designed to do everything those other paints do, but without the toxic fumes. The most common fumes, known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), are not only present while the paint is drying, but can last long after the paint is applied. In fact, paints that contain VOCs can release those toxins into the air for years after application.

See our previous post about our own use of no VOC paint in a construction project.

In addition to VOCs, there are other ingredients to be wary of as well. Ammonia, acetone and formaldehyde are often used in paint products and are toxic, but are not covered under the EPA’s VOC rating. Read your labels carefully when choosing your home’s paint. Check the ingredients that are used to extend the shelf life of most commercial paints. Mold-inhibitors, biocides and fungicides can also off-gas chemicals for years. These chemicals can impact your air quality and can contribute to breathing problems.

Was Cash for Clunkers a success?

PE - Cash For Clunkers - crushed cars 3474349149_c50c2c6c57_b
Photo courtesy of natashalcd at

The jury is still out on the Cash for Clunkers program. The last paperwork was filed on Monday, August 24, 2009, but crushed cars still waiting to be recycled. The final numbers are in – so how did the program score?

All told, C4C took 690,114 clunkers off of the road:

84 percent of consumers traded in trucks and 59 percent purchased passenger cars. The average fuel economy of the vehicles traded in was 15.8 miles per gallon and the average fuel economy of vehicles purchased is 24.9 mpg. – a 58 percent improvement.

That sounds wonderful, but a lot of people are wondering how effective C4C really was. Some argue that the program was a handout to car makers, that it was economically ineffective, that it increased consumer debt, or that it will create a price bubble for used cars.

There’s some truth in each of these claims, and policy makers are hopefully taking notes. Cash for Clunkers generated a lot of strong emotions. Even among environmentalists, there was spirited debate over the program. For example, ethanol lobbyists and wind turbine manufacturers opposed the program because it threatened their funding.

PE - Cash for clunkers - prius windmills 31766035_0ab3707b21_o
Photo courtesy of cluestream at

The Federal Cash For Clunkers program is also being blamed for distorting the value of carbon credits. Depending on the vehicles involved in the trade, the government set a carbon price of between $237 and $500 per ton. That compares with an average price of $5 to $40 per ton for carbon credits available on the open market.

Critics have argued that the low fuel efficiency requirements for replacement cars will have minimal impacts over the long term. Under the program, some trucks were replaced with other trucks that “only” received a 2 mpg improvement (18 mpg –> 20 mpg). That is more than a 10% improvement – and improving the mileage of a work truck has a much larger impact than improving the mileage of an economy car.

PE - Cash For Clunkers - crushed cars on a flatbed
Photo courtesy of shimonkey at

One of the strongest arguments about C4C is that the environmental impact of making new cars may be greater than the benefits provided by improved fuel efficiency. Mining ore, molding rubber, welding parts, and moving the finished product to showrooms are all processes that produce carbon emissions:

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted to produce a new car has been estimated to range from about 3.5 to 12.5 tons, or an average of about 6.7 tons. So buying a new car means an extra 6.7 tons of CO2 emissions — you wouldn’t have emitted all that pollution had you just kept your old car.

Yet, the bulk of CO2 that a car releases comes from day to day operation:

According to a literature review by the Pacific Institute, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the life-cycle carbon emissions of the average car come not from driving but from manufacturing and disposal.

The other 80-90% comes from driving. It doesn’t take a large increase in efficiency to make up for the carbon released in making a new vehicle.

So, is it worthwhile to replace the less fuel efficient cars with fuel sipping models? Does it produce more pollution to build the vehicles than it takes to operate older, less efficient engines? Setting up a formula is pretty simple – let’s say the 690,114 cars produced for C4C released average amounts of carbon dioxide. 690,114 x 6.7 tons = 4,623,763.8 tons of CO2. That’s how much Cash For Clunkers caused to be released.

On the other side of the equation is how much CO2 saved by getting gas guzzlers off of the road. The average American drives more than 13,000 miles per year. The vehicles that were replaced would have burned approximately 596,511,828 gallons of gasoline per year ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 15.8 mpg). The replacement cars would only burn 378,509,513 gallons ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 24.9 mpg). That’s 218,002,315 gallons saved per year.

Each gallon of gasoline that’s burned produces about 19.4 lbs of CO2. 19.4 lbs of CO2 is ~0.008799692 metric tons.

So, after all that math, C4C is currently reducing our CO2 emissions by approximately 1,918,353 tons per year. In less than 2 and a half years, the program will “pay” for itself in terms of CO2. The average passenger car is driven for 7 years or more, so over their lifetime, Cash For Clunkers vehicles will save approximately 13,428,471 tons of Carbon Dioxide.

With numbers this large, sometimes it helps to put them in perspective. A large elephant weighs approximately 6 tons, so 13,428,471 tons of carbon weighs more than 2 million elephants!

PE - Cash for clunkers - elephants under the bigtop
Photo courtesy of ECU Digital Collections at

CO2 isn’t the only pollutant that the program has reduced. It isn’t even the type of emission that new cars have the greatest impact on:

Older vehicles emit conventional air-pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, at rates as much as 100 times higher than newer vehicles, he says. That’s because they have less-sophisticated pollution controls and because emission levels tend to worsen as vehicles age.

Most of the greenhouse gas released in the US comes from other sources. We cause more pollution with coal power plants, oil refining, chemical extraction, and other industrial processes. So, the Cash For Clunkers reductions are really just a drop in the bucket:

…on average, every hour, America emits 728,000 tons of carbon dioxide. The total savings per year from cash for clunkers translates to about 57 minutes of America’s output of the chief greenhouse gas.

Cash for Clunkers isn’t going to solve our emissions problem. But it’s a start.

As a side note – $2B of funds were added to extend the Cash For Clunkers program. Unfortunately, those funds were taken from the $6B set aside for other green technology. This means that there will be less investment in wind turbines, energy efficiency upgrades, power storing devices, smart grids, and other uses that may have delivered more of an environmentally friendly bang-for-the-buck.

There are also plans to mirror the program with rebates for energy efficient appliances.

Photo courtesy of Uncle Bumpy at

What do you think about Cash For Clunkers? Would the money have been better spent on public transportation, alternative energy generation, research, or other uses? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Save the planet with motor oil

Photo courtesy of kendrak at

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 By recycling the oil, you’ll reduce the need for drilling for oil and help protect local waterways from pollution.

Photo courtesy of Spiritwood images at

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

Photo courtesy of WallyG at

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!

Green ways to travel

Photo courtesy of Saw You On The Flipside

For some people, travel is an unpleasant necessity. They travel to meet clients or commute. For other people, travel is a joy and the reason that they work. They save up money for vacations and sight seeing. Whether you’re in a hurry to get home or if you’re taking the chance to satisfy your wanderlust, there are plenty of opportunities to add some green to your itinerary.

From hiking boots to luxury jets, we have more transportation options today than ever before. Most travelers weigh these options based on comfort, price, and time. Yet an increasing number of adventurers and businesswomen are factoring in the environmental impact before they buy tickets.

When choosing transportation with a small carbon footprint, it’s important to compare apples to apples. One way to compare the environmental impact is using passenger miles. Passenger miles are calculated by taking the total fuel consumed and dividing by the number of passengers. For example, consider a car that gets 40 miles per gallon. If the driver is the only person in the car, then the driver is responsible for 19.4 pounds of CO2 for every 40 miles driven or 0.485 pounds per mile (19.4 / 40).

If we add a passenger with heavy bags, the car’s MPG will decrease slightly to about 39 MPG, but the amount of carbon dioxide generated will stay roughly the same. That footprint is spread out over 2 people instead of one. (19.4 / 2) / 39 = 0.249 pounds per mile. This is because so much of the energy used in moving a car is used to move the car itself.

In short, vehicles that travel full are more fuel efficient than empty vehicles, and passenger load can greatly affect the pollution produced per person. While trains are often more carbon efficient than buses, a fully loaded passenger bus may even be more efficient than a train. Then again, rail systems in some countries have the edge.

The most common way to compare different fuel sources is to use Miles Per Gallon equivalence (MPGe), but some fuel sources are dirtier than others. For example, generating 100,000 British Thermal Units (BTU) from coal will produce about 42 lbs of CO2, while natural gas will produce the same amount of energy while emitting about 14 lbs of CO2. So, a coal powered train may be more energy efficient than a natural gas powered bus, but it would produce more pollution to travel the same distance. Hard numbers for this “pollution efficiency” are difficult to pin down.

And that’s not all… some situations can magnify the effect of emissions. For example, pollution from airplanes is released in the upper atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, water vapor and other byproducts behave differently in the upper atmosphere than they do at ground level, multiplying their effects. For more information on this subject, look at how various scientists calculate the radiative forcing factor. As a rule of thumb, each pound of airplane emissions is about 2.8 times worse than emissions from other forms of transportation.

From lowest impact to highest impact, here is a rough guide to transportation options (including some data from the US Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book and manufacturer’s sites):

On foot / Walking
Horseback Riding
Electric Motorcycle / Scooter
Vanpool or Shuttle (1,322 BTU per passenger mile)
Motorcycle (1,855 BTU per passenger mile)
Train (2,816 BTU per passenger mile)
Ultra Efficient Passenger Car (ie; a Prius)
Average Passenger Car (3,512 BTU per passenger mile)
Passenger Trucks/SUVs (3,944 BTU per passenger mile)
Bus (4,235 BTU per passenger mile)
Turboprop Passenger Plane (for short distances)
Fuel Efficient Passenger Jet (for long distances)
Piston Engine Passenger Plane
Older Passenger Jets
Small Prop Plane (ie; Van’s Aircraft’s RV-7: ~36 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Helicopter (~20 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Cruise Ship (~17 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Motorboat (~15 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Jet Ski (~10 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
Executive Jet (~0.8-5 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)

Are there any transportation methods that I’m missing? It’s hard to quantify the MPGe for a hang glider, sailboat, submarine, electric pogo stick, or jet pack, but if you have the scoop on how to rank an unusual form of locomotion, please drop a note in the comments at the bottom of this page.

So, how can you use this list? Before you book a trip or reserve a hotel room, make sure to check out all of the options that are available. Instead of flying cross country, do you have time to take the train? Instead of staying at a hotel across town from a conference, can you find a hotel within walking distance and skip the rental car?

A few more tips for carbon efficient travel…

  • Maximize the capacity of your vehicle: carpool, combine taxis, choose a party boat instead of a dozen jetskis
  • Travel light: ditch 2 suitcases and you may be able to fit another passenger in your car or cut your weight in half on an airplane
  • Choose direct flights: up to 80% of a plane’s fuel consumption happens during take-off and landing, flying direct also cuts out unnecessary miles in the air and, as a bonus, can reduce the amount of tax and airport fees charged
  • Pick fuel efficient cars, planes, and motorcycles: newer vehicles are often much more fuel efficient (ie: the 737-800 airplane gets about 35 percent better mileage per seat than the MD-80 it is replacing).
  • Make the captain a passenger: get certified to operate your own riverboat, learn to fly your own plane, or (if you have one) ditch the chauffeur back at the mansion
  • Often, the green choice will yield a more pleasant trip and save money at the same time!

    Photo courtesy of svanes