Online Radio Show -- Finding Your Oasis

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Is The Concept of the 3Rs of Conservation A Flawed Idea?

We tend to embrace or reject the 3 Rs of conservation blindly, either accepting all the proclaimed tenets and benefits of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle  or rejecting them out-of-hand.  The 3 Rs are either the saviour of the environment or a sham and scam.  Yet, there is an element of truth to the claim that Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is a frivolous and counterproductive exercise. Simultaneously, there is an abundance of evidence that, integrated responsibly into our lifestyle, the 3Rs of conservation is a sustainable and viable concept.

The paradox of 3R conservation being both a positive and negative impact on our environment is best illustrated by three examples that I have experienced.

The first occurred three decades ago, before concern for our environment was in vogue.  My  ex-father-in-law, a machinist and welder, was relocating four hundred miles distant to set up a business as a machinist, in farming country.  Over the years, he had accumulated more than nine tons of scrap metal, with pieces as small as three inches long, and a collage of armatures and windings, as well as partially assembled equipment.  In his original shop, he often found uses for a few of these pieces each month, and was adept at reusing old scrap, reconstituted into workable parts and repair for clients.  However, he opted to gather all this scrap metal and cart it across the country, in seven trips.  His gas mileage on the outbound excursion averaged four miles per gallon, ten per gallon returning empty.  Each trip consumed 140 gallons of fuel. 

At the time, scrap metal sold for about $35 per ton, while fuel costs averaged $1.25 per gallon.  His trips cost him a net loss of $125, plus the impact of leaded fuel on the environment.  Clearly, in this instance, the most beneficial option would have been to sell the scrap locally and purchase needed materials at the new location. Reusing the steel was admirable, but not environmentally conscious.

The second instance involved a carpenter who opted to use less drywall on a construction project, by integrating numerous small pieces and fragments into the building, instead of discarding these fragments and utilizing full sheets. The finished job showed poorly, and required an excessive amount of drywall compound and fiberglass tape to seam the joints. In the end, more cost was incurred and more environmentally sensitive material was used, due to his efforts at reducing consumption of drywall.

The last example seems counterintuitive.  A local municipal government implemented a recycling program, which included recycling of box (corrugated) cardboard.  The program was similar to a neighbouring municipal program, except for the fact that the first locals government simply burned the cardboard, while the second shipped it over two hundred miles to the nearest pulp plant, where it was recycled.  This material has limited recovery uses, however, and results in high input costs for a poor product.  Ultimately, the material will release its carbon into the atmosphere, as doe the burning by the first locals authority.  However, there are less inputs incurred by burning than by shipping and recycling.

There are myriad ongoing debates as to whether specific 3R efforts truly are beneficial to the environment.  In general, they are.  However, a more conscientious examination of inputs versus result should be undertaken before we blindly follow every 3R strategy.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The "Green" In Little Green Apples

We often think of “green” inventions as those that utilize alternative energy or that reduce waste.  However, green ideas include those that, on the surface, appear merely to provide a convenience or serve some aesthetic desire.

How does a simple bread bag clip make the list of eco-inventions, for example? Since it replaced (decades ago) the twist tie, each consumes non-renewable materials.  Yet, the clip, initially, was made from scrap material.  It’s evolution has led it into the familiar pit of more waste, however. 

Then there is the Fehrway tractor, a farmyard tractor used to move bulky round bales in feedlots.  Since there are myriad tractors available to do this job, inventing another one, on the surface, appears redundant and wasteful.  However, it is constructed from old combines, and sells for about one-fifth to one-tenth of the cost of a new tractor.  Additionally, its advantage as a real-wheel steering vehicle means that it can manoeuvre in smaller spaces, consuming less fuel than conventional big field tractors.

For me, one of the most exciting inventions is the size of a dime, and flushes down the sink when used.  That hardly seems practical!  But it is. 

The Fruitwash sticker is designed to replace the current aggravatingly difficult to remove labels that are affixed to every piece of fruit that we purchase in grocery stores, from bananas (remember the Chiquita banana?) to apples.  I’m sure Scott Amron’s new invention looks equally irritating, since it is the same size as those other pieces of glue and paper that end up lodged under one’s fingernails.  Those scraps, no doubt, singularly are the greatest reason why many of us don’t eat the recommended 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day!

Amron, a New York electrical engineer, found that he, too, was frustrated by the waste and annoyance of those fruit stickers, but he set about to resolve the problem.

The result? Fruitwash stickers, when wetted under a faucet, break down and dissolve into an organic soap that removes the filth – the pesticides and fungicides that are used to treat the fruit during the growing season.  Bacteria that have sneaked onto the apples or plums or other fruit similarly are washed away as the label morphs into soap.  And, joy of joys, so, too is that thick layer of water-resistant wax plastered onto apples to maintain their fresh eye appeal.

The Fruitwash sticker may seem miniscule and insignificant, and may not even appear to be an environmentally friendly idea on the surface, but it is ideas such as Scott Amron’s that, tiny fleck at a time, prove to be good for our environment.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Biogas Hasn’t Caught Fire

The rush to energy production from biogas – methane from waste, and, in particular, manure – has slowed to a trickle, with large-scale anaerobic digesters remaining the primary source of production in North America.
Why haven’t home-based, or, at least, small farm-based systems flourished? The answer is simple, and yet complex. The simple answer is that the focus in any alternative energy initiatives across the continent has been on large-scale systems capable of supplementing, if not replacing conventional sources of energy production.
Biodiesel, for example, has the capacity to be produced in garage-sized facilities, yet most of the soybean and canola fed systems produce many millions of litres per year, with some generating 300-400 million litres. State and provincial regulations require onerous reporting processes, to document the scale of production, and smaller operators find this red tape not worth the effort for small production facilities.
Solar energy had been predicted to be cost-competitive with coal and hydro-powered electricity by 2010, yet still remains at prohibitively high capital cost levels, with a mere 15-20 year lifespan for the infrastructure. So, massive systems are being built in Nevada and Arizona, while backyard systems languish.
Wind power has seen a tornado of activity, but it is the large wind farms that predominate, while 1.5kw systems remain at a cost of $900-2,000 per unit. The average home would require 6-10 of these units to ensure a steady supply of energy, as well as a comprehensive array of deep-cycle batteries, inverters, charge protectors, and so on.
Biogas, then is in good company, with systems that are fed by 700-2,000 head of livestock in order to be economically viable.
That is not to suggest that small systems are not viable. Indeed, in Africa and eastern Asia, single units are producing enough biogas for cooking and lighting for a family of six, at a cost of under $100 per unit! Tests on a variety of prototypes in Canada have found that good results can be obtained by environmentally secure systems that cost only a few hundred dollars.
But that is where the more complex reason for the failure of small-scale biogas systems come into play: human nature.
Biogas is, to put it crudely, a garbage product. It is made from excrement, at worst, or, at best, waste organic material. The snobbery of western civilization dictates that we are repulsed by the ideal of using anything that is made from manure, or rotting trash. Worse, that we are expected to handle this raw sewage and effluent is many time more disgusting. The reality that we eat produce grow in animal crap, that we consume fungus and mould, intentional, every day, and that the waste that is used would naturally produce this methane energy anyway does not factor into our thinking. We simply decline to involve ourselves in the odious task of utilizing or handling garbage.
What is difficult to fathom, though, is that our capitalist economy has failed to recognize that garbage can be gold, and to market biogas systems with a fervour.
Not only can biogas be generated safely and cheaply from household waste, in every back yard, but the systems that could be constructed and sold could be marketed at a significant mark-up and a low input cost. This makes home-based biogas systems a win-win product. Yet, our governments ignore the chance to impact on the environment at the consumer level, businesses ignore the opportunity for profit in these systems and consumers ignore the chance to achieve energy independence in their own backyards, simply because we find the idea of recycling waste to be unpleasant.
The price that we pay is more unpleasant: a degrading environment, energy reliance on outside sources, and ever-increasing costs of energy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

LED & CFL Light Advantages

Ten years ago, compact fluorescent lights became the standard of energy efficiency for homeowners. Yet, fifteen years ago, the available CFLs and standard fluorescents produced a range of lighting that was woefully inadequate. Today, compact fluorescent bulbs come in a broad range of lighting types and designs, from candelabra lights to all-weather bulbs, from dimmable to flood light. Their approximation to natural light has become remarkable, while the annoying tendency to flutter and pulse virtually has been eliminated.
Standard fluorescent tube lights have been replaced with energy efficient, bright T8 fluorescents, saving energy, decreasing pollution risk and providing enhanced lighting in public places such as malls and office complexes. All of the fluorescent bulbs offer lifespans exceeding 5,000 hours.
Across North America, the use of CFL lighting is touted by energy providers and eco-enthusiasts as being an environmentally responsible choice. However, CFLs are rapidly being outdone by even more energy efficient and attractive options, The appeal of the CFL, it seems, is being dimmed.
Until three or four years ago, LED lights were relegated to ornamental uses or flashlights and vehicle taillights. They simply did not produce sufficient lighting to be of any value in homes, Now, though, 1.1 watt LED bulbs light lamps and fixtures that used to carry 13 watt CFLs or 40-60 watt incandescents. These LED bulbs are available in candelabra base, standard base, GU10 base and so on, making them completely interchangeable with all existing bulb types (except for fluorescent tubes). However, they also cost up to 15 times the cost of an incandescent bulb. On the other hand, they are rated for 10, 20, and even 40,000 hours of use. At 1/25 of the energy consumption and 40 times the lifespan of incandescent bulbs, the lifetime savings of LEDs is more than 6000% over the old lighting options.
But LEDs, before they have even achieved recognition as a super energy-efficient option for homeowners, are being dwarfed by more eco-friendly options.
Sylvania recently unveiled its “inductively coupled electrode-less electronic lighting systems.” Relying on neither filament nor electrode for light production, this new technology eliminates the heat produced by other bulbs, lasts 100,000 hours or more, provides exceptionally high lumen (lighting) output and provides a colour spectrum much closer to natural sunlight.
Still, LEDs offer the greatest potential for homeowners, combining low cost and sufficient lighting power while consuming virtually no energy. According to Digitime Research, the demand for LEDs will increase from 596 million in 2011 to 2.5 billion in 2013.
Gone are the days of replacing bulbs monthly, paying 15% of your electricity bill for lighting, and roaming through your home frantically turning off unused lights because of the high costs. A home now can be lit efficiently, environmentally responsibly and economically.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Enviro-Revolution – a Waste of Effort?

So what have you done for the environment lately? Enviro-Revolutions takes a look at the bizarre, the offbeat, the innovative, the impossible and the cutting-edge inventions and ideas to clean up and protect our environment. Each week, we will bring you a few new ideas, and offer you a few new challenges to meet in your eco-efforts.
First on the list is a real waste of energy – the peepoo. A small biodegradeable bag coated with a thin film of urea, the peepoo is used as a portable toilet. Once a person defecates within the bag, the urea works to turn the waste into fertilizer. The bag is made of thin gauze, which opens into a funnel shape to catch the .... well, I am sure you know. The bag, invented by Anders Wilhelmson, is then closed, and can be stored, odourlessly, for a day or so before being disposed of.
Keeping with the theme of bodily waste, scientists in Singapore are using human urine (and, I suppose, any other urine that they are willing to gather) to create a chemical reaction to power a basic battery. Topping an assembly of magnesium, copper & copper chloride, the urine produces as much power as an AA battery. No word on whether it is Duracell or EverReady. Just that, so long as we need to keep going and going, so will the battery.
Staying with Singapore, we turn Dr. Sung Do Song, the co-founder of Agro Genesis, who claims that his company has invented a fertilizer named Miracle Sweet, which can replace up to 100kg of common fertilizer per hectare. Miracle Sweet is environmentally friendly, made only of natural ingredients. By applying the fertilizer directly to the seeds, the excess fertilizer that normally leeches off into the soil with normal chemicals is not lost. So, with less waste and natural ingredients, Miracle Sweet provides an ecological advantage to standard NPK fertilizers.
For our last enviro-revolution, we visit Andy Tomlinson of Wincobank, England. A more conventional invention, Andy’s creation consists of a thermostatic valve that attaches to a hot water boiler pipe. By controlling the water that emerges, it prevents the run-up of cool water that inevitably accompanies hot water use, as the water makes its way from the boiler to the tap. Only the water at the required temperature is allowed to egress, cutting down on both energy and water use.