Making Earth Day every day: Here’s how
It’s Earth Day.
Did you send your planet a card?
Of course, it doesn’t exactly work that way. (And even if you were to send a card, tree-lovers might suggest you do it via the e-mailed versus paper variety.)
But what can you do for the earth today, and every day?
The answers are as varied as our globe is vast. Luckily, some local environmental advocates can help offer a little focus.
One common theme that emerges when talking to them is that, while there’s nothing wrong with thinking big, don’t hesitate to start small.
Brian Adams, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Institute environmental think tank in Old Snowmass, would love to see people buy a hybrid car.
But he’d be happy if people checked the tire pressures in their cars for starters, to help ensure they are getting the best fuel economy possible from whatever they’re driving now.
Mike Wilde, a Glenwood Springs High School biology teacher who runs a student RiverWatch water ecology program that has been imitated around the state, has a thing or two to say about keeping rivers cleaner.
But he’d be glad, for starters, if people would just head down to their local waterways.
He advises them to “just open their eyes and love what they’ve got.” If people love a river, that goes a long way toward keeping it healthy, he believes.
Cathy Tuttle, a consultant helping the city of Glenwood Springs promote transportation alternatives, constantly touts the idea that people should simply take things a day at a time in terms of trying to pursue alternatives such as carpooling, biking and mass transit. Every little bit helps, and some alternatives may work better than others.
“All we’re doing is putting out different ideas, and maybe one of them will work for you,” she said.
Following are some more ideas, some simple and cheap, others more involved and pricier, for living a more environmentally responsible life:
At RMI, excitement is building regarding the potential for fuel-cell engine technology that makes use of hydrogen fuel.
RMI has been in the forefront of researching and exploring the technology.
“It’s looking fairly good,” said Adams.
Volkswagen, Ford and Hyundai have created prototype vehicles that run on hydrogen, but for now, issues remain regarding how to store hydrogen in fuel tanks and deliver it to vehicles.
So for now, “hybrid vehicles are the next best step,” said Adams.
They use a fuel-efficient gas motor that is backed up by electric power, which is partially replenished by the energy from braking.
Cars such as the Honda Insight are priced comparably to other vehicles, but offer gas mileage of around 50 miles per gallon, producing a cost savings in the long run.
But what if you’re not in the market for a new car?
Use mass transit, such as the new RFTA bus service running eastward from Rifle, Adams said. Besides the other benefits of mass transit, Adams noted that light rail and buses tend to make more use of alternative fuels.
In your car, in addition to proper tire pressure, a tuneup can make a big difference on gas mileage. So, noted Adams, can cartop features such as sports racks, which add drag and reduce fuel economy.
Yet he recognizes the purpose of such racks, particularly in active, outdoor communities such as ours. The local lifestyle also makes SUVs popular, and probably more justifiable than in big cities away from mountains. One ideal approach for those wanting SUVs is to have a fuel-efficient commuter car, “and then maybe something for the weekend” along the lines of an SUV, said Adams.
And then, “There’s always the good old-fashioned bike,” he noted.
Tuttle, who recently challenged people to try transportation alternatives for two weeks, was encouraged by the response. People have been reading her weekly column in the Post Independent and calling for brochures, she said.
She said the point of the city’s effort is to at least get people thinking about other means of getting around.
The whole goal, she said, is to “help reduce traffic and pollution one day at a time.”
“It’s a good time pushing this stuff coming into summer,” Tuttle said. “It’s a good time for change.”
Summer may be the time to try walking or biking, perhaps lose a little weight, and enjoy the community, she said.
Tuttle said she has found herself trying to incorporate more alternative transportation in her life. “And hopefully it’s rubbing off on my husband a little bit, and friends,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m really watching how many trips I make, if I need to be making a trip,” said Tuttle, who also is trying to walk to meetings more.
Around the house
When it comes to making green improvements on the home front, consider walking before running.
While changes can involve the very way you build your home, they also can be as straightforward as what lightbulbs you use.
Adams, at RMI, said minimal changes in such areas as lighting, water conservation and use of fans for air circulation can go far in making a home more environmentally friendly.
“I think most homeowners want efficiency, saving money. But maybe they think they have to replace their washer and dryer, they have to replace big-ticket items. That’s not actually true,” said Adams.
Little changes can impact carbon emissions and the climate, he said.
Many of these changes are suggested at RMI’s website, http://www.rmi.org.
Replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones results in bulbs that are much longer-lasting. They also don’t burn as hot, reducing cooling costs in the summer, Adams said.
The higher cost of fluorescent bulbs already could be justified by their longer life, but now, they are being sold in bulk at discount department stores for more competitive prices, he said.
Many are familiar with low-flow showerheads and toilets (or, said Adams, simply drop a few bricks in your present toilet tank to reduce the water usage). He also is a fan of what he calls a faucet aerator, which keeps the temperature stable at the faucet when you turn it on and off, so you don’t have to keep it running.
The devices are easily found and cost just a few dollars, he said.
Another device removes oxygen from water, making the water moister, Adams said. The concept might seem a bit strange, but the effect is that water is conserved because the water is wetter. “It wets something quicker so it requires less water,” he said.
Earth Day can be a good time for people who have been contemplating making some environment-friendly changes around the house to be inspired to take action.
“It’s pretty much the homeowners getting motivated to take advantage of these advancements,” Adams said.
After starting with the easy things, homeowners can later consider bigger upgrades in such areas as heating and cooling.
Adams recommended considering buying Energy Star appliances – those rated by the EPA as being the most energy efficient.
Ed Troyer, owner of Sustainable Design architects in Glenwood, uses his hot water heater to heat his whole home, yet his gas bill for heating water and his home, along with cooking, is lower than his water and sewer bill.
He can do this because he uses a heater that’s 96 percent efficient, far more so than most hot water heaters. It provides the heat for a miniature forced air system, and heats a house that’s much more energy efficient than most. It makes use of passive solar heat, is well-insulated, and has triple-pane windows.
the ground up
Troyer is frustrated by construction practices that emphasize low initial cost, ignoring the long-term gain of things such as good windows and insulation, much less a home that lasts.
Many buildings are throwaway ones that may last as little as 30 or 40 years, when they should still be standing in 200 or 300 years, he said. Builders are happy to build them cheap, and homeowners are happy to buy them cheap, having no plans to live in them for the long term.
“If you think 200 years, it’s gonna change your whole outlook on how you do things, instead of thinking two years,” said Troyer. “It should be adaptable and durable enough to last.”
Traditional stick-built homes aren’t durable and they require logging of forests, said Troyer. In Europe, clay tile homes have lasted for hundreds of years.
For Europeans, such homes are no more expensive than stick-built ones, “because they don’t have huge forests to cut down like we do,” Troyer said.
“We’ve cut down most of our forests. Now we’re trying to cut down most of Canada’s.”
Troyer prefers the use of insulated concrete forms. They require less labor to put up than stick-built homes – an important criteria in a valley with high labor costs – so they provide a cost-effective building material. They also last longer and offer more insulation.
Building homes that outlast us may be contrary to human nature, but Troyer said it’s necessary for the survival of the human species, “because we can’t keep going the way we are.”
If we don’t address environmental problems, he said, our kids or grandkids will have to.
Troyer used to work upvalley but said he tired of designing 15,000-square-foot houses that people only used two weeks a year.
“It seems like a huge waste,” he said.
Now, he said, he works “with people who want to make a difference.”
He likes designing smaller units, although he notes that everyone from real estate agents to appraisers preaches that bigger is better.
Troyer questions the wisdom of needing a home with a guest room. He urges clients to consider how infrequently guests stay, and the cost of building that extra room, and borrowing the money to pay for it.
“Compare that with putting them up in a really nice room in one of the best hotels in town,” he said.
Smaller homes are more efficient and also easier to maintain, he said.
“If you like to go out and ski and mountain bike or fish or whatever you’re into, you can do it on weekends” if you have a smaller home to take care of, he said.
Mike Wilde hopes people will hit the river on one of their outings.
“The thing that I tell my kids as they come to my class is once you get wet in the river, you never look at the river the same way again,” he said.
He encourages them to head to the river, “and let it soak into them.”
From there, they can begin to consider the importance of protecting rivers and riparian areas.
“I’ve always said the quality of life in the valley is connected to the quality of rivers,” said Wilde. “If we ever lose that …”
Wilde encourages people to think about what they do with their trash. Lots of it can be seen along rivers, he noted. They also should think about what goes down storm drains. Stormwater isn’t treated, so oil, antifreeze, paint, even magnesium chloride washed off cars can end up in rivers.
It’s better to take cars covered with mag. chloride to a car wash because the water goes to a sewage treatment plant, he said.
There’s a lot to be said for treatment plants from an environmental perspective. Just ask Jim Duke, owner of CacaLoco Compost, based at the South Canyon Landfill.
He mixes the sludge, or biomass, from the plants with wood, paper and other organic products to make his product.
Still, Duke is able to charge more for compost that’s sludge-free, “for people who are persnickety about sludges,” he said.
“There’s nothing better about it,” he said of the pricier compost. “People still have a sewage phobia.”
For $15 per yard, people can buy sludge-generated compost – Duke calls it “Bureaucrap” – that is tested to make sure it is free of heavy metals.
Duke said that if he could get one message out on occasions such as Earth Day and Arbor Day, it’s that people should use compost rather than peat moss, because peat moss is mined out of ecologically important and diminishing wetlands.
Duke’s compost also keeps recyclables out of the landfill. He takes leaves, paper, cardboard and ground-up material for free, and charges $3 per yard plus tax for construction waste wood.
Duke’s operation keeps probably 20,000 to 30,000 yards of materials out of the landfill each year, lengthening its life. These same organic materials also are the ones that cause problems in landfills when they break down, creating methane gas and the potential for leachate problems.
Still, he sees a lot going into the landfill that could go to him – “anything live and growing,” he said.
Nevertheless, he’s happy at the level of recycling in general that he sees by local residents.
“It’s really amazing how it’s outlasted the fad in the valley. It’s not talked about, but they’re still doing it,” he said.
put to work
Environmental efforts are increasingly taking hold not just at the personal level but within businesses. Things such as office paper recycling are becoming commonplace.
At some larger companies, environmentalism is taking on a more formalized form. The Aspen Skiing Co. employs a director of environmental affairs, Auden Schendler. He points with pride to the recycling that took place in the rebuilding of the Sundeck in Aspen, which probably added three more months of life to the landfill in Pitkin County due to the dumping that was prevented.
Business, because of the volumes it deals with, can make a big environmental impact, good or bad. Today, the Aspen Skiing Co. is announcing plans to triple its purchases of renewable energy, and also a program to begin running all of its snowcats on biodiesel fuel.
Nontoxic, biodegradable biodiesel fuel is made from soybeans or restaurant grease. The Skiing Co. plans to switch to an 80/20 blend of regular/biodiesel fuel. It will keep more than 1 million pounds of pollutants out of the air each year. In terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, that’s equivalent to planting 200 acres of trees or driving a million miles less in a car.
The company’s increased use of renewable energy will eliminate almost 600,000 more pounds of pollutants per year.
A snowcat manager suggested the biodiesel idea to Schendler. Schendler said employees are increasingly coming to him with environmental proposals. When a company is doing good things environmentally, he said, employees are proud to work there.
“The truth is that nobody wants to work for a company that’s destroying the planet.”
Join the club
Earth Day might also be an occasion for those committed to the environment to consider joining, or at least donating time or money, to an environmental organization. Steve Smith, a Sierra Club staff member living in Glenwood Springs, said Earth Day “is often the time that people kind of renew or begin their commitment” to environmental causes.
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Garfield County libraries will host James Edward Mills in its second event of the spring lecture series for a virtual conversation about changing the faces of the outdoors.