November: Stuff Stuff Stuff

November was all about the stuff we buy. This was a great month for this, with the Thanksgiving shopping frenzy of deals deals deals! But do we really need more stuff stuff stuff? There’s a joy in simplicity that Maureen is drawn to. She’d love less stuff in the house, and is regularly working on getting rid of, passing on, and finding good homes for things we no longer need.

Mark confesses to enjoying the simplicity but feeling the pull of consumerism, particularly a love for gadgets, computer gear, microphones, etc. He keeps that in check by remembering that drawer full of old power adapters and connectors (there’s a ‘fashion’ problem in the electronics industry as much as in clothing.)

So what is the carbon impact of stuff? This is another deeply complex area. How is it made? Where is it shipped from? How is it packaged? When we no longer need it can it be repaired, be reused, or recycled?

Carbon concerns often focus on heating, power and fuel for transportation, but a huge amount of carbon is used in consumer goods. We like to blame governments and industry for not doing enough to combat global warming, but changing our consumption habits can have an enormous impact. “…the stuff we consume — from food to knick-knacks — is responsible for up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use.” grist.org: Consumerism Plays a Huge Role in Climate Change

Our first step was to look at the flow through, what comes in and what goes out. What comes in – our purchases. We’re all rather shopping-phobic, so we’re not excessive and still, stuff keeps arriving. One area of focus is simply excess. Do we really need another tweedum? Another is single-use disposables for which there are alternatives, like using rags instead of paper towels. (Those Keurig coffee pods, by the way? They’re a terrible environmental choice).

Next, we look at what flows out. With a little care, our garbage volume has dropped through the year, partly through some extra attention to what we’re purchasing, and party through an effort to find homes for things we no longer need. Give aways in the last couple years have been massive as we’ve moved three parents into assisted living and cleared out their homes. We’ve passed on items to friends, listed items on Kijiji, sent off goodies for donations, set out extra plants on the street corner, and left building supplies behind the garage. It’s become a bit of a game to find good homes for things we no longer need. Almost nothing that’s still usable goes in the garbage. And still the flow through is more than it should be.

Clothing is an oddly large proportion of the carbon problem. ‘Fashion’ by definition changes with the seasons, which is bad enough. ‘Fast fashion’ can change weekly, with items only worn once or twice before being thrown away. There’s a big carbon footprint for clothing. Cotton (even organic cotton) takes enormous amounts of water (5000 gallons for 1 pair of jeans and a t-shirt), and is shipped long distances. Manufacture of nylon and poly is also very bad for greenhouse gasses. 70 million barrels of oil go into the manufacture of polyester each year.

Here are a couple of articles on the problem: alternet.org: Its the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World and You’re Wearing-It and ethical.org: Fashion Footprint

We’re not big clothing shoppers, but we’re looking at this issue. Our goal is to buy fewer, longer lasting, better made clothes, and to repair them as needed. In honour of this topic, Maureen reluctantly pulled out her very old but still workable sewing machine and repaired some dearly beloved but shredding clothes.

Our biggest focus this month is on Christmas. Mike Berners-Lee in How Bad Are Bananas calculates the carbon cost of Christmas at 280 kg CO2 per adult on average, but high-carbon scenario is 1500 kg per adult!

His low-carbon scenario: Enjoy the food, but don’t over do it, and don’t prepare so much that you waste it. Presents can be thoughtful but not necessarily expensive. Use LED Christmas lights. Stay home for Christmas, and send only a few cards. Skype with far-off friends.

We’ve decided to 1. reduce present volume generally, 2. focus more on consumables like booze and tasty things, 3. buy from local stores and artists, which is not so much about carbon but is worthy, 4. give experiences, donations, regifting, gifts of time, and 5. pay attention to wrapping waste, which is a hardship for Maureen as she has a particular fondness for nice wrapping paper. But there are lovely alternatives. We have a stash of cloth bags we reuse each year. Last year we received a gift wrapped in an artist-stitched dish cloth we enjoy every time we use it. Socks make good wrapping too. There’s some fun and silliness to be found here.

Oh, and about that tree?­ Here’s an article from the Washington Nature Conservancy arguing for a live tree, which makes Maureen very happy, because she loves bringing nature in for Christmas. Washington Nature: Real-Or-Fake-Tree?

In December, we’ll look back at our year, and look at where we want to be in a few years.

EcoDriving

Mark writes: In our posting about transportation in September, I promised to work on the efficiency of my driving.

I started by taking an online course sponsored by Natural Resources Canada. It’s designed to teach drivers some simple techniques to lower fuel consumption. You can sign up for it here.

The course has 3 main topics: Driving Behaviour (driver efficiency), Trip Planning (to drive a shorter distance by combining trips, etc), and Improving Your Vehicle’s Performance.

Here are a couple of interesting statistics, and a few of the pointers I got from the course.

Amazingly, there is one car for every two people in Canada. About 18 million light vehicles drive a whopping 300 billion Km every year. And the average vehicle puts about 4 tones of Co2 into the air each year. If we could drive less and more efficiently, that would make a big difference.

Here’s how we can improve:

Accelerate gently. Imagine you have an egg on the gas pedal. In the city, 50% of fuel is burned just getting up to speed from a stop, so this is the most important thing you can do. It should take five seconds to get to 20Km/hr from a complete stop.

Maintain a steady speed and anticipate traffic, so you don’t have to slow and accelerate so much. If you watch ahead, you can coast to slow down, which also saves fuel.

Avoid high speeds. Cars are typically most efficient from 50-80Km/hr. It can take 20% more fuel to drive 120Km/hr compared to 100Km/hr.

The course goes through much more detail on how to plan errands to drive shorter distances, and how to make your car run more efficiently (by reducing weight, getting a tune-up, and keeping the tires properly inflated).

Through practicing more awareness of my own driving habits and being more aware of other traffic, I became less hurried and much calmer as I drove. Somehow this awareness had made city driving at lot less… well, annoying!

And so far, I have improved my fuel consumption for city driving by about 20%.

 

October: Food

Once again, we found great complexity in trying to understand our food-based carbon footprint.

The Suzuki Foundation has an article on specifics of what we can do to reduce the carbon footprint of the food we eat:

  1. eat less meat and animal products
  2. buy organic and local
  3. reduce waste
  4. grow some of your own food

The way food is raised matters more than the distance travelled (83% of carbon used, compared to 11%). Here’s why: “One study showed that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped 18,000 kilometers to the UK still produced less than one quarter of the greenhouse gases than local British lamb. Why? Because local flocks were fed grains, which take a lot of energy to grow, while the New Zealand flocks were grazed on grass.”

Suzuki: Food and Climate Change.

  1. Less Animal Products:

Greeneatz has a detailed breakdown of the carbon footprint of various diets. A meat lover uses more than double the carbon for food than a vegan.

Greeneatz: Foods Carbon Footprint

One of our daughters is vegan, so when she visits we look for vegan recipes. This is tricky with Maureen’s food restrictions, but possible – we’ve had some great meals. Favourites include gado gado (spicy peanut sauce), and lentil vegetable soup with homemade focaccia.

We’re generally reducing the amount of animal products we eat. The worst choices are from large animals that produce methane – that’s cows and sheep, which means cheese and milk, too. Hence the value of tasty vegan recipes.

  1. Buy Organic and Local

Through the summer and fall we shopped at the local farmer’s market, with a focus on local producers. Eating seasonally was a joy, especially the saskatoons, cherries, peaches and peas.

We put up some food in our new smaller, more efficient freezer. We also have fruit and booze experiments steeping in the cupboard.

We’re purchasing some food from local producers. For example, Sunnyside Market has granola and oats that are local, fresh, and wonderful. The staff know all their local producers, so it’s a great place to learn.

Now that local produce is done for the year (Calgary winter), we’re trying out SPUD, for produce delivered to the door. We’ll let them do the work of sourcing the best organic and local products, because they’ll be better at it than we are. So far? delicious!

Another heavy user of carbon is our local greenhouses that provide tomatoes and cucumbers through the winter. Carbonwise, until they shift to solar power, it’s better to get tomatoes and cucumbers shipped from California and Mexico.

  1. Reduce Waste

We kept track of kitchen waste for a week.. We compost and recycle, so what we threw out was food waste we don’t compost, like meat scraps (that will be compostable next year when the city compost bin arrives), packaging and storage plastics. Not much else.

The biggest food waste is leftovers we don’t get to. We spent a week focused on reducing that, and threw out almost none. The trick is training each of us to look every day. We’ve had fun dreaming up uses for leftovers – rice pudding, fried rice, croutons. We roasted a chicken for Thanksgiving, cooked up the leftovers into a wonderful shepherd’s pie, and made chicken soup with the carcass.

Our packaging waste comes in three parts. First, we need to reduce packaging at the store, by bringing our own bags and avoiding anything overpackaged. Second, we use food storage items like bags and plastic wrap. We’re not fond of plastic storage containers, so haven’t found a solution to this yet. Third, we order take out about once a week. Some packaging is recyclable, like pizza boxes. Styrofoam goes in the garbage. We haven’t figured out how to reduce this, except for the local bakery. We bring a basket and cloth, and skip the bakery box.

  1. Grow Your Own Food

We grow fruit (more apples and pears than we can use, small amounts of other fruits, herbs, and vegetables, all organically grown). We share anything we can’t use, including some with resident animals. Our favourites? apples for pie, snap peas, berries and fresh herbs.

We’ve just used the last of our fall crops, except for the herbs that are more frost resistant, raspberries that keep on trying, and some stored apples that won’t last much longer.

We’ll keep on working on all these things, gradually adapting to a lower carbon diet.

Next month? With Christmas on the way, it’s time to look at buying. Stuff stuff stuff.

Net Zero House

We toured a net zero house in Calgary. The house was built in 1984, and fully renovated a year ago.

They re-insulated the outside, with a spray-on vapour barrier and 4″ of insulation, coated with a finish. The windows were replaced with triple-paned windows.

The gas furnace was replaced with a heat pump, and a second heat pump for the new water tank. They hooked up to existing electrical, duct work and plumbing. The heat pump can heat or cool, but they rarely use air conditioning, as the house doesn’t heat up much in the summer.

Solar panels were installed on the garage roof. The panels produce more power than the house uses in summer, and is fed back into the grid. In winter, they buy power, at the same price as they sell it. They pay a monthly fee for the meter and access to the grid. In their first year they produced slightly more power than they used.

They expected the project to pay for itself in 25 years, but with the Alberta carbon tax coming in 2017, that payout will drop to perhaps 15 years, and continue dropping as power prices climb.

Next, they want to install another set of solar panels on the house roof, for an electric car.

We found it useful to actually see the heat pump in the utility room, with a second unit outside. The simplicity of the change from gas furnace was surprising and encouraging. We’re still waiting for some more price shifts, but we’re getting closer.

September: Transportation

Transportation is a little simpler than other topics we’ve tackled. Basically, bike, walking and transit are very good, while flying is very very bad.

Trains are good but we don’t have them here. We have freight trains, and a tourist run to Vancouver that costs more than flying, but nothing else.

Flying is one of the worst ways to spend our carbon-dollar. First, it takes a lot of fuel to fly a plane. Second, “the fuel is burned at an altitude where it has, as a best estimate, nearly twice the climate change impact that it would have had at ground level.” (Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas, p. 60, Greystone Books, 2011).

Any alternative to flying is better. Of course, sometimes that’s just not viable, especially in a huge country like Canada, or for international travel. We’ll be checking out carbon offsets the next time we fly, our personal carbon tax on flying, until there’s an actual carbon tax on flying.

We do walk, use transit and bike. We could/should/would do more. We’ll work on that.

We have two cars, which in itself is a big carbon hit, before considering any mileage. We’re not quite ready to shift back to one (we were a one-car family for many years). Our mileage has always been low, although that’s changing a little now. We head into the mountains once a week, and our parents live on the edges of Calgary, far from our central location, and far from each other. It looks like our mileage will be about 30% higher this year.

Our 2007 Honda Fit and 2010 Mazda 5 rate “Superior” on Greenercars.org, the top rating, and were both best in class. Greenercars.org search page. The Fit is rated at 7.3 Litres/100Km in the city, and 5.8 on the highway. Our measured mileage on the Fit was between 7.0 and 7.9 l/100Km, which is pretty good as we mostly drive in the city. The  Mazda is rated at 10.7 in the city and 8.4 on the highway. We’re not faring as well here; our actual mileage is between 11.5 and 14 l/100Km. The very best conventional cars are at the 7.0 l/100Km mark, so we are doing very well with the Honda. The hybrid Toyota Prius is rated at about 5.4 in the City. Natural Resources Canada’s guide.

Fuel efficiency can be boosted by up to 30% with simple maintenance and some driving changes. These include avoiding aggressive driving, as fast acceleration and deceleration both waste fuel. Watch highway speeding, as fuel consumption is up to 20% higher over 90 km/h, depending on the vehicle. Avoid any idling more than 30 seconds, except to clear the windshield in cold weather. Avoid driving in heavy traffic as much as possible. This both speeds up the trip, and doesn’t slow down other people, so there’s a double carbon gain. Make sure tires are inflated correctly, and vehicles well maintained. Plan trips for efficiency. For more details, there’s a good list at eartheasy.com.

We’ve decided to try to improve the efficiency of the Mazda. For a month or so, it’ll be used only for city driving, to make the test clean, and driven only by Mark, who will try to develop more efficient driving skills. We’ve read this can improve efficiency from 10-30%. Mark will take a Natural Resources Canada on-line course on efficient driving.

Our vehicles are 6 and 9 years old. We typically replace cars around 12 years, when they start to become less reliable. That’ll be when we take a close look at alternatives.

At the moment, a fully electric car sounds brilliant for city driving, but we wouldn’t take it into the mountains. Calgary to Jasper is 412 km, and we drive it in one day. We can’t get there on a single charge. Someday there might be enough charging stations. Today is not that day. At the moment there’s only one gas station between Lake Louise and Jasper, a 232 km run. We won’t drive into the Canadian Rockies and risk running out of fuel. That’s just not safe.

We could have an electric car for city driving and a gasoline car for road trips, but that seems foolish. A hybrid might make more sense for us. We’ll keep watching the rapid and exciting developments for electric cars, improved batteries, solar roofs on electric cars, and dropping prices, and make the move when it’s time to replace a vehicle. Here’s a great article on the shifting cost of clean cars. NPR: It may not cost you more to drive home in a lower emission car.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to advocate for a healthy carbon future, including voting for those who support mass transit.

In October we’ll be digging in to food.

 

August: Odds and Bits

In August we worked on odds and bits related to previous months.

Natural Gas

We’re digging through a list of repairs: insulation, cracks in the walls, leaks around windows. We’re hoping for a payoff this winter, with a better-sealed house.

We turned our water heater down one notch. It was fine. Two notches and we still had hot showers. With guests coming we debated turning it up then decided to leave it as is and test on the visitors. It was fine. When they left we turned it down again, and that’s when the cold showers started. We now know exactly the lowest setting to leave it on, except when we turn it right down when we’re away.

Electricity

We had a 5% drop by April, followed by a huge spike, reflecting Maureen’s need for filters and air conditioning in the summer. We tested each filter and swapped which rooms they’re in, so the most efficient is the most used. Except we forgot about the filter in the basement that runs constantly. We’ll check that one, too, and swap it for something most efficient, if it’s an old one.

There was another spike in winter. We wondered if it was more than just weather related. Christmas? Last year we had no house guests, and surely we don’t bake enough to make a difference. We tested our Christmas lights and found an insignificant load. Still, we’ll switch to solar lights for outdoors when our LEDs die, and we got rid of our old incandescent strings.

We’re washing most of our laundry in cold water, and have noticed no difference whatsoever in the clothes. They’re still clean enough.

We rejigged some power bars. The stereo is now kept powered down (it was the biggest ghost power drain).

We turned off everything while we were away. The neighbour watching our house texted it was hot and he’d cranked up the air conditioning. “No, no!,” Mark texted back. “We’re trying to keep our power use down!” “Just giving you a carbon scare,” the neighbour replied. So that’s a thing now – carbon pranking. Thanks Terrance.

Lights

We still find lights left on. That’s our mindfulness practice – noticing. The halogen spotlights in the kitchen are starting to die, so we’ll switch them to LEDs.

Solar

We realized if our utility went to renewables, we could skip solar panels entirely. In the meantime, we’re drooling over the idea of solar roof shingles. Hopefully they’ll be a reasonable option the next time hail destroys our roof.Elon Musk announces Solar Roof Product

Garden

We planted a new tree. It promptly died. Well, not quite. Leaves died, tree’s alive. We’re watching it set out little tiny new buds, and hoping it survives.

We found some biochar. Maureen had heard about it, but didn’t know where to buy it in Calgary. Here’s the blurb on biochar from airterra. http://www.airterra.ca/

Biochar is a high carbon content, charcoal-like material, made by heating plant matter to temperatures above 400 degrees C in a low- to no-oxygen environment. Biochar is valuable as a soil restructuring agent that enhances plant growth and health by improving the following soil characteristics: moisture retention, nutrient retention, provision of a beneficial microbe habitat, and soil pliability. Nutrients that are adsorbed onto the surface of biochar’s porous structure become more readily available to plants through an enhanced ionic exchange capacity. The introduction of biochar into soils provides a home for beneficial microbes to thrive. These beneficial microbes stimulate mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn help plants thrive through improved plant root health. Furthermore, the amendment of biochar into soils is a means by which carbon is removed from the atmosphere. This also increases soil organic carbon.

We’re trying it both as a carbon sink, and to test for improved garden growth. We worked lots into the soil around the new tree. Yes, the one that died. So – we’ll report back on how that’s going.

In anticipation of October’s focus on food, we’re getting to the farmer’s market more consistently for local food, and putting up a little for winter treats. Yummm.

For September we’ll move on to transportation.

 

July: Going Solar?

We’re keenly interested in generating our own power. With a reference through the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, we contacted a local company called  SkyFire Energy.

Satellite imagery of our property was used to determine the best way to install solar panels on our house. Daniel from Skyfire ran some analysis based on current electrical rates (this system involves selling all excess electricity to the utility company, so no batteries are involved.)  With solar cells on our roof, we would be able to generate 6750 kWh per year. The cost would be almost $18,000. It would pay for itself in 15 years, with a return on investment of about 2.5%. After 25 years, we would have made $13,000. (2.5% return on investment does not seem like a lot, but right now there are 10-year GICs going for just over 2%.)

We asked about the maximum potential of power generation for our property, and for about $25,000 (using our garage roof as well as the house),  we could generate more power than we consumed last year. The total estimated potential for us was 11,800 kWh (we consumed about 9900 kWh last year). This would reduce our overall carbon footprint by 40%.

The price tag is not yet economically viable for us. We’re hoping for federal or provincial support for the switch. And we’ll wait to see if prices drop further (there’s been a massive drop in price so far.) The Guardian: Solar panel costs predicted to fall 10% a year

More math: we consumed about 9900 kWh last year. With this year’s project, we’re hoping for about a 20% drop in consumption – to 7920. Panels on the roof would produce about 6750. That leaves us about 15% short. So perhaps the plan could be to wait for a government subsidy and perhaps a price drop, install panels on the roof, continue reducing our energy consumption (nail that 15%), and produce all our own power. Then add panels on the garage roof when we get an electric car.

In the meantime, we researched other options:

We could invest in a solar project. We made a small donation to The Alberta Solar Co-op.

 We’re also watching wind power – inventors are working on bladeless silent small turbines. Green Energy Jubilation: Silent Rooftop Turbine

There’s also microbial power to keep an eye on. MudWatt Microbial Fuel Cell Kit

There’s also interest in thermal heating. CBC news: Geothermal Pitched as Next Big Energy Source

We’re watching development of solar windows. We have the perfect candidate – a large, south facing garage window that we’d be happy to replace. PlanetSave: Solar Windows Ready for Production

However, none of these are in our price range yet and many are not yet commercially available.

In the meantime, we looked at solar toys. The best seem to be for off-grid living, more than for city life. We want more. Maureen has a solar calculator she bought in the 1980s that’s still going strong. The only maintenance it’s had in 30 years is the occasional cleaning of the solar strip across the top.

We did buy a new toy – a string of copper wire fairy lights for the garden. That, the solar calculator and a radiometer is the extent of solar at our house right now.

We want more! So much more is possible, like this totally solar Hutterite egg barn. CBC News: Net Zero Egg Barn. For now, we wait for technology, for government programs, and for further price drops. We’re poised to jump when the time is right. Our dream? In the next five years we’d love to have solar panels, a wind turbine on the north west corner of the garage roof, and a big solar garage window. Plus a battery in the garage, and excess power to sell back to the grid.

Next month we’ll focus on odds and bits, catching up on the repairs we still need to complete, news on small tweaks we’re trying, and a look at whether our consumption numbers are dropping yet.