Saturday, July 25, 2009

Practical Climate Change Solutions (From a common sense, non-scientific mind)

Before I start, so that you don't have to guess at what my opinion of "global warming" or "climate change" is, I will just tell you. I believe that when you walk across the sand you leave foot prints and that, by and large, it doesn't really matter that much. Which is to say that although I do believe that we tend to be shamelessly wasteful at times, and that we need to address that problem, I do not subscribe to the end of dayz religion of global warming prevention.

So, let's begin.

You might believe (with zealous fervor) that as an inhabitant of the planet we are destroying the very environment that allows life to flourish. Or, you might believe with equal zeal that your impact on the planet is so insignificant that it is not worth concerning yourself over.

Regardless of what side of the argument you are on, or even if you are somewhere in the middle, there are some things that no one can argue about that can make the planet we live on a much better place for us and the generations that succeed us.

First, one has to think of things in their entirety. If you are bleeding from your ears and you use a tissue to wipe away the blood have you really solved your problem? No. Similarly, if you switch to an electric car to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions but charge that car's batteries at your home each night using electricity that was generated from a regional coal burning electricity plant, have you solved your emissions problem? Again, no.

Do hybrid vehicles yield better gas mileage? Yes. Overall are they better for the environment? To get a real answer to that question we would have to look at the hybrid solution as a whole, break down the hybrid (battery) components, look at their manufacturing process and lifespan and determine what environmental impacts all of this hybrid technology actually has.

What are the materials that make up a hybrid's batteries? How are these materials obtained, refined and then manufactured? What is the environmental impact of all of these steps? And, how long will these hybrid batteries last before they must be replaced thereby multiplying the initial environmental impact by the number of times the batteries are actually replaced? Once we know the answers to these (and other) questions we can then answer the question and know how much better, if at all, hybrid cars are for the environment than a similar gas burning vehicle.

Do compact florescent bulbs reduce the amount of electricity being used as compared to their lumen equivalent candecent bulbs? Yes, they do. Overall are they better for the environment? The challenge of of CFLs is that they contain a very toxic substance called mercury. Mercury, even in small amounts can lead to birth defects, neurological disorders and even death.

Normally, when a standard candecent light bulb, which contains no toxic substances, burns out you just throw the bulb away in the trash. Burned out CFLs must be taken to a recycling facility that handles CFLs so that the bulb's mercury can be properly handled and recycled. Most people don't take the time and effort to recycle their CFLs and, instead, dispose of them in the trash as they would traditional candecent bulbs. Because mercury's half life is so long it is cumulative in our waste dumps and environments causing long term damage to wild life, human life and the environment in general.

The amount of mercury in CFLs in very small (4-5 mg). Yet, here are the recommended EPA guidelines if you break a CFL bulb:

Before Cleanup: Air Out the Room

* Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
* Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
* Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Cleanup Steps for Hard Surfaces

* Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
* Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
* Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
* Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Cleanup Steps for Carpeting or Rug

* Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
* Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
* If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
* Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

Cleanup Steps for Clothing, Bedding and Other Soft Materials

* If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
* You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct con tact with the materials from the broken bulb.
* If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

Disposal of Cleanup Materials

* Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
* Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
* Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

* The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
* Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed

If every person that bought a CFL disposed of it at a legitimate recycling facility designed to handle mercury then CFLs, with their superior energy efficiency, could definitely be considered a "green" product. Unfortunately we can't assume that people will take the extra effort to properly recycle their CFLs. As such it is questionable whether ten of millions of CFL bulbs will have an overall positive impact on the environment.

Buying products branded with a "green" or "hybrid" label does NOT necessarily mean that the environment is being positively impacted. If the goal is to purchase products that enable us to live in a manner that makes less of an impact on our environment then we have to go to the extra step of examining the products that wear the "green" label and determine if they are in fact better for the environment overall.

Keeping Newton's third law of motion in mind can help analyze whether or not a product is truly green. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This law is a fact that is relevant to studying (anything) emissions reduction because whenever we come up with a solution that we think will reduce CO2 emissions we must also think about what the ramifications are, (the equal and opposite reactions are), to the new CO2 emissions reducing solution.

If we don't do this then we may fail in our objective of reducing emissions even while believing otherwise. And, although the mere belief that we are helping the environment feels good that feeling has no tangible value outside of our minds.

A contemporary example of this is the recent effort of people, government and corporations to push ethanol based fuels derived from corn. The concept, which on the surface was promising, was that we could produce fuel by growing corn and then use that corn to manufacture an ethanol fuel to augment the petroleum based fuel supply. Fuel from a familiar, national, renewable source as opposed to foreign oil seemed like a great idea. So, farmers, refineries and auto manufacturers all retooled (invested heavily in) their businesses to accommodate this new fuel source and brought ethanol based fuels and vehicles into the market place.

Unfortunately, no one in charge applied Newton's third law of motion to the idea which is another way of saying that no one in charge thought the idea through. Was there an equal and opposite reaction to growing lots of corn to produce fuel? Were there unintended consequences to shifting part of our fuel supply source from foreign based oil to nationally produced corn?

Only after all of the time and investment had been made did people realize that some of the equal and opposite reactions to producing ethanol canceled out the benefits of the alternative fuel. It turns out, the amount of energy it takes to prepare land, plant corn, water and fertilize the crop, harvest the crop, transport the crop to the refinery, process the crop into ethanol far outweighs the energy it would take to derive oil from the ground (or buy foreign oil) to create the petroleum based gasoline we currently use today. Not to mention that this ethanol initiative dramatically increased the demand for corn and thus the price of corn, which is used in the majority of processed foods that are consumed by Americans, was driven much higher leading to higher food costs having the most dramatic impact on the poorest in our country. Equal and opposite reactions must always be calculated.

It is important to remember is that, for the most part, we live in a closed ecological system (aside from the tons of water vapor from space ice and dust from meteorites that enters our atmosphere each year). This is important to understand because if every action has an equal and opposite reaction then that reaction is going to happen within our closed environment. For example, if with the snap of my fingers I was able to convert all current petroleum based combustion engines, belching their tons of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, to hydrogen burning combustion engines, expelling mostly water vapor, you might think that would be a good thing, right? Burning hydrogen produces (by and large) water vapor which, unlike carbon dioxide, is environmentally neutral, right?

The problem is, we don't know how millions of tons of additional water vapor being released into the air will have on the atmosphere and, therefore, the environment. It could dramatically increase the amount of green house gasses in the environment and significantly raise the average global temperature contradicting the efforts to reduce our impact on the environment.

So, what do we do? Give up on trying to be more ecologically aware and responsible? No. Then do we go to the opposite extreme and let bureaucrats pass laws and rules that curtail our freedoms and liberties for a "greener" planet? No. That is unacceptable to people who value freedom (as everyone should).

But, as individuals we can do some common sense things, many of which most of us were probably taught by our parents:

1. Don't litter. And yes, cigarette butts are litter. Don't throw them or anything else out of your car window. Using unoccupied land as a dumping zone for old cars, tires, refrigerators, etc. is littering. Just take the extra time (and money if necessary) to dispose of trash where it is supposed to be disposed of.

2. If you turn something on then turn it off. If you turn on a TV, a light, oven, stereo, etc., then turn it off when you are done using it.

3. If it costs less or takes less time it doesn't mean that it is the right choice. Separating plastic and glass recyclables takes longer and sometimes costs money. Maintaining a compost takes time and effort. Cleaning and maintaining stainless steel, refillable bottles instead of using plastic, throw away water bottles takes time. But, reusing is efficient, composting is the right thing to do and reducing the plastic manufactured and dumped in our land fills (and even oceans) helps the environment in a variety of obvious ways.

4. Try to buy locally grown and produced foods. You may not live in an area that has a local farmers market. But, if you do frequent it. Common sense tells you that foods grown locally require a ton less energy to bring to market and provide nutrition than foods grown, harvested, processed possibly thousands of miles away and then shipped to your local store.

5. Transport yourself efficiently. Car pool when you can. If you live in a metropolitan area and have a stationary (cubical) job then consider using public transportation or a bike (only use a bike if a shower is available at your place of employment. Please. Thanks.) Consider alternative fuel vehicles that you can be certain do not create other environmental issues as they claim to be green (like clean diesel vehicles).

6. Keep doors and windows shut during extreme temperatures so that you are not unintentionally venting AC or heating. During temperate weather turn off the HVAC system and open windows. It takes more time but will save resources and money.

7. When a standard light bulb (or CFL) burns out, replace it with an LED based bulb. They are more expensive (for now) but will last longer, use only a few watts of energy and contain NO mercury. You can just throw them in the trash when they die and you don't have to evacuate the area code when you accidentally drop and break one.

These are just a few ideas that, if we all used, could have a significantly impact on the environment.

Remember, we are here for a short time. It's best to enjoy life. In the 60s, 70s and 80s we worried about the Russians and going to nuclear war. In the 70s we also worried about global cooling (). We tend to always find a thread on the sweater and begin to fear that the whole thing will come unraveled. Usually, we are wrong. So, instead of panicking about the environmental situation and making rash, poorly thought through decisions and laws, just make a resolution to live practically, efficiently, and show respect for the environment we live by avoiding waste. That can be our practical, measurable and tangible green legacy.

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