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by the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How do environmentalists feel about the amount of packaging waste consumers have to deal with now that holiday shopping has largely switched over from retail shops to online stores? -- Jessica B., Raleigh, NC

This past holiday season marked the first year that holiday shoppers spent more of their gift budgets online than in stores, according to a recent report by the consulting firm Deloitte. Environmentalists are indeed concerned that this trend doesn’t augur well for the environment, given the extra packaging waste and energy costs that accompany getting merchandise to customers. Going to the store or mall to do our shopping burns fossil fuels, for sure, but at least the items we purchase don’t then have to be re-swaddled in extra filler and cardboard and shipped to us on a plane, truck, train or ship.

For its part, Amazon—the company many blame for ushering in the transition to e-commerce in the first place and which today dominates online retail—used some 6,000 trucks and 32 planes to get some five billion items to its Prime members in 2017. During that process, untold hundreds of millions of cardboard boxes were used to get customers’ choices to their doorsteps. Those boxes are in turn typically recycled by the recipients, and collected by municipal curbside pick-up service.

But that’s not the end of the story: Next, this once-used cardboard is typically shipped to China where it is soaked in water, stripped of staples and reborn as new cardboard. In many cases the box you recycle has made a 12,000-mile, fossil-fuel-spewing loop at sea in its journey of rebirth. So… while recycling is a great thing, it may not be worth it if we factor in the fossil fuels emitted in the process. We’d be better off avoiding the extra layer of packaging altogether. Maybe that trip to the mall isn’t such a bad idea after all.

That said, Amazon recently boasted of transitioning to more sustainable packaging during the 2017 holiday season, switching 100 million shipments from cardboard boxes to less resource-intensive padded mailers, reportedly eliminating 181,000 tons of waste. So that’s something, but Amazon and other online retailers have a long way to go in reducing not only the amount of packaging but perhaps even the packaging altogether when possible.

This is not to say you should bad about recycling your boxes in the wake of the holidays, as it’s a perfectly decent environmental thing to do. But if you want to go the extra mile, maybe think of some way to reuse them at least one more time before the next recipient ships it off for recycling—or re-uses it as well. Also, don’t forget that most gift wrap—as long as it doesn’t have foil or glitter or a plasticizing non-rip coating—as well as holiday cards, can be recycled as well. And yet another option for responsibly discarding that cardboard, wrapping paper and holiday cards is in your yard waste or compost bin, in which case it will live another day not as a cardboard box but instead as part of your next batch of mulch or soil amendment.

CONTACTS: Deloitte’s 2017 Holiday Retail Survey, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/holiday-retail-sales-consumer-survey.html; Amazon Energy & Environment, https://www.amazon.com/p/feature/gkkwdp34z5ou7ug.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any truth to the assertion that e-bikes recharged off the fossil-fuel grid actually generate fewer carbon emissions overall than conventional human-powered bikes?

-- Sandy McClave, New York, NY

Well, actually, there could be… E-bike pioneer Justin Lemire-Elmore argues that e-bikes are better for the environment, at least if you compare the carbon emissions associated with producing enough extra food to fuel the rider of a standard bicycle against the emissions from coal-derived electricity used to charge an e-bike.

“Although counterintuitive that a vehicle fueled by something as dirty as coal can be considered clean and green, the fact is that food production is much dirtier,” reports Lemire-Elmore. “All things being equal, an electric bicycle produces 8.5 times less greenhouse gases than a standard bicycle.”

Lemire-Elmore goes on to argue that considerations of the carbon impact of the food we eat should take into account every step “from fork to farm” including greenhouse gas emissions from creating fertilizers, operating farm machinery, delivering raw foodstuffs to factories for processing and then transporting processed goods to a final production and packaging facility before being once again shipped to the grocery store shelf and finally to your pantry via the way-back of your car.

In fact, the average American diet produces .005 pounds of carbon dioxide per calorie of food produced, according to researchers from the University of Chicago. Lemire-Elmore uses this formula to assert that a bicycle commute of 15 miles each way would require the rider to consume an extra 800 calories which in turn would produce almost four pounds of carbon dioxide per day (or 1,444 pounds per year). And if you charge up your bike’s battery with renewable energy (say, from the solar panels on your roof), fuhgeddaboudit! The e-bike wins every time.

Of course, there’s no question that a bicycle, however it’s powered, is a far better mode of transport when it comes to environmental impact compared to any of the other choices as well—even walking. According to research by Mirjan Bouwman of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, travelling one kilometer by bike (electric or conventional) requires approximately five to 15 watt-hours (w-h) of energy, while travelling the same distance by foot requires some 15 to 20 w-h. (Meanwhile, covering that kilometer in a train requires 30 to 40 w-h and over 400 w-h in a car with just the driver.) An e-bike needs only about 10 percent of the energy required to power a car, and is 13 times more energy efficient than a typical four-door sedan and six times more efficient than rail transit.

The fact that it might be even better than riding a conventional bike when it comes to your carbon footprint might be just the impetus you need to justify spending the extra dollars for a new-fangled “battery-assist” bike. If everyone knew that you were being even more environmentally friendly by NOT pedaling up that steep hill, who wouldn’t go for an electric bike? And with municipalities pouring millions of dollars into improving infrastructure for bikes and new routing apps making biking safer and more fun, now is a great time to embrace the idea of a two-wheeled commute. Maybe it’ll even convince you to get rid of that car altogether...

CONTACTS: “The Energy Cost of Electric and Human-Powered Bicycles,” www.ebikes.ca/documents/Ebike_Energy.pdf; “An environmental assessment of the bicycle and other transport systems,” goo.gl/Lt4Bp6.

EarthTalk® is a weekly syndicated column produced by the non-profit EarthTalk. To find out more, submit a question, or make a donation, visit us at EarthTalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Can you settle this age-old question for me once and for all: Is it greener to take showers or baths? And how can I save water either way? -- Tim Jackson, Queensbury, NY

Like most good questions, it depends... The main variables are how long the shower takes and the flow rate of the shower head. A typical bathtub holds 36 gallons of water, but most of us only fill it up partially. For baseline purposes, let’s assume a typical bath uses 25 gallons. Meanwhile, a typical shower head doles out 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM). (In 1992 the federal government mandated that all new shower heads sold in the U.S. had to be 2.5 GPM, although California, Colorado and New York have since instituted even lower limits for their own states.) According to this scenario, a 10-minute shower would use as much water as 25-gallon bath.

If you can spend less than 10 minutes in the shower, all the better for the environment. Likewise, if you install a low-flow shower head—some models go as low as 1.5 GPM now—you can save even more water and money on your water bill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “WaterSense” label marks shower heads that are particularly miserly when it comes to water usage.

But just because a new shower head is low-flow doesn’t mean it has to feel like it, given the genius of engineering going into new products from fixture makers. Delta may be leading the pack with its “H2Okinetic” design that uses physically larger water droplets to provide what it describes as “the feeling of more water without using more water.” Its budget-oriented 75152 model (~$30 online) can be toggled between 2.5 GPM and a stingy 1.8 GPM, and is a top pick on leading review site Wirecutter. “On its 2.5 GPM setting...the Delta 75152 delivers a powerful, soaking spray through its four nozzles, which create a much denser spray pattern than the ring of spray holes found on most budget showerheads,” reports Wirecutter.

Yet another way to cut down on water waste in the shower is by using a so-called “shower timer” that lets you know how long you’ve been scrubbing. Waterproof timers go from anywhere between $6 and $20 online; it might be the best investment in water conservation you could make. A more elaborate version is the $149 Shower Manager, a battery-powered device that you install between an existing shower head and its supply pipe in order to ratchet down the flow significantly or shuts the shower off completely after a pre-set period of time.

For those of us who just can’t give up our baths, there are some things we can do to keep the water waste to a minimum. For starters, plug the drain before you start running the water and adjust the temperature as it fills up. Also, only fill up the tub to the minimal level you’ll need to get your body wet and washed. And truly committed environmentalists can find a way to reuse the “graywater” from the bathtub to irrigate your garden or water your houseplants, either by rigging up some kind of hose system or just with a plain old bucket.

CONTACTS: EPA Watersense Showerheads, www.epa.gov/watersense/showerheads; Delta’s “H2Okinetic” Design, www.deltafaucet.com/design-innovation/innovations/shower/h20kinetic-showers;

“Best Showerhead: Reviews by Wirecutter,” thewirecutter.com/reviews/the-best-shower-head; Shower Manager, www.showermanager.com.

EarthTalk® is a weekly syndicated column produced by the non-profit EarthTalk. To find out more, submit a question, or make a donation, visit us at EarthTalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What are so-called “intentional communities”? And are there any in the U.S. that are sustainability-focused? -- Elissa McNeal, Washington, DC

By definition, an “intentional community” (IC) is a planned residential community built around commonly held values usually foster social cohesion and shared responsibilities and resources. Some such communities are centered around religion, but others primarily seek to live more lightly on the planet. Collectives, co-housing communities, ecovillages, monasteries, survivalist retreats, ashrams and yes, even communes, are all forms of ICs that still exist today in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Humanity thrives when people work together,” says the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), a Missouri-based non-profit that promotes the development of ICs and the evolution of cooperative culture in the U.S. and Canada. “An ‘Intentional Community’ shows what happens when people take this premise to the next level—by living together in a village of their own making which reflects their shared values.”

ICs that focus on sustainability as a key tenet are usually referred to as “eco-villages,” a term first coined by Robert Gilman in In Context Magazine in 1991. What sets an eco-village apart from any old IC, according to Gilman, is the focus on “human scale, healthy and sustainable development, full-featured settlement, and the harmless integration of human activities into the natural world." Gilman added that eco-villages shouldn’t take on more than 150 residents for a well-functioning social network.

These days, more than 140 different “eco-villages” are in operation across the U.S., according to the Scotland-based non-profit Global Ecovillage Network. Perhaps the granddaddy of modern day ICs is the EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) in Upstate New York. Founders took five years to build out the basics of their community before inviting residents to move in during 1996. Given the shared resources and focus on sustainability, an EVI resident’s ecological footprint is about half the U.S. average.

“Homes in the village are built for maximum energy efficiency,” says resident Clara Changxin Fang, who moved into EVI back in 2009. She adds that each of the community’s clustered duplex housing units is situated for maximum solar gain and feature super insulated walls and high-efficiency triple pane windows facing south to take advantage of natural light and heat. A shared hot water system is designed to service eight homes at once with minimal heat loss. Development is clustered to maximize open space.

EVI is hardly the only established sustainability-oriented IC in the U.S. Some others include Arizona’s Arcosanti, Oregon’s Lost Valley, Vermont’s Cobb Hill, Earthaven in North Carolina, Hawaii’s Hedonisia, Altair in Pennsylvania, Dancing Rabbit in Missouri, Wisconsin’s Dreamtime and Paz in Texas.

Meanwhile, for those looking to get in on the ground floor of sustainability-oriented communal living, many other new eco-villages are springing up coast-to-coast. Vermont’s Headwaters, Missouri’s Dogtown, Texas’ WildCraft. Michigan’s Earthen Heart and Kansas’ Creature Conduit Sanctuary are among dozens of new ICs rooted in sustainability that are actively seeking like-minded individuals to live together according to their values.

CONTACTS: FIC, ic.org; Global Ecovillage Network, ecovillage.org; EVI, ecovillageithaca.org.

EarthTalk® is a weekly syndicated column produced by the non-profit EarthTalk. To find out more, submit a question, or make a donation, visit us at EarthTalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been having trouble sleeping and my doctor suggested that indoor air pollution could be a contributing factor. Do you have any tips for how to improve my home’s air quality without breaking the bank? -- Jennifer Abromovitch, Putney, VT

The key to a healthy indoor environment is clean air, but many of the finishes and furniture in a typical home or office off-gas pollutants that can compromise air quality. While opening a window might help, it also could make matters worse by introducing auto exhaust and other noxious emissions in. So, what’s a clean air lover to do about keeping the indoor environment safe?

For starters, it can’t hurt to change the filters on your furnace and air conditioner(s) on a regular, scheduled basis. Manufacturers recommend changing out furnace filters every three months, but mileage may vary depending on square footage and other factors. (When you install a new filter, write the date on it when it should be changed to keep yourself honest.) Also, getting your HVAC air ducts cleaned once every few years—or more frequently if you have pets or lots of people using the space in question.

Another way to help filter your indoor air is the all-natural way: with house plants. While humans have always had a special relationship with the plants around them, it wasn’t until NASA published research in the 1980s that we knew just what an important role house plants could play in ridding indoor environments of noxious chemical pollutants. Plants scrub particulates from the air while taking in carbon dioxide and processing it into oxygen, thereby creating more clean air for us to breathe. Garden mums, spider plants, dracaenas, ficus, peace lilies, Boston ferns, snake plants and bamboo palms are great choices given their especially powerful air purifying abilities.

Yet another relatively easy fix would be to purchase an air purifier that plugs into the wall and uses carbon filtration or other methods for filtering contaminants out of the indoor environment. The Coway Mighty and Winix 5500-2 share top rankings from leading consumer review service, Wirecutter, while the Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link gets kudos for great air cleaning with style.

If you really want to go all out, think about repainting interior walls with paint formulations that use little or no volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that have been linked to respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue, among other health worries. AFM Safecoat is the industry leader in low- and no-VOC paints and finishes, but the big players like Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore now also have healthier formulations for a quickly increasing number of eco-conscious home improvement customers.

Another easy albeit more costly way to green up your indoor environment would be to get rid of those old couches, mattresses and other furniture which were required by law to contain flame retardant chemicals before we knew how harmful they could be to our indoor environment and health. Now that California has mandated that new furniture products cannot contain these noxious chemicals, more and more manufacturers (including Ikea and Pottery Barn) are starting to phase them out, so it’s a great time to replace that old mattress with a new one that won’t off-gas carcinogens every time you plop down onto it.

CONTACTS: Coway, coway.com/Product/Detail?prod_disp_no=47; Winix, winixamerica.com/product/5500-2; Dyson, http://www.dyson.com/air-treatment/purifiers/dyson-pure-hot-cool-link-evo/overview.aspx; NASA’s “Indoor Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement,” https://goo.gl/j7WzPU; AFM Safecoat, www.afmsafecoat.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I always assumed the train was the greenest form of mass transit, but a friend told me I would be better off taking the bus. Could this be true? -- Jane McNeil, New York, NY

Most of us assume that train travel—whether for getting around town, commuting to work or for long hauls—is the most eco-friendly mass transit “mode.” Indeed, trains seem greener, with some relying exclusively on electricity while others utilize a single diesel-powered locomotive to pull dozens of passenger cars.

But even though trains are no slouch when it comes to fuel efficiency, buses, even though they spew diesel exhaust and get only about six miles per gallon, may be even better.

“The reason ... is that they are usually full of people, giving [buses] the highest miles per gallon per passenger, at 208,” reports CNN’s Steve Hargreaves based on his research digging into Department of Energy data. He adds that trains are the next best choice for the eco-conscious traveler, whether commuting or doing a longer haul. “A city train (think subway or light rail) gets 52 mpg per passenger (or the equivalent, if it’s electric), while a commuter train—usually used to connect the suburbs to a city—gets about 44 mpg per passenger.”

A landmark 2013 study in Environmental Science and Technology by researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) backs up these findings. The researchers found that bus travel noses out rail travel in fuel efficiency and carbon impact on typical business or holiday trips ranging from 500-1000 kilometers (300-600 miles), generating only about 20 percent of the per passenger emissions as driving alone in a typical gas-powered car.

“Motor coaches leave carbon in the dust,” reports the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), adding that a couple can cut their travel carbon emissions in half by boarding a motor coach instead of taking their Prius. “And if they take the motor coach rather than flying, they will cut their emissions by 55 to 75 percent, depending on the distance they travel.” And given that many bus companies have ditched their old buses in favor or new models replete with not only more efficient engines but also reclining seats, on-board entertainment and WIFI, the bus could become your new favorite way to travel.

Though buses are the current green leader, trains are catching up fast. All of Amtrak’s trains in its busiest Northeast Corridor now eschew the old diesel generators that used to power their locomotives, and run instead on an increasingly renewable supply of electricity. Some $10 billion in investment in high-speed rail by the Obama administration means trains are getting more efficient across the country as well.

While Candidate Trump promised he would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into further boosting high-speed rail infrastructure, his 2018 budget does more to decimate Obama’s progress on the issue than augment it. Whether he will follow through with a plan to further bolster U.S. rail travel remains to be seen. In the meantime, while trains remain a viable green choice, choosing Greyhound over Amtrak might be the better option for the time being.

CONTACTS: UCS, www.ucsusa.org; Amtrak, www.amtrak.com; IIASA, www.iiasa.ac.at; CICERO, www.cicero.uio.no; Greyhound, www.greyhound.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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