BNSF, Second Largest Consumer of Diesel Fuel, Looks at Switching to CNG

train

Did you know that BNSF, the railway company owned by Warren Buffet’s Birkshire Hathaway, is probably the second largest purchaser of diesel fuel in the United States, coming in only after the US Navy?

That’s a lot of diesel fuel.

With diesel prices near $4 per gallon, and natural gas (CNG) at around half of that price, the savings from switching to CNG on such a large scale become quite large.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BNSF has at least 6,900 existing locomotives that run on diesel now, which means that it could be quite expensive to convert them all. However, BNSF is working with General Electric and Caterpillar to make an engine that can run on both diesel and natural gas.

Aside from the fuel savings, another big incentive for BNSF to switch to natural gas is to be able to meet new federal air pollution standards that will hit around 2015.

One of the biggest challenges of converting diesel 18 wheelers over to natural gas is the cost of building the infrastructure to have fueling stations everywhere they would be needed. With trains, it is much, much easier to solve this problem, because trains always go on a predetermined route. So you could build fewer refueling stations and still keep everything going.

However you feel about fracking, it looks like natural gas can make a significant difference in both CO2 emissions and air pollution in general.

In fact, CO2 emissions have dramatically dropped by nearly 12 percent over the past five years, reaching levels that we haven’t seen since 1996. This is attributed largely to the switch from electric power generators moving from coal to natural gas.

Eco-Friendly Hotels: What to Look For

Eco-Friendly Hotel
Orchard Garden Hotel - CC flickr photo by DoNotLick

Choosing an eco-friendly hotel when you travel is a natural extension of your environmental commitment at home. Whether you incorporate eco-friendly products into your life because they are healthier for you and your family, because you are concerned for the environment, or both, supporting green hotels just makes sense.

What Makes a Hotel Eco-Friendly?

At first thought, you may wonder what kinds of things to look for when choosing the best eco-friendly hotels. Ideally, eco-friendly hotels should use some form of sustainable energy, such as solar, wind or hydro-power for at least some of their needs. This can be difficult for older hotels that are converting to an eco-friendly establishment. But even older hotels can use energy-conscious methods such as low-energy light bulbs.

An environmentally conscious hotel should incorporate recycling and water conservation into their program. One way hotels can conserve resources is to only change the sheets and towels in your suite when you request it. This cuts down on water and energy usage. Continue reading “Eco-Friendly Hotels: What to Look For”

Eco Travel Idea: Rent an Earthship

CC Flickr photo courtesy of marvins_dad

Experience the ultimate in eco friendly winter vacations and enjoy a stay at an Earthship in Taos, New Mexico. An Earthship is above and beyond the typical environmentally sustainable built home and the ultimate in energy-efficient and eco-friendly design.

These 100 percent sustainably built structures include off-grid power, geothermal heating and cooling, rainwater collection systems and on-site natural waste water treatment facilities, creating the ultimate eco-friendly winter home vacation.

Originally designed in 1972 by architect Mike Reynolds, the Earthship Biotecture design incorporates six basic elements that sets the Earthship apart from any conventionally built “green” home on the market today. Because Earthships use naturally occurring resources like sunlight and geothermal mass, they make the perfect getaway for wintertime fun without using any fossil fuels to heat the structure during winter.

Renting an Earthship for your perfect winter vacation is as easy as making an online reservation.

One of three rentals at Earthship Biotecture, the “Phoenix” Earthship is a three bedroom, two bathroom gorgeous Earthship rental, complete with an indoor waterfall and jungle that is simply breathtaking.

But don’t bother looking for a thermostat to adjust the heat—there isn’t one! This Earthship is naturally heated and cooled with geothermal energy, so you’ll be snug and toasty without burning any polluting fossil fuels to heat the home. Rental fees for this eco-vacation home start at $120 a night.

The Corner Cottage is another Earthship that rents for $160 a night and includes a two bedroom, one bath design with a huge double atrium overlooking the scenic Taos Valley This gorgeous rental provides stunning examples of the recycled materials used to create the Earthship. Colored wine bottles and old appliance metal create a clever and attractive way to recycle waste materials into building materials.

A smaller but more eclectic and colorful Earthship—aptly named the “Studio”—rents for $135 a night and is the perfect place for a couple to get away from it all. Or not. All three Earthships for rent are located in the Taos Ski Valley, home to some of the best skiing resorts in the nation.

After staying in an Earthship, you may find your interests exceed the vacation and you find you’re in the market to buy an eco-friendly home. Buying an Earthship isn’t difficult; in fact many different models are for sale around the United States.

Whether you occupy and Earthship one night or every night, it helps all of us on this fragile planet conserve the resources we have now and ones for future generations to come.

Ever stayed in an Earthship or lived in one? Leave a comment and tell us what you thought!

Eric Brennan is a second generation master carpenter with over 20 years of construction industry experience. Since 2005, Eric has also been a hard at work honing his skills as a home improvement writer. In 2009, he was given the Associated Content award for best home improvement writer. Eric is currently a featured green and home improvement writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and editor of Construct101. He has produced thousands of articles on everything construction, remodeling, interior decorating, green building, and many other home improvement related fields for countless websites and blogs including the DIY network, P&G Tide, DeWalt.com, AT&T, Huffington Post, and Yahoo! News.

Biking to work – a beginner’s guide

This year, June 15th was “Ride Your Bike to Work” day. When I saw other people riding to work, I decided to give it a try.

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Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

This is remarkable because my bike has been quietly stashed in my garage since last Christmas (when I received it as a gift). I took the bike out for a few spins, but the two of us had an understanding. If I kept it safely stored away, it wouldn’t try to buck and throw me over the handle bars.

Before June 16th, I had never ridden more than 5 miles in a day in my entire life. I’m not your typical bike rider – I’m 20 pounds overweight, I’ve never tried an “extreme” sport, and I live in one of the hottest cities of the Southwest. So, if I can commute to work on a bicycle, anyone can.

Have you considered riding a bike instead of taking your car? It’s a great way to save gas while burning calories and getting more time outdoors in the fresh air. Bicycling can help you be more productive by reducing blood pressure, stimulating serotonin, and helping you arrive at the office fully awake. Bike riders also stand out for promotion – if you’re having trouble catching the attention of management or just want to be known for your dedication, riding a bike is a great way to climb the corporate ladder.

There are some hurdles to commuting by bike. If you’re not a dedicated bike rider, these hurdles can seem impossible to overcome, but I’ve found out that there’s no reason to let fear or uncertainty keep you stuck in traffic.

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Photo courtesy of StewBl@ck at Flickr.com

Distance

For most people, distance is really a question about endurance. How far can you comfortably ride on a bicycle? It takes a lot more energy to pedal a bike than it does to press the gas pedal on a car. But it can be less draining that driving a car while giving other drivers the finger and shouting loudly (you know, the typical American commute).

Everyone has a different comfort level. For most people, a 1 mile commute is going to be a breeze, a 3 mile commute is going to be exercise, and a 5 mile commute is going to be painful (but doable). If you live further from work than 5 miles, you may want to consider multi-modal cycling. That means riding a bicycle part of the way, and using a bus or train to cover the rest of the distance. If you have a folding bike or large car, you can also take a multi modal route by using a parking garage along the way.

The best way to calculate distance is to use one of the free online mapping services. Mapquest, Google Maps, and Yahoo maps can all be used to find the shortest routes between two points, and it’s easy to avoid highways or other danger zones by altering the route. Online maps are easy to use, and in some areas they even offer real-time traffic reports along your route (that’s handy to check before you hit the road). Here are a few other things to consider when choosing a bike route.

These maps do have one weakness though – they’re primarily set up for roads. Bike trails, parks, and paths are invisible to the software, so the routes they recommend may be longer and more dangerous than they should be. That may change soon (for example, Google recently rolled out a “pedestrian” route option that can map pathways and sidewalks), but until it does, you may want to check out other routing tools such as Bikely.com.

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Photo courtesy of kansasliberal at Flickr.com

Safety

Safety is a major concern for urban cyclists. Not only are we at risk from vehicles that we share the road with, but bicyclists are also exposed to street crime and muggers. It’s important to exercise high situational awareness at all times – that is, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Keeping eyes open and looking out for trouble can prevent risks from turning into injuries.

First things first – bicycling is not as risky as you may think. Per mile, pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be injured than cyclists. Motorcyclists and drivers on the freeway also have higher rates of serious injury. Believe it or not, the more bicyclists there are, the safer bicycling becomes.

That doesn’t mean bicycling is a risk free mode of transportation. The first car accident in American history took place between a car and a bicycle – and it killed the biker. Every year, 600 to 800 cyclists are killed in America. Those death rates are among the highest in any developed country. To avoid becoming a statistic, it’s important to follow a few basic cycling safety guidelines:

1) Always wear a helmet. 75% of all deaths on bicycles occur from head trauma, and many injuries can be prevented or reduced in severity.

2) Ride with the flow of traffic
– it’s much safer to go the same direction as cars in your lane. A case study in Washington found that many fatal bike accidents involved cyclists riding in the wrong direction, where head-on collisions are much more likely to cause serious injury.

3) Yield when entering a road
. Bicycles have less visibility than cars – it’s important to follow the law and behave just like a car, but it’s safe to act under the assumption that other drivers don’t see you.

4) Check over your shoulder when merging lanes
. Even if you use hand signals, signaling does not give you the right of way. Cars behind you may not see a gesture, but it’s easy to spot an oncoming car.

5) Stay in the proper lane.
If you’re turning left at an intersection, don’t try to turn from the right lane. Yielding the high speed lanes to cars is a common mistake of beginners: instead, always go to the proper lane for your path of travel.

6) Stay visible at all times.
Wear bright clothing, use reflectors and headlights at night, and avoid riding in the blind spots of cars or other bikers.

7) Maintain your equipment.
Make sure your brakes are in working order, and that your tires are properly inflated.

It’s important to find a route where your nerves are steady. If you’re uncomfortable around traffic, that can cloud your reaction times and make you more accident prone. There’s no need to ride like an adrenaline junkie to make your way in to work.

In many cities, there are bike lanes and bike paths that insulate riders from the flow of motor vehicles. While some cyclists disagree about the wisdom of building these features (some cyclists feel that bike paths reduce attentiveness to the road and some riders consider bike paths a form of segregation) but the number of paths is steadily increasing. However you feel about the situation, it’s important to find a route that you’re comfortable with.

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Photo courtesy of jesse! at Flickr.com

Cost

Compared to a car, riding and operating a bike is cheap. You only need a bike and a safety helmet (both of which can be rented if you want to try before you buy). It can cost less than $250 to get all of the tools you need, although it’s also easy to spend more than $5,000 getting top of the line gear.

There are plenty of bicycles available at all price levels. For a commute to work, just about any bike will do. Whether you prefer a road bike, a racing bike, a mountain bike, a commuter bike, a recumbent bike, or any other style, there are many choices available in all price ranges.

Other supplies you might want to consider include biking gloves (to reduce pressure on your palms), sunscreen, exercise clothing, headlights, reflectors, blinking tail lights, a bell or horn, and a hydration backpack. In my opinion, biking gloves and comfortable clothes are one of the best investments you can make. I’ve also found that a chilled hydration pack really helps if you’re riding in triple digit weather. Oh, and good footwear also matters – you probably don’t want to bike around in sandals or high heels.

Riding a bicycle can save you money in the long term. Bike riders will generally enjoy reduced healthcare costs and fewer sick days. Contact your insurer or HR department, and ask if there’s a discount or incentive available. Healthy living programs sometimes offer reimbursement for equipment, promotional pricing on gear, and other perks. In 2009, there’s even a Federal Tax Benefit available for cyclists – you can get $20 of your monthly paycheck declared tax free:

Spearheading the campaign for a bike commuter bill was Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “We have legislation that is designed to promote cycling and to provide a little equity for the people who burn calories instead of fossil fuel,” he says.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

Work appropriate clothing

The clothes we wear when cycling probably aren’t very well suited for work in a cubicle. Loose fitting shirts and shorts are ideal for biking, but even if your job has a casual dress code, it’s a good idea to change out of sweaty clothes. An easy way to have the best of both worlds is to bring a change of clothes with you.

If your job has a locker room, changing clothes is easy. If not, consider using the break room, gym, closet, or even the bathroom. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box – Superman used a phone booth for crying out loud.

If changing isn’t an option, you can also bring clothes to put on over your workout clothes. Bike in an undershirt, and then put a dress shirt and jacket over the undershirt. Bring a hat to cover helmet hair, or dress pants to put on over biking shorts. Or, you could change your standard of “work appropriate” clothing.

PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  5150fantast FL bike pimp
Photo courtesy of 5150fantast at Flickr.com

If you’re a manager and would like to encourage workers to start riding bikes, here’s a great bullet point list of ways to build a bike friendly workplace.

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

Green ways to travel

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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
Bicycle
Horseback Riding
Rickshaw
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)
Ferryboat
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!

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    Photo courtesy of svanes

    Invasive species are on the move

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    Photo courtesy of Brewbooks at Flickr.com.

    Mountain ranges, oceans, deserts, rivers, and other landforms divide the world into different regions and zones. These natural barriers isolate plants and animals from each other, and allowed many different species to evolve. Over millions of years, nature found different solutions to the unique situations within each enclave, and we ended up with wildly different ecosystems – each with some plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else.

    Unfortunately, the walls between these ecosystems are crumbling. The world is growing increasingly flat, with trade and travel between regions occurring every day. Cargo ships from China regularly travel to Seattle and Melbourne, and their bilge tanks can give fish and clams a free ride. Business travelers who step in mud in one airport unknowingly carry bacteria across mountains in a single flight. Tourists often bring exotic flowers home.

    As a result of global trade and travel, many of the plants, animals, and bacteria that were isolated to small areas are now spreading out over the entire world. Some of these organisms are thriving in their new homes, and endangering native plants that were already there in the process. Many elm trees in New York had ancestors in the Netherlands or France, and are dying off due to Dutch Elm Disease. Bees raised in Poland have to worry about parasites that originated in Southeast Asia.

    Invasive species are shaping the news. For example, wood boring insects are threatening the few remaining old growth forests in America, which has led to a shortage of firewood. Strangely, the shortage isn’t due to a shortage of trees. Instead, because these insects love to travel inside dead trees, restrictions were put in place to control the transport of lumber. If you live in an affected area, you may want to check out cured firewood as an alternative. Cured wood is wood that’s been heated in a kiln to dry it out. It’s not only unaffected by the restrictions, but it also has a much higher heating value per pound.

    The Great Lakes are also threatened by invasive species. Zebra muscles and snakefish do not have any natural predators, so they’re displacing many native species in the area. Game fish are threatened, along with industries that use fresh water from the lakes (zebra muscles tend to clog intake pipes). To combat the problem and prevent the introduction of new species, the Federal government has passed restrictions on how ballast tanks are treated.

    Invasive species are also a threat outside the United States. In Mexico City, the iconic Aztec ‘Water Monster’ is facing new threats from exotic fish. This salamander has a long history in the region, but is unable to cope with habitat loss, pollution, and competition from tilapia. Plans are underway to build sanctuaries for the Water Monster as well as native aquatic plants.

    If that doesn’t work, there may be an option B. Researchers at RIKEN research institute in Yokohama, Japan have been successful in cloning mice that were frozen for 16 years. The researchers are still a ways away from using the technique on Woolly Mammoths, but conservationists may someday be able to use frozen tissue samples from other endangered species to bring them back or to supplement genetic diversity within wildlife preserves. Even if invasive species move in and gobble up all the native plants and animals, there’s a hope of reintroducing native species back to their homes.

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    Photo courtesy of serdir (at home) at Flickr.com.

    Boost gas mileage with LRR tires

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    Photo courtesy of Negaro UK at Flickr.com.

    For years, auto designers have been using wind tunnels to improve car designs. Wind tunnels make it easy to see how different features affect aerodynamics. Hoods, spoilers, and even mirrors have been engineered and re-engineered due to wind tunnel testing. This is because friction consumes roughly 80% of all gasoline that’s used while driving. By reducing friction, wind tunnel tests improve gas mileage and boost performance.

    There’s one thing that wind tunnels miss though – the friction between a car’s tires and the road. This overlooked detail has gained new attention recently. Due to tightened CAFE standards, many cars now come standard with tires that improve gas mileage.

    Expected improvements are in the 1-2mpg range in highway driving, depending on the vehicle and the previously specified factory tire. The gains aren’t enormous, but as Scott Miller, GM’s vehicle performance manager for full-size hybrid trucks said, “Every bit helps.”

    Unfortunately, these factory issue tires are often replaced with gas hogging aftermarket tires. What makes some tires get better mileage than others? It’s all about friction, or “rolling resistance”. Rolling resistance is a measurement of how much friction a tire produces. Tires with low rolling resistance (LRR) convert less energy into heat and noise.

    So, what’s the trade off?
    In the automotive world, there’s never a free lunch, and low rolling resistance tires are no exception. There are certain trade-offs that come with reduced rolling resistance. In order to minimize rolling resistance, LRR tires are designed with less surface area in contact with the road. That saves gas, but it also reduces traction and increases stopping distances.

    Tires with low rolling resistance are stiffer and flex less. This means LRR tires can feel uncomfortable because they provide less cushion on rough roads. Some LRR tires are also less durable and wear out after 30,000-40,000 miles. They are also slightly more expensive than other tires, but they can save money over the life of the tire (the savings can be substantial on cars with low MPG ratings).

    How do you actually find tires with low rolling resistance?

    This is where things get tricky. Tire companies have been slow to report the rolling resistance ratings on their tires. Rolling resistance values vary based on the testing situations (different cars produce different rolling resistance values), so a raw number isn’t meaningful to all customers. Also, the testing process can be time consuming. Here’s how Bridgestone responded when we inquired about why rolling resistance is not listed on their website (emphasis added):

    Rolling resistance has traditionally been measured thru SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) test procedure called J1269. It measures the force required to roll a tire against a dynamometer at a fixed speed of 50 mph. Within Bridgestone/Firestone, we have over 1,300 passenger and light truck products in the Bridgestone line alone and, conceivably, each one could have a different rolling resistance. The tread compound is a major factor, but construction, size, and even tread pattern can have an influence. At least 3 tires must be run in each configuration to get a good average. At approximately 1 hour per rolling resistance test, this amounts to 3,900 hours or over 6 months just to run the Bridgestone brand.

    This explains why these values are estimated. We have some data, however it frequently does not line up with those sizes or patterns requested. Therefore, estimation is required.

    The weight of the tire will have some affect on gas mileage. What is more of a factor, though, is the tire “footprint”. This term refers to the actual area where the “rubber meets the road”. The same size tires may have different contact areas and therefore different gas mileage implications. More rubber coming in contact with the road can create increased rolling resistance. Generally, taller, narrower tires are better for fuel economy, if you retain your current wheels. Increasing the tire aspect ratio, for instance from 70 to 75, will provide additional load carrying capacity.

    Your local mechanic may be slightly more helpful, but don’t count on it. Right now, the best way to find a tire with low rolling resistance is to find a chat board dedicated to your car and surf the wisdom of the crowds. There are also several non-comprehensive lists of LRR tires, but they may not be available in your area and the lists quickly become outdated as new models are introduced.

    Hopefully, this situation will change soon. A California law went into effect in 2008 that requires all companies to list RR ratings for replacement tires sold in the state. As more people become aware of green tires, there will be rising demand. This demand will drive innovation and may also bring prices down. In the near future, we may even see a Green Seal on tires with Low Rolling Resistance, just like the Energy Star label on appliances.

    The spike in gas prices in 2008 has focused attention on several ways to improve mileage without adopting radical technologies, and low rolling resistance tires are only one of several inexpensive ways to get significant improvements.

    Before you go out and buy new tires, there are several ways to reduce the rolling resistance of your current set. Start by removing any excess weight from your car – all that junk in the trunk is pressing the tires down against the road and increasing the contact area. Also, check the air pressure on your current wheels:

    The easiest way to reduce rolling resistance… is to make certain that the tires are properly inflated. A vehicle that requires its tires to be inflated to 35 psi (based on the vehicle’s tire placard) will have an increase in rolling resistance of approximately 12.5% if the tires are allowed to become underinflated to just 28 psi.

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    Photo courtesy of Tamaki at Flickr.com.

    10 Steps to a Healthy Ocean: Protecting our Oceans from Pollution

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    Photo courtesy of Webzer at Flickr.com.

    The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and it’s a major part of the ecosystem that we rely on. Phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the oxygen produced worldwide. More than 1 billion people rely on fish for a significant part of their diet. The ocean provides food, recreation, clean air, carbon mitigation, inexpensive transport, and many other things that we take for granted. Yet, we’ve been treating the ocean like a dump for centuries. That may have been fine when society produced trash on a very small scale and all of things we threw away were biodegradable, but technology has changed that.

    There are thousands of phantom fishing nets that keep killing fish after being abandoned. Sunken ships leak millions of gallons of oil and billions of styrofoam cups end up in the water every year. Even when these events happen thousands of miles away, they have a ripple effect that’s felt worldwide.

    The ocean is one continuous body of water. Each sea and bay is connected by strong currents and migrating animals. That means damage done to one part of the ocean will eventually affect all the connected bodies of water. After oil spills happen in the Arctic Ocean, traces of petroleum spread to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans too.

    The oceans are one of many areas around the world where the environment has a direct effect on human health and industry. For example, the rain forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and affect climate. Coral reefs nurture schools of fish and they offer passive protection to ports. The organisms that make these areas work are resilient – they’ve survived centuries of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Yet some of these areas are under constant stress caused by humans.

    Stress factors that threaten wildlife include contamination of water supplies, climate change, human development, and invasive species. Abandoned mines are leaching hazardous chemicals into rivers and lakes. Mangrove forests are being cut down to build beach resorts. River deltas are clogging up with invasive species like zebra mussels and Wakame kelp.

    In the face of all these threats, what can we do? Here are a few steps that anyone can take to help protect the health of our oceans.

    1) Restore damaged ocean habitat

    In areas that have been fished out or poisoned by industry, native species have often been wiped out. But, that doesn’t mean that Cod have been permanently wiped out in the Atlantic, or that scallops will never return to the Virginia fisheries. Jennifer Rich is planting sea grass in an effort to restore the scallop breeding grounds of her home state. She led a volunteer effort off the coast of Virginia to replant eel grass in environmentally damaged areas. Her effort is ongoing, and similar replanting projects could use your help. Wetlands and mangrove forests are especially valuable because they filter sediment, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff before they get to the ocean.

    If you’d like to get your hands dirty in another way, plan a beach vacation off of the beaten path. Once a year, the Ocean Conservancy does a worldwide project to remove trash from the shore. Last year, volunteers cleaned up more than 30,000 miles of shoreline. In a single day, more than 7 million pieces of trash were collected for proper disposal. Check with your City Hall – many towns are happy to supply trash bins, rubber gloves, and even boats to anyone who wants to clean up local waterways.

    2) Protect natural buffer systems.

    Biosystems are nature’s utilities – they desalinate water, absorb carbon, liberate nutrients from the ground, and provide other services free of charge. The plants and animals that make up these systems are often treated as commodities, but killing the goose that lays golden eggs will only put food on the table for a day. Protecting biosystems can pay dividends for years to come.

    Forests are an essential buffer for the oceans. Old growth trees neutralize the pH of rain and absorb harmful chemicals before they reach the ocean. Trees that grow in estuaries and along riverways are especially important, but those areas also face increased development pressure and they are easy for loggers to access. Shoreline habitat is being destroyed to build giant shrimp farms and resort hotels. Luckily, there are now sustainable forestry and aquaculture options available. Sustainable logging allows limited harvesting of resources without destroying the natural processes that we benefit from. The next time you buy lumber or land, do some research and check for certifications of sustainability.

    3) Substitute organic fertilizer in the place of chemical fertilizers.

    When a lawn is overfertilized, the excess fertilizer will usually wash off into the surrounding environment. Fertilizer pollution causes eutrophication in waterways – it saturates the water and promotes algal blooms in nearby lakes. A significant amount of fertilizer runoff will eventually make it out to sea, where it can cause red tides and elevated amounts of harmful bacteria. Surprisingly, residential property has higher levels of fertilizer runoff per acre than agricultural land – possibly because farmers are smarter about how they use fertilizers.

    “12-50% of all surface water pollution originates with urban runoff. Additionally, whereas agricultural runoff tends to be limited to nutrients, runoff from roads and parking lots contains a wide variety of additional pollutants including oils, road salts, nutrients, and sediments, as well as hazardous and solid wastes.”

    Using organic fertilizers, mulch, and compost can reduce these problems. Not only are these fertilizers slower releasing, but they also contain nutrients in forms that are more easily absorbed by plants. Chemical fertilizers have other problems too. They can form a crust on the top of soil that repels water (blocking soil absorption, increasing runoff, and promoting erosion). Some chemical fertilizers will also kill soil fungus, soil bacteria, earthworms and insects, all of which play a vital role in aerating the soil and helping anchor it to the ground.

    4) Landscape with native plants

    Plants have evolved to live in just about every area of the country. These native plants are adapted to local soil and weather conditions, so there’s very little need to fertilize or water them. Many beautiful native plants are available. A yard landscaped with unusual plants can really stand out, especially during a drought when all of the neighbors yards turn to dust.

    Using native plants to conserve water is known as Xeriscaping. It can be a very effective way to cut your yard’s pollution footprint, and xeriscaped lawns also offer natural habitat to native animals and migrating species. Since native plants are heat and drought tolerant, they also work year round to trap dust, block wind, and prevent erosion.

    5) Replace impermeable groundcover

    When rain falls on bare ground, about 90% of the water is normally absorbed in the first 30 minutes. On developed land, the surface is usually covered with impervious materials such as asphalt, concrete, and cement. For every 20% of the ground that’s covered with impermeable surfaces, the amount of runoff will increase by roughly 100%. These impervious materials block water from soaking into the ground, but the water has to go somewhere. As a result, residential areas are prone to flash floods and rapid erosion which harm the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes.

    You can use this information to make smart landscaping decisions. Instead of putting a sidewalk in your garden, consider using flagstones or building a gravel pathway. If your driveway needs to be resurfaced, check into using permeable cement. There are even companies that build living rooftops – these green roofs not only help insulate your house, but they also protect your roof from heat damage, hail, UV degradation, and animal damage. Permeable areas act as natural buffers to pollution because they help contain runoff.

    6) Improve landscaping

    Runoff is often caused by poor landscaping. Many older homes have design flaws that cause water to flow much faster than necessary. Not only are these flaws easy to fix, but reducing the speed of runoff will also protect your home from flood damage and erosion. On sharp slopes, you can grow plants with deep roots like prairie grass. Other solutions include placing bales of hay on the slopes to soak up the water or installing terraces. If your building has rain gutters, installing silt fences on the gutters will slow the speed of drainage and reduce the energy of flowing water before it reaches your foundation. If you want to make an even big difference, consider putting a rain barrel or rainwater garden under your downspouts.

    When planning these projects, make sure to check local building codes. It’s also important to schedule construction projects for months with low rainfall. While the projects are underway, there will be a lot of exposed soil that can be carried away. Tarps can be used protect bare ground, and sewing quick growing plants will quickly cover up any worrisome spots.

    7) Clean up after pets

    Housepets are another major source of pollution – pet waste has concentrated forms of some toxic chemicals as well as harmful bacteria that can do serious damage to the ocean. Even the nutrients found in sewage can cause problems because they promote the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria create an Anoxic zone of seawater, where all of the oxygen has been depleted and many organisms are unable to breathe.

    Dog droppings and cat poo contain many of the same pathogens that human waste does, such as e coli and salmonella. While human waste is at least partially treated in sewage processing plants, dog waste is often left to decompose wherever the dogs leave it. When it rains or the sprinklers turn on, harmful bacteria in pet waste is spread over the surface of your whole lawn. Runoff will carry this bacteria down the storm drains and eventually out to sea.

    One way to reduce the impact of pet waste is to bag up the poop and flush it down the toilet. Septic tanks and sewage systems use good bacteria to breakdown waste into harmless material. It doesn’t matter if the waste comes from a person or a pet – the treatment processes they use can handle almost everything. One thing that you shouldn’t put down the toilet is soiled cat litter. Cat litter is not biodegradable and can also cause damage to pipes.

    If you have a cat, you might want to go a step further and change your cat litter. The most common types of pet litter is made from bentonite clay and silica. Not only is do these materials prevent decomposition, but they are also produced by strip mining (and strip mining causes water pollution in its own right):

    “Clay-based cat litters are not a by-product of the manufacture of something else, but produced by strip mining. The clay, known as bentonite, is found under several layers of soil, which are removed in the mining process. The first few inches of clay are discarded, and the final clay is removed and processed into cat litter.”

    There are natural alternatives to conventional cat litter. Check with your local pet store, or consider making your own cat litter with shredded paper, sawdust or wheat bran. Also, some cats prefer not to use kitty litter. Cat droppings on the ground can be scooped up just like dog poop.

    If you use biodegradable pet litter or scoop up pet poo, then you may also want to try composting the pet droppings. There are tumbling composters and vermicomposters (worm composters) made especially for pet waste. It’s important to keep pet poop separate from food scraps and grass clippings. That’s because the harmful bacteria in pet waste are largely inactive and they will only multiply if there’s an available food source. A Pet Waste Composter is effective at quickly reducing pet droppings into useful fertilizer.

    8 ) Take endangered species off the menu

    It’s not easy being tasty. Our search for exotic flavors has pushed many different species to the edge of extinction, and fish are in serious trouble. Fishing trawlers are catching fish faster than they breed, which means that the fish available at the supermarket are getting younger and thinner. Some species, such as Swordfish and Orange Roughy are frighteningly rare in the wild. As certain species of fish disappear from the ocean, they leave a gap in the foodchain. The things that they feed on will multiply because nothing is controlling their numbers, and the fish that feed on the missing species will be stressed as well. The biodiversity of the ocean is in jeopardy, and people who rely on fish for a major portion of their diet face starvation due to overfishing.

    What can you do? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great pocket guide to bring with you to the supermarket. This guide lists many fish that are abundant, and offers alternatives to endangered species that you can eat with a clear conscience. Greenpeace publishes a Red List of fish which should not be eaten under any circumstances. These are fish that are critically threatened by overfishing, disease, or habitat loss. There are many other fish that are in the gray area – hundreds of species are at risk but not necessarily endangered. Memorizing these lists is a bit tricky. If you have a less than photographic memory and your wallet doesn’t have room for a cheat sheet, another way you can shop for fish that are plentiful is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label.

    Some species that are at risk in the wild are being raised in fish farms to supplement wild stocks. Farmed fish account for an increasing percentage of total fish caught. There’s some controversy over whether farmed fish or wild seafood are more sustainable though. The footprint and operating procedures of fish farms vary considerably between different locations. Some aquaculture operations are very earth friendly, while others turn pristine shoreline into industrial farmland and introduce devastating diseases that affect nearby wild populations. It’s important to research where your food comes from and choose responsible suppliers.

    9) Reduce CO2 Emissions.

    When most people think of pollutants, they picture ooze pouring out of factory pipes. Due to environmental regulations and pressure from consumers, almost all of these pipes have been cleaned up. Yet we still affect the environment by releasing chemicals with less immediate effects. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are changing the way that our planet heats up and cools down. If the greenhouse effect is left unchecked, we could see drastic changes in the temperature of ocean water, reductions in ocean salinity as the polar ice caps melt, and shifts in the paths of major ocean currents (which would cause further temperature changes).

    In addition to climate effects, CO2 emissions can have a huge direct impact on the health of ocean life. New research suggests that salt water is becoming more acidic as it absorbs increased amounts of carbon from the air. Changing temperatures and increases acidity are some of the many factors bleaching coral reefs. Elevated temperatures increase the effect of acidity by boosting the rate at which carbonic acid dissolves calcium. Changes in the pH balance of the ocean are also affecting the metabolic rates of various animals, making it harder for many fish to breathe. That’s bad news on top of overfishing and other forms of water pollution. Even highly adaptable species like the Humboldt squid are showing changes in their behavior.

    10) Reduce Noise and Light Pollution

    Loud noises and bright lights cause major disruptions in the natural world. Animals rely on their sensitive ears and sight to evade predators and find food, yet the oceans are becoming a deafening, blinding place. All creatures have natural rhythms based on the sun and moon, day and night. These rhythms control sleep, breeding, migration, and hibernation, yet the natural rhythms are being disrupted by constant mixed signals due to human activity. The homes of many nocturnal animals are lit up 24 hours a day by beach floodlights and fishing lure lights, and the ocean is filled with the noise of motors, sonar, and mining activity. All this noise and wasted light is a serious form of pollution.

    Every year, we waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity on light that goes in unintended directions. Globe and acorn shaped streetlights are a prime example – they send light out in all directions, yet only 15-25% of that light reaches ground level. The efficiency of these spherical streetlights can be vastly increased by putting a simple reflector dish on the top, and replacing the light with a lower wattage bulb. Redirecting the light can save 75% on electricity costs, and it will also protect animals that are already endangered by human development.

    Skyglow and light trespass are also nuisances to human beings. These effects of errant light were first noticed by astronomers and other night owls, but an increasing number of people are finding that they can’t turn off the lights at night. Light pollution has a direct effect on human health, it drags down property values, and it destroys the natural beauty of the night sky.

    Some cities, states, and countries have started passing laws to protect wildlife from luminous pollution. These laws will likely become more stringent over time. Unfortunately, there are many sources of light pollution in the ocean, and very few of them are regulated.

    Here are some things you can do to reduce light pollution:

    • Upgrade exterior lights to full cut-off fixtures and other dark-sky friendly products
    • Install bulbs with lower wattage lamps
    • Turn-off lights when you’re not in the area
    • Replace automatic timers with motion detectors
    • Discuss the issue with your family, friends, and neighbors
    • Use curtains on all of your windows (this can also pay dividends in insulation)
    • Campaign for regulations that protect against photopollution in your town
    • Demand strict enforcement of light control ordinances

    Every year, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings and young seabirds are killed by lights on the beach. These lights cause reflections on sand that look just like moonlight on water, disorienting the young animals and causing them to wander away from the ocean. Instead of going for a swim, baby turtles and birds are hit by cars, eaten by predators, and die of exhaustion. Reducing light pollution can save many species from extinction.

    sea-trutles-fl-luca5
    Photo courtesy of Luca5 at Flickr.com.

    Sound pollution also kills many wild animals every year. The scale of the problem is unknown, and scientists are just beginning to study the effects of man-made noise on wildlife. Early results show that loud motor sounds can deafen animals who rely on their sensitive hearing to find food and evade predators. These noises can also drown out mating calls and distress signals. There is suspicion that navigation systems such as sonar are responsible for an increasing number of whale and dolphin beachings. High intensity sound waves can cause internal ruptures and induce symptoms similar to the bends.

    Water conducts sound waves much better than air does, so loud noises can travel much further in the ocean than they would on land. This is worrisome, because the noise level in the ocean is increasing rapidly. Between 1948 and 1998, the average volume of sound in the ocean increased about 15 decibels. 15 decibels may not sound like much, but that’s the difference between the amount of noise in a regular office and a busy street.

    So, how can we reduce noise pollution in the oceans?

    • Move shipping paths away from marine sanctuaries
    • Install noise baffles on boats and ships
    • Reduce the use of high intensity sonar
    • Protect sensitive habitat from oil and mineral exploration

    So, that wraps up a ‘quick’ ten-list. But, there’s one other thing you can do to save the oceans.

    Buy from environmentally responsible companies

    The policies that companies follow can make a huge difference on the health of our oceans. Since the United States put pollution controls in place, we’ve seen remarkable recovery in many of the worst affected waterways:

    “Oxygen levels in New York Harbor, for instance, are now 50 percent higher than they were 30 years ago. In the Southern California Bight, off Los Angeles and San Diego, inputs of many pollutants have been reduced 90 percent or more over a 25-year period, and the ecosystem there—including kelp, fish, and seabird populations—has greatly recovered. “

    A lot has been accomplished, but we can still do better. Comparing modern emissions to emissions from the 1970’s, is sort of like comparing a Boeing 777 to the Wright Flier – we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and we should expect major improvements. Unfortunately, many companies are still stuck in the seventies and see nothing wrong with dumping wastewater directly into rivers that feed into the ocean. Not all of our factories and processing plants are using best practices, but it’s easy to find companies that devote resources to improving their environmental record.

    When you make purchase decisions at work or for your home, are you buying from companies that publish an independently reviewed environmental report card? If you can convince even one of the companies you do business with to adopt these guidelines, that will multiply the effects of your choices. Here’s a list of the a top polluters in the United States: these are companies that might reconsider their record if large numbers of customers demanded that they act responsibly to protect the oceans.

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    Photo courtesy of HckySo at Flickr.com.

    Shrimp, shrimp farming, and the environment. Is your meal safe?

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    Photo courtesy of adactio at Flickr.com.

    Shrimp are delicious, and the average American eats about 4 lbs of these crustaceans each year. Even though shrimp account for a huge portion of our diet, very few people think about where the shrimp on their dinner table came from. That’s changing as disturbing news about some overseas shrimp farms comes to light.

    The majority of shrimp consumed in America come from east Asia. The same countries that gave us milk tainted with chemicals and toys painted with lead are raising the shrimp we eat. A surprising number of these shrimp have traces of harmful chemicals, pesticides, and bacteria. Shrimp that are raised in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia and other associated areas are generally raised in conditions that would not pass inspection in the United States.

    One of the scarier chemicals found in shrimp farms is chloramphenicol. This is an ultra-strong antibacterial agent that shrimp farmers use to control disease in overcrowded conditions. It has been banned in the west for decades because it causes blood disorders and has no safe level of exposure. Chloramphenicol isn’t the only dangerous antibiotic used on shrimp farms. Other antibiotics have been tied to liver failure, cancer, and toxic shock.

    Shrimp farming can also have a devastating effect on the environment. Coastal areas that are suited for shrimp farms are very sensitive. They often have species that are threatened by other forms of development, and the fish farms produce a lot of pollution. Some shrimp farms have been caught using abusive labor practices and even slave workers.

    Since 2005, seafood has been required to carry a “country of origin” sticker. This simple label makes it a lot easier to spot potentially dangerous shrimp.

    Shrimp is the No. 1 seafood choice in the United States, and nearly 90 percent of it is imported. About 80 percent of the shrimp imported from foreign markets is farm-raised…

    So, how can we protect ourselves from tainted shrimp? In the grocery store, US raised and wild caught shrimp are good places to start. At the restaurant, ask owners the origin of shrimp they serve. Encourage suppliers to certify the sustainability of their shrimp with the Marine Stewardship Council. Or, you could try raising your own shrimp!


    Video courtesy of Camera Slayer at Flickr.com.

    Green news is good news (mostly)


    Photo courtesy of Ted Abbott at Flickr.com.

    A lot of news about the environment lately has been good news – there are huge solar arrays being built, energy efficiency is improving by leaps and bounds, and more people are recycling today than even knew what recycling was 20 years ago. But, there’s some bad news on the environmental desk too.

    For starters, the ailing economy is threatening to undermine recycling programs nationwide. Demand for commodities has fallen so quickly that we have a surplus of many raw materials, and those surplus materials are exerting negative price pressure on recycled ingredients. Don’t worry though – runaway inflation in the first quarter of 2009 should “solve” those problems.

    A controversy is brewing in the world of organic food. Several large organic suppliers have been caught using unapproved farming techniques in their overseas operations, and the FDA is reviewing their certification. This is a little bit of a good news / bad news situation, because the problem was caught before harm was inflicted and it’s a sign that the internal reviews are working to catch abuse.

    A lot of politicians are burning the midnight oil before their terms in office expire, and this means that some poorly crafted laws, rules, and regulations are on the way. One of the most worrisome developments is that the Endangered Species Act is being undermined by rule changes within the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department has assigned only 15 people to review more than 200,000 unique comments… that means a lot of comments are going to be brushed off and ignored, and that the rule changes will likely face a legal challenge.

    Okay, now on to the good news.

    With automakers begging Congress for a bailout, there’s a lot of attention focused on their business plans. Last year, they were offered a $25 Billion line of credit to develop fuel efficient cars, and these green strings have been cut from the older loan. Just to confuse things, the Big 3 are asking for another $34 Billion dollars to fund their operations, which really makes you wonder if they forgot about the treat they were already given. Now that the funds have been released for GM, Ford, and Chrysler to use at their discretion, there’s still a good chance that some of the money will be used to make fuel efficiency improvements. Consumer preferences have shifted towards improved mileage, but there’s no consensus about how green the cars of the future will be.

    There are a lot of competing standards for determining the “greenest car” on the road. Some carmakers stress miles driven per gallon of fuel, while others focus on the grams of CO2 emitted per mile driven, or the amount of smog causing particulates that are released. These competing claims can be very confusing, and the confusion allows some car makers to greenwash their dirtier vehicles with misleading claims. Until recently, there hasn’t been a clear mechanism to weigh the eco-credentials of competing cars. Now though, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a new standard that combines air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The new SmartWay Certification Program, is designed to highlight best in class vehicles just as the EnergyStar rating system highlights efficient appliances. Honda was able to secure the first top rating for a vehicle – they earned Smartway Elite certification with their Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda GX (a natural gas powered car). Hopefully, American car manufacturers are following close behind.

    Cars are raising environmental awareness in other ways too. Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow are driving cross country to gather signatures for the White House Organic Farm petition. The bus was donated by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s fame) and has a very unusual container garden built into the roof. If you see a strange bus that looks like it had a collision with another bus and kept driving, ask for Daniel or Casey.

    To bring this post full circle, here’s some good news about recycling. If you still have any McCain, Obama, or other political signs sitting around from election 2008, don’t throw them out. Waste management experts have found a way to recycle corrugated plastic campaign signs!

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

    Photo courtesy of A. Kotula 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 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.


    Photo courtesy of yourpicturesarejon at Flickr.com.

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

    Her Majesty -FLA
    Photo courtesy of ceebee23 at Flickr.com.

    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.

    Windmill array -FL
    Photo courtesy of yakkerDK at Flickr.com.

    The Sahara desert is reaching north into Spain



    Photo courtesy of DanielKHC at Flickr.com.

    Droughts are a worldwide problem, with water in short supply in many different countries. Australia and Spain are both suffering through record breaking droughts right now. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the US, but rainfall in Spain is at its lowest level in 40 years. This comes at a time when population is booming and per capita water use is rising.

    Water use is a very emotional issue in Spain, and tensions are running high between neighboring cities and regions. Opinions are divided largely along geographic lines; many people living in the southern provinces favor redirecting water from the north (where the drought is less severe). No one in the North wants to sacrifice their water rights to support wasteful behavior though, and water redirection projects face strong opposition. To break this logjam,

    …the government is building more desalination plants, adding to the more than 900 already in Spain – the largest number in any one country outside the Middle East.

    There is some concern that these energy intensive desalination plants will drive up the price of water while also creating even more climate change. It’s a no-win situation, like trying to prevent an avalanche by running a snow maker.

    Leaders in Spain are looking for a better solution. The country is currently hosting the 2008 World’s Fair in Zaragosa, and the theme of Expo 2008 is “Water and Sustainable Development”. New technologies are on display, including water saving fixtures for the home and agricultural techniques that conserve water. Government programs are encouraging people to adopt these innovations with tax rebates and grants, and if the Spanish are successful in conserving their water, they may be able to stop the desertification of their country. Otherwise, climate change will devastate the environment, with lasting effects on the economy.

    If you get a chance to visit Zaragosa, you’ll see an alternative vision of the future, with clean technology offering jobs and climate security. The best vantage point to view the fairgrounds is atop the 250 foot tall Water Tower building.



    Photo courtesy of Paulo Brandão at Flickr.com.

    The best and latest green news


    Photo courtesy of
    sterkworks 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 here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

    Not everyone who wants to eat local food has time to garden. That’s why a new breed of entrepreneurs are ready to help you out by managing your garden. They’re like executive chefs, but more hardcore.

    An unusual new power plant is going up in Indiana. With an output of only 1.6 megawatts, the first phase of this electrical turbine isn’t going to power the entire eastern seaboard, but it is one of several new power plants that generate power using methane from garbage.
    That’s equivalent to:

    — Removal of emissions equivalent to over 22,000 cars per year, or
    — Planting about 27,000 acres of forest annually, or
    — Creating enough energy to power more than 2,000 homes per year

    Computers contain some pretty toxic chemicals, and e-waste is a major problem we’ve blogged about before. Many companies are working from the other side of the issue and trying to produce greener computer components.

    Climate change and invasive species threaten to destroy some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Here’s a list of endangered places to visit before they’re gone. If you do have the means to visit these places, please consider donating to local conservation groups.

    Due to high oil prices, reduced gas consumption is resulting in shortfalls in the Federal Highway Fund at the same time that Congress is focused on rising road maintenance costs. What does that mean?

    Well, for starters, we can expect more toll roads. And here’s a cruel irony: the increased use of mass transit may cause a cut in funding for mass transit.

    Give “hypermiling” a try for improving your gas mileage


    Photo courtesy of
    MarketingDirecto.com – marketing y publicidad at Flickr.com.

    With minor changes to their driving habits, some drivers have achieved hybrid-like performance from fuel guzzling vehicles. These drivers, known as “hypermilers”, are pushing the limits of existing technology without using any aftermarket devices. Since gas prices are heading towards the stratosphere, more and more drivers are looking to hypermilers for driving tips and fuel saving ideas. On the website CleanMPG.com, a group of hypermilers claim to have saved more than 185,000 gallons of gas.

    So, how do they do it?

    The biggest improvements result from modifications to the driver. Initial changes are simply abiding by the speed limit, keeping right, maintaining safe spacing between vehicles, and paying full attention to driving, including no cell phone use while driving.

    Remember that safety on the highway is an important part of achieving fuel efficiency. Don’t try driving 55 mph in the far left lane of the tollway! Unless you want to become a road rage statistic, you might want to check out this guide to hypermiling etiquette.


    Photo courtesy of
    snowdeal at Flickr.com.

    Buying a used hybrid car? Watch out for hidden costs!


    Photo courtesy of efusco at Flickr.com.

    Hybrid cars make me drool. The idea of getting 50 miles per gallon instead of 25 is almost enough to make me run out and get one today. But, hybrid cars are expensive and there’s an environmental case to be made for getting the full life out of my current car before I go shopping for a new toy.

    It’s tempting to try for the best of both worlds and shop around for a used hybrid car. But, we’re rapidly approaching a milestone in the age of hybrid cars. Battery packs from Priuses made in 2001 were only rated for 100,000 miles (what do you call more than one Prius, anyway? Priusi?). Assuming the previous user drove 12,000-15,000 per year, that means the cars are likely to have 100k or more on the odometer. So, a first generation Prius is likely to come with a geriatric battery.

    Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. Used cars have all sorts of maintenance issues, and car buyers pay a discounted price because they know that costly repairs are a possibility. Battery packs break the mold because battery technology is complicated and hybrid battery packs are shockingly expensive. When these battery packs wear out, they can cost several thousand dollars to replace, and require expert technicians to do the work. From the Newsweek article:

    Philip Card of Utica, N.Y., says a Toyota dealer wanted to charge him $3,900 to replace the battery on his 2001 Prius, which had 350,000 miles on it when he bought it used on eBay this year for $4,357.

    So, here are a few things to bear in mind:
    1) A huge aftermarket is developing for hybrid batteries from wrecked hybrids. If your Prius is totaled by hail damage or a fender bender with an SUV, don’t let a savvy scrap dealer take advantage of you by “taking the wreckage off your hands”.
    2) The resale price of hybrids is falling in line with the resale price of the non-hybrid versions. Due to uncertainty over the value of hybrid batteries (and the cost of upcoming replacement), there may be some real deals out there if you can find hybrids with cosmetic wear but value under the hood.

    So, Caveat Emptor! When shopping for a used hybrid, it might be a good idea to pay for a diagnostic evaluation of the battery pack. And, if you’re one of those Prius, Insight, or other hybrid drivers who I’m jealous of, here are a few rechargeable battery tips that you can use to get the most mileage from your battery pack before it needs replacing. One way to put these battery saving tips into practice is with a trickle charger that keeps the battery above 50% of charge without overheating it.


    Photo courtesy of garyhymes at Flickr.com.

    Beat high gas prices – ride the bus or train!


    Photo courtesy of
    George Morris at Flickr.com.

    I recently rode an Amtrak train from Chicago to Dallas, and every seat was full. Compared to my previous experiences on Amtrak, that was an amazing change. Just 6 months ago, I remember that there were 4 empty seats for every one that was claimed. When I asked my fellow passengers why they chose to ride, the hot topic was the high price of gas. Fuel prices are driving up the price of airplane tickets (just last weekend, fares rose $20!), and 3 major airlines died in the first quarter due to oil shock. Drivers are also becoming aware of every drop of fuel that they use – no one likes to see a $50 or $100 charge at the pump!

    The silver lining of this is that we’re starting to see the cost of different modes of travel mirror their real price in terms of pollution. High gas prices are making environmentally friendly transport more and more competitive. In effect, this is a preview of how a carbon tax could change the face of travel.

    Train and bus ridership are growing like crazy:

    As gas price keep climbing, a growing number of Americans are leaving their cars in the garage and getting on board trains. Commuter train lines around the country are reporting big jumps in first quarter ridership: up 15% in the suburbs of Seattle, 13% in the communities north of Miami, 7% in the region surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul, and better than 5% in New Jersey.

    Subways and bus routes are feeling the boost too. People are leaving their cars at home and hopping on public transport. Unfortunately, since many of these commuter services use petroleum based fuel, their costs are rising too. Increased ridership can offset these increased costs in the short term though. It costs almost as much to run an empty train as it does to run a train with 40 people in it. Additional paying passengers add minimal costs while bringing in much needed revenue. Fuel prices are also rising for train and bus operators though. When commuter services charge the same despite rising prices, this can eliminate any efficiency gains.

    If the price of oil stays at these levels, there’s likely to be widespread demand for better public transportation:

    Five dollar gasoline may be enough to force some people to give up steady use of their personal cars and seek other solutions. For others, the quitting price may be ten or twenty dollars per gallon and for the very wealthy even $100 a gallon gasoline ($80 or $100 thousand a year) would be an acceptable price to pay for the convenience of the private car.

    In the case of slowly increasing gasoline prices the problem is one of forming a critical mass that will make economic sense for greatly expanded mass transit. Such a critical mass is likely to come for long distance travel first, for as soon as discretionary air travel becomes unaffordable, the demand for better train and bus service will increase rapidly. Long distance automobile travel may fill some of this gap especially for moving multiple passengers or if cars become significantly more efficient, but for the lone traveler, a long distance car trip could become very expensive.

    If you’re undecided about taking the train, here are 9 underappreciated benefits of train travel. Compared to travel by air, the benefits of train travel boil down to lower cost, increased comfort, and reduced hassle from security. Air travel still wins on convenience, reliability, and prestige. Long distance buses are also a great option – some studies suggest that intercity buses the most fuel efficient travel available today:

    Based on mileage and passengers in 2004, highway buses achieved an average of 148.4 passenger miles per gallon. That’s more than double achieved by intercity trains which achieved 74.1 passenger miles per gallon. Airlines managed 40.9 passenger miles per gallon, while cars came in last at 35.4 mpg.


    Photo courtesy of
    VSPA at Flickr.com.

    New airline radar can save millions of gallons of fuel


    Photo courtesy of the.voyager at Flickr.com.

    The radar system that monitors airplanes has changed very little in the last 50 years. Due to this, there’s a pretty large “fudge factor” planned into routing all air traffic. Very bad things can happen when planes run into each other (or even when they run into each other’s wake’s – check out this cool video of what wing tip vortices do to the air). No one wants that to happen, so there are aviation rules that keep airplanes 10 minutes apart and prohibit unplanned altitude changes.

    As passengers, this means that we spend hours waiting on the runway for paths to clear in the sky, and that we often get stuck in rough patches of air that make the trip feel like a roller coaster ride. Planes waste hundreds of gallons of fuel on the ground and the rules cause even more waste because pilots are unable to take advantage of favorable tail winds at different altitudes. With fuel costs at all time highs, and maintenance costs rising as well, these rules add significantly to the financial and ecological costs of travel.

    Good news though. Airbus is testing a new type of radar for aircraft, using satellite signals to replace ground based radar (and offer better coverage in the middle of the ocean):

    …in late March the partners in CRISTAL ITP (the ‘ITP’ standing for ‘In-Trail Procedure’) used satellite-navigation-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance—Broadcast (ADS-B) technology to demonstrate safe cruise-altitude changes in oceanic airspace. ADS-B is now being developed internationally to replace radar as the world’s primary method of air traffic control (ATC) worldwide by the early 2020s.

    This system is one of several in development that offer significant fuel savings. It also may allow jets to fly in tighter formations, which would allow more flights per day out of each airport (and reduce the wait time under current passenger loads). Until the system is up and running, here are a few things you can do to save fuel on board your next flight:

    1) Pack light.
    If you can get all of your clothes and toiletries into one bag or even into your carry on, do so. Every pound you avoid putting on the airplane can prevent dozens of lbs of CO2 from being produced. You may also want to consider mailing your luggage ahead to your destination via UPS or FedEx (these shipping companies use ground transport and ultra-efficient airplanes). You’ll have better insurance coverage, less chance of losing items, and the ability to track your bags. Many airlines are also adding a $25 surcharge for a second bag.

    2) Conserve power
    Try to avoid using anything on the plane that draws current. Overhead lights, power plugs, and even earphone plugs draw current that’s produced from jet fuel. Bring your own book light, use the bathroom on the ground before boarding, and avoid using the in-flight video screen.

    3) Close your window shade
    Cooling the airplane is one of the most energy intensive processes on board. If it’s sunny outside, shutting your window shade can help reflect heat away from the interior (and help the passenger in 13E get a peaceful nap). On the other hand, if it’s cold outside, a closed window shade can help insulate the plane and retain heat – which also saves fuel.


    Photo courtesy of clearskyphotography.com at Flickr.com.

    Smaller, high mileage economy cars are back!


    Photo courtesy of jolengs at Flickr.com.

    American car manufacturers love pickups and SUVs. These high end vehicles have been lavished with elaborate advertising, intensive research, and promotional test driving campaigns because of high profit margins. As a result of this infatuation, gas guzzlers account for an unhealthy percentage of sales from the Big Three.

    Profits at Detroit’s Big Three will shrink by $7 billion to $11 billion. Reductions in vehicle sales, especially SUVs, will lead to an industry-wide decline in pretax profits of $11.2 billion to $17.6 billion. Detroit’s Big Three will absorb $7 billion to $11 billion in total reductions because of their dependence on SUV and pickup sales.

    Detroit’s Big Three will absorb nearly 75 percent of the decline in total sales volume. Without deeper discounts, sales volumes in the North American car and light truck market will shrink between 9 and 14 percent, or 1.9 to 3.0 million vehicles, because of the overall effect of higher oil prices on the economy. Detroit’s Big Three automakers absorb nearly 75 percent of the sales decreases.

    The chickens are coming home to roost. For years, American car manufacturers have lobbied for freedom to produce cars that are less and less fuel efficient. While protesting legislation to raise the CAFE standards, Senator Bennett summed up the position nicely:

    …the manufacturer deals directly with the customer in producing the kinds of automobiles people want to buy. And if people say: I really don’t want to buy that automobile, if CAFE standards disappear, the manufacturer can say: OK, if you don’t want to buy it, we won’t produce it. Whereas, now there is pressure; we have to produce it in order to meet the CAFE average, whether people want to buy it or not.

    Unfortunately for American autoworkers, car manufacturers were slow to recognize that consumer tastes are shifting. With oil headed over $120 a barrel, sales of most American made cars have fallen sharply, but, believe it or not, economy cars are selling pretty well. Even “economy” cars that would barely meet foreign standards are selling well in the US:

    Focus sales are up 23 percent through March compared with the first quarter of last year. The redesigned car is taking 7.6 percent of the U.S. small car market.


    Photo courtesy of Ochileer at Flickr.com.

    Anyone out there in the market for a new car?

    What kind of car are you considering, and why? Leave us a comment!