Sunday, November 25, 2007

Playing with Matches

Consider the humble match, not one of those paper ones, but the real wooden ones, now almost an artifact of the past.

Gone are the days when things needed lighting by match – I fondly remember the tea copper on my first building site. The gas valve was outside on the gas cylinder at the back of the trailer. In order to light the copper, a job which fell to me as the new guy on site, it was necessary to turn on the gas, run round into the trailer, light a match and feed it into the gas ring. Just one chance to get it right and keep the hair on the back of your hand. Ah the skill and dexterity, and the thrill of danger that has been lost to new technology.

Gone are the days of stashing matches, hidden about the Boy Scout uniform to give extra resources when lighting campfires – especially when challenged to light the fire with just two matches: Somehow I have found preparedness and resourcefulness far more valuable life skills than fire lighting, so I suppose it wasn’t really cheating. Gone too are the days of playing with matches, making little aluminum foil cannons, or fusing match heads together to make patterns – a good thing too, what with global warming drying out large tracts of the country. Still, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Still the humble match has one remaining intrinsic value; its capacity to warm a typical cup of coffee by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. This may not seem like much of an achievement, but it is enough to make the energy contained in a match roughly equivalent to 1 BTU, which is also almost equal to 1 kJ, or 1 kWs (Kilowatt-second). Perhaps you are one of the gifted few who can hear a measure of energy and immediately visualize it. I am not, and so I find the matchstick a very useful analog.

Take for example the embodied energy in a sheet of ordinary printer paper. A little research will tell you that it is around 140 BTU, which is rather hard to visualize. Imagine however that for every sheet you use, you are firing off 140 matches, about four whole boxes. Now I remember one of the student negotiators during our sit-in of the administration building many years ago, accidentally igniting a whole box of matches (by putting a spent match back into the box after lighting a cigarette – I did say it was a long time ago) during a particularly tense stage of the negotiation – quite spectacular and quite effective – just one of the sacrifices in the name of political advancement, but certainly not something to be repeated. For one sheet of 8 ½ x 11, we are talking of four whole boxes of matches!

Scale that up to a whole ream – you know one of those little packets you can never get opened whilst the copier is smugly beeping at you, and you have just set fire to 2000 boxes of matches – a stack of boxes big enough to fill a shopping bag.

Some other rough metrics (just to mention a few):

The ice left in the bottom of a 16 oz soda cup 3 boxes

The paper soda cup 14 boxes

An un-recycled aluminum soda can 100 boxes

1 SF of a typical building around 25,000 boxes

Perhaps its time to set up some match-equivalent displays to us help connect our material use with embodied energy. Go ahead, have fun, play with matches (metaphorically speaking)!

By the way, do you know what a ton of CO2 looks like? More next time.

1 comment:

Jodi "Millennial 4 Earth" Williams said...

Why am I not surprised to learn that Peter is a pyro? Love the factoids, though!

I've read some other great comparisons on the "Fostering Sustainable Behavior" listserv. Here's one good example from a listserv member named Gareth Clarke:

Drying one load of clothes in an electric clothes dryer uses the same amount of electricity as:
- Making 174 pieces of toast
- Using a laptop computer for 166 hours (24 hours a day for a week!)
- Running 4 strings of holiday LEDs for 193 hours
- A 25W CFL on for 100 hours
- Cooking 42 burritos in the microwave (or anything else that takes 3 minutes)
- Operating an ENERGY STAR fridge for two days
- Operating an ENERGY STAR chest freezer for almost three days


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