Tag Archives: climate change

Breaking Out of the Trash Cycle

For many of us, our lives are ruled by routine. We wake up, and have a routine for everything – from whether we brush our teeth or wash our faces first, to which route we travel, to our workout regimens at the gym. Some people prefer eggs in the morning, some prefer cereal. But in today’s world – there is one routine most people can agree on. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This trifecta of sustainability has been engrained in our minds for years. But sometimes, something more is needed. What if this isn’t enough? What if I want waffles one morning?

Okay, okay. The real question at hand here is this: What do we do when we’ve exhausted the “reduce, reuse, recycle” routine? What is the next step in sustainability? There are several sources of renewable energy, such as solar power and wind power, but not every day is sunny with a billow in your sail. The folks over at Covanta Energy are offering an additional solution to the ongoing effort of sustainability – Energy-from-Waste (EfW).

Trash being sent to an EfW facility is happy trash!

Trash being sent to an EfW facility is happy trash!

With 35 EfW facilities in the United States, Covanta offers trash producers a long-term alternative to filling landfills with waste. Annually, Covanta processes over 17 million tons of waste, and produces about 9 million megawatt hours of clean, renewable electricity. In addition, Covanta produces 10 billion pounds of steam that are sold back into the industry, and recycles 400,000 tons of metal per year – that’s enough to build over 275,000 hybrid vehicles! To break it down, each ton of waste processed at an EfW facility like Covanta produces approximately 550 kilowatt hours of electricity and about 50 pounds of recycled metal. Unlike other methods of creating renewable energy, our country’s constant stream of trash allows for a constant supply of clean energy. However, EfW does not compete with recycling efforts. Rather, Covanta and the like are an add-on to the aforementioned trifecta — so we can now think of it as: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover.

In addition to the energy produced, we should consider the the impact of EfW facilities in terms of climate change. Approximately 63% of global warming is attributable to carbon dioxide emissions, closely linked to the generation of energy. In conserving our energy use, we decrease the demand for fossil fuels, and in turn reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Recycling and reusing will prevent trash from ending up in landfills, which  are hot sites for the production of methane, which accounts of 18% of greenhouse gasses. But for the remaining waste – waste that arrives at EfW facilities – this trash actually has a negative impact on climate change.The EfW industry reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 20 million tons each year! For each ton of trash that enters an EfW facility, one less ton of carbon dioxide is released as a combined result of avoided landfill methane emissions, fossil fuel power generation, and the transportation of waste and metals production.

Energy from Waste facility in Newhaven

Energy from Waste facility in Newhaven

So let’s review. EfW produces clean, renewable energy, creates industrial-friendly steam, recycles metal, and has a negative effect on climate change. So alongside the daily sustainability grind of reduce, reuse, recycle, we are now equipped to continue our efforts for a greener tomorrow, with the trash we can’t recycle as our weapon. I guess you could say Covanta and EfW facilities are really thinking outside the box… or outside the landfill.

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More space, more stuff inside the American household

Ever wonder why you have so much stuff?

Take a look right now around your bedroom, your office, your kitchen even.

Every home has a room like this. Photo credit: puuikibeach on Flickr (CC license)

As your eyes scan the room, do the questions “What is this and why do I own it?” enter your thoughts?

Are you already deciding what’s got to go next spring cleaning?

Seriously though, why do we have so much stuff?

One part to answering that question is first considering the size of your room or house. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The bigger our space, the more stuff we can physically fit in it.

And that’s precisely what’s going on . The average floor space of a new American house has gotten dramatically larger in just one generation, resulting in a high consumption of goods and energy.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson’s Who Turned Out the Lights (2009) states that in 1973, the average floor space of an American home was 1,660 square feet. It has since increased 52 percent to 2,521 square feet in 2007. However, this was happening during a period when the average American family was actually getting smaller.

Huh? You can infer then that families do not seek bigger homes to house more children but to house more of their gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

Credit: DIYLOL.com

You may not know about the whozits and whatzits Hipster Ariel uses underwater but we above ground buy and use things now that didn’t even exist 30 years ago (see table below). If it did exist like a personal computer, the average American could not afford it.

Credit: Who Turned Out the Lights by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

That’s all changed now. Microwave, dishwasher, TV, air-conditioning–those are the least obscure items in your home I’m sure.  The U.S.’s total consumer debt also affirms that Americans know how to consume. As of May 2011, total consumer debt in the U.S. was at $2.43 trillion. Total consumer debt per household averaged $16,046 which was down from $35,245 prior to the economic depression in 2008.

When people live in bigger places, they will also naturally have more rooms to light, heat and cool. Not only might our vast consumption of goods and services dangerous in accumulating debt, but our high consumption of energy also means trouble for the average household’s carbon footprint. Dishwashers, laundry machines, microwaves, computers, TVs–all these are used daily and eat up energy.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “in 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,496 kWh, an average of 958 kilowatthours (kWh) per month.”

Looking back, every home I lived in was larger than the last, which only meant a bigger yard sale in the spring, autumn or both. It also meant more space to clean, more floors to vacuum. As a young girl who disliked weekly chores, I would have been okay with living in a smaller house. Would you consider living in a smaller house to avoid hoarding unnecessary stuff and exhausting lots of energy on keeping unoccupied rooms lit, warm, or cool? I know I am.

If you want to talk more, follow me at @pennibean. #thinkFWD

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Electric vehicles: the car of the future?

By Clara Pak

NPID DC 2012 was held in front of the U.S. Capitol (Credit: Clara Pak)

On Sept. 16, I traveled to the U.S. Capitol to attend National Plug-in Day–a gathering of electric vehicle automakers and electric vehicle enthusiasts in the DMV area–knowing absolutely nothing about electric vehicles (EVs). Unsurprisingly, I missed the hybrid train too when the Toyota Prius came out years ago and admit to not knowing how hybrid cars actually worked either.

So how did I–clearly a car newbie–leave National Plug-in Day looking forward to purchasing an EV when, or if, it comes time to buy my first car?

Now before you assume I got brainwashed by a bunch of EV zealots at NPID, let me first explain.

The numbers make sense.

Proud owner of a Nissan Leaf (Credit: Clara Pak)

We interviewed one couple from Poolesville, Maryland who were proud owners of a red Nissan Leaf (video of our interview to be uploaded soon!). They had calculated how much they spent in relation to miles driven since they bought their car early this year.

The final statement? The EV had gone 8,120 miles in 7 months (Feb-Sept 2012) for $120. …$120!! That is equivalent to 234 miles per gallon, based on the average gas price of $3.67/gal. When I have to go fill up my (parent’s) Honda Accord at home in NJ, it’s easily $50 out the bank per trip to the gas station. With an EV, I potentially won’t have to complain about gas prices rising anymore.

Yes, EVs do cost more than your typical vehicle. A Nissan Leaf, for example, starts for $35,200. (EV drivers are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.) But there are offsets, specifically with the price paid at the pump. The more miles you drive, the more money you save. Leaf drivers save 400 gallons of gas annually, compared to the average gas car that returns 27 miles per gallon.

Arguments against the EV bring up its limited driving range. Most EVs can only go 100–200 miles before recharging while gasoline vehicles can go over 300 miles before refueling. However, a study shows that most Americans drive an average of 40 miles per day or less, well within the range of almost all EVs, and future models will have 10 times this range or more.

For those who say time is money and that recharge time for EVs is too long and costly, I understand where they’re coming from. Fully recharging the battery pack can take four to eight hours. A quick charge can take 30 minutes. This is where you really have to plan ahead and manipulate your schedule. A lot of EV owners I met at NPID agreed.

In a Nissan Leaf, ready to roll! (Credit: Clara Pak)

The couple we talked to earlier said that because they had to charge their car before going home, they picked a restaurant to eat at near a charging station in DC. While they fill their stomachs, the car’s battery can also fill hers.

Apart from the issues of cost and time, EVs make sense for a world that seems destined for climate change.

EVs, propelled by an electric motor powered by rechargeable battery packs, are energy efficient. Compare EVs converting 59-62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels to gasoline vehicles converting 17-21% of the energy stored in gasoline to miles driven.

EVs do not emit tailpipe pollutants. Granted, the power plant producing the electricity that powers your car may emit pollutants. If EVs do become the cars of the future, the push for electricity from nuclear-, hydro-, solar- or wind-powered plants–all which do not contribute air pollutants–will grow stronger.

Another plus in driving EVs is the reduction of energy dependence on foreign countries for oil because electricity essentially is a domestic energy source. This will be increasingly important as the countries we depend on for oil may potentially be entangled in political discord and dispute.

What do you think? Are EVs a good investment now or in the future when EV technology advances?

Toyota, the leading hybrid automaker, doesn’t think EVs are a smart investment just yet. Last month, in a Forbes article, Toyota announced that the brand would be redirecting its focus back on hybrids.

“The current capabilities of EVs do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge,” Toyota Vice Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said.

By the time I have the financial capability and need to invest in a car, I look forward to an EV that can stand up against those three arguments Uchiyamada put forth will be out on the market.

If you found my post interesting or would like to discuss more, let’s connect. Find me at @pennibean! Let’s #THINKFWD.

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Economy Trumps Climate Change for Voters in 2012

By Clara Pak

Ask the average American what he or she believes to be the most important issue in this upcoming presidential election, and what will he or she say?

Do you even have to ask? Watch the news, read the headlines, tune into the recent presidential candidates’ speeches and you’ll know.

The economy. The economy. The economy.

Photo by diylol.com

To confirm this with polling of our own, my team partner (@caseywestonwood) and I walked over to the White House last Sunday afternoon and asked six people–regardless of age, gender, race, or political affiliation–this question: “What national issue is our country’s top priority?”

“Economy and unemployment,” each replied. No surprise there. In this recent study, the economy emerged as Americans’ top priority for the new president and Congress with 76% saying it was a very high priority. All other issues such as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, and education were considerably lower than the economy in terms of priority. Alas, climate change placed 10th out of 11 national issues with 21% regarding global warming to be a very high priority.

The Yale/George Mason study and our personal interviews illustrate global warming to be a national priority but when compared to the economy, it is viewed to be less of a concern. Those we interviewed acknowledged that global warming was an existing issue for the country, but that they would not place it above certain other issues such as health care, the two current wars, and yes–the economy.

The challenge, therefore, is not to convince people anymore that global warming is actually taking place. (Besides, how can you argue against the U.S.’s recent historic drought or the country having just endured the hottest July ever?) But it is crucial now to open up the discussion to everyone–regardless of age, gender, race, or political affiliation–and to discuss complex questions like “How will the country take the proper and necessary steps to curb carbon dioxide emissions and to invest in renewable energy sources?” Or start to try at least.

But will we only begin to engage in real discussion after November 6, Election Day?

Climate change essentially has been pushed out of the conversation this election season. The issue was barely discussed at both national conventions: Romney used climate change to direct derisive laughter toward Obama in his speech while Obama fought back in his speech with his defense of climate action. This election, Romney and the GOP have adopted the role of climate change skeptics and for Obama, it’s a guessing game for Democrats and journalists if or what Obama will say about climate change.

I concede I understand why climate change has taken a back seat to the economy and unemployment in this election. If I put myself in the shoes of a young father who just got laid off from his job due to his company’s downsizing or a recent college graduate burdened with 50,000+ dollars in student loans entering into a dismal 8.1% unemployment job environment, it’s hard to say climate change still wins out in importance. But then again, juxtaposing our climate change problem–which is seemingly abstract in nature–with these unfortunate, very real situations is also unfair. I don’t think it’s smart for our species… or for our politics.

If you found my post interesting or would like to discuss more, let’s connect. Find me at @pennibean! We can #THINKFWD.

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