Sunday, October 24, 2010

DC's "Bag Tax" Works!

This January I wrote about DC's recent "bag tax" that requires all retail stores to charge $.05 for paper or plastic bags at the check out counter. In addition to the cost of the bag, consumers are told they should "skip the bag and save the river," reducing pollution in DCs Potomac and Anacostia waterways.

Well guess what. It's working! According to the Wall Street Journal last week:

Retail outlets that typically use 68 million disposable bags per quarter handed out 11 million bags in the first quarter of this year and fewer than 13 million bags in the second quarter, according to the district's Office of Tax and Revenue. That may help explain why volunteers for the city's annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup day in mid-April pulled 66% fewer plastic bags from the Anacostia River than they did last year.
I write about community based marketing and behavior change techniques all the time, but in this particular case, I really paid attention to my own behavior. At first, I definitely reduced the number of bags I took home due to cost. If I didn't have a reusable bag with me, I would carry things in my pockets or stuff them in my computer bag. Whatever it took to not pay for a cheap and frankly ugly bag. After a while though, I've noticed that its really "uncool" at the store to pay for bags anymore. There really is a kind of peer pressure around the city... people who have to buy bags are considered "wasteful" or "thoughtless."

Honestly I had my doubts this would be effective, but the 1-2 punch of the pro-environment message and the immediate cost (awareness of the negative externalities) has really worked here. And this is a city with LOTS of outsiders from across America visiting everyday. Let's hope they take this idea home with them!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Interview with Rod Stevens of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont Business

Rod Stevens is a favorite person of mine – he’s a good natured guy, always ready to share his thoughts on sustainability. I was so excited when I first met Rod and visited the Pioneer campus for a couple of reasons. First, because one of my favorite colleagues, Pete Winters, is a big fan of Rod’s. Second, I associate Pioneer very much with my dad and his parents. My grandparents were farmers and my dad spent one summer as “corn detasseler” on a Pioneer test farm. Rod was so gracious and gifted me with my very own Pioneer baseball cap, as well as one for my dad. We’ve been buds since. I hope you enjoy Rod as much as I do!

What is your current role at your organization?
I am the Architect /Facility Information Manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred. Additionally, I am on the Board of Directors of IFMA, the International Facility Management Association. (Bet you didn’t know you were talking to such a big cheese!) and a LEED AP.

What is going on with sustainability at Pioneer?
We have recently hired a new sustainability coordinator – Derek Nelson. He’s a very enthusiastic young guy who first got interested in sustainability through a course he took as part of his MBA program at the University of Iowa. Part of what he and I are talking about is not doing everything at once, but taking measured steps.

At Pioneer, we’re exploring a lot of different things: solar energy, wind energy, and even single-stream recycling. Finding the infrastructure for single-stream recycling in commercial applications just hasn’t quite made it to Des Moines. Our labs generate a lot of recyclable waste – some of the advocates have been taking it upon themselves to take it away and get it recycled. For example, last winter, we had a localized, very severe hailstorm that took roofs out of many of our greenhouses. These are made of extruded plastic that is as close to double-glazing as you can get without being glass. It’s recyclable, but there were no places nearby that would take it – the local haulers were charging us very expensive fees to haul it away. One of the technicians called around and found a company in Canada that not only hauled it away for free, but also paid us for the material!

It’s like The Little Green Book says, “as an individual you don’t think you’re doing much, but if we all do a little bit the aggregate is very powerful.”

What has inhibited you or your organization from making more progress on the sustainability front?
As you might have gathered from the story about recycling, local resources certainly play a role in what we have and have not been able to accomplish to date.

Another issue related to our location is that electricity is pretty inexpensive in the Midwest. In Iowa, about 78% comes from coal plants. Looking to alternative sources of energy is difficult since the paybacks are so long. On the upside, Pioneer recently installed a 40,000 SF photovoltaic array in Hawaii – The cost of electricity in Hawaii is expensive, and the payback on PVs is much lower and therefore a much more attractive option.

We struggle a bit with the concept of water scarcity here in the Midwest. In recent history we have had a lot of rain, we have floods, and we have not experienced drought or water shortages in recent memory. I believe that water is going to become an issue in the future.

What advice would you give others in your position trying to make a difference for the environment?
Be patient! Chip away at sustainability. Small victories – a series of them – are better than shooting for the moon (and missing).

Also, try to understand that what may be obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to everyone else. For example: you see people drinking bottled water and wonder why anyone would do that. It’s gotten to be your only choice at a number of venues (in many you can’t even bring in your own water or reusable container).

Another major consideration is communication. I truly believe that sustainability is about 90% communication.

Tell us about something that has inspired you recently?
My wife and I recently took a vacation to San Francisco and Sonoma valley. I was very impressed to see how ingrained sustainability is in the general populace – much more so than in Johnston, Iowa! There were recycling and composting bins just about everywhere – nothing special, everyone just knows to recycle and does it.

When I was in Sonoma, I went into an import/export store and in the back was this book, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Fred Pierce. The author is a British guy who decided he was going to track down where his “stuff” came from. The book documents, chapter by chapter, him tracking down his “stuff”: there’s a chapter on coffee, a chapter on seafood, etc. He traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to track the stuff down (mines in South Africa to see where gold came from, coffee plantations in South America – he shares a really interesting description of fair trade and how it’s better, but not really fair). His research was exhaustive and the story is really compelling – it really kind of makes you want to stay home and not buy anything due to the far-reaching ramifications of your actions.

My wife and I grew up on farms in Iowa so have a reasonable understanding at least of how food gets to our homes, but even some of the city kids in Des Moines have no idea where their food comes from. Americans in general really have no concept of how stuff is connected. We all just need to pay attention and work to understand how everything relates to everything else.

Rod Stevens is Architect/Facility Information Manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred. This posting expresses Rod’s own opinion and does not represent DuPont company, positions, strategies, or opinion.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What You Can Do to Save MORE Energy

Not every energy-efficiency project is free. Here are a few ideas of things you can do that are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. Again, many apologies if this is old hat to you:

  • Replace light bulbs with CFL or LED bulbs. Using compact florescent or LED (light emitting diode) lights can save lots of energy; estimates from ENERGY STAR say that a single CFL bulb can save more than $40 in electricity costs over its lifetime. It uses about 75% less energy than standard incandescent bulbs, lasts 10 times longer, and produces about 75% less heat so it is safer to operate and can cut energy costs associated with cooling. CFL bulbs are slightly more expensive, but watch for sales at your local store.
  • Install a digital thermostat. A programmable thermostat offers pre-programmed settings to regulate your home's temperature in both summer and winter. For example, during the summer you can set your thermostat so that your home automatically cools when you are home and awake, and becomes slightly warmer when you are asleep or at work. You can buy a digital thermostat for about $30.
  • Insulate your hot water heater with a blanket/jacket. This is fairly simple and inexpensive, and it will pay for itself in about a year. You can find pre-cut jackets or blankets available from around $10–$20. Choose one with an insulating value of at least R-8. Some utilities sell them at low prices, offer rebates, and even install them at a low or no cost.
  • Purchase green power or green power credits. Instead of burning fossil fuels to create electricity, green power is electricity created from clean, renewable sources such as wind power, solar photovoltaics, landfill methane capture, or biomass. Many utility companies offer the option to buy “green power,” “renewable energy credits (RECs),” or “green tags.”
  • Use landscaping strategies to improve your home’s energy use. A well-designed landscape not only can add beauty to your home but it also can reduce your heating and cooling costs. For example, trees can help shade your home, reducing the need to cool it in the summer. Landscaping can provide a windbreak to help protect your home from winter winds.
  • Make sure your doors are airtight. You can use weather-stripping to help reduce drafts around windows and doors – keeping the conditioned air inside and the unconditioned air out.
  • Use a clothes line. Consider purchasing a clothesline if your community allows them. Retractable lines can be purchased at your local hardware store for less than $15.
  • Replace your AC filter with a reusable one…and wash it monthly! The most important maintenance task that will ensure the efficiency of your air conditioner is to routinely replace or clean its filters. Clogged, dirty filters block normal air flow and reduce a system's efficiency significantly. Keeping the filter clean can lower your air conditioner's energy consumption by 5%–15%. Many hardware stores sell reusable, washable filters for about the same price as a regular disposable filter.

Some slightly more expensive or challenging projects include:

  • Improve the insulation in your attic, basement, or crawl space. Properly insulating your home will not only help reduce your heating and cooling costs but also make your home more comfortable.
  • Switch to a tankless hot water heater. Tankless water heaters, also called instantaneous or demand water heaters, provide hot water only as it is needed. Traditional storage water heaters produce standby energy losses that cost you money. A tankless water heater is used only when there is a demand for hot water. Many tankless water heaters have a life expectancy of more than 20 years. They also have easily replaceable parts that extend their life by many more years. In contrast, storage water heaters last 10 – 15 years.
  • Restore porches and awnings. Awnings and porches provide protection from the sun, rain, snow and wind. They can also protect your indoor possessions from fading in locations that receive a great deal of sun streaming through the windows, and help save on energy bills by shielding the sun from heating up the home’s interior in warmer months, and diminishing the amount of wind that hits the windows and doors.
  • Insulate your pipes. Insulating your hot water pipes reduces heat loss and can raise water temperature 2ºF–4ºF hotter than uninsulated pipes can deliver, allowing for a lower water temperature setting.

Image Source: Triple Pundit

Friday, October 8, 2010

Interview with Randy Knox, Director of Global Workplace Solutions and Head of Environmental Programs at Adobe

I always want to know what Randy Knox is up to on the sustainability front. He has been instrumental in seeing that Adobe stays on top of energy savings, stakeholder engagement and the latest green technology. Here's where his head is today...

Q: What would you say are current “trends” when it comes to organizations adopting green strategies or principles?
A: I think the trend is companies continuing to pursue LEED certifications, which are at an all time high. In addition, companies like Adobe who have facilities that are already LEED certified are beginning to think “beyond LEED.” At Adobe, we continue our quest to lower our energy requirements. For example, in our downtown San Jose headquarters we have just completed the installation of 12 fuel cells. These fuel cells will be fueled with renewable methane gas making the electrical energy generated on site 100 percent renewable and carbon neutral. We expect the fuel cells to produce up to 30 percent of the power required by our three office towers in San Jose.

We also recently installed 20 Windspire vertical wind turbines. And last year, we completed installation of the Optimum Loop technology in one of our three office towers. The Optimum Loop controls all of the equipment in a building’s chilled water loop with the sole goal of reducing the amount of power that the chiller requires. The chiller is the single largest energy hog in the operation of a building.

Q: How have recent legislation or corporate/federal mandates changed the way your organization addresses environmental issues?
A: Adobe has always had a strong sense of environmental stewardship. As such, we have tackled environmental issues from the start and continue to do so today. While I think that recent legislation and pending legislation will move more corporations to do the right thing, Adobe is well ahead of the curve as this has always been part of the company’s core values.

Q: What green / sustainability-related project are you working on now that you are most proud of?
A: I am most proud of the way Adobe executive leadership has supported these efforts to date and have allowed us to be a leader in this field. We’ve done so many projects both large and small that I am proud of, but I would have to point to the fuel cells as our most recent and perhaps proudest moment overall.

Q: What has inhibited you or your organization from making more progress on the sustainability front?
A: We have received so much support from the Adobe executive team and individual employees in response to our efforts to make our facilities more sustainable. More to the fact, we are constantly challenged by our employees to do more. The only general limitation is time and resources -- two common challenges most everyone can relate to in some capacity.

Q: What advice would you give others in your position trying to make a difference for the environment?
A: Know you ARE doing the RIGHT thing and that there is money to be saved in time. Also, start with the low hanging fruit. I know that this is an over-used phrase, but it does have its place here. It helps facility operators build a history of performance and trust that will allow larger projects to be approved. As an example, many of our early projects cost us next to nothing to implement -- things like de-lamping in some areas and installation of compact fluorescent lights in others. Our most recent project, the fuel cells, obviously required an upfront investment, and gaining that approval was based on years of proven performance.

Q: What is your favorite source for sustainability/environmental trends or information?
A: While there are many great sources and resources available right now, personally, I get the most from my relationship with Sustainability Roundtable, Inc., based in Cambridge, MA.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What You Can Do to Save Materials

We've shared recently some ideas for saving energy and water. Today we're going to focus on some ways to make smarter use of natural resources. Again, hopefully this is all old news...but if not, please take a tip and make your day a bit greener!

Some free and relatively easy things to do include:
  • Set up a composting pile or bin. If you have a yard, find a place to put a pile of your organic wastes. This could be a pile, a box built from scrap materials, or a purchased composting bin. If you live in an apartment or condo, consider purchasing a countertop composter. There are lots of options available, ranging from electric composters (use about the same energy as a light bulb), vermiculture (composters that use worms to speed the process), and basic bins. The right choice depends a lot on where you live, how much you want to spend, how much time you want to invest in composting, and how quickly you want your materials to decompose.
  • Purchase products with little packaging, or in bulk. Many of the items we buy come in excess packaging. Look for items with little or no packaging and consider buying in bulk when appropriate. Bring your own containers when appropriate, such as to the local farmers market.
  • Purchase products made from reused or recycled material. Recycled-content products are made from materials that would otherwise have been discarded. Items in this category are made totally or partially from material destined for disposal or recovered from industrial activities-like aluminum soda cans or newspaper. Recycled-content products also can be items that are rebuilt or remanufactured from used products such as toner cartridges or computers.
  • Purchase products and services made locally. Buying local not only reduces the environmental impact associated with transporting goods, but also helps keep money in the local economy, helping keep local jobs and improve the local tax base.
  • Use the 30-day rule. The basic idea behind this rule is that you seriously consider whether or not you actually need to purchase a new item and avoid impulse buying. For example, you see a sweater or a new computer that you’d really like to have. Take 30 days to mull it over. If you still think you need it at the end of the 30 days, go for it.
  • Purchase non-toxic cleaning products. Nontoxic cleaning products are generally available for about the same price as traditional, more toxic products. Using non-toxics is good not only for the environment, but also for your health. Additionally, using non-toxics helps reduce the risk of poisoning to children and pets!

Now some inexpensive and easy-to-do ideas:

  • Replace disposable products with reusable ones. This crosses all kinds of different products. Wherever possible, look to products that can be reused. While reusable materials (such as razors) may cost more initially, the overall cost is often lower. When you do use disposables like plastic cups, plates, utensils, and plastic food storage bags, don't throw them away! Wash and reuse them -- most of them will last for a long time with many uses
  • Repair things when they break. First, look to products that are durable. And, when the durable product breaks, get it fixed rather than replacing it!

Of course, when you do replace durable materials (or any materials, for that matter), consider donating the old products to charitable outlets (Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, etc.), or repurpose them through venues like yard sales, Craigslist, or Freecycle.

And when you look to replace or purchase something, instead of buying new from the store, check yard sales, Craigslist, and the charitable outlets first. Often you can find “good as new” (and sometimes new-new) products for a fraction of the price!

Image Source: ECycler

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Drowning In Packaging

As the fortunate recipient of a huge number of gifts recently, much of my after-work time has been spent opening boxes and disposing of packaging. I truly appreciate thoughtful and careful packaging. After all, it is so much nicer when a gift arrives in one piece and un-broken. However, in order to ensure that it arrives this way, different retailers tend to rely on various methods of cushioning to achieve the same goal. This can range from Styrofoam “peanuts”, to air pillows, to wads of paper.

As a rather devoted opponent of clutter, the process of opening gifts has been to open, admire, and then remove all packaging immediately for trash and recycling. It is incredible how much “trash” just a few packages can produce. I began to wonder what to do with all of this packaging. Clearly, throwing it in the trash is not the right answer. At the same time, storing what would have been 35 full-size garbage bags full of peanuts and air pillows for future re-use was not something that I was necessarily interested in. I was sure that there was a probably a very simple and convenient solution….and there was. Just a quick internet search and phone call provided two solutions. The quick internet search resulted in finding the Plastic Loose Fill Council ( A very easy-to-navigate website that provides many convenient locations close to you that are thrilled to get your “packing peanuts”. The easiest location for me ended up being any one of the four UPS stores between my home and office.

As for the unbelievable amount of “air pillows”….Williams-Sonoma loves getting them and they re-use them when packaging other peoples gifts. Also….it’s a great excuse to go check out all of the kitchen stuff that you really “need”.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What You Can Do to Save Water

Ready for some more tips? Here are a bunch of free (or cheap) and easy things you can do to save water. Again, hopefully you're already doing all of these and this is boring, old news. If not, take a moment and think about whether you can implement one (or more) of these simple tips!

So, what can you do to reduce your water use? Lots of things, most of which are pretty easy and inexpensive (or free). For example, some free things you can do include:

  • Check for leaks in taps, pipes, and hoses
  • Wait until you have a full load before running the dishwasher or laundry washing machine
  • Rinse your dishes in a plugged sink rather than running water
  • Don’t run the water while you brush your teeth

Inexpensive and relatively easy things you can do include:

  • Install low-flow fixtures (sinks, toilets, and showers). Low flow fixtures generally cost about the same as traditional fixtures and can be purchased at your local hardware store.
  • Install a dual-flush kit on your toilet. You can buy a dual-flush kit to retrofit your existing toilet for about $25. Dual flush toilets use less water for liquid waste and a full flush for solid waste.
  • Install rain water cisterns/barrels. Rain water cisterns collect water run off from your gutters; this water can then be used for purposes such as watering your garden or lawn. You can purchase barrels, or make your own from materials like a covered trash can. Many municipalities offer courses in making your own cistern. Warning: uncovered cisterns can become mosquito breeding grounds, so consider covered options, or investing in mosquito dunks to kill larvae.
  • Replace sprinklers with drip irrigation. Sprinklers shoot water into the air where it can easily evaporate. In contrast, drip irrigation is a method of applying slow, steady amounts of water to specific areas. This reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation, and also the amount of water that ends up in places it doesn’t need to be (like on the sidewalk or other runoff).

Look for some easy options for saving materials coming soon!

Image Source: Green O Green

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