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Archive for March, 2009

Recycling: The Second Worst Choice

recycle2Recycling should be your second to last option. The best option is not using something that will need to be trashed. If that’s not possible, the next best option is to choose reusable alternatives.

But, if you have something to get rid of, by all means recycle it! The worst option is using something and then throwing it out.

With that said, here are a few tips to consider as you make your way to the recycling bin:

Don’t Wash (Rinse If You Must)

A particularly common suggestion is that you wash food containers before putting them in the recycling bin. Just make sure you don’t over-do it (and in some cases, don’t wash at all).

Remember, water, especially hot water uses energy and resources, too.

The only reason to rinse items is because between the time you put an item in the recycle bin and when it gets picked up, any food scraps would attract bugs … or larger beasts with beady eyes and long tails. Food scraps have no impact on the actual recycle-ability. The recycling process involves a great deal of water and detergents as it is. So, don’t go crazy washing with hot water or much soap (if any) – a quick rinse should do, and only if something is smelly.

Beware of Take-Out

Restaurants tend to over-do the packaging. We sometimes get Chinese food delivered. Each dish comes in its own box; either paper with a metal handle, or plastic. Then there are wooden chopsticks, little packets of soy sauce , plastic cups of orange sauce, mustard and plastic wrapped fortune cookies … all in a plastic bag.

Next time you order out, ask them not to send any extras with your food.

Styrofoam Is Evil

Polystyrene, a.k.a Styrofoam is effectively un-recyclable. It’s costly, lives forever, and takes up a large volume in landfills. Bad.

Try to avoid using it at all costs.

Junk Mail Can Be Stopped

We used to get scores of catalogs in the mail. Services like MailStopper are cheap or even free, and work great. We hardly ever get catalogs any more. There’s a similar service to stop phone books.

Where To Recycle Electronics, Light bulbs, Batteries

Check out this great recycling site, Earth911. They have resources to help you find out how to deal with almost anything.

Think About The Full Energy Life Cycle

Some things recycle well, like glass and aluminum. Plastic and paper require more energy to get a usable product back. But there’s more than that — the cost to get the virgin materials, to create the product, to transport, then to cart away, then to live in a huge landfill (in some cases effectively forever) — all of these have direct and indirect costs. In some cases, trash is incinerated — which is even worse from an energy perspective.

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Deconstructing Energy Bills

How much electricity do you use? Gas or oil for heat? Hot water? Other?

I recently did some math with my energy bills and came to understand something important: all my efforts to save electricity and hot water (while noble, and effective) pale in comparison to the energy we use to heat our home. But this fact didn’t exactly leap from my utility bills — I really had to work to understand why.

It’s hard to compare what you use for heating to what you use for hot water, or either of those to electricity (or gasoline, airplane fuel, or food energy). Are you concerned about reducing your energy use to help address energy independence? Or, perhaps you want to reduce your carbon footprint? Do you just want to reduce your bills? Accomplishing any of these goals in any measurable way is nearly impossible without some pretty serious math, and heck, even some understanding of physics.

The problem is, your utility bills smash everything together. They take energy from an entire month and then sum it up in dollars. With “even billing,” my gas usage is spread into twelve equal monthly payments. This doesn’t help me understand how much heat I “should have used” — was it colder than usual in February? Did I take long showers? Overheat the house?

Some information is on the bill. But I had to do some non-trivial math, and I had to understand a good deal of energy physics to be able to understand how it all added up. And in some cases, the bill is still too general: I get one gas bill that combines heat, hot water, and cooking. I built a special data collector to understand where my gas was going. Look, building a data collector device is just not … normal :-)

(Before you laugh, this kind of information would be available if our houses all were part of a truly smart power grid).

I did the math, and I did the mechanical engineering. And I learned a few important things. During February, I found:

  • I used 11x more energy heating the house and water with gas, than electricity
  • My electricity is 4x more expensive than gas
  • I used 14x more for heat than for hot water

Um, wow!

I have spent a lot of effort saving electricity and hot water in our house. While I have done some work to conserve, heating is far and above our biggest energy user – and cost. Before I did this math, I simply didn’t know.

WattzOn has it right to help us all use a single comparable unit, the Watt (a measure of power) so that we can understand our overall impact. Our energy bills should use Watt-hours (a measure of energy) to help us get a handle on how much we actually consume so that we can begin to make informed choices about our energy use.

[Note from WattzOn engineering: to make such energy bill analysis easier and more accurate, we will be adding automatic online utility bill integration very (very) shortly!  Stay tuned!]

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