The real costs of what you use

Here’s a fresh look at our use of resources, using mustard packets as an example…

When someone picks up too many mustard packets to go with their sandwich, they are causing a whole chain of excess waste:

  1. It takes labor, fuel, fertilizer, water and wear on farm equipment to grow mustard plants.
  2. Labor costs, fuel, wear on trucks and roads, wear on trains and tracks, or wear on planes and airports all go into transporting the ingredients for mustard from their sources to the factory.
  3. There are labor costs, factory space, machines, electricity, water, plastic and much more that go into producing mustard packets.
  4. Labor costs, fuel and wear on trucks and roads all go into transporting mustard packets from the factory to the distributing warehouse.
  5. More labor costs, fuel and wear on trucks and roads all go into transporting mustard packets from the distributing warehouse to the restaurant.
  6. Fuel and wear on vehicles and roads go into transporting mustard packets from the restaurant to your home or office.

You are right in thinking that all of this has to happen whether someone uses one mustard packet or four. But if everyone grabbed just one mustard packet instead of four – or one paper towel instead of four – the whole system would slow down and there would be fewer trucks on the road, less pollution and so on.

Join me in pausing to think about ways we can use just what we need.


One way to save millions of dollars

ford-lotAbout once a week for about a year, I rode my bicycle past this completely full car lot. All these cars cannot even be seen by the public from the dealership’s already ample lot. This is an overflow lot on a side street.

There are two reasons why this dealership has about $3,000,000 worth of trucks and cars constantly sitting in that lot: 1) They want buyers to be able to buy a purple model with or without a sunroof today and not go to another dealership; and 2) Ford essentially requires them to keep that much inventory through various arcane regulations.

Europe is not that way. You may have to schedule an appointment three days in advance to test drive the car you are considering. But that’s the system, and people are used to it.

One system is built upon instant gratification. The other system is built on high real estate values.

All I know is that this kind of American excess breaks my heart.

I took about 20 photos of this lot under various lighting conditions. Maybe someday I’ll create wallpaper or something with those pictures.


Easy and clean

car tailpipeIt’s very easy – and clean – to turn off your vehicle when you’re parked.

If you do not let your vehicle’s engine idle when you are parked, you will win for all these reasons:

– Your engine will last longer.

– You won’t send pollution into the lungs of the bicycle rider or pedestrian who might be near.

– You will save money.

– You will prevent the environmental impact of transporting that extra fuel to your local gas station.

If you want to run your vehicle’s heater or air conditioner, consider instead going into the nearest building. It will probably be climate controlled. Your friend can meet you there.


The Paperless Universe Progress Report

a long receiptThis is a guest post by my brother Bill.

In the early ’90s, I worked with a guy who predicted we would be working in “The Paperless Office” within a couple of decades. (My colleague was also a Mac advocate, if that tells you anything.) Applying his prediction more widely to American society in general, the paperless revolution is well underway in some areas — online banking replacing paper statements, direct deposit replacing paper paychecks, etc.

However, in other areas we have achieved mixed results at best, or we are even losing ground. Some merchants will now email your receipts to you (Office Max, for example), but they often still print the paper receipt too! If you tell them you don’t need a receipt, they wad it up and throw it away. Paper still wasted. Then there are the “toilet paper roll” receipts from places such as Best Buy and CVS, long scrolls which come with surveys and/or coupons along with the receipt. How much of that paper goes straight into the recycling?

Among the worst offenders I’ve encountered, though, has been my car dealership. This morning I took my vehicle in for MINOR service. When I was finished paying, I walked out with a six-page stapled document that included a wheel alignment sheet (showing my wheels are properly aligned), a checklist showing all the systems they had checked, and my credit card receipt on a full 8.5×11 sheet from their printer. I could see a number of areas where they could save paper. Perhaps I will give them feedback. What has your experience been with our transition to being Paperless People?

(This receipt was Paul’s – for just three items.)


How do you decide?

Polish cerealAlmost every situation where we make a decision involves some compromise.

Breakfast cereal … I love non-standard less-sweet varieties that can’t be found in the Kellogg’s or Post sections of the supermarket. So my search for interesting cereals brought me to Big Lots. (I’m a Big Fan of Big Lots.)

I found a tropical fruits cereal there, from Poland, of all places! Then, I noticed that Big Lots imported it from Poland. There aren’t many tropical fruits in Poland. So the fruits were grown in Africa, flown to Poland, and then the end product was flown to some warehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Then they were transported to Denver. And trucked from the local Big Lots warehouse to my local suburban store.

That’s a lot of carbon footprint.

But how do we avoid that? It’s not easy. Tropical fruits aren’t grown in Denver either. But I like them.

How do you decide which products you buy?


Something you can do for Earth Day

Choose to walk

This is a re-post. I thought you might enjoy this little idea that originally appeared on October 7, 2011.

You know you need to exercise. I know that I do. You know that you need to run lots of errands each week.

Why not combine the two?

Riding your bicycle or walking to that place will take you more time. But you have to go there anyway! Why drive to the gym and run on a treadmill when in the same time it would take you to do both, you could save fuel, help the environment and enjoy being outside?

Disclaimer: I realize this only works if you live in a town that’s laid out where you can do your errands close to home.


Local Food and Local Music

The Bell JarI know some people that are really into local food. And the reasons to eat food grown locally are good:

– You’re saving a ton of fossil fuels, since the food has not been flown from South America or Africa.

– It’s probably fresher.

– You’re supporting local farmers.

Why not apply the same principles to local music? By asking the bands you see to drive all over the country, they are using a lot more fuel than local musicians do in bringing their art to you.

Obviously, this analogy breaks down.If you restrict your diet to only local food, in many parts of the world, you’ll never taste a mango or a papaya. And with music, if you’re an American, you’ll never hear the rich sounds of many British bands.

I do want you to come out to support your local musicians. (The band is The Bell Jar. Local to my town. And good.)


Review: Fisker Karma vs BMW 335d

Update: This was written in 2012. Since then, BMW has released a 3-series hybrid. Fisker no longer sells the Karma but are planning to sell the Motion model, at some point. Having gone out of business and now back in business, I would guess they are figuring out things like funding.

Fisker Karma carSuper high-performance and green? As you think about your next luxury sedan, you may be thinking about buying a Fisker Karma.

I say that fully kidding – I know that none of my readers are thinking about buying a Fisker Karma.

Anyhow, I read with interest a Car & Driver magazine review of the new Fisker Karma. Think of it as a much faster Chevrolet Volt with a super beautiful body.

The gas engine powers a generator that charges an electric motor that moves the wheels. So it can run only on electric power for about 25 miles.

Why am I comparing the $116,000 Karma to a $44,000 BMW 335d? Here are several reasons:

1. Performance? The BMW is faster than the Karma… BMW = 0-60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds. The Fisker does 6.1 seconds.

2. Interior room? Similar.

3. Quality of materials, fit and finish? Similar.

4. Fuel economy? BMW wins… 27 miles per gallon vs. the Fisker’s 24.

5. Green? Disposing of all those lithium-ion batteries when they fail to hold a charge anymore will be a nightmare. And diesel is more dirty than gas in some measures but cleaner in others.

BMW 335dThe Fisker is a clear winner in the distinctiveness realm. You won’t see another on your block, guaranteed – no matter where you live. But for everything else, the BMW wins.

A final note: the Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid is definitely a closer vehicle to compare. It costs a closer $100,000, does 0-60 in 4.4 seconds and gets similar fuel economy to the BMW.

Photos are courtesy of the Fisker and BMW websites.


Small choices add up to big differences

Automatic or manual entrance doors?Most Americans are faced with a choice when they enter a big retail store… go through the automatic doors or the push-open doors?

If you are in a wheelchair, there’s not much of a choice. But for the rest of us, I’d urge you to choose the manual side, because:

1. You will get some additional exercise that would not otherwise be part of your life.

2. You will save the energy that it would take to open the doors.

3. You will save the store the cost of the electricity it would take to open the doors.

If you make this choice enough times, you will make a difference. If everyone you know makes this choice, we’ll all make a significant difference.


One step forward, two back

Mobile charging stationI doubt if you read Autoweek magazine. That’s why I’m sharing this story from the October 31, 2011 issue.

AAA now has trucks devoted to charging stranded electric cars in six different US cities. At the moment, that would only be two vehicles – the Nissan Leaf and the Mistubishi i. And there are maybe 25 actual cars floating around the US. So it’s a near-future-oriented program.

Anyhow, I was amused at the thought of a relatively low fuel economy truck being driven across town to charge up an “ultra-green” car. It kind of defeats the purpose.

Another strange thing is that the trucks charge up the cars to travel another 3-15 miles … to “reach a charging station.” Good luck finding a charging station. You might know that most fully-electric cars take about 24 hours to charge from a regular household circuit. (A devoted 240- or 480-volt outlet drops the full charge time down to 3-6 hours.)

My constructive suggestion? Use a much cheaper tow truck and tow the car to the owner’s home. Or an office or store that has an electric extension cord.

Electric cars aren’t ready for prime time. Yet.