December: Looking Back

Our goal for our 2016 Zero Carbon project was to learn, to tweak, and to make a plan for larger changes.

What we learned:

We can make a massive difference to our own carbon footprint through physical changes to our house, how we get around, and through our purchasing choices. It requires institutional change, too. For example, Alberta still uses coal for electricity generation, which increases our own carbon footprint. As coal use is phased out by 2030, our carbon footprint from electricity will drop massively.

What we tweaked:

To reduce electricity use, we replaced the freezer with a smaller and more efficient model, bought a drying rack to reduce dryer use by about a quarter, replaced lights with LEDS (for an 80% reduction in power use), and tweaked the use and arrangement of air filters.

To reduce natural gas use, we turned down the water heater, fixed leaks around windows, replaced a door sweep, and filled odd gaps. We are still working on insulting the basement where the wood of the house sits on the cement foundation, caulking behind the baseboards in the back entry, and finding a better dryer vent.

To reduce secondary carbon production, we reduced garbage and increased recycling, planted a tree which promptly died (we’ll try again this spring), changed driving habits to increase fuel efficiency, tried to waste less food, and ate more local food, and more vegan and vegetarian meals.

Our results:

The model to measure our carbon footprint we used last year has been revamped and comes up with totally different numbers, so there’s no way to compare this year’s numbers with last year’s. We do have some hard numbers for fuel use.

We thought we were driving more because of some lifestyle changes, but in fact our mileage is lower. Our total fuel use is down 17%. That’s mostly coincidental to our zero carbon project, not earned.

Our electricity use for 2016 resulted in 7.15 tonnes of carbon creation. If we were in BC it would be 1.28 tonnes. That’s the difference between more hydro vs. more coal as a source for electricity production. That means an electric car is not our next best purchase, and neither is replacing our gas furnace with a heat exchanger. Our natural gas use released 4.19 tonnes of carbon.

Our natural gas use decreased by 7%, and electricity by 12%, for 2016 compared to 2015. Many of the changes were done part way through the year. Our estimates for a full year after all changes are completed are 15% for natural gas, and 20% for electricity.

The total cost for the work was a little under $1000. A third of that was for an assessment. We deliberately looked for the easy and inexpensive changes to start with. After this, the price goes up.

What we’ll do next:

  1. We have some house sealing jobs to finish.
  1. As appliances die, we’ll replace them with best in class for energy efficiency.We’d get about a 50% drop in electricity use by switching all appliances to best in class.
  1. We’ll keep watching for developments with solar panels and solar tiles. If we get hit with a damaging hail storm, that might be when we buy, either solar tiles or panels to mount on a newly shingled roof.
  1. We’ll watch government taxes and subsidies, using them to move a little faster.

We’ve had a lot of fun with our zero carbon project, learned a lot, were constantly surprised, and are pleased with what we’ve accomplished. We’ll continue to make changes, but not to blog monthly. We’ll post irregularly, when something interesting comes up. If the work we’ve done inspires some changes at your place, let us know. We’ll cheer you on.

Maureen and Mark

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.

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.