Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why Go Solar?

Big benefits for you and the planet
Across the globe, millions of people power their homes and heat their water with clean, abundant, renewable energy from the sun. Solar energy systems have been around for decades. But in the United States, their acceptance has been slow because of their high upfront cost.
Attitudes are changing, however. With concern mounting about carbon dioxide emissions, rising energy costs, and dependence on imported oil, having a power plant on the roof sounds awfully attractive. In fact, after tuning up your house to make it as energy efficient as possible, installing a solar energy system is one of the most powerful steps you can take to green your home.
What’s in It for You
Residential solar energy systems fall into two categories: solar electric systems and solar hot water systems.
Solar hot water systems, also called solar thermal systems because they capture heat, can provide hot water for kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, and other household uses. They can also be used to heat homes, pools, and hot tubs.
Solar electric systems, also called photovoltaic (PV) systems, convert the sun’s energy into electricity that can power buildings.
Not every household can benefit from a PV or solar hot water system. If your electricity or water heating costs are extremely low, or if you have too much shade on your roof or property, a solar energy system may not make sense.
But for many people, the energy savings from a PV or solar hot water system will eventually save money, after you’ve recouped the system’s initial cost. In addition, the system can lock in your energy costs, giving you a hedge against future energy price increases.
Although most solar homes still use some fossil-fuel energy, it is possible to meet your home’s entire energy needs with solar electric and solar hot water systems. And as plug-in hybrids and electric cars become more available, someday you may be able to run your car on the sun’s energy.
Solar energy systems may even increase the value of your home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a solar energy system may add $10 to $20 to your home’s worth for every dollar in energy costs saved in one year. For example, a system that reduces energy costs by $500 per year might add $5,000 to $10,000 to the home’s value. An added bonus: solar panels can help extend your roof’s life by protecting it from ultraviolet rays and weather.
What’s in It for the Country and the Environment
A residential solar electric or solar hot water system can also be a wise investment in the country’s future and the planet’s health. By supporting solar energy technologies, you are helping to
Curb global warmingFossil-fuel power plants are the primary source of CO2 emissions in the United States. Boosting the country’s use of renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency could eliminate the need for nearly a thousand new fossil-fuel power plants over the next 20 years.
Improve public healthPollution from existing power plants contributes to more than 600,000 asthma attacks each year. Increasing energy efficiency and our use of renewable energy takes dangerous pollutants out of the air and lets us all breathe a little easier.
Enhance energy independence and securitySolar energy reduces our nation’s reliance on imported oil. It allows communities and homes to generate their own decentralized power, making it more difficult for terrorists or natural disasters to disrupt the flow of electricity. It also reduces demand on the nation’s strained electricity grid and decreases the need to build expensive new power plants.
Spur innovationThe United States, once a leader in renewable energy development, has fallen behind other nations in pursuing clean energy solutions. A growing market for PV and solar hot water systems will drive the renewable energy industry to find solutions for today’s most pressing problems and develop the technologies of tomorrow. Growing domestic demand also helps establish the United States as a global leader and exporter of solar energy technologies.
Create green collar jobs and boost local revenuesRoughly 60,000 Americans now work in the solar industry, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The organization predicts that by 2016, the boom in demand for residential and commercial solar installations will add hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs in research and development, manufacturing, construction, sales and marketing, and related fields. Solar energy projects also boost local tax revenues.
The Solar Industry’s Environmental Footprint
If you’re worried that the push for solar power will wind up blanketing the Earth with solar hardware, relax. In the United States, cities and buildings cover about 140 million acres of land. We could meet all our current electricity needs simply by putting PV systems on 7% of that area, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
While it’s true that energy and other resources like heavy metals are used to manufacture a PV system, after about three years the clean energy produced and the emissions reduced by the system more than make up for that initial expenditure. Compared with conventional power plants, PV systems reduce greenhouse gas and heavy metal emissions by at least 89%.
Dig in to the Details
To learn more about residential solar energy systems, check out these other Sierra Club Green Home articles:
How Solar Electric Systems Work“describes how a PV system converts sunlight into electricity to power your home, and explains the components of a typical PV system.
Is a Solar Electric System Right for You?” walks you through the process of evaluating whether a PV system makes sense in terms of where you live, how you live, and what you’ll have to pay.
Buying and Maintaining a Solar Electric System” guides you in choosing a PV system installer, in managing the installation process, and maintaining your system.
Solar Hot Water for Your Home” and “Solar Heating for Pools and Spas” will help you evaluate whether solar water heating is a good option for your household.
Free and Low-Cost Solar Energy” describes low-tech methods of harvesting solar energy, from the humble clothesline to sophisticated architecture.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Toasters & Toaster Ovens

Bread, bagels, and beyond
For toast fans, pop-up toasters are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Today’s models accommodate thicker bread slices and bagels, too.
If you want a more versatile appliance, you might be interested in a toaster oven. It can’t toast bread as quickly or sometimes as evenly as a pop-up toaster, but it can broil a filet of fish, bake a few cookies, cook a small casserole, or heat up a small pizza.
Top Tips
Know what you need. If you only want to toast bread, a pop-up toaster is your most effective and energy-efficient option. If you want to be able to bake, broil, or warm up small meals in addition to toasting bread, a toaster oven is a more energy-efficient alternative to a full-size oven. Microwave ovens cook faster and so use even less energy than toaster ovens, but they don’t toast, bake or broil.
Fan the fire. Toaster ovens with convection fans often cost more, but they cook faster and more evenly.
Watch your watts. Higher wattage appliances use more energy, but usually can toast more bread or cook more food. Typical toasters are 800 to 1,400 watts, while typical toaster ovens range from about 1,200 to 1,700 watts.
Other Considerations
Fifteen dollars will get you a basic pop-up toaster that works fine. Or you can spend a few dollars more for a toaster oven. For toaster ovens with more style, color choices, settings, and convection fans, costs range from $60 to $150 (or more for the fanciest toaster ovens).
Benefits…
…to the EarthIn general, toasters use a little less energy than toaster ovens, and toaster ovens use about half as much energy as a full-size electric oven. (A microwave conserves even more, though. It uses about two-thirds less energy than a conventional electric oven.) A convection fan can reduce the energy use of a toaster oven by cooking the food 20% to 30% faster.
Common Mistakes
Having too many choices. Few people need a pop-up toaster, a toaster oven, a conventional oven, and a microwave. Too many appliances will clutter your shelves and boost your consumption of natural resources. Figure out which ones you really need and just buy those.
Getting Started
If you want to calculate how much a toaster or toaster oven would cost you to operate each year, use this formula:
Multiply the appliance’s wattage times the number of hours used per day times the number of days used per year. Divide the product by 1,000 to get the number of kilowatt-hours used annually. Then multiple the number of kilowatt-hours by your electricity rate in $/kilowatt-hour (typically around $0.12 per kWh).
For example, using a 1,000-watt toaster for 10 minutes a day would cost about $7 per year in electricity if your electricity rate were 12 cents per kWh.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The 3R's & Beyond

The green call to action–Reduce, Reuse, Recycle–makes more sense than ever. But it may be time to amp up those efforts by also Redirecting our dollars and Redesigning our lives.
In the face of a barrage of troubling news about the climate, energy, and other global crises, more people are searching for solutions. Some find ways to make immediate about-faces, like the pack-a-day smoker who goes cold turkey. Others make changes in small steps, trying out new approaches, gaining confidence, and then gradually letting go of old ways.
Small steps are vital–their impact really does add up. If every U.S. home replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an energy-saving compact fluorescent, the reduction in greenhouse gases would be equal to taking 800,000 cars off the road.
But will small steps be enough? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. Some credible economic studies have concluded that the planet’s ability to provide for humanity has been exceeded by our “ecological footprint.” That’s the amount of land and sea required to provide the resources for our food, shelter, and other goods–as well as the amount of land and sea needed to absorb the pollution and waste we produce in the process of creating those goods. Redefining Progress, an economic think tank that helped popularize the concept of ecological footprints, estimates that humanity’s ecological footprint is currently 39% bigger than the Earth can sustain. If we’ve exceeded the planet’s ability to provide for us, does that mean we’ve run out of raw materials? No. It means we are using more of the planet’s natural resources than can be regenerated each year, and we are creating more waste and pollution than can be safely absorbed. That’s what global climate change is all about–we’ve overtaxed Earth’s ability to absorb CO2 and other greenhouse gases and protect us from their effects.
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Unless we figure out how to correct our course, our current path may be catastrophic for us, our descendants, and millions of other species. We’re already seeing signs of trouble in vital ecological systems around the world, from dying fisheries and coral reefs to disappearing and degraded agricultural soils. Estimated rates of species extinction are now 1,000 times what they would be without human impact.
Small steps are important, but given the magnitude of the problems, they are only part of the solution. We need to be looking ahead to major transformations of how we design and use everything from laundry soap to cars to houses. Zero-energy homes, for example, generate more energy than they use. Such sweeping solutions could reduce humanity’s ecological footprint by a factor of several hundred or more, says environmental scientist Dennis Meadows and his coauthors of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Global Update. In the vanguard of helping businesses, governments, and individuals find the best solutions are energy guru Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute and eco-designer William McDonough, coauthor of the influential book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The goal: much smarter use of energy and resources to eliminate inefficiency and waste while improving quality of life for humans and all other species.
Getting to zero waste, zero pollution, and zero-energy homes isn’t going to be easy. Success hinges in large part on shifts in public policies and businesses practices. But there are also tremendous opportunities for individuals to make a difference, from small steps like changing a light bulb to giant leaps like trading in your car for a bike. Below are five principles that suggest large and small ideas for shrinking your individual ecological footprint.
1. Reduce the bad stuff.
Let’s start with “reduce.” If overconsumption is at the heart of most environmental crises, then the answer is to use less stuff, right? Not so fast.
Not all consumption is bad. The trick is to make smarter choices about what we buy–and what we do with stuff after we buy it. You shouldn’t avoid putting more insulation in your house just because it takes energy and natural resources to make it. The environmental impacts of the initial manufacturing will be dwarfed by your home’s reduced energy consumption year after year.
When reducing consumption:
Focus on changes that make the biggest difference. Drive less. Drive a fuel-efficient car. Take fewer airplane trips. Eat less meat. Upgrade your home’s insulation, and choose energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, lighting, and appliances. If you can afford it, reduce your dependence on fossil fuels with a solar water heater or solar electric system. Bringing your own bags to the grocery store is a fine small step, but pales in comparison to the bigger stuff, like whether you walked, biked, or drove a gas-guzzler to the store.
Look for the most effective leverage points. The best opportunities for reducing your ecological footprint arise when you make a major change or purchase: a new job, a new home, a car, a heating system, a refrigerator. If you’re changing jobs or moving to a new home, can you reduce the distance between where you live and work, or choose a location with good public transit access? If you’re buying a new car, consider that it will likely be on the road for 100,000 miles or more; choosing a high-efficiency vehicle (or opting to go carless) will have a major impact on your carbon footprint–and on the footprint of whoever owns the car after you.
Watch your weight. In general, heavier items have a larger environmental impact so you need to be smarter when buying the bigger stuff. A refrigerator has a vastly larger impact on energy use and CO2 emissions than a toaster, so when buying a fridge make energy efficiency the top priority. Compared with an MP3 player, a plasma screen TV requires more resources to make, uses more energy to run (as much energy as a refrigerator!), and will create a greater disposal burden.
2. Reuse what you’ve got.
Some people say you have to spend more to be green. The truth is, being frugal and living green have a lot in common. Using stuff that’s been around the block a few times is generally much easier on the planet–and on your wallet–than buying new products. One exception: when it comes to vehicles, equipment, or major appliances that use a lot of energy, it’s often wiser to replace them with a super-efficient new product.
There are infinite variations on the reuse theme.
Here’s the basic idea:
Love the one you’re with. Advertisers keep up relentless pressure on us to buy the latest, greatest next-new-thing, whether it’s a dress with this season’s hem length or a laptop with a faster processor. New products are seductive–sometimes we really do need them, but sometimes we just long for them. Before falling for the shiny lure of the new, give the dresses in your closet or the computer on your desk a second chance–and remember that the happiness of owning something new is ephemeral.
Cultivate second-hand style. Some things are better new, like underwear and mattresses. But for most other things you need to buy, consider giving a new home to a used product. You don’t have to be a Dumpster diver to be a reuser. “Previously owned” products come in every budget range, from thrift-store bargains to breathtaking antiques. Whether it’s a kitchen table, a crib, or a book you’ve been wanting to read, you can probably find it used. Borrowing is a good green option too, especially for tools and yard equipment that you use only occasionally.
Support your local repairfolk. In many communities, the local cobbler has gone the way of the drive-in movie theater. These days, when the soles or heels of shoes wear out, people throw away the shoes and buy new ones. The same is true of blenders and hair dryers that fizzle out, clothes that need mending, and chairs with sagging seats. If you’re lucky enough to have people with repair skills in your community, keep them around and spare the planet by getting your stuff fixed rather than trashing it. Or repair it yourself if you’ve got the ability, and offer to teach your fix-it skills to the younger generations.
Pass it forward. Put unwanted items back in circulation rather than letting them gather dust in your home. There’s someone out there who needs that high chair, baseball glove, or yoga DVD. Whether you sell your unwanted stuff, donate it for a tax deduction, or just give it away, you’ll be doing the environment a good turn by making used goods available to others. Exception: If you bring an old energy-guzzling refrigerator up from the basement, turn it in for recycling so it doesn’t continue its energy-wasting ways in someone else’s home.
3. Recycle the rest.
We’ve had it drilled into us that recycling is an environmental virtue–and it is a good step to take, as a last resort. But it’s almost always better to reduce or reuse rather than recycle.
Some materials, like glass, steel, and aluminum, can be endlessly recycled. But the process requires considerable industrial effort, with inputs of everything from energy to clean water to virgin materials.
And often when we think we’re recycling, we’re actually “downcycling,” which occurs when a material gets recycled only one time and then becomes unrecyclable. A plastic water bottle, for example, can be recycled into a polyester fleece jacket. That’s good because it means less demand for petroleum-based virgin fleece. But if that recycled fleece jacket isn’t itself recyclable, the jacket will be tossed when it’s no longer wearable. Downcycling merely extends a material’s life, whereas true recycling keeps the material in play, potentially forever.
Still, recycling and buying products with recycled content do help solve multiple environmental problems, including reducing demand for natural resources. Recycling a stack of newspapers only four feet high will save a good-sized tree.
Recycling also reduces energy, water, and pollution related to manufacturing. Producing new paper, glass, and metal products from recycled materials saves 70% to 90% of the energy and pollution, including CO2, that would result if the product came from virgin materials. Recycling also keeps materials out of landfills and incinerators.
Here are some tips:
If your community offers curbside recycling, use it. Sorting recyclables from trash isn’t hard-it’s just a matter of getting in the habit. Make it easier on your household by keeping the recycling containers accessible, preferably next to the trash container so that it’s as easy to recycle as it is to throw stuff away.
Go the extra mile. For items that can’t be recycled curbside, like batteries, fluorescent lights, electronics, motor oil, or foam packaging, contact your city’s recycling department or use Earth911’s widget located at the top of this page to find local drop-off sites.
Favor products that can be recycled. If your city’s recycling program doesn’t accept certain types of plastic, try to avoid packaging made with that material.
Buy recycled content. The recycling infrastructure needs markets for products made with recycled materials. In terms of appearance, performance, and cost, there’s usually little or no difference between recycled-content and virgin-content products. These days recycled products run the gamut from paper towels to carpet to outdoor furniture. By the way, if the label doesn’t mention recycled content, the item probably doesn’t have it. Many companies are still cutting down trees to make toilet paper that you use for a few seconds and then flush away.
4. Redirect your dollars.
Every dollar counts. When we buy a cup of coffee made with fair trade, organically grown beans, we’re telling the coffee shop that we support social justice and environmental protection–and we’re supporting efforts to create a healthier future. When we buy Forest Stewardhip Council-certified lumber, we’re standing up for the conservation of forests around the world–and we’re letting lumber companies know of the demand for greener forestry products. When we shop at a farmers’ market, we’re rewarding local farmers who are dedicated to growing healthy, delicious food.
Think of it as voting with your dollars. You can send a powerful message to companies by redirecting your spending to organizations and products that are doing good for the Earth, and withdrawing support from organizations and products that aren’t part of the solution. It’s the old carrot-and-stick strategy, and you can use it every time you open your wallet.
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to be an environmentally conscious consumer. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always make the best green purchasing decision–or if no good green options are available at the moment. Keep the 3Rs in mind and do the best you can.
And feel good when you are able to buy green products. Solar electric systems, solar water heaters, cars that get more than 40 miles per gallon, water-conserving toilets, organically grown food–products like these can make a big reduction in our ecological footprints.
5. Redesign our lives and how we make things.
Plastic soft drink bottles weigh 25% less than they did in 1977. With 7 billion two-liter bottles made annually, that packaging design change amounts to 250 million pounds of plastic that’s not produced each year.
“Lightweighting” is just one way to redesign a product. Often the corporate motivation is to beef up the bottom line, but companies are learning that it’s possible to do well and do good. Many businesses have retooled their manufacturing processes to use less water and energy and produce less waste. Some carpet companies have redesigned their products to be recyclable, and will take back their old carpet for recycling when you are ready to replace it.
Just as many companies are redesigning how they make things to be easier on the planet, we can redesign our lives. Some people have embraced the idea of voluntary simplicity–making the choice to slow down, buy less, and refocus on the values and activities they cherish the most, whether it’s spending time with family, gardening, volunteering in the community, deepening a spiritual practice, or developing a new skill.
Living more lightly on the planet doesn’t have to involve a radical upheaval. It can be as simple as organizing errands more efficiently to cut down on the number of car trips taken, carpooling a few days a week with a coworker, or starting a vegetable garden or compost pile. For others, it might mean tuning up the bike and using it to run errands around town (and getting some exercise to boot). Others might decide to vacation closer to home, both to save money on gas or air travel and to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to the ways in which we can redesign our lives to live well and do good, the sky’s the limit.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sierra Club at Fashion Week - NYC, September ' 08

The Sierra Club, Top Designers and Stars Joined Forces to Prove Environmentalism is Fashionable during New York’s Fashion Week.[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqHI3dMramk[/youtube]
New York – August 28, 2008. The Be EcoChic campaign, conceived by a hybrid group of innovative fashion luminaries and environmental leaders, will celebrate its global launch with a star-studded runway show that kicks-off New York Fashion Week. The group fashion show will take place on Thursday, September 4th at the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History and will help redefine the runway in a universe that is going “green.”
Leading names in fashion, including Carmen Marc Valvo, Chado Ralph Rucci, Christian Cota, Del Forte, Donna Karan (DKNY), FORM, Laura Bennett, Nicole Miller, Red Carter, Sean John, Levi’s, Thread Social, Maggie Norris Couture, Vena Cava and many more, are lending their support. All designs will feature innovative fabrics that are environmentally-sensitive, sustainable, low-impact or recycled. To complement the designs, celebrity makeup artist, Matin, will create a chic eco-inspired “look” for the runway show.
“Being fashionable and environmentally-friendly are no longer mutually exclusive,” says Fern Mallis, Be EcoChic Advisory Committee member and Senior Vice President of IMG Fashion. “With forward-thinking creativity and a new generation of sustainable fabrics, designers have taken ‘green’ fashion to an entirely new level. Eco-fashion is not a trend but rather a new category we can anticipate seeing a lot more of on the runway.”
The designers’ eco-inspirations will be modeled by celebrities and/or environmentalist who have joined the cause, including former-Miss USA and model-actress Susie Castillo, environmentalist Jayni Chase, Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin, performer Coltrane Curtis, Gossip Girl’s Tamara Feldman, supermodel Patti Hansen, actress Lauren Hutton, Ugly Betty’s Mark Indelicato, environmentalist Mary Richardson Kennedy, author Tom Kostigen, Desperate Housewives’ Joy Lauren, LipStick Jungle’s James Lesure, Red Hot & Green’s Carter Oosterhouse, This Might Hurt’s Alex Menenses, model (and daughter of Keith Richards) Theodora Richards, High School Musical’s Olesya Rulin, environmentalist Laura Turner Seydel, actress Dominique Swain, Law & Order: SVU’s Tamara Tunie, supermodel Alek Wek and many others. Also, there will be a special performance by singer-songwriter Jon Mclaughlin.
“This campaign brings eco-lifestyle mainstream by raising awareness of how making small, meaningful changes can have a positive impact on the environment,” says Angela Lindvall, Be EcoChic event host, supermodel and co-star of “AlterEco” airing on Discovery’s Planet Green. “To ‘be eco chic’ not only applies to your wardrobe but also to your state of mind.”
Research conducted by ecoAmerica shows that 86% of Americans express concern about the environment, yet only 1% see it as the most important problem facing America today. It also shows that Americans view the environmental movement as traditional, dated and out of touch with current society. The research concluded that the environmental movement would be well-served by creating a “personalized” call to action that demonstrates value in simple, incremental changes in personal behaviors.
“We have found that people prefer cleaner, safer and more responsible choices when presented with the opportunity. We applaud those manufacturers and retailers who are responding to that demand. Everyone can make a difference by making responsible everyday choices that create a new market,” says Carl Pope, Be EcoChic speaker and Executive Director of the Sierra Club.
The Be EcoChic campaign will employ a number of practices to ensure that the fashion show is eco-friendly, including neutralizing its carbon footprint through donations to CarbonFund.org.
The Be EcoChic? campaign is sponsored by AVEENO®, Continental, the LYCRA® fiber brand, Mercedes-Benz USA, Neutrogena® and Neutrogena® Cosmetics.
About Be EcoChicThe Be EcoChic campaign raises consumer awareness of the environmental implications of our lifestyles and helps better inform people on smart choices for a healthier planet. Launched in partnership with the Sierra Club, the campaign is overseen by an advisory committee comprised of fashion and environmental leaders and is produced by Chandler Chicco Productions, LLP. To learn more about how you can Be EcoChic, visit our website at www.beecochic.com.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Raising Healthy Kids

When it comes to toxic chemicals, kids are not just little adults
You’d think a newborn baby would have a fresh start when it comes to toxic chemicals. But chemicals move across the placenta, so a baby emerges with some of the same pollution in its system as its mother. Tests of umbilical blood have detected chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects as well as those that are toxic to the brain and nervous system.
Once born, infants take in even more pollution, through breathing, eating, and passage through the skin, just as adults do. But they are at greater risk from these exposures because of their physical differences. They have a faster metabolism. Their bodies are still developing rapidly, and exposures to toxic chemicals may disrupt a critical developmental step. They may not be able to protect themselves from chemicals as well as adults, because their immune systems are immature. And, per pound of body weight, they receive a greater dose of any chemical they’re exposed to. Some of the differences are stark.
Watch a video from Go Green Tube and learn more about purchasing safe baby products.
Per pound of body weight, a young child
breathes two times as much air as an adult.
eats more than three times as much food and tends to have less variety. For example, kids consume 10 times as much apple products, such as juice.
drinks two to seven times more liquid. An infant living on breast milk or formula, for instance, consumes about one-seventh of its body weight each day. In a 155-pound adult, that would be the equivalent of 10 quarts!
has 2.5 times more skin surface area, as well as skin that is as much as 30% thinner than adults’.
What You Can Do
With the information in our Home Health Center at your fingertips, you can take positive steps to help your child stay healthy. Here’s a guide to the articles every mom, dad, and grandparent should read:
Baby bottles. Kids may not be able to metabolize certain chemicals that adults can, such as bisphenol-a (BPA). So make sure they aren’t exposed to this potentially hormone-disrupting chemical in a hard-plastic “polycarbonate” sippy cup or baby bottle or in the plastic linings of some canned food or beverages. Animal studies have linked low levels of BPA to problems such as hyperactivity, learning disabilities, early onset of puberty, and increased risk of diabetes.
Bedding. Make sure your bundle of joy isn’t wrapped in fabrics with toxic finishes or surrounded by dust mites. Our article on beds and bedding will tell you all you need to know about mattresses, sheets, pillows, beds, and blankets.
Cleaning products. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then parents who use buy anti-bacterial soaps should be a couple of steps closer to heaven, right? Wrong. Our survey of cleaning products explains why these soaps are doing more harm than good.
Diapers. Which is better: disposable or cloth diapers? As you’ll learn in our article, it depends . . .
Floor Coverings. Kids spend a lot of time close to the ground. So before you buy a cushy new carpet for your favorite rug rat, make sure the fibers are not going to emit a known carcinogen, formaldehyde, or other chemicals that could be harmful to your child’s developing body.
Food. Sure, most kids like candy, sodas, and processed snacks, but reserve them for the occasional treat. Make sure that most of what your children eat is fresh, wholesome, and pesticide free. Our food article tells you how to put together delicious, simple-to-make meals that are good for your family and the rest of the planet. Remember-you’re establishing healthy eating habits that could last a lifetime.
Personal care products. People who crawl on the ground and make mud pies need plenty of soap and shampoo. They also likely need sunscreen and maybe even bug repellant. Before you buy, learn the do’s and don’ts of personal care products, for adults and kids alike.
Pesticides. Go organic in the garden for the good of your kid. A dose of pesticide that might not bother an adult could hurt a child, as it did in a case of diazinon poisoning in an infant following application by an unlicensed pesticide company. The only family member to get sick was the infant.
Toys. From a young child’s perspective, toys are for chewing. So make sure the playthings you buy don’t contain lead or phthalates. Our toys article has the scoop on both.
And More . . . People who care about kids can get good advice about building a healthy home in “9 Home Health Risks,” an article that summarizes the most important home-based threats, including some not mentioned above, such as lead, mold, and radon.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Low Carbon Diet

Is your lunch causing global warming?!?! Did you know, the food system is responsible for 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions? With every meal you eat, you have the power to reduce climate change.
The Bon Appétit Management Company Low Carbon Diet Calculator is designed to allow you to compare the relative carbon impacts of your food choices. Sierra Club Green Home is happy to partner with Bon Appétit Management Company to bring you this tool. Drag and drop menu items, ingredients or sample meals into your virtual pan and calculate the carbon emissions created by your meals. Start by making food choices that reduce your emissions by 25% and be part of the climate solution.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kenny Chelsney Talks Diaster Preparedness

Kenny Chesney InterviewThe country singer with a no-problems maxim digs into disaster preparednessBy Josie GarthwaiteThis interview first appear in the September/October 2008 edition of Sierra Magazine

Country music dynamo Kenny Chesney grew up in an east Tennessee town of 915 people. Now he crisscrosses the United States singing songs like “Keg in the Closet” and “You Had Me From Hello” in stadiums packed with enough fans to populate Luttrell more than 60 times over. He has sold more than a million concert tickets every year since 2002–something no other musician has matched–and accepted just about every award the country music industry has to offer.
This spring he took on a new kind of challenge by joining the board of PlanIt Now, a nonprofit that works to help people get ready for natural disasters. Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman founded the group in 2004 in response to Hurricane Ivan (see Sierra’s print edition for an interview with the actor, or read it here) and has since partnered with the Sierra Club to encourage disaster preparedness. Sierra spoke with Chesney about life on the road, PlanIt Now, and connecting with nature.
SIERRA: What motivated you to get involved with PlanIt Now?
KENNY CHESNEY: When you live on a bus a lot of the year, the TV becomes your way of being in the world. Seeing what happened in Katrina and after the tsunami made me realize how many people lose everything–everything, even people they love. I said to myself, there has to be a better way, something that can be done before the disaster hits–especially for coastal cities, which are at the highest risk for this sort of thing. Being ready can’t keep it from happening, but maybe it can make it less devastating. I don’t pretend I have any answers. I just want to help move people towards better planning. When Morgan asked [me to join PlanIt Now], he was so much further along on this than I was, so I was thrilled to say yes.
SIERRA: Have your experiences with PlanIt Now affected you personally?
CHESNEY: It’s made me think about how fragile life and the environment are. We only see the impact at its most severe, but it’s a delicate balance out there. Loving the islands and the ocean the way that I do, every time I’m anywhere on my boat or on a beach now, I look at it in a whole new way. I realize how easily it could be gone.
SIERRA: Have you been affected politically?
CHESNEY: Politics is one of the few things I have left in my life to keep personal, so I really make an effort to do that. When people come to our shows, I tell ‘em, “Whatever’s bothering you–your work, your girl, your car–leave it out there, and for a couple hours let’s try to forget about it all and have a good time.” I give people a break so they can catch their breath and remember what they love about being alive. Maybe that’s a whole other kind of politics that gives people the room to really think about where they are, what matters to them with a clear head.
SIERRA: Have you changed any of your habits at home or on the road to reduce your environmental impact?
CHESNEY: On the road, I know we’re always making sure that the catering gets to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. There’s still a lot we don’t eat, and the idea that we’re feeding some of the hungriest people in the cities we play is a good feeling.
SIERRA: Many people are overwhelmed by conflicting advice on how to go green. How do you identify what’s most important for you?
CHESNEY: I think I’m one of those overwhelmed people. There are so many conflicting messages, and you get so unsure about what’s right, what isn’t.
SIERRA: How have rising fuel prices affected your touring and travel choices?
CHESNEY: I think it’s making the fans think twice about what they’re going to do for entertainment. We drive 55 trucks for stadium shows, and I don’t want to pass the fuel costs on to the fans. I’ve always believed in being affordable, so we’re going to be having some very interesting conversations about what next year is going to look like.
SIERRA: Where is your favorite place in the outdoors, and why? What defining experience did you have there?
CHESNEY: Anywhere on the water, really. When I was little, that was our big trip: to the beach. When I graduated from high school, that was our senior trip: to the beach. There was a video I made pretty early in my career down in the Caribbean. There is nowhere I feel more at home than on the water, watching the sun move across the sky. It’s peaceful, but it’s powerful too.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Global Warming, Stupid May 24, 2009

Presidential candidates traditionally blow off the environment as an issue. But can they continue to dither as the world heats up? Sierra asks four savvy election junkies when we’ll see the campaign slogan: It’s Global Warming, Stupid!
This article originally appears in the January/February 2008 issue of Sierra Magazine.
“What should be the nation’s top concern?” When pollsters pose such a question to voters, few, historically, have answered “the environment.” Yet when asked specifically about how important global warming will be to their vote for U.S. president in 2008, more than half of respondents to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll last May answered “extremely” or “very.” To learn how the quadrennial mash-up of politics and the environment will play out this election year, Sierra turned to four expert observers:
MATT STOLLER is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant and blogger who writes frequently for Open Left, MyDD, and the Huffington Post. He’s worked for the campaigns of (successful) New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine (D) and (unsuccessful) Connecticut senatorial candidate Ned Lamont (D).
MICHAEL BOCIAN is a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a D.C.-based polling and strategic consulting firm. He heads the company’s environmental and conservation practice.
DAVID ORR teaches environmental studies at Oberlin College and is the author of five books, including Earth in Mind and Ecological Literacy.
NEWT GINGRICH was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1994 to ‘98 and architect of the Contract With America–an effort criticized by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. More recently, Gingrich has written (with Terry L. Maple) A Contract With the Earth, a plea for bipartisan environmentalism, and is chair of the nonpartisan organization American Solutions for Winning the Future.
Sierra senior editor PAUL RAUBER orchestrated the conversation by e-mail last October.
Q: How will global warming figure in the 2008 presidential election?
NEWT GINGRICH: Whoever wins will have a sound and realistic approach to climate change. Democrats have an advantage in developing solutions because their primary voters care more about the issue and because they are more comfortable dealing with environmental issues, which have been largely a liberal area of dialogue for the past generation. Republicans have to play catch-up in developing answers other than no. Our research at American Solutions indicates that, by a very substantial margin, AMERICANS PREFER ENTREPRENEURSHIP TO BUREAUCRACY AND INNOVATION TO LITIGATION. The Republican nominee should be able to develop strong solutions to climate change that emphasize science, technology, innovation, and incentives. These will prove surprisingly popular compared with the tax increase-government control-bureaucracy and litigation model that has dominated for the past 30 years.
MICHAEL BOCIAN: Mr. Gingrich is correct that the public clamors for innovation. Our polling shows that Americans feel our country is failing to lead on energy and global-warming solutions, yet they believe we have the technological know-how to lead, and we must harness it. Mr. Gingrich is also correct on the importance of incentives. But ANY PURELY VOLUNTARY SOLUTION FAILS TO ADDRESS THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE PROBLEM. Americans believe we need strong standards if we are to succeed. Setting strong standards and enforcing them require real accountability.
DAVID ORR: The Republican Party has not done its homework on the biggest issue of our time and has persistently chosen ideology over science, even going along with the Bush administration’s crude attempts to quash the evidence. THE TIME TO AVERT THE WORST IS VERY SHORT. To do so, we will have to create something akin to the government-business-public partnership in WWII. This will necessarily include lots of things Mr. Gingrich has opposed in the past: government regulation, taxation to change market incentives, and lots of R&D on renewables and efficiency. It will also require attention and money–so no more wars fought for phony reasons.
MATT STOLLER: Global warming may not figure directly in the 2008 race. Consider that Al Gore received only a small bump in approval ratings for his Nobel prize and continues to have high disapproval ratings. He is the political figure most closely associated with climate change, yet according to some polls, almost half of Democrats don’t want him to run for president. I’m using Gore as a proxy, but there are other obvious signposts. There was no climate-change backlash from Katrina in 2005, and NO CANDIDATES ARE MAKING THE ISSUE THE CENTERPIECE OF THEIR CAMPAIGN. Even with wildfires in the West and drought in the Southeast, I’m seeing most action take place at the local level disconnected from the federal government.
Global warming is one in a bucket of issues, along with Iraq, civil liberties, executive overreach, economic inequality, global financial instability, and corporate corruption. They are all of deep concern to a newly energized progressive movement and must be solved together. Climate change isn’t a major political issue yet, but it will hit the national radar in a few years, ferociously.
Q: Given the impending end of the Bush era and a wave of Republican retirements from Congress, the 2008 election seems likely to produce a major political realignment. How should the new Congress and president address climate change?
ORR: Public opinion on climate change is at or just past a tipping point. In my view, the standard for effectiveness of any policy solution has five parts. THE POLICY SHOULD AIM TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, NOT JUST SWITCH THEM. The metric must be carbon eliminated per dollar spent. The solutions must be effective immediately, not, say, 50 years from now. They should be repairable, redundant, and cheap. Overall, the policy must “solve for pattern,” in Wendell Berry’s words: It must become the linchpin for security, economy, equity, and environmental quality.
The cheapest, fastest, and smartest approach in the near term is energy efficiency. Next we need a distributed energy system based on renewable energy–not coal and nuclear. We do not know yet how to sequester carbon from coal-fired power plants or how to deal with the toxic byproducts of burning coal; nuclear amplifies the danger of terrorism and requires massive subsidies, and we still don’t know what to do with the radioactive waste. Coal and nuclear are problem switching, not problem solving. Behind the scenes, however, well-funded lobbies are pushing hard for them, while the public interest in smarter choices is more diffuse and far less organized.
STOLLER: This is really an organizing problem. THERE’S A NEW ECONOMY COMING, and new legislation should help shape its contours. We need to make sure that those who win in the new economy do so by reducing carbon and that the new wealth is widely shared so that a strong incentive is spread across many interest groups that know and cooperate with each other.
BOCIAN: Four components: first, higher fuel-efficiency standards, far bolder than those recently passed by the Senate. Second, mandates to produce more of our energy from alternative sources. Third, a cap-and-trade system that limits carbon pollution and uses market forces to do so most efficiently. And fourth, incentives for people to BUY HYBRID CARS, INSTALL SOLAR PANELS, AND USE ENERGY-EFFICIENT APPLIANCES.
GINGRICH: Americans are concerned about global climate change, but they want legislation that does not expand the size and severity of federal control of business enterprise. American businesses want to be part of the solution, and they have good ideas that are being implemented. OUR BUSINESS COMMUNITY IS ALREADY AHEAD OF THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, so government must become a facilitator of innovation. The federal government could enact creative legislation that keeps businesses on task as we work to develop clean and sustainable alternatives to petroleum. Americans will elect candidates who support real changes in energy policy and market-based innovations that will lead the world to import clean American technology.
Q: Many analysts say the most straightforward way to address climate change is through a carbon tax, but conventional wisdom holds that such a tax would be political suicide. Is this true? What will it take for the public to back strong action on global warming?
BOCIAN: Americans are already willing to take bold action to address global warming and energy independence. But no one is asking them to do that, and someone needs to.
Even so, a carbon tax is a hard political pill to swallow. If the estate tax was renamed the “death tax,” THE CARBON TAX WILL BECOME THE “BREATH TAX.” Conservatives will say that liberals want to tax you from the first breath you take until after you’ve drawn your last.
So even if a carbon tax is the best policy option, it isn’t the best political option. Fuel-efficiency and renewable-portfolio standards aspire to something better–innovation and technological prowess. While a carbon tax may yield similar results, it sounds like it penalizes ordinary people. Even the hard-to-explain cap-and-trade system avoids that stigma.
However, if a carbon tax is the only way out of the global-warming crisis, we could reframe it. At the very least, we could call it a corporate carbon-pollution fee, making clear that the targets are corporations, not people, and pollution, not breathing.
GINGRICH: Tax incentives will work better and faster than tax penalties. To dramatically change carbon emissions, THE INCENTIVES NEED TO BE SIGNIFICANT, essentially the most robust incentives we can afford. Such incentives are likely to work most effectively with advancing automotive technology.
STOLLER: Why not start by taxing private jets and helicopters to pay for job training in green industries?
GLOBAL WARMING IS A RICH PERSON’S PROBLEM. If you’re poor, you have more to worry about than melting ice caps or weird weather. You have transportation problems, health problems, food problems, educational problems, etc. Do you really need an energy tax on top of that to assuage the worries of wealthy elites who are so well-off that all they worry about is Arctic ice melts in 70 years? A carbon tax, as currently framed, really is a call for sacrifice to benefit rich people.
A better strategy, instead of pushing for a specific solution to global warming, is to push for a socially just society and use global warming in that framework. This means attacking the perception and reality that elites don’t have to sacrifice when everyone else does. So you tax something that is a very obvious use of carbon by rich people, like private jets, and use the capital to expand training programs for “green-collar” jobs.
ORR: These are our policy tools: cap and trade (favored by business), carbon taxes (favored by most economists), education, and moral suasion.
Real solutions will require a combination of all of these. On taxes, Oliver Wendell Holmes once said they are the price we pay for civilization. TAXES HAVE BEEN MADE INTO A PHONY ISSUE while the administration off-loads the enormous national debt onto our kids. This is morally wrong and economically stupid. We need politicians courageous enough to discuss this honestly. While they’re at it, they could explain why income distribution now is roughly as unequal as it was in the late 1920s.
Q: Have the Bush years fundamentally altered the dynamic of the environment as an issue in electoral politics? With the near extinction of environmentally minded Northeast Republicans, is the environment in danger of becoming a purely partisan issue?
STOLLER: The political crisis of the Bush years has turned environmentalism from a niche electoral issue into a piece in a larger ideological story. For progressives, there’s no difference between the bad-faith politics of Iraq, the deniers of global warming, and the “Terry Schiavo” social extremists. All three represent betrayals of our core value system, and we are building tools and institutions in response to these betrayals.
This is a historic turning point similar to the late 1970s. Back then the political architecture shifted toward conservatism; now the Iraq debacle and the Internet have made progressive politics workable again. This will strengthen those concerned with environmental justice and weaken those who engage in business-friendly triangulation.
The end of fig-leaf Republicans, which is really what moderate Republicans were, is part of this reorganization. These Republicans are being replaced, not just by Democrats but by progressives. BIPARTISANSHIP ISN’T BAD, PER SE, it’s just tangential to coming up with a progressive solution to climate change that creates stakeholders across all sectors of American society.
BOCIAN: After pro-environment candidates and environmental groups succeeded in making environmental issues work in political campaigns, Bush’s advisors realized they needed to change their titles, if not their tunes. Thus the Clear Skies initiative made the air dirtier, and Healthy Forests paved the way for clearcutting.
This makes it important for environmental advocates to sharpen the differences. Fortunately, energy and global warming make it easier to do so, because THE DIFFERENCES ARE SO STARK. We believe America can solve these problems by investing in alternative energy and energy efficiency. Our opponents shrink before the challenge. They say it will hurt the economy; we say it will reinvigorate the economy. They say the technology doesn’t exist; we say we’ve been making cars and electricity with the same old technology for 30 years–we must provide the incentives to develop new technology.
GINGRICH: Conservatives are embracing an entrepreneurial, market-based environmentalism that fits with their core values. LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES WILL FIND COMMON GROUND on the environment in a century where everyone is a mainstream environmentalist.
ORR: The Bush years, not to put too fine a point on it, have been the worst of our nation’s history. The Republican Party, including all of those currently running for the party’s presidential nomination, went along with a long list of outrages without a whimper of dissent. DEMOCRATS HAVE BEEN PRETTY SPINELESS on the war, debt, and spying, but at least most are aware of climate change and the environment as issues. We are still waiting, however, for a semblance of leadership adequate to the times.
Illustrations by John Ueland; used with permission.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Home Energy Audit

Pinpoint Where You’re Losing Energy
Are your home energy bills getting out of hand? Does your house feel drafty even when you crank up the heat? Have you been dragging your feet on giving your house an energy-efficiency tune-up because you don’t know where to start?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might want to hire a professional home-energy auditor.
Home energy auditors come to your home and identify where energy is being wasted. If you follow through on the recommendations from the home energy audit, you may be able to reduce your energy costs by as much as 20% to 30%, especially if your house is older and hasn’t been retrofitted for energy efficiency.
Energy auditors are similar to home performance contractors—in fact, some companies provide both types of services. But energy auditors focus specifically on saving energy. Home performance contractors look at other issues as well, such as saving water and improving indoor air quality.
A home energy audit makes sense for every type of home: apartments, condos, single-family houses, multifamily buildings. But if you don’t own your home, be aware that many of the auditor’s recommendations may be for improvements that only a building owner can make, like upgrading heating or cooling equipment or adding more insulation.
If you’re a diligent do-it-yourselfer, you can conduct your own home energy audit with guidance from online checklists or utility company brochures. But unless you have considerable expertise, you may miss out on savings opportunities. It’s also unlikely that you’ll want to invest in the expensive, specialized diagnostic tools that many professional auditors use to pinpoint where your home is losing energy.
Home Energy Audit – Buyer Beware
When shopping around for a home energy auditor, look for companies that provide unbiased advice based on sound building science and economics. Start by looking in our directory!
Before signing a contract, do your homework to make sure the company is reputable (for tips, see our article on hiring a contractor). Be cautious about companies that offer free or very low-cost energy audits; their primary goal may be to sell expensive repairs and products. While many of these companies are above board, some use the free audit as a tactic to pressure you into paying for repair work that may be overpriced or unnecessary. Replacing windows, for example, rarely makes sense from an energy-savings standpoint.
Many companies only do home energy audits, not any associated remediation work. The cost of a basic home energy audit generally ranges from $200 to $500.
Companies provide different levels of home energy assessments, so when comparing fees, make sure you understand what you’ll be getting. You’ll also want to verify that the audit will include a “blower door test” and “infrared thermography.” These two diagnostic procedures, described below, are key to pinpointing where your home is losing energy.
What to Expect From an Energy Audit
Once you’ve signed a contract, your energy auditing company will send someone out to do a top-to-bottom visual inspection of the whole house, including the attic and basement. This auditor will look at the building components and systems that affect energy use, such as ducts, windows and doors, insulation levels, and heating and cooling equipment. Be sure to be home during the audit so you can ask questions and point out areas of particular concern, like condensation on windows or drafts in certain rooms.
If your auditor conducts a blower door test, he or she will probably install a large fan (set within a door-sized panel) into one of your home’s exterior doorways. When the fan is turned on, it will suck air out of the building. By measuring the rate of air flow, the auditor can determine how leaky the house is.
To find the source of the air leaks, the auditor can walk around the house with a smoke plume (such as from an incense stick) to see where air is being drawn in from the outside. The auditor’s report will include recommendations on how to remedy those air leaks.
Many energy auditors also used an infrared camera to conduct a thermographic inspection of walls, ceilings, and areas around windows and doors to see where insulation may be missing or poorly installed, or where the building’s components aren’t airtight. On the infrared image, colder spots show up as dark areas.
The auditor will also analyze your utility bills for the past year or more and will ask you some questions about your household’s habits as they relate to energy use. (If you don’t keep copies of your bills, you can get them from your utility company.) This information will help the auditor compile a list of recommendations for energy savings.
Watch this video featuring Corbett Lundsford from the Green Dream Group in Chicago to see what happens during a typical energy audit.
The Audit Report
After the audit, the company will give you a written report describing its findings and suggesting actions to save energy. The report should prioritize the recommendations and for each item it should explain what’s needed and how much energy could be saved by making the change. If this information isn’t clear, ask the auditor for details.
Some of the recommendations will likely be easy fixes that you can do yourself, like replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescents, putting weather stripping around windows that don’t fit tightly in their frames, or installing door sweeps under exterior doors.
Other recommendations, like adding insulation or upgrading to more-efficient heating or cooling equipment, may take more effort and money, or require the services of a professional.
Don’t be pressured into buying products or repair services from your auditing company. As with any home improvement project, take your time to do research and interview multiple contractors. Many energy auditors don’t do repair work themselves but can provide you with a list of contractors you can call for estimates.
Remember, in the end, an energy audit is just a piece of paper. To save energy, you’ll likely have to make some changes. Some will cost money, but others will be free. To get a sense of what they might entail, go to “15 Ways to Save a Buck and a Watt.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Healthy Lawns & Gardens

For a beautiful and beneficial landscape
Picture a healthy lawn and garden. For many people, what springs to mind is an iconic image of green grass bordered by colorful flowers. But a healthy landscape does so much more than look pretty or provide a place for tossing a ball around.
In a healthy landscape, plants and soil absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, helping counter the rate at which humans are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. A healthy landscape slows stormwater runoff, allowing rain and snowmelt to percolate into the soil where pollutants they’ve picked up can be broken down by soil organisms instead of carried into waterways. In a healthy landscape, plants and soil keep outdoor air temperatures cooler in the summer and trees shade buildings, reducing air-conditioning energy use. A healthy landscape provides habitat and food for wildlife, and can even feed your family, friends, and neighbors.
What does it take to create a healthy landscape? First and foremost, attention. Before making major changes to your garden or lawn, take time to observe deeply. Get to know the area’s weather patterns as well as the microclimates in your yard. Learn where the sun falls, how rainwater flows, which spots are sheltered and which exposed to the wind. Think about what’s already in the landscape that’s working well–plants, animals, walkways, fences, buildings, views, places to play, and places to relax. Also take note of what’s not working and what might be missing.
This kind of careful attention sets you on a path to creating a landscape that’s healthy because it’s in harmony with nature. But once you’re on that path, how do you make the transition from observing to digging holes and planting seedlings? Whether your landscape consists of a window box, a postage-stamp plot, or a sprawling estate, the basic principles for creating a healthy landscape are the same:
Nurture the soil
Choose the right plants for the right spots
Use water and other resources wisely
Use healthy pest control methods
Nurture the soil
Some organic farmers say they don’t grow crops, they grow soil. That’s because productive land begins and ends with healthy soil. A teaspoon of high-quality soil teems with 100 million to 1 billion bacteria, as well as worms, fungi, protozoans, and other beneficial critters.
Think of healthy soil not as inert dirt but as a living organism that benefits plants by feeding them minerals and organic matter, protecting them from diseases and pests, making water available, and breaking down pollutants.
To nurture the soil, steer clear of synthetic pesticides and herbicides that can disrupt soil life. Add compost to increase the amount of organic matter, and keep unplanted areas of soil covered with mulch to retain moisture and prevent erosion. In areas where you plan to grow plants, don’t compact the soil by walking or driving over it.
Choose the right plants for the right spots
When designing your landscape, take the time to identify plants that not only look attractive but that are also appropriate to your area’s climate and your yard’s microclimates. Climate-appropriate plants are more likely to thrive with little or no irrigation and resist pests and diseases. Aim for biological diversity in the landscape. A monocrop–whether it’s a field of corn, a grassy lawn, or a solid bed of petunias–is more likely to attract pests, invite disease, and deplete the soil than a variety of plants.
Choose plants that won’t be crowd their space when mature. Right-sized plants won’t encroach on their neighbors and won’t need extensive pruning that takes a lot of your time and leaves you with excessive plant waste.
Aim to maximize the benefits of each plant and the overall landscaping design. Trees absorb CO2, add beauty, and can increase your property value. What’s more, deciduous trees can be positioned to shade the house in the summer, reducing air conditioning costs. Come fall, they’ll drop their leaves, allowing the winter sun into the home and reducing heating costs (if you’re planning a solar electric or solar hot water system, be careful not to shade the roof). Trellises planted with deciduous vines can shade your patio, keep your house cooler, and maybe even provide you with food. Fruit trees and vegetable beds can feed your family as well as add beauty to the landscape. Many types of flowering plants will attract birds, pollinators, and beneficial insects. Plants can be used to screen out views you don’t want and enhance views you do want, mute noise from roadways and neighbors, and filter air pollution.
No matter how small or large your yard, be sure to provide some habitat for wildlife: this could be a butterfly garden tucked into a side yard, a hedge of berry bushes for birds, or a back-forty of grasslands or woods left in their natural state.
Use water and other resources wisely
The climate is changing, and for many parts of the country, that’s likely to mean more frequent droughts and water shortages. High-efficiency irrigation systems go a long way toward reducing water use, but there are many other ways to conserve water, including mulching, creating swales to slow rainwater runoff, harvesting rainwater, and recycling gray water. Read more in our Water Conservation article.
Of course, water isn’t the only resource we use (and sometimes overuse) in our yards. Consider shrinking your lawn or eliminating it altogether. Less mowing saves time (a precious resource), fossil fuel energy, and CO2 emissions. Consider planting perennials instead of annuals that need replanting every year. When it comes to reducing waste, the only limiting factor is your imagination. Here are just a few ideas: compost kitchen scraps and yard trimmings, “grasscycle” your lawn waste, reuse plastic pots from the nursery to grow seedlings, use pruned branch trimmings as stakes, make borders for beds by partially burying upside-down wine bottles, use broken slabs of concrete (also known as “urbanite”) for path steps, and build garden beds with recycled-plastic lumber.
Also favor locally made materials when possible to reduce transportation energy. Instead of buying plastic bags filled with mulch and compost shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away, look for local sources. Some cities give away mulch made from chipped urban trees and compost made from green waste and sewer plant “biosolids” (which, unsavory as they may sound, have undergone a process that makes them safe for your garden). Check with local stables for bedding straw and manure, and ask neighbors if you can have their bags of raked leaves.
Use healthy pest control methods
The shelves in garden stores are stacked with heavy-duty chemicals promising to solve your pest problems. Beware of falling for the lure of the easy fix. These chemicals may temporarily knock down the species you’re targeting, but may also poison people, pets, beneficial critters, groundwater, rivers, lakes and streams, and the soil that’s fundamental to a thriving landscape and healthy planet. Whether your aim is to rout out weeds, fend off bugs, or keep pesky gophers and rabbits at bay, always try the least toxic methods of pest control. To learn more, check out our articles on lawn care and pesticides.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Green & Affordable May 21, 2009

Hans Fedderke and Aash Desai with their partners Joe and Andy Magliochetti of Helios Design + Build have an ambitious objective: take vacant lots in Chicago and build environmentally sustainable homes with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths all in 1,400 square feet. What makes that ambitious you say? The price tag! Hans and Aash are going to sell these homes to low-income individuals for a $195,000 each! Impossible you say? Not with these two. That’s why Sierra Club Green Home sat down with them recently to hear their story.SCGH: This project sounds amazing. Can you provide our readers some background as to how this got started?Hans: Of course. The project started almost 2 years ago. It came out of a desire to really do something green and affordable and to do it on a larger scale. The high-end custom build is almost unsustainable in a way if you think about it, and I got involved in this project by talking with another architect about how we could build a home that didn’t rely on really expensive technology to be sustainable but was built intelligently from the start. With that vision, we used our contacts with the City of Chicago to find a neighborhood where we could begin to construct homes and recognize our vision. Thankfully, the City of Chicago and Alderman Burnett have been very helpful and we hope to break ground in the Humboldt Park area in Spring 2009.SCGH: So, $195,000? Is that realistic? I think a lot of our readers would be shocked to learn that you can put up a green home for that little money. Tell us some of the secrets.
Aash: It starts with building smarter. Traditional stick-building has a lot of inefficiencies and we’re aiming to remove those inefficiencies in a couple of ways. First, we’re investing heavily in design. The actual design of the house and the layout of the rooms has a big impact on the cost to build and operate. For instance, we’ve designed the HVAC system to minimize the ductwork required. We’ve also taken as much advantage of natural light and passive solar heating as possible. In fact, we rejected many lots the City thought we could use because we only want to build on north/south streets to take full advantage of the sun. Second, we’ve moved some of the process off-site. When possible, we’re using pre-fabricated panels which are less expensive to build and allow us to build a much tighter envelope. This tighter envelope not only reduces ongoing HVAC costs, but allows us to install a smaller HVAC system on Day 1, further lowering costs. Finally, we’re going to replicate the same design multiple times. Just like Boeing can’t make money on the first 777 it produces, we can’t make money on the first home we produce, especially at a sales price of $195,000. However, by using the same design multiple times, we get some economies of scale and real learnings that will help us lower the costs of production over time. We really believe sustainability doesn’t have to be a higher cost product, just a better designed product.
SCGH: So, if I understand you right, you’re going to do some part of the building away from the actual construction site. Tell me about that? Why is that a benefit?

Hans Fedderke and Aash Desai onsite discussing the project.
Aash: A lot of things are still happening on-site but instead of building the actual frame on-site, we’re bringing in pre-insulated panels and erecting them on site. This allows us to get the home closed quickly, reducing our temporary heating needs and helping to keep the home secure. We’re still bringing in lots of materials for inside the house. This isn’t a modular home like at the Museum of Science and Industry. The mechanical and electrical systems will still be assembled on-site but we’re working with our vendors to limit the fittings, corners, attachments to help make the assembly as quick and easy as possible.
Hans: That brings up another great point. We’re very reliant on our vendors to give us advice. We don’t believe our way is the only way and many times our vendors can help us design a better solution. Our mechanical is a great example. We’re going to use a central trunk ductwork that branches out and opens up and down so we can use less material. This idea came from our suppliers and was clearly a better solution.
SCGH: So, a lot of what we talked about here was behind the scenes stuff. If I was going to live in the house, tell me the 3 cool things I’d immediately notice.
Aash: Well, first you’ll notice the house is going to be much brighter. We have a large solar chimney right in the middle of the home bringing in lots of daylights to every room in the house, not just those in the front and the back. It makes the house more pleasant to live in, and it also helps lower electrical bills. The second thing you’ll notice is how low your utility bills are. We’re targeting a house that is at least 30% more efficient than codes require.
Hans: The third thing would probably be the floor plan. We’ve designed the house to have maximum usable space. This keeps you from having to heat and cool hallways and it keeps construction costs down because the overall footprint of the house can be smaller.
SCGH: So, when all is said and done, just describe the house as I’ll see it.
Hans: The neat thing is the design starts on the outside. We’re minimizing storm runoff by using permeable pavement and installing a green roof. We wanted to keep the impermeable footprint to a minimum. Then, when you enter the home, you’ll feel like you immediately came into the middle of the house. There’s a big living room up front and the solar chimney is right there lighting up the room. The kitchen is then behind the chimney. Walking up the stairs, you’ll continue to get lots of natural light and once you’re upstairs, you’ll have 3 bedrooms. We worked hard to make sure the rooms could be as large and usable as possible.
We also invested a lot in the little things that make the home sustainable. We’re using bamboo flooring, low VOC paints, low-flow fixtures and high-efficiency lighting. Almost none of these components are an “upgrade” in the sense that they cost the same as traditional materials but they make a huge difference in the cost of maintaining the home, the health of the occupants, and the home’s overall impact on the environment.
SCGH: So, ultimately if you’re going to make this happen, you must be getting a lot of help from the City of Chicago. Tell us how the City has helped you in this endeavor and how other cities can think about copying the model.
Hans: The key to the whole thing has been getting community support from the beginning. When we first started, we were working with both the local development council and Alderman Burnett of the 27th Ward. With their help, we tweaked the home and the design a bit to make sure we were accommodating all of their concerns. We’re also working with the City Lots for City Living program. This program allows the City to provide us vacant parcels of land at no or limited costs in exchange for our commitment to build affordable housing on the site. And we’re working with the Building Employment and Entrepreneurial Partnerships (BEEP) committee of West Humboldt Park to help us find local employees to work on-site.
SCGH: What’s the timeline for this whole project? When can we come back for a tour of a completed home?
Hans: We’re looking to break ground on 2 units in April 2009 and deliver those in June 2009.
Aash: The initial allocation is for 14 lots and we hope to build 2 at a time and continuously learn from what we build. The nice part of having a standardized process is we can learn and improve the process with subsequent homes. This will help us ensure the sustainable housing isn’t just for the top of the market but can be accessible to everybody.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Earth Hour

Presidential candidates traditionally blow off the environment as an issue. But can they continue to dither as the world heats up? Sierra asks four savvy election junkies when we’ll see the campaign slogan: It’s Global Warming, Stupid!
This article originally appears in the January/February 2008 issue of Sierra Magazine.
“What should be the nation’s top concern?” When pollsters pose such a question to voters, few, historically, have answered “the environment.” Yet when asked specifically about how important global warming will be to their vote for U.S. president in 2008, more than half of respondents to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll last May answered “extremely” or “very.” To learn how the quadrennial mash-up of politics and the environment will play out this election year, Sierra turned to four expert observers:
MATT STOLLER is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant and blogger who writes frequently for Open Left, MyDD, and the Huffington Post. He’s worked for the campaigns of (successful) New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine (D) and (unsuccessful) Connecticut senatorial candidate Ned Lamont (D).
MICHAEL BOCIAN is a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a D.C.-based polling and strategic consulting firm. He heads the company’s environmental and conservation practice.
DAVID ORR teaches environmental studies at Oberlin College and is the author of five books, including Earth in Mind and Ecological Literacy.
NEWT GINGRICH was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1994 to ‘98 and architect of the Contract With America–an effort criticized by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. More recently, Gingrich has written (with Terry L. Maple) A Contract With the Earth, a plea for bipartisan environmentalism, and is chair of the nonpartisan organization American Solutions for Winning the Future.
Sierra senior editor PAUL RAUBER orchestrated the conversation by e-mail last October.
Q: How will global warming figure in the 2008 presidential election?
NEWT GINGRICH: Whoever wins will have a sound and realistic approach to climate change. Democrats have an advantage in developing solutions because their primary voters care more about the issue and because they are more comfortable dealing with environmental issues, which have been largely a liberal area of dialogue for the past generation. Republicans have to play catch-up in developing answers other than no. Our research at American Solutions indicates that, by a very substantial margin, AMERICANS PREFER ENTREPRENEURSHIP TO BUREAUCRACY AND INNOVATION TO LITIGATION. The Republican nominee should be able to develop strong solutions to climate change that emphasize science, technology, innovation, and incentives. These will prove surprisingly popular compared with the tax increase-government control-bureaucracy and litigation model that has dominated for the past 30 years.
MICHAEL BOCIAN: Mr. Gingrich is correct that the public clamors for innovation. Our polling shows that Americans feel our country is failing to lead on energy and global-warming solutions, yet they believe we have the technological know-how to lead, and we must harness it. Mr. Gingrich is also correct on the importance of incentives. But ANY PURELY VOLUNTARY SOLUTION FAILS TO ADDRESS THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE PROBLEM. Americans believe we need strong standards if we are to succeed. Setting strong standards and enforcing them require real accountability.
DAVID ORR: The Republican Party has not done its homework on the biggest issue of our time and has persistently chosen ideology over science, even going along with the Bush administration’s crude attempts to quash the evidence. THE TIME TO AVERT THE WORST IS VERY SHORT. To do so, we will have to create something akin to the government-business-public partnership in WWII. This will necessarily include lots of things Mr. Gingrich has opposed in the past: government regulation, taxation to change market incentives, and lots of R&D on renewables and efficiency. It will also require attention and money–so no more wars fought for phony reasons.
MATT STOLLER: Global warming may not figure directly in the 2008 race. Consider that Al Gore received only a small bump in approval ratings for his Nobel prize and continues to have high disapproval ratings. He is the political figure most closely associated with climate change, yet according to some polls, almost half of Democrats don’t want him to run for president. I’m using Gore as a proxy, but there are other obvious signposts. There was no climate-change backlash from Katrina in 2005, and NO CANDIDATES ARE MAKING THE ISSUE THE CENTERPIECE OF THEIR CAMPAIGN. Even with wildfires in the West and drought in the Southeast, I’m seeing most action take place at the local level disconnected from the federal government.
Global warming is one in a bucket of issues, along with Iraq, civil liberties, executive overreach, economic inequality, global financial instability, and corporate corruption. They are all of deep concern to a newly energized progressive movement and must be solved together. Climate change isn’t a major political issue yet, but it will hit the national radar in a few years, ferociously.
Q: Given the impending end of the Bush era and a wave of Republican retirements from Congress, the 2008 election seems likely to produce a major political realignment. How should the new Congress and president address climate change?
ORR: Public opinion on climate change is at or just past a tipping point. In my view, the standard for effectiveness of any policy solution has five parts. THE POLICY SHOULD AIM TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, NOT JUST SWITCH THEM. The metric must be carbon eliminated per dollar spent. The solutions must be effective immediately, not, say, 50 years from now. They should be repairable, redundant, and cheap. Overall, the policy must “solve for pattern,” in Wendell Berry’s words: It must become the linchpin for security, economy, equity, and environmental quality.
The cheapest, fastest, and smartest approach in the near term is energy efficiency. Next we need a distributed energy system based on renewable energy–not coal and nuclear. We do not know yet how to sequester carbon from coal-fired power plants or how to deal with the toxic byproducts of burning coal; nuclear amplifies the danger of terrorism and requires massive subsidies, and we still don’t know what to do with the radioactive waste. Coal and nuclear are problem switching, not problem solving. Behind the scenes, however, well-funded lobbies are pushing hard for them, while the public interest in smarter choices is more diffuse and far less organized.
STOLLER: This is really an organizing problem. THERE’S A NEW ECONOMY COMING, and new legislation should help shape its contours. We need to make sure that those who win in the new economy do so by reducing carbon and that the new wealth is widely shared so that a strong incentive is spread across many interest groups that know and cooperate with each other.
BOCIAN: Four components: first, higher fuel-efficiency standards, far bolder than those recently passed by the Senate. Second, mandates to produce more of our energy from alternative sources. Third, a cap-and-trade system that limits carbon pollution and uses market forces to do so most efficiently. And fourth, incentives for people to BUY HYBRID CARS, INSTALL SOLAR PANELS, AND USE ENERGY-EFFICIENT APPLIANCES.
GINGRICH: Americans are concerned about global climate change, but they want legislation that does not expand the size and severity of federal control of business enterprise. American businesses want to be part of the solution, and they have good ideas that are being implemented. OUR BUSINESS COMMUNITY IS ALREADY AHEAD OF THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, so government must become a facilitator of innovation. The federal government could enact creative legislation that keeps businesses on task as we work to develop clean and sustainable alternatives to petroleum. Americans will elect candidates who support real changes in energy policy and market-based innovations that will lead the world to import clean American technology.
Q: Many analysts say the most straightforward way to address climate change is through a carbon tax, but conventional wisdom holds that such a tax would be political suicide. Is this true? What will it take for the public to back strong action on global warming?
BOCIAN: Americans are already willing to take bold action to address global warming and energy independence. But no one is asking them to do that, and someone needs to.
Even so, a carbon tax is a hard political pill to swallow. If the estate tax was renamed the “death tax,” THE CARBON TAX WILL BECOME THE “BREATH TAX.” Conservatives will say that liberals want to tax you from the first breath you take until after you’ve drawn your last.
So even if a carbon tax is the best policy option, it isn’t the best political option. Fuel-efficiency and renewable-portfolio standards aspire to something better–innovation and technological prowess. While a carbon tax may yield similar results, it sounds like it penalizes ordinary people. Even the hard-to-explain cap-and-trade system avoids that stigma.
However, if a carbon tax is the only way out of the global-warming crisis, we could reframe it. At the very least, we could call it a corporate carbon-pollution fee, making clear that the targets are corporations, not people, and pollution, not breathing.
GINGRICH: Tax incentives will work better and faster than tax penalties. To dramatically change carbon emissions, THE INCENTIVES NEED TO BE SIGNIFICANT, essentially the most robust incentives we can afford. Such incentives are likely to work most effectively with advancing automotive technology.
STOLLER: Why not start by taxing private jets and helicopters to pay for job training in green industries?
GLOBAL WARMING IS A RICH PERSON’S PROBLEM. If you’re poor, you have more to worry about than melting ice caps or weird weather. You have transportation problems, health problems, food problems, educational problems, etc. Do you really need an energy tax on top of that to assuage the worries of wealthy elites who are so well-off that all they worry about is Arctic ice melts in 70 years? A carbon tax, as currently framed, really is a call for sacrifice to benefit rich people.
A better strategy, instead of pushing for a specific solution to global warming, is to push for a socially just society and use global warming in that framework. This means attacking the perception and reality that elites don’t have to sacrifice when everyone else does. So you tax something that is a very obvious use of carbon by rich people, like private jets, and use the capital to expand training programs for “green-collar” jobs.
ORR: These are our policy tools: cap and trade (favored by business), carbon taxes (favored by most economists), education, and moral suasion.
Real solutions will require a combination of all of these. On taxes, Oliver Wendell Holmes once said they are the price we pay for civilization. TAXES HAVE BEEN MADE INTO A PHONY ISSUE while the administration off-loads the enormous national debt onto our kids. This is morally wrong and economically stupid. We need politicians courageous enough to discuss this honestly. While they’re at it, they could explain why income distribution now is roughly as unequal as it was in the late 1920s.
Q: Have the Bush years fundamentally altered the dynamic of the environment as an issue in electoral politics? With the near extinction of environmentally minded Northeast Republicans, is the environment in danger of becoming a purely partisan issue?
STOLLER: The political crisis of the Bush years has turned environmentalism from a niche electoral issue into a piece in a larger ideological story. For progressives, there’s no difference between the bad-faith politics of Iraq, the deniers of global warming, and the “Terry Schiavo” social extremists. All three represent betrayals of our core value system, and we are building tools and institutions in response to these betrayals.
This is a historic turning point similar to the late 1970s. Back then the political architecture shifted toward conservatism; now the Iraq debacle and the Internet have made progressive politics workable again. This will strengthen those concerned with environmental justice and weaken those who engage in business-friendly triangulation.
The end of fig-leaf Republicans, which is really what moderate Republicans were, is part of this reorganization. These Republicans are being replaced, not just by Democrats but by progressives. BIPARTISANSHIP ISN’T BAD, PER SE, it’s just tangential to coming up with a progressive solution to climate change that creates stakeholders across all sectors of American society.
BOCIAN: After pro-environment candidates and environmental groups succeeded in making environmental issues work in political campaigns, Bush’s advisors realized they needed to change their titles, if not their tunes. Thus the Clear Skies initiative made the air dirtier, and Healthy Forests paved the way for clearcutting.
This makes it important for environmental advocates to sharpen the differences. Fortunately, energy and global warming make it easier to do so, because THE DIFFERENCES ARE SO STARK. We believe America can solve these problems by investing in alternative energy and energy efficiency. Our opponents shrink before the challenge. They say it will hurt the economy; we say it will reinvigorate the economy. They say the technology doesn’t exist; we say we’ve been making cars and electricity with the same old technology for 30 years–we must provide the incentives to develop new technology.
GINGRICH: Conservatives are embracing an entrepreneurial, market-based environmentalism that fits with their core values. LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES WILL FIND COMMON GROUND on the environment in a century where everyone is a mainstream environmentalist.
ORR: The Bush years, not to put too fine a point on it, have been the worst of our nation’s history. The Republican Party, including all of those currently running for the party’s presidential nomination, went along with a long list of outrages without a whimper of dissent. DEMOCRATS HAVE BEEN PRETTY SPINELESS on the war, debt, and spying, but at least most are aware of climate change and the environment as issues. We are still waiting, however, for a semblance of leadership adequate to the times.
Illustrations by John Ueland; used with permission.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Earth Day Turns 40 May 19, 2009

There is a belief out there that greening your home has to be expensive and that just isn’t true. So, in light of Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, we have a list of the top 10 things you can do to green your home for under $40.
Install a Low-Flow Water Fixture – faucets account for more than 15 percent of a typical household’s indoor water use and showers account for 17 percent. That adds up to more than 2.2 trillion gallons of water in the United States every year. Do your part to cut that by 40 percent by installing low-flow fixtures – available at some retailers for under $30 – and help to save a precious resource.
Invest Time in Air Sealing & Weatherization – sealing the air leaks in your home, which can be easily achieved through basic caulking and weather stripping, can cut your cooling and heating bills by 20 percent or more, saving you hundreds of dollars per year. Air sealing conserves precious fossil-fuel reserves and reduces emissions of greenhouse gases. Weather stripping tape is available for about $5 while eco-friendly, non toxic caulk is less than $10.
Purchase Green Cleaners – asthma and allergy sufferers frequently feel healthier after saying no to conventional cleaners. It’s also an important part of Raising Healthy Children.
Start Composting – well-managed home compost avoids the release of methane, a potent global warming gas, and helps the government deal with waste. And composting improves soil quality, reducing need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Read more and watch a video on exactly how to compost at home. You can get going for just $20-30.
Recycle – You know this matters, but sometimes you forget. Remember that everytime you recycle, you’re saving energy and natural resources. Don’t live somewhere with curbside recycling? Use the Earth911 recycling center locator to figure out where to take all of your recyclables.
Use a Bathroom Fan – ensure your bathroom fan is turned on for 20 minutes AFTER your shower to avoid mold build up (and be sure your fan’s wattage is appropriate for your bathroom’s square footage!)
Take Your Shoes Off – another simple but important thing you can do. Taking your shoes off prevents pesticides and other chemicals from entering your home.
Ditch plastic water bottles – You already know disposable water bottles fill landfills, require large amounts of petroleum to manufacture and often don’t offer “better” water than you can find in your local tap. So, make 2009 the year you ditch the disposable bottle and use a water bottle more regularly. Just make sure you buy the right water bottle.
Replace Light Bulbs – If every U.S. home replaced just one light bulb with a Compact Fluorescent (CFL), we would save enough electricity to light more than 3 million homes for a year. And the reduction in greenhouse gases would be equal to taking 800,000 cars off the road. CFL prices have come way down – they cost as little as 50 cents each at many discount retailers and each bulb will save $30 or more in electricity costs over its lifetime.
Update Spring Colors with No- or Low-VOC Paints – maintain indoor air quality by eliminating harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by paints. You can now purchase No-VOC paints in any color and often for under $40 per gallon.