Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Greenest House On The Block

Yesterday, I got another bike, a clunky old Schwinn five-speed.

About a month and a half ago, I bought an inexpensive, but reliable new Schwinn. It's been okay, but I had a couple of concerns. First, my college is in a high-crime area of Chicago, Uptown. I fear that a shiny new bike is too much of a temptation for thieves. The second was a matter of personal preference-- I liked the bike overall, but didn't like the wide "beach bike" handlebars of the new bike. I'll probably sell it.

It was the most recent of changes toward a greener (and more frugal) life. Recently, I sold my old gas guzzling Chevy Blazer and bought a gas-sipping 1993 Toyota Corrolla that gets more than double the gas mileage of my old car. With gasoline over four bucks a gallon in Chicago, even after prices have eased up a bit, it made sense.

About a year-and-a-half ago, the City of Chicago tried out a "blue bin" program in two neighborhoods, mine (North Center) and Austin, a neighborhood on the west side. The program was apparently a success; it's been expanded citywide.

In our home, it's been a big success; our neighbors and us were regularly filling the one big blue recycling bin the city gave us. We had to either put the overflow in a neighbor's bin or put it in the trash. My landlady took action-- she called the alderman. Within days, we had a second recycling bin. Most weeks we fill both bins.

Recently, the New York Times had an article on the city of Houston-- specifically how abysmally low the recycling rate is in Houston. Apparently, people in Houston look at it as some moronic sign of "independence" that they don't recycle.

The rates of recycling in major cities varies wildly, according to the statistics cited in the New York Times. Houston, with a 2.6% recycling rate (yes, that's 2.6%, not a typo) is the lowest, and San Francisco is the highest, with 69%. Chicago is high, but not the highest, with a 55.4% recycling rate.

A few years back, I read a great article in National Geographic about the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, New York. For decades it was the primary garbage disposal facility for New York City. For a half century, 20 barges a day, each containing 65 tons of garbage, brought refuse to the site. For comparison, that's about the weight of an M-1 Abrams, the main battle tank of the US Army. Imagine 20 of those dumped in the same site every day for a half century. Fresh Kills was closed in March of 2001, but reopened temporarily later that year to process debris from the World Trade Center.

In the National Geographic article, archeologists drilled cores and examined garbage from decades past. Old wrappers, newspapers and toys painted a picture of a different age.

One of the things that most people don't realize about landfills is that things do not decompose in them-- even things like paper and food, that normally decompose rapidly in nature. In the anaerobic environment of a landfill, they don't. Newspapers from the 1950's that the archeologists dug up were still readable. In a landfill, it doesn't matter whether it's durable plastic or aluminum or biodegradable paper or food-- It'll still be there in 1000 years. Landfill seems, then, to be a best a temporary solution and at worst, idiotic. In a thousand years, citizens, hopefully more enlightened than our current society, will look back on us and say "What the hell were those fools thinking?"

I've read that some scientists speculate that one of the reasons for the downfall of Roman Empire was the use of lead pipes for drinking water, and lead-based glazing in their dishes. Even tiny amounts of lead causes brain (and cardiovascular and renal) damage. The Romans had no idea that they were poisoning themselves; they even added a lead salt to their wine to sweeten it. We have no such claim to ignorance. A future historian, looking back at this age, will be amazed that at great cost and labor, our society extracted petroleum, which took millions and millions of years to form, and used it to make gasoline so that a yuppie could drive his SUV to the gym and work out, or to make a plastic package that will hold a piece of candy for a couple of weeks-- all the while either adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or creating a non-biodegradeable piece of garbage that will be available for some future anthropologist to marvel at in 2000 years.

As I put the recycling out this morning, noticing that both bins are over half full-- we would have been overflowing by now if we hadn't gotten the second bin-- I wondered about my neighbors. I don't think that we produce any more garbage than other homes on the block. I think we're just a little more concientious about recycling.

There have been lots of changes in this household in the last year that eased our impact on the planet: much better insulation and windows, along with modern new furnaces and water heaters have drastically reduced the amount of natural gas we use in winter months. This has had an economic benefit; even though heating gas prices have more than doubled in the last few years, our monthly heating bills have gone down, sometimes by a factor of half. I wonder how in the hell I was able to pay $400 peak monthly heating bills back when it was just Adam and I.

A few years ago, I changed all the lightbulbs in the house. When I was throwing out the evil roommate, I knew I was going to batten down the hatches finanacially. I was at Costco, reading the package of some compact florescent bulbs (CFB's), and was astounded to see how much I would save; the claim was that I'd save over 50 bucks per bulb in energy costs over the life of the bulb. Another bonus-- the bulbs last much, much longer. I have a couple of light fixtures that are in hard-to-get places, particularly the bulb over my sink. I did not wait for the old bulbs to go out-- I replaced every bulb in the house. The savings in my electric bill were dramatic-- about a $25 a month savings-- that's about $300 a year!

Reading the package of the set of CFB's I bought at Costco a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that each bulb installed keeps an amazing 720 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere over the life of the bulb. The bulbs use less than a quarter of the electricity to provide the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb.

One thing to remember with these bulbs, though, is not to throw them in the garbage. They contain mercury, which is about as toxic as lead. Home Depot, True Value Hardware and other retailers will take these in for recycling.

After replacing the bulbs, I found that I could still not get my electric bill under $75-$80 a month, even when I was careful about shutting down the lights. Over time, I began to realize that the old refrigerator in my apartment ran pretty much nonstop. It was old and inefficient. As a family Christmas gift a couple of Christmases ago, I bought a new, much more efficient refrigerator. It cut another $25 a month off our electric bills. Most months, when we aren't running air conditioning, the electric bill is $50-$55 a month, even with massive increases in the cost of electricity in the Chicago area.

Big bonus-- it has an icemaker!

With the new/old car, the bike and the second bin, along with the beautiful greenery in our backyard pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we're doing pretty well here. We're not saving the planet all by ourselves, but as Chinese leader Mao said, "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step."

Hey, anybody want to take a step? I've got a nice new Schwinn I'll sell for a good price.


Andi said...

Gah! If I lived closer I would definitely take that Schwinn off your hands! Good for you doing great things for the environment. I do much of the same, and this Dallasite would love to have a stern talk with Houston!

MacGuffin said...

Congrats on going greener. I only wish more folks were as concerned about it nationwide (besides as it pertains to their wallets). Like Andi, I live in Tx and to say that most of these people hereabouts don't give a fuck is a gross understatement. They just don't believe in it because they've bought the GOP's 'the science isn't in' bullshit over the last twenty-five years. It's shameful, stupid and despairing.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Dude, you're so earth friendly. Way to go.

Grant Miller said...

Plus the more earth-friendly you become, the more write-offs you can get from the IRS!

SkylersDad said...

Good work all around on going green. I remember as a young boy growing up in our small mountain town, everyone had 3 or 4 trash cans in the alley. Everything went in the cans, then was burned! After several burnings, the trash cans were picked up by the trash truck and taken to the dump (not landfill) where the entire dump was burned again on a weekly basis!

Lots of smoke back in those days...

And about the lead with the Romans, I just watched a Discovery show about an expedition to find a water route through the Arctic in the 1800's by 3 ships. They were well prepared for getting trapped in the ice for a winter if needed, by taking along tons of food stored in metal cans, sealed shut with lead solder! Most of the crew slowly went insane and wandered off into the arctic to die.

Dale said...

"It ain't easy being green" isn't quite as true as it used to be, is it? We've had the blue bins for years now and we've started now with green bins for kitchen garbage. The only problem with those is the raccoons and their nimble little hands being able to open them and make a mess. I'm not sure if you read Tanya's horror story about that.

Great points on how how future generations will look back and wonder what the hell we were up to.

Distributorcap said...

i think it is great -- i wish i could do more......

we do recycle and people in the building are pretty good about it

the problem is still the untold amount of poison gas spewed by cars

ps -- i often walk to work

GETkristiLOVE said...

I tell everyone that I work from home because it costs me $80 to fill up my Touareg. Now my tank lasts a long time but I use more energy at the house.

I like all the decorations on your fridge!

Bubs said...

Congratulations on all the changes! Biking to work isn't practical for me--it's a 9 mile ride, but only a couple miles of that route is bike-friendly, and late at night I'd be at the mercy of crazy drivers.

We love our recycling program. We put out almost twice as much recycling as we do garbage. I think next year we're going to start composting more food waste as well.

Great post!

Tenacious S said...

I totally pimped my bike out earlier this summer, which basically meant I got a better seat and put some anti-theft components on the bike so I can ride it to the store and worry a little less about someone taking the thing. San Francisco has a great recycling rate in part because they make it really easy to recycle. Where we lived in San Bruno, we had three separate bins that were clearly marked as to what we could put in them. We filled all three every week. Our sad recycle bin here is always overflowing, but I guess that is a good sign. I am happier everyday that I bought a small car last time we purchased. I laugh out loud when I see what those SUVs are paying to fill up.