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.

February: Heating the House

We’re assuming anyone reading this blog is already convinced we need to act on climate change. For anyone who wants to know more, or wants to see Al Gore be positive (really!), check out this February 2016 TED talk. Al says we’re gonna make it. After watching this, we feel even more determined to dig deep and see what changes we can make.  http://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_the_case_for_optimism_on_climate_change#t-147031

I (Maureen) plant for early, early blooms, because I particularly love that. My first flowers usually bloom at the end of March (one year in three), or the first week of April (two years out of three). This year my first flowers (a bunch of snowdrops) were in full bloom on February 26. As a gardener, I’m thrilled. As an inhabitant of planet Earth, I’m horrified at the damage we’re causing.

And so – to work.

In February we took a closer look at our natural gas consumption.

Step 1. Test for drafts

Requirements: 1 stick of incense, a small bowl to tap the ash into, a flashlight, a notebook and a pen. Price: $0.00.

Recommendations: Do not do it within days of dental surgery. The incense made Mark a little woozy. We turned off the furnace and turned on the fans that vent to outside to create negative air pressure in the house. A windy day might help. Body movement creates drafts, so wait a moment after moving to let air currents settle down. Bright light makes it harder to see the smoke, but in the darkest corners a flashlight is required.

Usefulness: Smoke from the incense stick was much more sensitive than our hands for finding drafts. Both were better than our guesses of where the drafts were coming from (um…that would be places we can see light shining through).

We had some ideas of what was drafty, so we knew where to start. We found some surprises (of course), including a cobweb collected by the incense stick (which thankfully did not catch fire). Our lovely fifteen-year-old double paned argon-filled reproduction wood sash windows have some problems with weather-stripping. We mapped out the drafty spots in awkward sketches in the notebook.

We found a few drafts around the front and back doors (not as much as we expected), and some of the power plugs are drafty, though not all of them. Years ago we put in those little insulation things you put in power plugs (Google says it’s an electrical outlet and light switch plate draft stopper foam gasket). We’ll need to check on some of them.

We’re also curious about the roof (the snow-melt pattern tells us there are warmer and cooler patches). Our back entry is cold and drafty in nasty weather (it’s a lean-to added after the house was built, long before we owned it). Mark suspects there are some air leaks in our dugout basement that houses the furnace (this is ladder and flashlight land where Maureen dares not venture because allergies).

Step 2: Furnace and Water Heater Efficiency

The furnace is rated at 92% efficiency. This is officially high-efficiency but not brilliant. Best available is 97%.

The water heater has an EF rating of .59 (no idea what that measures). The Energuide range for new water heaters ranges from .52 (worst), to .80 (best). Ours is sitting firmly on the low end. Now we know – when the water heater dies, have a chat with the electrician about energy efficiency before he installs a new tank.

Step 3: The Energy Assessment

Thursday, February 11 Kerry Webb from Calgary Thermal Vision spent the morning inspecting our house with a thermal camera. Price $315, including GST.  www.calgarythermalvision.com

The biggest hassle was moving furniture and pictures 18” away from exterior walls the evening before, to let the wall temperature adjust. It was a challenge to keep the house functional, while we shuffled furniture in crowded rooms, and piled all the extras in our offices.

It’s a good thing we didn’t rent a thermal camera on our own – we would have had no idea what we were looking at. Having a knowledgeable guy attached to the camera was very good. Kerry inspected the entire house, inside and out, including the dugout basement. There are lots of small things we can work on, but there was nothing horrific. He gave us tips on how to tackle the problem areas.

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The photos are of the west side of our house, with a regular camera and a thermal camera. Kerry says all houses will show some heat loss along the base of the house. The important thing is the temperature difference. By insulating along the rim joist we can reduce the amount of heat loss. That’s probably the biggest task we’re going to tackle. Well, not we. Mark will. Maureen does not venture into the basement.

The back entry is cold because it has no foundation. More insulation won’t fix that. The roof insulation isn’t brilliant, but because of the oddities of how the house is constructed brilliant isn’t possible. This is not where we’re going to make great gains. The windows have some gaps in weather-stripping we need to repair. There’s a cold spot on my office ceiling that has no explanation – we’ll check the eavestroughing outside that window to see if there’s a leak. Mark is insulating around the dryer vent and the old gas pipe that’s been cut off and plugged but not insulated. We’ll put some insulation in the no-longer-used, incorrectly-installed cable outlet that’s drafty.

There was nothing here desperate for attention, and nothing worth putting a lot of money into. This was a huge surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been, as we know our gas consumption is lower than average.

And so, in our quest to find the changes that will give us the biggest bang for our buck, March will be all about electricity. We’ll check our appliances and try to break down our electricity use, looking for the most efficient changes to make.

Fueled By Hope

The day the United Nations COP21 climate change summit accord was signed in Paris on December 13, 2015, committing us all to a lower carbon future, I was thrilled, especially by the increased discussion of the need to get to zero carbon. I linked to an article about it on Facebook, and wrote, “Now we need to get to work.”

Then I started thinking about it. Clearly there’s a ton of work for governments and industry. What can we do as individuals, in addition to lobbying, donating and voting for those who are working to protect our environment? I don’t even know what zero carbon means. What will it look like, at my house?

I tend to do this – learn something new in theory and then need to figure out what it looks like on the ground. In my house, in my garden. So I hatched a plan and talked my husband into joining in. This blog is our first step.

Through 2016, we are going to work on this question: How do we get to zero carbon, at our house?

I wrote to the Suzuki Foundation for advice. This was their reply:

Thank you for your interest in carbon neutrality. The process is actually fairly simple:
– Measure the emissions from your household
– Reduce emissions where possible at your household
– Purchase emissions reductions made elsewhere (carbon offsets) to balance the remaining emissions you were not able to reduce.

I’m not convinced it’ll be simple. Mark says it’s kind of like saying you play the flute by blowing in one end and moving your fingers up and down. But we’re going to leap in and learn to play.

Our plan is to tackle one topic a month, researching and making the easy changes.  We’ll research the big stuff too, like electric cars and solar panels, so when the time is right we’ll be able to move quickly. That’s not likely to be this year.

January will be about finding out our current carbon footprint, and what it would cost to buy carbon offsets for that amount. This will define where we are and set a price on the problem. We’re also hoping to book an energy assessment of our house, so we’ll know what we need to work on most.

We’ll report on our progress at the end of the month, and set goals for the next month.

Maureen and Mark