Archive for April, 2008

Running the numbers on dishwashing

Will measures water

For a long time, I’ve idly wondered how dishwashers compare to hand washing.  I don’t like washing dishes (the counters in our kitchen are low enough that my back starts to hurt after a while), but there are always some dishes that either just don’t fit or seem too dirty to clean automatically.

I guess I have numbers on the brain after thinking about travel (in specific and more generally), because the last time I hand washed, I decided to measure how much water I actually used.

First, I should explain how I wash dishes. Like most people, I fill our sink halfway with warm water and toss some soap in. Anything that’s really dirty sits in the water as I fill the sink for some extra soaking. I plug the other half of the sink as well to capture rinse water, which I keep cold. I still usually have to use the tap to get more rinse water for pots and pans, but small items like utensils or plastic containers I can just dunk, which is faster anyway.

My extremely scientific method of measurement was to use a measuring cup to put the rinse water into the rest of the water, then dump all of the water down the drain using the same measuring cup. Finally, I subtracted the amount of rinse water from the amount of total water. Okay, it’s not super accurate, but it’s accurate enough to give a reasonable estimate. In this particular situation, I was cleaning four or five very dirty pots/pans as well as some miscellaneous smaller items. Together, they probably would have made up a dishwasher load, but only because pots take up so much space.

For the entire process, I used 26 cups (1 1/4 gallons) of warm water for cleaning and 14 cups (3/4 gallon) of cold water for rinsing. For comparison, I use about a cup of water to wash my hands (turning off the tap while soaping, naturally). I can’t figure out a good way to figure out how much electricity was used to heat the warm water, since it’s not all hot and the water heater runs all the time. It seems pretty negligible, though.

Washing dishes in the dishwasher also uses a small amount of electricity, about 0.56 kWh (or over a day of running a CFL) as long as you air dry. Using the heat dry setting increases that a lot. Since we air dry, I’d call the electricity difference a wash.

A modern dishwasher uses about 6 gallons per load, while older machines can use as much as 8-10 gallons. Our dishwasher uses three times as much water as I did. That also doesn’t take into account pre-washing. We rinse anything with food on it before putting it in the dishwasher, which would make the dishwasher even worse. A larger family could fill and run a dishwasher in a day or two, which would make pre-washing less necessary. Since we only run the dishwasher once or maybe twice a week, the scraps begin to smell if we don’t pre-wash.

On the other hand, this analysis also doesn’t take into account that I wasn’t washing the items that I normally put in a dishwasher. It would probably take me at least twice as much water to clean all of the plates, silverware, and cups that fit into one load. Washing all of that myself would also take much longer and require a lot more kitchen space for drying.

I always thought that dishwashers had gotten pretty efficient and would give hand-washing a run for its money, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Although dishwashing is probably about as good as hand washing for lots of dishes, it’s worse for larger items or if you use heat drying.

I’ll keep using the dishwasher for most things because it’s much more convenient and, as Maggie will attest, I hate washing dishes. However, I’ll make sure that the dishwasher is always full and I’ll continue to wash our larger, dirtier items by hand.

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Book Review: The Education of Little Tree

The Education of Little Tree by Forrest CarterI’m kinda surprised I didn’t find The Education of Little Tree before, as it’s right up my alley. It is the autobiography of Forrest Carter, who grew up in the 1930’s living with his Cherokee grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains. He talks a lot about learning “the way” of the Cherokee and learning to live in peace with the land. They certainly didn’t have an easy life but they sounded truly happy to be living off the land in an isolated mountain valley full of deer, wild turkeys, and beautiful sunsets.

Probably my favorite part of the book was the folk wisdom, which was doled out from all the different characters. I think my favorite lesson was from Mr. Wise, a Jewish tinkerer who traveled around the mountains fixing clocks and selling bobbins of thread.

He said if you was thrifty, you used your money for what you had ought but you was not loose with it. Mr. Wine said that one habit led to another habit, and if they was loose with your money, then you would get loose with your time, loose with your thinking and practical everything else. If a whole people got loose, then politicians seen they could get control. They would take over loose people and before long you had a dictator. Mr. Wine said no thrifty people was ever taken over by a dictator. Which is right.

I highly recommend the book as a comfort read, a reconnection with nature, and an inspirational tale of the simple life. I will warn you, however, that there are some very sad bits. I’ve moved past the trauma I experienced as a young child reading “Where the Red Fern Goes” but there were a few parts in the book that brought me to tears. I guess that’s part of life and it’s silly to ignore it.

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Stop reading this post!

If your weather is anything like ours, you should be outside instead!  Now is a great time to remind yourself of why it’s worth protecting our green spaces.

It was way too windy for it, but Nathan and I headed out to play disc golf.  While there, we played with a very friendly dog and chatted with a young woman who had a beautiful dragon kite.

The flowering tree right outside our doorThe tree outside is blooming too, so we don’t have to go too far to enjoy a little bit of nature.

See you all when it inevitably pretends to be winter again!

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Communal travel decisions

HighwayIn my last post, I wrote about carbon emissions for different modes of travel on my trip to WI. Arduous picked up on my last paragraph about how these are potentially unreliable estimates and expanded that into a thought-provoking piece on calculating carbon emissions.

Basically, the problem relates to fixed versus marginal costs. For you non-economists, marginal costs are the cost for one more unit, whether producing another widget at your factory or, in this case, adding one more person to a bus. My article focused on fixed costs, but the real question is which marginal cost is more. Even if a bus produces more CO2 per person on average than a full car, it’s going to produce basically as much whether I ride in it or not. As Arduous puts it:

… driving a car is only the most carbon efficient method IF the carbon emissions Will and his friends’s weight cause on a plane, bus, or train is GREATER than the TOTAL emissions of the car. Which seems pretty unlikely.

Since none of us weigh much, especially compared to a bus, I think Arduous makes a really good analysis. The problem at an individual level is that your decision depends on factors you can’t know about in advance (basically, how many people will join you on a bus, plane, or train, and whether or not these trips will be cancelled if you don’t go). This seems like a good place to apply rule utilitarianism, even if it doesn’t make sense in the general case.

In basic utilitarianism, you do what creates the most happiness (or in this case, produces the least CO2). Since it’s so hard to figure that out, rule utiliarian provides some simple rules that help you act in a timely manner. Things like “don’t kill innocent children” or “always ride the bus when possible” increase happiness overall but also makes it so that you don’t have to actually spend the time to run the calculations every time. Which is good, because we can’t, as I mentioned above.

To move from utilitarianism to rule utilitarianism in this case, we need to stop looking at it from an individual point of view and start looking at it communally. The question changes from “how can I travel to reduce my CO2” into “how can I travel to reduce my community’s CO2?” It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes the math easier. 🙂

To decide that, let’s calculate the break even point between a bus system and a system of cars. Unfortunately, the source for my carbon calculator determines the CO2 production of planes and trains by dividing their total CO2 production by the total number of passenger miles which makes the data useless for this. For buses and cars, I was able to grab the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative (GHG Protocol) data that my calculator from the other day uses.

According to their spreadsheets, a 30mpg car produces 186.6g of CO2 per km (yeah, different units from last post, but it doesn’t matter; it’ll all come out in the wash). A bus, on the other hand, produces 1492.5g of 2! The difference is so large because buses get terrible mileage (6.7mpg average in the US). This difference between running a bus and running a car is almost exactly a factor of 8. This means that it takes eight cars driving the same distance to equal the emissions of one bus.

If you assume that there are generally about two people in a long-distance car trip, then the bus will have to have 17 people in it before it actually reduces carbon emissions.

This gives us a good break-even rule for travel. If you take a bus and it has much fewer than 16 people in it, don’t ride that route anymore. That’ll discourage the bus company from keeping that route going. If the number is closer to 16, it might be worthwhile to keep riding the bus and encouraging others to join you. If it’s more than 16, you can relax, secure in the knowledge that not only are your carbon emissions low individually, but you’re helping reduce your community’s emissions. Note that this is true no matter how many people you would otherwise cram into your car because whether or not the bus produces less CO2 depends only on how other people would act, not on how you’re acting.

On a community-wide scale, this helps you make decisions about when to add buses and, perhaps more importantly, what type of buses to get. Small buses, like those sometimes used as school buses, can never be better than cars. It only makes sense environmentally to create a route with a large bus and only if over 16 people will ride each direction.

Increasing bus mileage would help too. Bloomington has started trying out hybrid buses and some nearby parks use propane-powered vehicles. These methods can help reduce the break-even point.

This same analysis should be possible with planes and trains if you can get hold of overall emissions rather than data per passenger-mile. And, naturally, carbon emissions are only one facet of the much larger issue of sustainable living. Even if a bus produces more CO2 than a car, it might be worth it for other reasons, like traffic reduction.

Personally, I find the carbon calculators valuable for determining which technologies are approximately the same. Driving a packed car versus riding a bus are approximately equal, so I don’t feel bad about the occasional long roadtrip and I also feel good about encouraging additional buses.

On the other hand, rail and plain emissions are so much higher than car emissions that I don’t feel like we’ll be able to meet their break-even points anytime soon. So while it’s true that I, individually, won’t produce more CO2 if I fly, I’m helping support an industry that might require up to 60 people to break even.

The break-even point is also a sliding scale. As cars get better, it requires more and more people on a given flight, train, or bus to reduce the overall amount of CO2.

To make a long (and perhaps boring) story short, it makes sense to encourage high-volume busing and discourage low-volume busing even if that puts some more cars on the road. At least from a carbon perspective.

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The Heart of Now, Permaculture and Greening Cincinnati

Log movingI went to Cincinnati this weekend to lead a Heart of Now experience night. The Heart of Now is a workshop that invites people to practice being honest and open with themselves and with each other, through the simple act of being present.

It’s one of those things that is simple but not necessarily easy. How often do we find ourselves lost in thought, worrying about the past or dreaming about the future or simply off on some dreamy tangent? And how often do we choose to ignore where we are right now, willing the time to pass by or stuffing down emotions we don’t want to deal with?

The problem is, when we’re disconnected from ourselves it’s even harder to connect with each other. Well, that’s one of the problems and I believe that’s why the Heart of Now has been successful and why it is often associated with permaculture and with community living. I first found out about it as part of my crash course in hippie west coast alternative living when I moved out to Oregon to take an eight-week course in permaculture and eco-village design.

Permaculture is a design theory that says we can create human settlements that will provide for all our basic needs (food, water, shelter) and also give back to the natural environment if we design them correctly, working with nature rather than against it. Many of the ideas are based on simple common sense that we seem to have forgotten, such as orienting buildings to take advantage of passive solar heating. There are many elements involved, such as sustainable agriculture, natural building practices, ecologically sound water management, and treating “waste” products as resources (e.g. kitchen scraps become chicken feed).

Eco-villages are communities that are designed to implement permaculture practices at the community level and to also support all the community members’ social and spiritual needs. As you might imagine, one of the biggest challenges of living in community is dealing with interpersonal conflict. Our class had sessions on some of the technical aspects of building an eco-village (building houses out of straw bales and cob, designing water management systems, creating forest gardens) but also all of the necessary social skills (non-violent communication, consensus decision-making, creating community policies).

The Heart of Now session I led in Cincinnati was part of a local permaculture course and it was really inspiring to see how it appealed to a group of people who are working to green a very urban landscape. Cincinnati is an old river town with a lot of history and a lot of typical urban blight issues. My host was telling me that there are houses in the poorer neighborhoods that are available for $7,000 and are often historical homes that were constructed in the late 1800’s. He has dreams of revitalizing inner city neighborhoods with gardening projects and radical community involvement.

Mostly, though, the participants were just excited to have a way to strengthen their small community that’s already working to create a small counterculture of green living in an area where the traffic never stops and 90% of the land is pavement. There’s already one eco-village going in Cincinnati and there are dreams of starting others. There are also dreams of starting farms at the fringes of the city and inviting inner city kids to come out to experience growing their own food.

I am excited to be a part of it all. Sometimes I worry that I’m not making a positive impact on the world and I wish I were out doing something radical like gardening in the ghetto or inventing the latest green technology. So I’m happy to play a supporting role in greening the city of Cincinnati as I continue striving to make a difference in my little ol’ hometown of Bloomington.

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What’s the best way to get from here to there?

HighwayThis past weekend, I drove up to Wisconsin by way of Chicago to participate in PlayExpo 2008. It’s too late now, but in the car I got to wondering what the most environmental way to travel up there would be. There were three of us in the car through Chicago and then four from Chicago to Whitewater, so we’d reduce the carbon emissions per person that way. The best would probably have been to run veggie oil from Maggie’s car, but none of us drive shift. A car with better miles per gallon (like a Prius) would also have been good, but we were stuck with Ian’s car, which gets about 30 mpg highway.

With Ian’s car as a base, I used the Native Energy CO2 emissions calculator to figure out how much pollution each mode of transportation would produce.

There were three main legs to the trip: Bloomington to Indy (50 miles), Indy to Chicago (186 miles), and Chicago to Whitewater (106 miles). The first and last had to be done by car (either our own or in a rented taxi sort of situation which would be worse in terms of pollution). The drive from Bloomington to Indy produced 32 lbs of CO2, while the Chicago to Whitewater leg produced 70 lbs, or 102 lbs overall. The car emissions are computed per vehicle though, while plane, train, and bus are computed per passenger. There were three of us going from Bloomington to Chicago and four from Chicago to Whitewater, so the per-person numbers are 10.6 lbs and 17.5 lbs or 28 lbs total.

Those 28 lbs of carbon would be produced no matter how we got from Indy to Chicago, so we’ll ignore them for now. Our drive between Indy and Chicago (186 miles) put 70 lbs of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s 23 lbs per person.

The flying distance from Indy to Chicago is about 25 miles less than the driving distance. However, planes create a lot of CO2 and they create it in the upper atmosphere, which multiplies its impact. A plane ride would have create 212 lbs of CO2 per person. That’s almost ten times as much as driving!

Okay, conventional wisdom is upheld. Planes are bad. Surely trains are better.

Sure enough, trains are better. Travelling from Indy to Chicago by train produces 108 lbs. per passenger. The travel distance is slightly less with the train than when driving, which helps. If we’d had to take the train as far as we drove, the train would have produced 122 lbs. per passenger.

Even the smaller amount is 5 times as much as driving.

There’s a cool European bus company, Megabus that now services Indy to Chicago. If you order far enough in advance, you can get your tickets for $2.50 (that’s $1 plus their $1.50 service fee)! Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know we were going until the las minute, so the tickets would have cost us $20 each.

But enough of cost. How much CO2 does the bus produce? Travelling over the same mileage as the car, the bus produces 68 lbs. of CO2 per person. That’s a lot better than even the train, but it’s still 3 times as much as driving. Hmm… 3 times. That sounds familiar. In fact, that’s how much I divided the driving portion up because there were three of us in the car. It seems like it would have produced about as much CO2 for a single person to drive as to take the bus.

I have to admit that I’m pretty astonished with these results. I knew flying would be bad, but not that bad. The train was also worse than I’d expected. The big shock was that the bus was almost as bad as driving by yourself! Apparently, the average mpg in the US is about 23, which would adjust things in favor of the bus. If you have a decent car, or a hybrid, you’re better off driving even if you’re by yourself! And if you’re sharing the ride, driving is by far the best option.

Here are the final results, including travel to Indy and Whitewater:

Plane: 240 lbs. of CO2
Train: 150 lbs. of CO2
Bus: 96 lbs of CO2
Car: 51 lbs. of CO2

Overall, the trip would have produced twice as much CO2 if we’d taken the bus rather than the car, three times as much if we’d taken the train, and five times as much if we’d flown.

This really underscores the idea that protecting the environment is a many-faceted concept. Even if cars produce less CO2 for a trip like this, there are other problems connected to them like all that wasted space used for parking lots and garages. Even worse is all the frustration and wasted time caused by gridlock, which would be alleviated by reducing the number of cars on the road.

Of course, I’m aware that these are all estimates. A plane, train, or bus isn’t going to produce that much less CO2 just because we’re not riding. Still, the concept is useful when trying to decide what sort of long-range travel options we should support!

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Leftover Preparedness Kit

Leftover Preparedness KitWill and I like to go out to eat.  Our restaurant budget is limited so we have identified several tasty and inexpensive options around town.  One of Will’s favorites is Bajio, a Mexican chain restaurant specializing in burritos.  He likes it because he can get a huge burrito dinner for less than $7 while avoiding his arch-nemesis, cilantro.

I like Bajio but I get a little frustrated with their disposable dishes.  The meals come in little foil pans and they have plastic lids for anyone who wants to take leftovers home, which we usually do.  We now have a collection of, oh, maybe twenty sets of pans and lids as well as fifteen sets of plastic silverware.  It’s recyclable but it seems like we can do better than that.

So we put together a “Bajio Leftover Preparedness Kit” which consists of one foil pan, four sets of plastic silverware, and four plastic lids.  That way all we need to get at the restaurant is our foil pan of food and then we’re set with our own eating utensils and carry-out lid.  I eventually hope to upgrade the kit to include some cloth napkins and reusable cups (they have a self-serve drink fountain so I think they’d be okay with us bringing our own cups).  For now, the key will be keeping a kit in the car so we are constantly prepared for impromptu burrito runs.  (We have been doing pretty well with the cloth grocery bags so I’m hopeful.)

Eventually I hope to also develop a more generic Leftover Preparedness Kit that contains some tupperware containers suitable for any type of leftover.  I really hate the styrofoam containers that most restaurants provide.  Number 6 styrofoam is recyclable here now but I still think styrofoam is creepy and eating out of it just sets my teeth on edge.  I’ve thought about carrying around some ziplock bags for emergency leftovers but as uncouth as I am, it still seems a bit awkward to pull a ziplock out of my pocket and fill it with leftover pad thai.

Any tips?

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Nature Nerd Presents Frog Calls

ball of frog eggsThere are many kinds of nerds in the world and I have been accused of belonging to several categories but the title I wear with pride is that of “Nature Nerd.”  This year I’m even lucky enough to get paid for my nature nerdliness by teaching kids about the great outdoors.  I did a presentation yesterday teaching second graders about trees.  They thought the sassafras twigs I brought in for them to smell were the coolest thing ever.

I feel that appreciating nature is an important part of green living.  As Scott Russell Sanders once said, we only protect what we love and we only love what we know.  So I’m always excited to teach – and to learn – about the natural world. 

Next week I’ll be teaching a group of third graders about frogs.  This is an awesome time of year to talk about frogs because they’re out doing their mating calls and producing huge quantities of eggs, including the alien-looking globule in the photo.  I found it at a girl scout camp a few weeks ago and just had to touch it.  It was totally cool.

Here in Indiana, this is a great time to go out in the evening and listen for frogs.  All you need is a nearby body of water.  The frogs are generally louder when it’s warmer and they will go silent if you make too much noise.  Here are three of my favorite frog calls.  (To hear some clips, check out this University of Michigan frog call site or these video clips of Midwest Frogs created by the Chicago Herpetological Society.)

If it sounds high and squeaky like a baby chicken, it’s probably a Spring Peeper, and boy can they be loud!

If it sounds like a twangy rubber band, it’s probably a green frog.

If it sounds like a shrilling alarm clock, it’s probably actually an American toad.

Happy frogging!

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Would Beowulf shop at Goodwill?

Beowulf fighting the dragonBeowulf is an upscale kind of guy: King of the Geats, killer of Grendel, dragon-slayer. What would a guy like that be doing in a thrift shop?

He almost certainly would have been looking for a sword. Since Goodwill didn’t exist back then, Beowulf had to go straight to the source and get his sword from a buddy.

Unferth, Hrothgar’s spokesman,
loaned: the hilted sword called
Hrunting, an ancient treasure
with edges of iron and adorned
with poison strips. That sword,
ardened in blood, had never failed
man who grasped it in hand
and dared a terrible journey,
battles in a hostile place.

You’ll notice that Beowulf’s sword had a name too (Hrunting). Fantasy afficionados are well-acquainted with the power of a name. Bilbo Baggins had Sting and King Arthur had Excalibur.

Unlike modern fantasy, named swords in the Beowulf epic aren’t explicitly magical. Instead, they have a more important quality: durability. In a time when smithing was a black art, your sword was just as likely to shatter on the first blow as it was to actually work. An ancient sword was worth naming to let people know that it was one of those rare ones that had been forged properly and could be depended upon to last.

So would Beowulf shop at Goodwill? You bet he would! Durability is just as important now as it was back then, although Goodwill stocks few swords. It’s hard to tell how durable something new is just by looking at it. By looking only at items that have already passed through a pair of hands or two, you know that they’ll last.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go name our two durable Goodwill lamps…

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Motivating Myself with Scarcity and Bribery

water pumpOur landlord finally replaced our water heater a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the installer used a lot of PVC glue, which is one of the nastiest smelling substances in the world. Besides stinking up the air, it also leached into our water and we decided not to drink any until the taste disappeared.

For about a week we filled jugs of water at other houses and brought it home. Having a limited supply made me much more conscious of how much water I use. Knowing that the tap flows at 2 gallons per minute is somehow not as meaningful as seeing the water level drop in a 1-gallon jug. It was also sobering to know I had to haul more water to the house instead of just turning on the tap.

While I don’t want to suggest we go back to the times of carrying water from the local well, I wonder if there’s a way to have that resource-consciousness without having a limited supply. One idea would be to install a meter to actually measure our real-time water usage. How much water does it really take to run the dishwasher? I can look it up in a chart but it would be way more convincing to see our storage tank draining or even see a dial spinning.

What if the meter also told how much it costs to use that water? I’m sure it wouldn’t be as dramatic as electricity or gasoline but I might be a little more conscientious about dishwashing. On the other hand, gasoline prices keep rising but I’m not sure it’s changing people’s behaviors all that much. Will maintains that it changes people’s behaviors in the long-term; people look for jobs with a shorter commute, look for cars with better gas mileage, and think twice about taking long driving vacations. However, most people have not changed their day-to-day activities and are still willing to drive to the grocery store four times a week because it’s convenient and it doesn’t cost *that* much money. Hopefully those larger habit changes will come as part of a societal shift, when we all start counting car trips as special occasions like plane flights as opposed to counting them as just part of our every day routine.

I know I don’t conserve diesel as well as I could. It is something I can monitor closely and associate with a direct price ($0.09/mile just for fuel) but I still haven’t made huge changes. So what is the key? For me, I think it comes back to the idea of scarcity. My new idea is to fill up my tank at the beginning of the month and see if I can make it last.  I’m also going to throw in a dose of bribery.  Each month I will set aside $40 (about a tank’s worth of fuel) in an “emergency” fuel fund. If I run out of fuel, I can use that money to refill my tank, but if I I can make that first tank last, I get to spend the $40 on a massage or a fancy dinner or some other special treat.

I still love the idea of being able to measure my use of water – and electricity – in real-time. I think it would be fascinating to do some experiments (is it better to turn the thermostat down lower at night or do I end up using more energy reheating the house in the morning?) and also get a better idea of what behavior changes would really make the most difference. And I might make some huge changes like the folks in North Carolina who dramatically cut their water usage in times of drought last summer. But I still think scarcity is the strongest motivator I know of, followed closely by bribery.

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