the simplest actions have profound effects

I wrote this post for The Giving Hands a few months ago. I really liked writing it since I care deeply (although I have a long way to go in implementing my concern) about the environment and I don’t write much about it at brip blap. People took issue with my point about foam cups, but I’ll let you be the judge!


Creative Commons License photo credit: woodleywonderworks

Sometimes the simplest actions can have the most profound effects. A tiny nail can puncture a car tire and cause an accident. A handful of votes in Florida can change the course of history. And according to the infamous ‘Butterfly Effect’ even the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can change weather patterns across the US.

When we look at global warming, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways in which our small actions can help postpone the coming disaster. Too often people are intimidated by the enormity of global warming. Thinking of such vast and epochal changes can make our role seem insignificant or even unimportant. However, the road we are traveling down is propelled by countless individual choices, and if enough of these choices can be made for the good of the environment instead of for its harm, we may yet see some slowing of these troubling trends.

So the challenge is to help people identify the small changes they can make as a first step in the fight against global warming. Not everyone needs to attend a demonstration, or live like No Impact Man (although it couldn’t hurt to emulate a lot of what he does). Instead, try doing some of these simple steps yourself.

  • Take the stairs. The average office elevator consumes 350 watts of electricity to travel from one floor to the next, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. That’s enough energy to light a 100-watt light bulb for 3.5 hours.
  • Unplug your chargers. According to the US EnergyStar program, the chargers for cell phones, laptops and other rechargeable devices can use up to 20 times more energy than the devices themselves! They continue to actively draw energy as long as they are plugged in, even if the device is fully charged.
  • Unhook unused devices with remote control capability. 40% of the energy used by a TV in its lifetime will be used while it’s turned off.
  • Change your thermostat. When it’s hot outside, remember that a room cooled to 75 degrees Fahrenheit uses more than 25% more energy than one cooled to 78 degrees. And when it’s cold outside, for each degree you turn down the heat while you sleep your heating bill is reduced by approximately 1 percent.
  • Turn off the water before brushing. Every time you brush your teeth you use up to 5 gallons of water if you leave the water running.
  • Take a bath. A typical bath uses about 25 gallons of water. A typical 5-minute shower uses 50. Consider installing a low-flow shower head to cut back on shower water usage.
  • Switch out ONE light bulb. Replacing one incandescent bulb with a CFL bulb reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1,000 pounds over the lifetime of the bulb.
  • Skip eating meat for one meal. A pound of soy requires 250 gallons of water. A pound of beef requires an amazing 10 times that much water – 2500 gallons. The massive overuse of water doesn’t include the damage to other water supplies due to runoff from animal waste.
  • Use a foam cup for your morning tea or coffee. This one is surprising, but did you know that for each time you use a foam cup, you use 1/1000th as much energy as is needed to produce one ceramic mug? That means you need to use a ceramic mug 1000 times before you are ‘breakeven’ with the energy usage of a foam cup – and that is assuming you use an EXTREMELY water-efficient dishwasher and don’t wash by hand. So if you use a foam cup for 3 cups of tea or coffee before disposing of it, it’s significantly less wasteful of energy than if you used a ceramic mug EVERY day for 8 years before it breaks or is disposed of! The energy needed to create (and wash) a ceramic mug makes it less friendly to the environment than you might think.
  • Most importantly, convince one other person to look at this list and start making changes in their lifestyle. That is the biggest step of all.

18 comments

  • Thanks for the reminders, BB. People might also remember that lists such as this not only help the environment, but they generally are suggestions which improve your health and/or save you money. As for the light bulb issue, we changed over 100% to CFL bulbs two years ago and have lived to tell about it! Please don’t say that you don’t like the quality of the light or how long it takes the bulb to illuminate. Do you really think that’s more important than the future of the planet for your children and grandchildren???

  • These are all great ones. I have an ongoing battle with my husband over the chargers. In fact, if you read about a man strangled with a cellphone cord in Toronto it’s likely him. I remember reading in one of the Irish newspapers about a family who stopped leaving all their various chargers plugged in and, combined with other strategies, the savings was significant. Especially with households with teenagers, they can have a multitude of cellphones, various handheld computer games, laptops, appliances, etc charging at any one time.

  • As an avid (but guilt-ridden) foam cup user, I have to say thanks for the info on the foam cups. I feel a little better, although it really doesn’t address what happens to those cups once they’ve been tossed…

    Also, I can attest to the savings by switching to a low-flow shower head. I was amazed to find that our water consumption was cut nearly in half by switching just one shower head to low flow for a household of just two. We went from using ~26 cubic metres / mth to 13 m^3 just from this switch alone and it makes very little difference in the quality of the shower (except now we can actually take back-to-back warm showers in the winter without running out of hot water!)

    Great list!

  • I wonder if they’re trying to make devices that stop sucking juice when they’re turned off.

  • torbjornrive

    Eating less meat is surprisingly important to sustainable consuming. The water and energy it takes to produce meat is incredible, as you point out.

    http://inthegreen.typepad.com/blog/2008/05/hey-mr-gore-wha.html

    Sustainable agriculture needs to reach new highs, which is why I’ve found a new interest in (industrial) Hemp – its both good for the soil, and easy on energy and water.

  • Excellent list! I didn’t know that a shower used more water than a bath (I always assumed it was the other way around).

    Also, I have to second Telly’s commend re: foam cups. I have always felt extremely guilty about my use of foam, thanks so much for helping me clear my conscious.

  • About the foam cups…I have to disagree, and I think that people should feel guilty about using them.

    How much energy it takes to produce a cup is only a part of the equation. After use, the foam cups are often thrown in the trash (as opposed to recycled), adding to this nation’s already enormous waste stream. Ceramic mugs are built to last.

    1000 uses may seem like a lot, but I use my coffee mug every single morning, and I have had it for WELL over three years, so it looks like I’m coming out ahead. Not to mention that I have more than one cup of coffee per day, which may or may not require more than one disposable cup.

    Also, this assumes that you don’t already have a non-disposable mug sitting on the shelf at home. If you do, you’ve already spent the energy for that mug, so every time you use a foam cup you’re using excess energy.

    If we’re talking about travel mugs, what about the plastic toppers and cardboard heat-guards on the disposable cups? Refillable mugs have these features built in, so it seems we need even less refills to “break even”.

    Digressing further, we could talk about the extra energy you use going out of your way in the mornings to get to the coffee shop vs. making your own coffee at home.

    In short, it may seem like a logical statement that foam cups are better for the environment than ceramic cups, but peeling back the layers just a little bit reveals a more complicated truth.

  • @Mike: One thing you mention is the fact that you drink multiple cups of coffee; one of the tricks with the disposable foam cups is to use them more than once. Your point about owning a mug is good, too – if you own one, use it. However, there are other costs to the use of a ceramic cup – coffee stains and a lot of people will use a LOT of water and soap to clean it. A disposable foam cup requires no cleaning. A ceramic cup, like a foam cup, will end up in the trash eventually. I have no ceramic cups I will pass on to my children, although my mom might disagree with that statement (she being a coffee cup afficianado).

    It depends largely on what your concerns are. If you’re concerned about the climate change implications of the expenditure of fossil fuels, ceramics use more energy (making them, washing them in hot water, etc.) If you’re more concerned about trash and the implications of the creation of plastics and foams and whatnot, avoid foam/disposable cups.

    I use a ceramic cup, frankly, but I’m just pointing out the disparity to show that it’s not always as black and white as people might make it. When I do use a foam cup at work, I make a point to use it multiple times.

  • Great points, and a great reminder. What I see as key in your article is that we can each make small strides, and together with everyone else, this can have a huge effect. I need to remember that, and just look for small steps I can take.

  • In response to Mike, I don’t stop for coffee at the coffee shop or make it at home (except for weekends), I enjoy the free coffee at work and I do reuse the foam cups here at least 3 times (over a few days), but you’re right…I do have a ceramic mug sitting on my desk as well. 🙁 I just can’t help it, the coffee stays warmer in the foam cup (even without a lid).

  • Great list, though I also take exception to the foam cup. 🙂

    Regarding foam cups – you do have to take into account waste volume, as well as the breakdown of the chemicals that make up a foam cup (and leach out of landfills into ground water, which then requires additional energy input at the water treatment plant). For that matter, the production of the foam cup requires a large amount of energy input earlier up the chain (as it is a petroleum byproduct) and also contributes to the production of VOCs and other pollutants.

    And when it comes to material intensity (which can be tied up with energy input), then we are looking at more of a 100:1 parity than 1000:1 (I confess I just went downstairs to the engineers to ask about this).

    That being said, I don’t actually see foam cups being used all that often… don’t most places give out paper cups now?

    So what’s the solution? Use a jar. 🙂

    And I have recently started unplugging my appliances… unfortunately, I did so around the time the weather warmed up, so we aren’t using the heat/AC, so I can’t separate out the drop in our electric bill….

  • Nothing is unthinkable, nothing impossible to the balanced person, provided it arises out of the needs of life and is dedicated to life’s further developments.

  • @deepali: I’ll buy all of that – it sounds reasonable. At the same time, what’s the cost of the water expended to wash a ceramic cup? A lot of that water is no longer potable since it’s flush with toxic “cleaning” fluids, too.

    I think if you use a ceramic cup and only wash it once a day and then just with a small amount of clean tap water you’d be on the right track. My point was just that if you must use a foam or paper cup, reuse it a couple of times and you’ve massively reduced your impact. Obviously using a foam cup once and tossing it is bad, but I think washing out your ceramic cup every time you drink out of it has an impact, too.

    Of course it’s nothing compared to taking a plane flight, driving a car, buying stuff with excess packaging, etc. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about minor effects when making one big life change – taking the bus instead of driving to work, for example – would make a far, far larger impact.

  • How about riding a bicycle.

  • Dana Seilhan

    The farming of soy and other crops causes fertilizer runoff into the watershed which causes a serious imbalance in ocean life, eventually, which sucks the life out of huge regions underwater. There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico right now because the “breadbasket of America” drains into that body of water. Poof. No more fish.

    Additionally, there is some concern that certain compounds in soy lead to health problems in adults and birth defects in boys if their mothers ate too much soy while they were in utero.

    On top of that, you have to clear fields to grow big crops like soy, which means cutting trees, which accelerates the global warming rate. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to clear fields to raise cattle, or any other kind of farm animal either. Truth. I knew this was true of pigs, goats, and chickens (we had chickens when I was in high school and their coop was at the edge of the woods, under the trees and out of the sun), but I looked it up and it’s true for cattle too. On top of that, ruminant animals and birds can eat plants that human beings can’t, turning those plants into energy that we can use.

    I agree that our industrial methods of raising farm animals for human consumption are completely messed up and are contributing to global warming and the destruction of the planetary ecosystem, BUT, if you raise them in a way that suits their natures and their nutritional needs, you actually benefit the environment more than if you grow a field of soy. You benefit people’s health, too, in the long run.

    And of course the primary issue is there are just too darned many people on this planet. Until we solve that problem, unless we’re willing to make a whole lot of people live under police state conditions and monitor their every move, we’re not going to solve the larger ecological problems no matter what we’re eating. And while the damage we will do really concerns me, the fact that we are headed for a major human die-off if we keep up the way we’re going scares me even more.

  • Dana Seilhan

    And Steve, what “toxic cleaning fluids” are you talking about re: cleaning that cup? How about just good old-fashioned soap? I hear the Romans discovered it when ashes from their sacrificial pyres mixed with the fat of the animals they sacrificed. (Ashes = lye.) That’s pretty natural, I would think. I’ve heard of people using Dr. Bronner’s to wash dishes and they seem pretty happy with it; I haven’t tried it yet but I’d like to. I make a point of purchasing the one brand of vegetable-based dish soap that Kroger carries, since they’re the closest grocery to me. I wash my little girl’s apples with it (just one tiny drop will do and a little water, then rinse well), and she does not seem to be the worse for wear.

  • @Dana: Well, comparing non-sustainable crop farming with sustainable farm animal raising is obviously going to be a loser for those crops. Organically and – more importantly – sustainably raised crops will always be better for the environment than raising animals. To raise enough animals – i.e. protein – to feed the world’s population using sustainable methods would be difficult if not impossible. So I do agree that population growth is important, but reducing our animal flesh intake and eating locally, sustainably raised crops would on balance be better for the planet. This article has some interesting facts about meat-eating. “According to the British group Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn and only two producing cattle. Britain—with 56 million people—could support a population of 250 million on an all-vegetable diet. Because 90 percent of U.S. and European meat eaters’ grain consumption is indirect (first being fed to animals), westerners each consume 2,000 pounds of grain a year. Most grain in underdeveloped countries is consumed directly. While it is true that many animals graze on land that would be unsuitable for cultivation, the demand for meat has taken millions of productive acres away from farm inventories. ”

    And as for the soap, it’s similar to a discussion I had with a commentator at the Giving Hands about the soap. They claimed to use the same ceramic cup for tea all the time, to use tap water – no soap at all – to rinse it out and dump the waste water into a nearby flowerbed and put tea bags into compost. Of course if you are diligent, and use soap carefully and water sparingly a reusable cup is better. My point was simply that if anyone thinks they’re doing something wonderful for the environment by washing a cheaply-made coffee cup with the average store-bought dishwashing liquid every time they use it, they might be better off using a foam cup 3 or 4 times for their coffee that day and then tossing it. Obviously (I hope) that’s a case of recommending the lesser evil, rather than a recommendation for a lifetime philosophy.