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.