The election returns are coming in for Massachusetts, and it looks like there are many tight races. It does appear that some of the ballot questions have been settled, though, including one on the expanded bottle bill. A 5 cent deposit per bottle is currently mandated in the state for soda and beer sold in bottles, but not for water, sports drinks or juices. I’m rather frustrated that the bill fell through, since bottles without a deposit more frequently end up in the trash, or as litter. Not only did the bottle bill fail, but it appears to have done so by a wide margin.
It’s been a very tiring election season, what with the flood of gloom-and-doom emails and onslaught of phone call and mud-sling push polls. I just somehow though this one issue was more cut and dry for my left-leaning state.
The photo above is one I posted back in April. Given the topic of this post, I suppose it’s fitting that it is recycled.
Part of why I am sharing these details here is to maintain my resolve. I will cut down on my fossil fuel consumption. But the will may need continued prodding.
Tracking electricity usage was painless, thanks to my electric company listing kilowatt hour usage by month for the past 12 months. Tracking was painless, but the results were painful. I thought we were more moderate electricity users, but we are on the high end for our region. Our usage for the last 12 months averaged 921 kwh per month. While the average US household uses 920 per month, our state only averages between 500 and 618 kwh. (The second number is from a spreadsheet available from this site with usage by state.)
While I haven’t yet measured the electricity usage of specific items, I have rounded up the following suspects: lights and fans left on unnecessarily, and electronics. I think our past tendency to leave our stereo/home theater receiver on was a drain. We also have a lot of computers, including one large one that has been acting as a server, for a while for John’s work, but mostly as our electronic media repository. We have now gotten into the habit of turning off stereo and video equipment when not listening/watching, and John has set the server to power down at night. We have become more vigilant about turning off lights, fans and air conditioners when we leave rooms, as well.
The good news is that our usage is showing a downward trend. Our July statement showed 854 kwh compared to last July’s 946, a decrease of over 9%. June showed a 20% decrease over last year. (I have no idea why our usage was particularly high last June. 1063 kwh. It wasn’t air conditioning, as that was a cold and rainy month. What on earth were we doing? Giving each other electric shocks?)
I finally got around to signing up for one of my electric company’s renewable energy options. I have yet to get a bill showing the new rates. The cost by wattage will increase, but I’m hoping that our efforts to reduce usage will offset this. We shall see…
Tracking heating oil was more annoying, as I had to go through my bills month by month. (There’s no summary of deliveries.) Deliveries are also somewhat irregular, in both timing and amount, so when I found that I was missing a statement, I couldn’t really guess how much oil was delivered that month, or be certain that oil was even delivered that month. I finally came across the missing bill (helpfully mixed in with phoebe’s art papers), so have added that to my spreadsheet.
While I haven’t found great sources it looks like the average US household using heating oil uses 730 gallons per year, and in the Northeast US is 822 gallons. It looks like we have had 785 gallons delivered to our home in the past 12 months, which puts us slightly lower than the average for our region.
I can’t tell yet how much our usage is changing, but I think I have reduced my hot water usage. The real chance to improve, though, will come in the winter. With that in mind, I have contacted a company that makes storm windows that may work for us, which should significantly reduce the winter draftiness of our house.
Gasoline was the hardest of the three to track, since we don’t tend to file our receipts. I did go through our credit card statements for the last year, and logged all gas station transactions. I only have dollar amounts, not gallon amounts, but this at least gives me a general sense of frequency of filling the tanks. My sense is that we have filled them frequently. I haven’t really worked out the estimates of how frequently yet.
I’m happy to say that I have taken the train to work much more often. This is easy to track, as I bought a 12-ride pass on June 8th, and have used all 12. Each of those saved me about 35 miles of driving. I’ve even gotten a second 12-ride pass. In fact, due to slower summer schedules, I’ve only needed to drive into work maybe 3 times in the last couple months. (Plus there have been a few trips for recreational reasons.)
I have been doing pretty well with buying local food. I found a place to buy eggs that is only a couple of miles from us, and finally found a farm stand within 10 miles of our house. (I just don’t understand how local produce can be so hard to find in such a rural area. Gah!) We also managed to go blueberry picking a few times at the place down the road…before they abruptly closed for the season. (No!)
I have been doing a good job with reducing our use of new plastic containers. I have used my stainless steel water bottle regularly, and (aside from when I was travelling) have only resorted to buying bottled water a couple of times.
There. That’s the skinny on my recent efforts to reduce my fossil fuel gluttony. If anyone has actually read this far, you deserve a prize. Like maybe a big, fat virtual hug from me.
Living where I live, working where I work, I can’t stop driving. We can’t completely change our home heating needs. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to cut out plastics entirely without major lifestyle changes.
But I’m determined that I won’t keep going as I have been. I’ve worked with vague goals and good intentions for a long time, but I’m not getting all that much closer to breaking my addiction. I need a specific goal, with a concrete number. Like 10%.
I’ll start with things that I can easily monitor: home electricity use, heating oil, and gasoline. I’ll check our bills for the past year for comparison. For gas for the cars, I’ll have to make a rough estimate of consumption, as I haven’t saved all of our receipts. (I intend to keep better track now.) For other things, like plastic use, I’m still planning to make changes, but I may be less able to estimate a number.
Seeing as I probably won’t get reach the 10% goal immediately, I’ll set a deadline. Let’s say by the end of 6 months. Oh, hell. Let’s say 3 months for electricity and gasoline use. By the end of September. For heating oil the real test will be the winter. For each month, I’ll have to evaluate more-or-less based on the month of the previous year.
Below I’ve broken down my plans into short-range and longer-range ones, and I’ll tell you a bit about what we do now.
The starting point
I don’t know our actual usage is yet. We are a family of 4, living in an 8-room house with drafty 20-year-old windows and an oil furnace for heat and hot water. We use lots of electric appliances and electronics, do lots of laundry¹. We have 2 window air conditioners that we use in the summer, and living in New England, we use heat several months of the year. We drive a fair amount: we live 9 miles from public transportation, 3 to 8 miles from stores and services, 20 and 45 miles from our workplaces. Most of our friends live far from us, and our families are even further. We buy food and beverages in plastic packaging, and the kids have lots of plastic toys.
Efforts we already make/have made:
We drive small cars. (mileage in the 26-30 mpg range)
We often work from home
We use the window air-conditioners fairly sparingly (we don’t have central air)
We replaced most of our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs
When we had to replace our furnace, we chose a more fuel efficient one
Our washing machine, dryer and dishwasher are energy efficient models
We use reusable bags for groceries, and increasingly, other shopping
I consider packaging when shopping, and favor goods with less plastic.
We reuse the plastic bags and containers we do get as much as possible.
I try to buy local produce
I get much of the kids’ clothing second-hand
we recycle plastics
We do other kinds of recycling, composting, reusing, and reducing that probably add up
Short term plans:
Check last 12 months for electricity, fuel oil, and gasoline usage
Check to see what is plugged in or turned on that needn’t be
Turn off lights/don’t turn them on
Get better nightlight for bathroom and/or hallway (we leave a light on for Phoebe at night)
Line dry more clothes (goal of 1 load in 4)
Change temperature of fridge
better monitor use of air conditioners
Use only cold water for laundry under ordinary circumstances
Time my showers, and reduce time and/or temperature
turn down the heat in the winter, especially at night and when we leave the house
be less lazy about weatherizing our windows, doors and other draft sources
Take train for at least some commutes (at least 1 in 4)
avoid using the air conditioner in my car
better combine trips for recreation and shopping/errands
have occasional family train trips rather than driving for recreaction/visits
get programmable thermostats
Replace windows or get storm windows
consider getting ceiling fans installed
Evaluate purchasing habits
Move closer to public transportation (as well as closer to work & friends)
Investigate alternative heating and cooling methods, such as geothermal and solar
Get a more fuel efficient car: hybrid or electric (I’m determined that the next car we buy will be one–I’m liking the Leaf)
Grow some of my own food
Other green choices I can make along the way:
Buy gas from companies ranked higher for social responsibility. (The ranking page has been updated, by the way. Sunoco is still highest ranked, and Hess is next. BP is now near the bottom. Near the bottom mind you–there are still companies that rank lower!)
Take the stairs more at work and in public buildings (I need more exercise anyhow!)
Invest in green technology
Paint my house green.²
I know that these things aren’t enough³, and I don’t plan to limit my efforts to my personal use. I plan to take actions in the public sphere as well: by speaking out in support green energy initiatives, through grassroots organizations and voting. I will support stricter regulations in the oil industry. I intend to participate in bringing about greater energy conservation and awareness in corporate and industrial environments.
¹ Loads of it, even.
² Just kidding.
³ You may have noticed that I haven’t set any goals as far as reducing my air travel. I noticed that, too. I just can’t go there right now. But I promise not to buy a private jet.
⁴ Sorry this post is so long. I’m very wordy. I’m trying to cut down.
Today has been declared Blog Action Day, an event in which bloggers around the world can participate in writing about a common cause on a common day. This is the inaugural year of the event, and the cause that has been chosen is to tackle issues relating to the environment. I feel strongly about the environment. It must be stopped! Down with the environment!
No, wait. I’m all for the environment. I was confused. I must have been thinking about uncomfortable shoes. Can’t stand ’em. Or overcooked pasta. Yick. That just shouldn’t even be legal.
Where was I? Oh, right. The environment. I should write about how we, as a society, can make progress in protecting the environment. But I’m afraid I don’t have time for that. I have a work deadline looming, and I shouldn’t be blogging at all. So I must be quick, quick. Like a bunny. In a threatened ecosystem. So I give you a list.
Here is list of things that I should be able to manage to improve my own impact on the environment, improve my knowledge of the issues, and to help generally support environmental causes. What’s more, I will set myself a timeline to accomplish these things. I plan to do these things by the end of the year. There are 11 full weeks of 2007 left, so 11 seemed like a good number to aim for.
11 planet-friendly resolutions for (the rest of) 2007
cancel 10 catalogs or other junk mail items
explore additional local food options, such as for dairy and eggs
block drafts in windows in doors to reduce heat loss
give holiday gifts that minimize shipping and packaging
watch Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (I’m sorry to say I haven’t yet seen it)
write at least one letter (or email) to a company or politician about some action
Change our electricity options to include use of renewable resources
Give support to an environmental action group (whether with money or by way of petitions)
line-dry 1 load of laundry a week
reduce my usage of disposable products (I may try keeping a cloth handkerchief in my pocket instead of a tissue. At least if I leave it in my pocket when I wash my pants, it won’t dissolve and decorate the rest of the load.)
Cook my pasta al dente. This will both fight the evils overcooked pasta and reduce the time I have my stove on. (Okay, you caught me. I ran out of time, and don’t have a good 11th item in mind. But if I manage all 10 of the above items, I think I can feel like I’ve made some personal progress.)
Yick. That sounds gross. I will not actually be eating money, or putting any in my mouth. But I will be eating lots and lots of other green stuff.
I’ve taken the produce plunge and signed up for a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) share. This means that I’ve paid a subscription¹ price to get regular assortments of freshly harvested vegetables from a local farm. In doing so, we’re not only going to be getting lots of really good, seriously fresh vegetables, we’re supporting a local organic farmer in her efforts to farm sustainably.
I’d been planning to try to buy more local produce this year, and was thinking of making trips to some local farmstands rather than forking over my usual baskets of money to Whole Foods. However, when I came across a post at Can we kick the bar here? about CSAs a few weeks ago, I realized that this could be something for me. I followed the link to look for CSA opportunities near me.²
I’d heard of CSAs before (though hadn’t retained the name of them) from my sister, who knows a thing or two about vegetables (especially about cooking them). A friend of hers had signed on to a CSA a few years ago, and started a blog to chronicle her vegetable adventures: Vegetablog. But somehow, it didn’t sink in as something I wanted do until I read that other post.
So, tomorrow, we start. We’ll head out to the farm and collect our veggies. Then will come the trickier part.
I realize that I’m in for a big challenge. For me, for the past few years, cooking has usually involved throwing some brown rice in the rice cooker. That’s when I’m getting more complicated than a bowl of cereal. I’ve gotten a bit better with making food for Phoebe, and have regularly steamed up vegetables for her. But this endeavor will be big. Big. I do have a plan, though. I’m hoping to have friends over for dinner at least every couple of weeks to help us eat our vegetables. And what we can’t finish off, I’ll hopefully be able to pawn off on my guests. Every dinner guest can take home a head of lettuce or a parsnip as a parting gift.³
¹ Oops, almost typed prescription. “I’m sorry, those vegetable are not sold over the counter.”
² I’d also like to share that I came across that post by way of reading the last round up of Just Posts. So I’d like to offer this up as evidence that writing about issues that matter to you can make a difference.
³ So, if you are a local friend, you’ll be hearing from me soon about getting over here to get your veggies on. If you are a long-distance friend, and planning on travelling to New England in the next few months, you also get an invitation.
Mind you, this is not to say that I am a plastic bag.
But I have to share some silliness that’s come to my attention regarding the whole shopping bag debate. Since posting a few times about my own battles against plastic shopping bags, my blog has gotten a surprising number of search engine hits for the phrase “I am not a plastic bag.” Seeing as I live under a rock, I’d missed all the public hooha on the topic, and so the phrase seemed more than a little bizarre to me. Were there individuals out there suffering from identity crises whereby they needed to affirm their own non-plastic-bag status?
As it turns out, a whole bunch of people, though they are not themselves plastic bags, think that they need to buy a high-fashion accessory in order to avoid using wasteful plastic bags.
Designer Anya Hindmarch has designed a bag, the “I am not a plastic bag” bag. This is a bag, which is not a plastic bag, that advertises its non-plastic bagness through the words “I am not a plastic bag,” which are emblazened across the bag, which, as it turns out, is not plastic. They are not only not plastic, but apparently they are all the rage. Check out this bit from the FAQ page:
How can I buy I’m Not A Plastic Bag?
We have been overwhelmed by the success of this project. The UK limited edition brown bags have now completely sold out in the UK.
Apparently, folks are even selling these bags on ebay for oodles of money. There have been scandalous exposés decrying that the bags, though not plastic, are not produced especially ethically, nor are they produced in a particularly environmentally friendly way.
What I find more disturbing is that this buying frenzy not only smacks of unneccessary consumerism, but also smacks of a fad.
I’m not alone in these worries. As supporting evidence that the frenzy is about a fashion fad rather than reflecting conservationist intentions, one commenter on this blog post wrote:
my daughter has one and she loves it she takes it everywhere with her but surprise surprise not one person has commented on it which has really upset her
Ugh. I mean, why avoid using plastic bags if no one is even going to compliment you on your high-fashion anti-plastic-bag accessories?
While I applaud celebrities and other influential figures (who are likely not plastic bags) attempting to spread conscience and consciousness about environmental and social issues, does it really have to boil down to just another product?