I live in an apartment building, so I don't see my neighbors over the backyard fence. Instead, my chance encounters tend to take place in the elevator. And yesterday morning I had an unsettling conversation with one of my neighbors in the elevator as we were both heading out to work. It went something like this:
Me: "Did you see the front page article in the NY Times about the melting ice sheet in Greenland?"
Neighbor: "I did. Those poor people up in Greenland. They're losing their country."
Me: "Yes. And the rest of us...all that melting water is affecting us too. I feel like we're leaving a legacy of a ruined planet for our grandchildren."
Neighbor: "That's true. Some scientists are going to have to work really hard to try to fix this"
Me: "And us too. People are going to have to change their habits."
Neighbor: "If it would only help..."
With that we left the building and headed our separate ways. And I've been mulling over that conversation ever since. Do we, as individuals, really believe we can't have any impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change? Does our inaction reflect an overwhelming sense of futility...as if our individual actions can't make a difference? In truth, I had never really though of it this way. I guess I have always chalked individual inaction up to narcissism or selfishness or a sense that this is someone else's problem. But never that it reflected a sense of hopelessness.
Three years ago today Hurricane Sandy pummeled the east coast and left our home uninhabitable. And I was feeling pretty hopeless. But today, three years later, our new green home has just been completed, we're finalizing the paperwork for our LEED certification, and making sustainable choices no longer feels challenging...it's just part of how we live.
So in this month's Practical Sustainability column, I offer some facts as an encouragement for individual action. Think about what you can do...and then multiply that by the number of people in your family, the number of families in your community, the number of communities in your state.
- Replace incandescent bulbs in the lights you use most frequently with LED bulbs. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, you can save up to $70 on your electric bill. And if you replace five 75W bulbs with LEDs that use a quarter of the energy, you will save the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from burning 1,820 pounds of coal.
- The next time you fill up your gas tank, fill up your tires as well. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that more than 25% of cars suffer from under-inflated tires of 8psi or more below the manufacturer's recommended level. Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure. For a car owner who drives 15,000 miles per year in a car that earns 20 mpg, proper tire inflation can provide the equivalent carbon sequestration as that of five trees grown for 10 years.
- Install a power strip and use it to power down your computer, printer and accessories at the end of the day. In the US alone, idle electronics account for the equivalent annual output of 12 power plants!
- Use cold water for your wash loads. 90% of laundry energy use comes from heating the water. Consumer Reports estimates that a family can save $60/year on average by reducing its wash temperature. And by only running loads when you have enough to fill the machine, you can save up to 3,400 gallons of water annually, according to the US Department of Energy.
The numbers add up very quickly. Take heart! Your small individual actions can make a world of change. Now that's what I can Practical Sustainability.