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.” 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: Its the Second Dirtiest Thing in the World and You’re Wearing-It and 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.

January: Where We Begin

January was all about assessing our current carbon footprint.

First, we looked up our fuel consumption. This was easy. Enmax, our electricity and natural gas provider, has an on-line service that totals and graphs consumption. One stop data.

For our two cars, we calculated our annual average mileage, and inputted model information. The on-line carbon footprint calculators worked out the rest. This will be based on official mileage for those vehicles, not our actual mileage, as we haven’t kept data on that. We will collect it this year.

We used two calculators to calculate our carbon footprint. The first, recommended by the Suzuki Foundation, focuses solely on fuel use.

Based on this, our carbon footprint is 20.34 metric tons of CO2. This is for 3 people in a 1200 sq ft house, no basement, detached unheated garage, in inner city Calgary.

However, we also wanted to include secondary carbon, from making and transporting the goods and services we use, so we looked at other websites, and chose

It’s easy to use, to reset, and to play with, and it breaks down the various categories clearly. The two calculators came up with the same carbon footprint for fuel consumption.

Our total carbon footprint including secondary consumption is 24.42 metric tons of CO2, for three people.


The average for Canada is 20 metric tons per person. Compared to that we’re doing really well. The average for the industrial world is 11 (we’re still doing well compared to that), worldwide average is 4 (we’re double that), and the worldwide target to combat climate change is 2. Ideally, we need to reach carbon zero.

Our first surprise – that our energy footprint as low as it is. Of course, that’s a relative thing. It’s still far, far too high.

The reasons it’s low compared to average? None of us drive to work or school (we’re in a walkable bikeable transitable neighbourhood). We live in a small house. We’ve made some changes over the years, like installing an efficient furnace, replacing old single-paned (multi-paned mullioned windows) with argon-filled double paned windows, and choosing efficient appliances as they need replacing.

Our second surprise ­– that our natural gas use is lower than average for our area, but our electricity use is higher. This one has us scratching our heads. Our guess is that this is a reflection of Maureen’s health issues. We run air filters through the year and a portable air conditioner on the hottest days to help with air quality. We’ll try to break this down further when we look at electricity use.

Note: Calgary’s electricity is generated in part by coal-fired plants, so our carbon footprint for electricity will be higher than for the same consumption in other provinces. The coal-fired plants are being phased out, but for now, it’s higher-carbon electricity. Our personal use is also higher than use in our area – that’s the piece we can work on.

The third surprise – we checked the price of carbon offsets. This is a purchase into someone else’s carbon sequestering project, to provide a carbon sink equal to our carbon use. For our current carbon footprint, this would cost $400ish, for the year. That’s it – that’s the yearly price for the three of us to get to zero carbon.

But that’s not the path we want to take. We want to reduce our carbon footprint. So to work.

In February we’ll focus on learning more about our natural gas consumption. We’ll test for drafts, and get an energy assessment. Hopefully we’ll learn what’s going on with our roof insulation, and discover why our poorly built back entry is so cold in deepest winter. We’ll also look at the efficiency of our furnace and water heater.

We were hoping to rent a thermal camera and play, but it turns out the rental from Home Depot is only available in the US. Alas. No geek out play time for us. We’ll have to be satisfied with a report.

Maureen and Mark

Here are some links we found useful for learning about reducing our carbon footprint:

We used calculators that worked in different units of measure than our data. We googled the conversions, but if you want a chart, here’s one we bumped into:

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