Archive for April 22, 2009

A Lazy College Kid’s Guide to Earth Day: 10 Ways to Clean Up your Act

dsc_00412Penned by Carolyn

Okay, so the WHOLE WORLD is warming up: polar bears are drowning off their melting icebergs, our kids will never know what a glacier is, and Florida (Disney World!) is going to disappear completely underwater. But these huge issues beg the question: what am I, as an open-minded but admittedly lazy college kid, supposed to do about it?

Luckily, there are a lot of little ways that we can change our habits, without having to chain ourselves to ancient redwoods or eat granola for every meal. Here’s a list of ten easy things you can do this Earth Day to make a little bit of difference- and if enough of us get on board, we might just save a few polar bears along the way.

1. Let’s start easy: turn your lights off when you’re leaving a room for more than 15 minutes. Most college dorms still use incandescent lightbulbs – which have not significantly advanced technologically since they were invented 125 years ago (around the same time as the telegraph and the steam locomotive.)  If you don’t want to install CFL bulbs (which are 75% more efficient than traditional incandescents), turn your lights off when you’re not going to be around. During the day, use windows and natural lighting instead of electricity.
Your computer also uses an absurd amount of energy, which you can cut down on by setting your computer to go to sleep automatically during short breaks. And as sweet as those flying toasters might be, don’t use a screen saver: they use almost ten times as much energy as a computer in sleep mode. When you go to sleep, turn your computer off—it is an urban legend propagated by evil tree-haters that turning your computer on and off repeatedly hurts the machine.

2. Bring your own coffee mug.
In 2005, Americans used and discarded 14.4 billion disposable paper cups for hot beverages. If put end-to-end, those cups would circle the earth 55 times. Based on anticipated growth of specialty coffees, that number will grow to 23 billion by 2010- enough to circle the globe 88 times. Plus, those coffee cups are lined with petrochemicals in order to keep them from leaking. Based on hot cup usage in 2005, the petrochemicals used in the manufacture of those cups could have heated 8,300 homes for one year. If you bring your own to-go mug, most places will offer you a 15 or 25 cent discount. Or save that embarrassingly exorbitant $4 you’d spend on a latte, and just make a drink at home before you go.

3. Take a shorter shower.
Every 4 minutes in the shower, you use up 10 gallons of precious fresh water. Plus, heating water accounts for up to 25% of the total energy used in a single-family home – that’s more energy, on average, than is needed to drive a medium-sized car 12,000 miles.  Shorten your shower and spend less time standing in all that gross fungi. Or, alternatively, shower with a friend – more good incentive to economize.

4. Only do your laundry when you have a full load (as if you needed encouragement on this one).
It takes 40 gallons of water to do an average load of laundry with a top-loading washing machine, and 86% of energy consumed by washing goes into heating the water.  How to cut down?  Wash only your really disgustingly dirty clothes in hot water. Most clothes can safely be washed in cold, and this alone could eliminate up to 1,600 pounds of yearly CO2 emissions in the average household (just think about how much more a dorm emits). As for the dryer, the lint filter on your dryer can decrease the energy used per load by up to 30 percent, so make sure to clean it before you start a load. Finally, you have an excuse for your girlfriend for why you haven’t done your laundry in a month.

5. Unplug stuff.

Think about how many things are plugged in but not in use in your room right now: speakers, printer, computer, lights, hairdryers, cell phone chargers, your new Wii… “Vampire power” (as us eco-alarmists like to call it) is actually draining a lot of energy and money without you ever noticing. Cost estimates for this wasted electricity range from $1 billion to $3.5 billion annually. The biggest energy wasters are audio equipment, DVD players, and cordless phones.  If you use a power strip, it’s easy to fight back—just switch off the strip when you’re not using it. And when you’re not using your fridge (i.e., when it contains only half-eaten sandwiches you bought three months ago), unplug it, and you’ll also save yourself from that annoying buzzing sound it always makes when you’re trying to fall asleep.

6. Print double-sided, or on old scrap paper.
Here’s the whirlwind of statistics:
Over 40% of the world wood harvest ends up as paper. Last year, the United States threw out 20% of all the paper made in the world. One fifth of all the tropical rainforests in the world disappeared between 1960 and 1990. It takes about 31 million BTU’s to make a ton of paper: enough energy to power a U.S. home for 2 months. The average cost of a wasted piece of paper is $.06.

Borderline overwhelming, I know. So what can you do to save all those cute jungle monkeys and thousand-year-old trees? When you’re buying printer paper, buy recycled. Set your printer to print double-sided, or feed it scrap paper that you don’t need anymore. And think twice about printing things: are you one of those compulsive hi-lighter kids, or could you just read or store it on your computer instead? Once again, not too hard.

7. The environmentalist broken record: recycle.
It is some poorly-paid environmentalist’s job to come up with statistics like this one: “Did you know that the nearly 50 billion aluminum cans trashed in 2005 could have saved enough energy to power 1.3 million American homes if they had been recycled?” Because aluminum is one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world, each can you toss in the trash wastes as much energy as pouring out half a can of gasoline. A lot of energy and landfill space also goes into plastic, glass, paper, Styrofoam, and cardboard, and these are all widely recycled. Recycling saves 95% of the energy in aluminum production and 60% of the energy needed to make paper.

Recycling is usually located right next to your trash dumpster, or you can cash in by bringing bottles back for the deposit at your local grocery store or dump. Given how much Coke you probably drink, 5 cents a can in returns can add up quickly.

8. Take one trip a week that you’d normally take by car on your bike or walking instead.
Come on, that’s not asking that much. Figuring just a 2.5-mile round trip commute, you riding your bike to class 50 times a year (that’s once a week, or a little more) saves 125 pounds of carbon. Think about it next time you run to the grocery store or the post office. Enjoy the fresh air and the exercise, save money on gas, and spend less time sitting in your dirty dilapidated car.

9. Use a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water.
First of all, bottled water is ridiculously expensive: you’re paying up to 2,000 times the price of tap water, when often, the water they’re selling you is just tap water. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, Good Morning America did a blind taste test of snobby bottled water versus tap water in New York City, and tap water solidly beat out all the other varieties for taste. So where are all your crumpled dollars going when you buy bottled? To over-pumping of springs, habitat disturbance, and packaging that, if not recycled, creates a big waste problem. In fact, more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water are consumed annually in the U.S. – that’s 25 billion plastic water bottles, 90% of which get thrown away.
Cheaper, cleaner, easier. No college kid can argue with that.

10. Paper or plastic? Neither, thanks.
Try this for shock factor: the world consumes 1 million plastic bags per minute. Plastic deteriorates, but never fully decomposes – this means it will sit in a landfill forever, taking up space. If the plastic doesn’t end up in the landfills, it becomes a huge litter problem. In every square mile of ocean, there are 1 million pieces of plastic, which cause the deaths of 100,000 marine animals per year, including CUTE BABY SEALS. Plus, plastic is made from fossil fuels, and requires a lot of energy to process.
As for paper, paper bags use high amounts of wood, petroleum, and coal for production and processing. In 1999, U.S. use of 10 billion paper grocery bags resulted in the felling of 14 million trees.
So bring your own bag to the grocery store, or if you’re not buying too much, just carry it out by hand. Not doing so is the equivalent of being a baby-seal-clubber – let’s leave that to the Canadians.

Unfortunately, global warming’s a lot like the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of your closet: if we don’t deal with it now, it’s just going to keep piling up, until the rotting stench is so unbearable that we have to just give up and throw it out. And that’s the catch – we’ve only got one planet to work with, so we’ve got to deal with these issues now. Plus, I tricked you. This list got rid of all your excuses about saving the environment being too hard – it could actually be pretty easy.  So get on it: it’s time to clean up our act.

PS: Oh, and one last one: look for a green job! Depending on how many years you’ve been in school, your brain’s worth somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by this point. Put all that value and know-how to work for the planet!

April 22, 2009 at 4:30 pm 1 comment


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