Think Environmental: The Green Options

Install a wind turbine? Do more recycling? Walk everywhere? Fly less? What's best?

It'd be hard to come up with a complete and 100% accurate ranking of the value of each possible action. Especially as there are so many individual factors to consider. But it's also obvious that some actions are usually more effective than others. Here's a rough summary, in approximate order from the exciting but probably least important, to the boring but most economical and worthwhile.

Just Hot Air?

First off, "sexy" headline chattering-classes actions like heat pumps in the ground, wind turbines and wood burning stoves. How good are these?

They probably help some. But they also cost more to the individual than they bring back in benefits (in most cases). Of these, the roof-mounted wind turbine or solar hot water are probably least beneficial, in terms of minimising carbon emissions and saving homeowners money. One big thing to consider about solar hot water systems -- you have to use enough hot water to make it worthwhile. But if your washing machine and dishwasher only have cold inputs, and you are careful about only taking quick showers, do you really use enough hot water to make it worthwhile?

As for roof-mounted wind turbines (microsystems), most people live in such sheltered locations, that they won't get enough air flow to make it worthwhile, not even over a 15 year period. We have a roof-mounted wind turbine, and even with where we live (a very windy place), and skyrocketing energy prices, we may not get our money back (ever).

Heat pumps -- sounds great, get heat out of the ground. But they can actually lower the ground temperature (literally) in a surrounding 20-30m buffer zone, affecting wildlife and even the health of your lawn.

Not Just a Throw-Away Idea

Recycling -- there's nothing wrong with it, except that it's sometimes a sop and distraction. Remember, it's REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE. Try to reduce -- try not to use in the first place. Don't buy stuff you don't really need, try to make your old stuff last longer. It also takes less packaging usually when you buy stuff in large amounts -- so try to buy a single large box of powdered detergent rather than little individually wrapped washing tablets. Try to get 4 pints of milk in one container once a week, not 2 two-pinters twice a week (if you can, without the milk going off too soon, obviously). Do you really need a daily newspaper, or would buying a paper just a few times a week suffice? Otherwise, Re-use what you can, look at Freecycle in your area and consider buying things second hand (Ebay, charity shops, car boot sales, etc.) where possible. Taking things to recycle is good, but it's not as valuable as never acquiring the item in the first place.

And when you do take stuff to the recycle bins, don't leave your motor running and wasting fuel as you slowly pop each glass container into the bank... could you walk instead, even?

Food for Thought

Food -- Lots of publicity lately about how much food we waste. It is scary, we are the victims of 50 years of successful farming which drove world food prices quite low, food cost so little for us in the rich West, we forgot to value it. Now food prices are starting to reach more natural levels maybe we will be more careful about wastage. Environmentally how important is it to be frugal with food? Probably increasingly so, given the world food shortages. How to best prevent food waste is an individual thing. Some people can only manage to avoid waste with weekly meal-planning, others go dumpster-diving (freganism). Personally I keep tabs on what's in the fridge and likely to go off, plus I'm lucky to have friends who don't mind me giving them any extras or mistake purchases. It helps assuage the conscience if you have chickens or pets who will dive on leftovers, too.

Waste Not, Want Not!

Composting: Basically, it prevents waste going to landfill -- waste is expensive to transport, uses up land, costs money to manage the waste stream, AND the many types of waste anaerobically decomposing to methane (a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Given it costs nothing but the space of a square metre or less of the garden in most cases, well worth doing.

Composting toilets: Okay, now I'm getting seriously weird. Nothing wrong with it, but hard to quantify the benefits.

The Lights Are Burning Brightly...

Lightbulbs: this seems like a no-brainer, use low-energy light bulbs to save the planet and money. Indeed, they should be effective, costing more to purchase but using much less energy and lasting much longer than conventional incandescent light bulbs. Low-energy bulbs are a mixed bag, though. They have a lot more environmental impact during manufacture (typically contain some quite nasty chemicals). Their low lumens (light) output means that sometimes we just end up turning on more lamps than we would have previously, just to get as much light as we might have had before from a single incandescent bulb! Worse, a lot of the cheap low-energy bulbs you can buy don't actually last very long (not well made). Plus, don't get complacent: you still shouldn't just leave the lightbulbs on 24/7 now that you think they're using so much less energy; still must turn out lights in rooms not in use.

Send Holidays Packing

Holidays: Well yes, it's true, don't fly if you can. Driving to your holiday destination creates far less pollution than flying there. So holidaying within the country rather than jetting off to the sun does make a real difference to reducing environmental impact (and it may save you money, too).

Give an Inch, and Take a Mile

Transport: This is hard to quantify, but for most people travelling 5 days or more a week, cutting down routine journey distances will add up to a significant reduction in environmental damage. Ideally, live somewhere between work and the shops (and anywhere else you travel to regularly, like school or family), to minimise the journey time to each. And then, consider how you get there: even if you can only walk once a week, that's still (in most cases) healthy exercise for you and a reduction in environmental impact over driving or even taking the bus.

Comfort Blanket

What other measures can do the most to reduce our individual uptake of environmental resources? Easily the most cost-effective thing to do is... insulate. Insulate your house by filling cavity walls and fluffing up the roof insulation to a depth of at least 25 cm. Insulate by getting better quality windows, and keeping closed doors to the outside and windows on cold days. Insulate by putting foil-reflectors behind radiators on outside walls, so that more of the heat they put out goes back into the room rather than into the wall. Insulate by closing curtains at night. Insulate your body by wearing an extra jumper rather than turning up the heating indoors.

It's very unsexy compared to most of the above, but really, insulation is the most valuable thing you can do to reduce household energy consumption.

And do you know what -- it's okay to put a duvet across your legs while watching telly. So what if you feel like Grand-dad if you do it? You're sedentary when watching telly, of course your body feels a bit cooler than if you were chasing toddlers, vacuuming or washing up. Just don't tell your mates down the pub about the blanket you keep to throw across your knees on cold evenings.

Essential Reading

Slow-tech: Manifesto for an Over-wound World
by Andrew Price
Consider whether high efficiency really delivers long-term cost savings. This is a book for luddites everywhere, convinced that high-tech can be a backward step.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
by William McDonough, Michael Braungart
A book that examines how to make things based on natural principles alone, and planning for end-of-lifecycle disposal throughout the design.

Ms.Harris's Book of Green Household Management
by Andrew Price
A simple 'thrift bible' that has tips for making the most of what you have around the home. Don't recycle; reuse!


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