What are some surprising measures of the impact of "green" efforts?
April 30, 2013 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Surely when people try to be more "green", some efforts are significant and some are mere rounding error. What are some examples I could use, with an emphasis on the quantifiable and counterintuitive?

Maybe recycling a case of aluminum soda cans offsets your gasoline for a month. Or maybe, conversely, you could recycle all your soda cans for a lifetime and never offset the impact of the drive to the store to buy them once. Maybe a factory-farmed salmon takes more resources to raise than does a cow, or maybe your Playstation consumes more power than your refrigerator, or maybe a dripping faucet could fill your swimming pool over a weekend. Those are all made up -- please don't cite them -- but surely there are real examples that would be as striking.
posted by quarantine to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
In the US, we measure car efficiency in distance per volume of fuel, whereas a much more intuitive quantity in most cases is the inverse, fuel per distance. This can obscure the fact that there's often a greater benefit to replacing a very inefficient vehicle with an only moderately inefficient one, than with replacing something that's already fairly efficient efficient with something very efficient like a hybrid.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:39 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Using a solar oven requires less energy than using an indoor oven.

Biking is the most efficient method of transportation. Source.

Efficiency isn't everything. I saw an ad the other day for an efficiently heated outdoor bench. Doesn't matter how efficient the heating is, not heating the pedestrian parking is still more efficient.

posted by aniola at 9:45 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

There have been some good studies about the ties between meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions: Livestock and Climate Change.
posted by susanvance at 9:59 AM on April 30, 2013

These things can be really hard to quantify because it's tough to draw a reasonable border around your individual actions and decide what counts and what doesn't.

Take buying yourself a new fuel-efficient hybrid car as an example. Your new car consumes much less gas than your old car, so that's a win, right? But the new car had to be built and shipped to your location, and that had a large environmental cost. But your purchase of a hybrid helps to show the car companies that there is consumer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles, so maybe they'll put more research into efficiency and produce a better range of models in the future. And your old car will presumably be sold on the used market to somebody who might otherwise have bought a new one, so that's a benefit, right? But your purchase also added to the overall demand for cars, and maybe if there were fewer cars being produced more people would take public transit instead of buying cheap used cars. And with all these hybrids using less gas, maybe the price of oil will go down, leading energy companies to forego efficiency upgrades to their power plants and burn up all the gas you conscientiously saved.
posted by contraption at 10:00 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not enough garbage to burn to generate electricity? I imagine some of those Norwegians are like me, they don't create much garbage.

Sometimes I think it just comes down to living well on as little as possible, consuming as little as possible, and giving/investing what's left over to projects that help others live as well as I do. But that's probably simplistic.
posted by mareli at 10:26 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Things like passive solar, walking, living closer to work, buying local and otherwise just making lifestyle choices that avoid the need to spend additional resources while preserving quality of life generally get way too little attention. People tend to not measure at all what wasn't done or spent but absolutely could have been. It is a serious challenge to even effectively communicate the concept. It is a huge blind spot. Creating a crisis and then taking heroic measures to mitigate it tends to feel like much more of an "accomplishment" to people while, in reality, getting poorer results in most cases.
posted by Michele in California at 10:27 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

A good time perhaps to mention Jevons Paradox and the notion of "induced demand" in building new roads.
posted by straw at 10:50 AM on April 30, 2013

Similar to Susanvance's answer:

"[W]e suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food."
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 10:55 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Google "green-washing". Compost-able bioplastics, in particular, are a lot better in theory than in practice:
“If you don’t have [access to] a commercial composting system, you might as well not bother” with biodegradable plastics, says Joanne Fedyk, executive director of the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council . “[Composting] is what [these products] are created to do and if you put them in the landfill, they won’t break down any more than plastic will.”
posted by 0 at 11:10 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's one I found surprising: reusable coffee cups and water bottles can feel very "green" when you buy them but are not actually more environmentally friendly than single-use disposable paper cups with typical use. This is because each "reusable" unit has much more of an environmental impact and you probably (1) don't reuse them very often, (2) use hot water or even a dishwasher and soap to wash them between uses, and (3) wind up throwing out a collection of cheap broken/faded/old reusable cups. Here's a study.

The same may be true for "reusable" grocery tote bags vs disposable bags: throwing away a $2 thick sturdy reusable nylon tote bag you used 5-10 times might be a lot worse for the planet than just throwing away 5-10 disposable bags.
posted by steinwald at 11:11 AM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: One actual, practical suggestion: People obsess over lighting efficiency and buying newfangled efficient bulbs (which in the case of CFLs have their own issues with toxic mercury and a whole driver/ballast circuit that gets thrown out with each bad bulb,) when the reality is that lighting accounts for only about 6% of energy use in the average home.
posted by contraption at 11:13 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's an interesting article on hybrid cars with lots of numbers. On page 3, the point is made that an electric car powered by coal-generated electricity *could* emit "up to 10 percent more greenhouse gasses than a conventional vehicle."
posted by 0 at 11:22 AM on April 30, 2013

There is considerable debate about cloth v. disposable diapers; cloth takes a great deal of water and energy to clean, and you're left with the effluent to handle.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:05 PM on April 30, 2013

Lawnmowing creates 5% of the air pollution in the US, according to this article. That seems like a heavy environmental price for maintaining turf yards. There might be an interesting comparison to be drawn out of this along the lines of "Xeriscaping all U.S. lawns would improve air quality more than shutting down x coal-fired power plants."
posted by lakeroon at 12:55 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: omg, what contraption said...fuck those horrid CFL bulbs sideways with a chainsaw...mercury, copper ballast, toxic phosphors, more plastic, more glass...for what? for why? horrible colored light?
Phillips actually has come up with a much better solution that I have been scouring the stores for (I saw the candelabra bulbs (too small :[ ) at Home Despot)...basically they are almost identical to a standard incandescent bulb, except that they have a second smaller 'capsule' bulb encasing just the filament (ie just a tiny bit more glass) that acts as a mini-greenhouse to keep the filament hot at a lower wattage (trapping the heat waste). Also, they use less toxic gasses as only the 'capsule' needs to be filled. They are 10x as efficient as standard incandescent. Want.

Also, aluminum recycling is the bomb. Totally worth it. Aluminum requires 600,000 volts to be run through the ore to refine it (omg so expensive), but melts down and can be re-formed for SO much cheaper.

You might also look into "Single Stream" recycling, or the idea that you just 'throw it all away' and the recycling plant handles the rest, separating the useful out (with magnets, sifters, baths, etc) automatically...there is even research being done on using the 'trash' part of the trash as fuel for trash-burning power plants to run the whole thing. Also possibly doing the same thing with sewage.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:07 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

In short, the environmental benefits of eating locally are complicated.
posted by oceano at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2013

Lawnmowing creates 5% of the air pollution in the US, according to this article.

I wonder where they get that number. The same article says: "A full day of mowing with a gas mower would emit the same amount of hydrocarbons as driving a large car or truck from Fort Collins to New York City and back more than 52 times." That just doesn't seem at all possible.
posted by 0 at 1:14 PM on April 30, 2013

It's the single-stroke engines and total lack of emissions control that make lawnmowers (and leaf-blowers and small boat engines) so bad...they dump a ton of half-burned and completely-unburned gas directly into the air (unburned gas is MUCH worse in the environment than it's waste products (thats why all the apparatus around the gas nozzle at the gas pump))...and it's not just the CO2 but also soot and other things...
5% of air pollution? Yeah, I believe it.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:23 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wonder where they get that number. The same article says: "A full day of mowing with a gas mower would emit the same amount of hydrocarbons as driving a large car or truck from Fort Collins to New York City and back more than 52 times." That just doesn't seem at all possible.

I don't know what they mean by "a full day of mowing" since the average suburban lawn takes about 15 minutes to mow, but say you're actually mowing 40 acres or something that will take 8 hours. This is going to use maybe, what, two gallons of gasoline?

Now, assume you're driving 4,000 miles from Colorado to New York and back 52 times, for a total of 208,000 miles travelled. At 25mpg, that's 8320 gallons of gasoline consumed, or over 4,000 times as much as the lawnmower. It's completely unbelievable to me that a modern lawnmower is 4,000 times less clean than a modern car.

The article also says "Last year, Clean Air Lawn Care reduced 19,093 pounds of air pollution along the Front Range, which is the equivalent of reducing 556,879 vehicle miles."

So, if 557,000 miles produces 19,093 lbs of pollution, then 208,000 miles produces 7,131 lbs of pollution. They're implying that "one day of mowing" produces 7,131 lbs of pollution.

Well, "one day of mowing" uses about 2 gallons of gas, as we decided earlier. Two gallons of gas weighs about 15lbs. To burn gasoline, you mix about 14:1 air:fuel by mass. So, 15 lbs of gasoline will burn about 210lbs of air along with it.

Even if the entirety of the output of all the air and fuel that's gone through that lawnmower is nothing but air pollutants, you've still only put about 225lbs of air and fuel through the engine by the end of the day, so I'm not seeing how that results in 7,131 lbs of *anything*, let alone pollution.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 5:33 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

The central thing here is that cars are stunningly good a turning gasoline into carbon dioxide and water. Other than that, there is just a whisper of CO and a tiny puff of NOx, and they do not lose any fuel before burning it either. That is why many conventional cars (like Subarus) are labeled as Partial Zero Emission.

The other thing to focus on is the fact that pollution, in this case, focuses on smog forming emissions (unburned gas, NOx, etc), not Carbon Dioxide.

Now, lets take a look at this Straight Dope article, which compared car emission stardards to that of a push mower:

Under current standards, in an hour a push mower will produce the same HC+NOx as a car driven 257 miles, and the same CO as one driven 401 miles. To put it another way, assuming a car averages 40 miles per hour, a push mower produces more HC+NOx than six cars and the same CO as ten.

Another fun fact from that article: Americans spill 17 million gallons of gasoline a year just filling their lawnmowers.
posted by rockindata at 6:54 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in to say lawnmowing as well--so I guess I'm nth-ing it now.

Some of you above are astonished at how much pollution a little lawnmowing will put out. Be astonished, because it really is astonishing.

And it really is not well publicized. One of the simplest, easiest, and most effective 'green' things the average homeowner can do is switch to some form of electric mower, human-powered push mower, scythe (what I use myself), or just xeriscape or otherwise avoid mowing altogether through yard design.

Also, most of the time when we talk about reducing pollution, we're talking about it in some great abstract and worldwide manner. The pollution from your lawnmower does have a city-wide, statewide, and worldwide pollution effect--but it's most noticeable effect is far more personal.

All the noxious chemicals, particulates, incomplete combustion byproducts, and other pollution the lawnmower puts out, it spews out into its very immediate environment. Even worse is something like a two-stroke engine--common in lawn mowers and string trimmers--that burns the lubricating oil right along with the gasoline. And there you are, walking behind your mower in that immediate, very polluted environment, and breathing into the bottom of your lungs all the junk that comes out of the engine's exhaust pipe.

You don't need to imagine baby seals on the Alaskan shoreline to see the benefit of cutting your lawnmower pollution--you only need to imagine your very own lungs, because that is what takes the brunt of it.
posted by flug at 7:43 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Scythes are great! I recently got one too, and it makes cutting the grass a pleasant and engaging experience instead of a horrible slog wrestling a gas-powered spinning death-blade attached to what feels like a broken shopping cart that belches fumes. Plus it's really satisfying to keep that big blade honed once you get the hang of it (which takes no time at all to be good enough to get by, then you just get better and better at it for the rest of your life.)
posted by contraption at 12:08 AM on May 1, 2013

Best answer: A disheartening study I read about the other day: climate change has become so politicized that for political moderates and conservatives, labeling products as environmentally friendly actually deters purchase and usage -- even if it would save them money in the long run.

So when it comes to mass-market products, touting its greenery may not be the best strategy.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:19 PM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

lol...this just rolled into my inbox...shame I don't have a yard anymore...

The South Coast Air Quality Management District invites you to participate in its Electric Lawn Mower exchange program, coming to Long Beach this Saturday, May 4. You can trade-in your old gas-powered mower for a non-polluting electric model and save money while helping clean the air. Purchase a rechargeable, cordless electric mower for as low as $100, with the trade-in of a working gas mower. This year, AQMD has five different models to choose from. Exchange your mower in less than 10 minutes with drive-through convenience when the program comes to Veterans Stadium or at other events planned across the Southland through July. Pre-registration is required. For details and to register for AQMD's lawn mower exchange program go to www.aqmd.gov and click on the lawn mower program banner or call 1-888-425-6247 (Tuesday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
posted by sexyrobot at 11:23 AM on May 3, 2013

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