Friday, June 17, 2011

5 ways to turn up the heat on an eco-friendly summer

Summer doldrums don't exist when it comes to being environmentally friendly. In fact, energy conservation and general sustainability is most necessary during the summer because energy use if often very high.

Many of us at Post University are excited to do our part. The Post University Sustainability Committee, co-chaired by Sarah Wentworth, is dedicated to identifying and implementing actions and policies that will help Post University become a greener community.

The committee is comprised of faculty, (including myself), staff, and students who care about the earth. Our diligence helped renew student awareness, such as with the installation of Post's new campus recycling program.

By informing students of their responsibilities to the earth, and showing them how easy it is to recycle, the Sustainability Committee has increased student recycling to new heights on campus.

Another way that our Sustainability Committee keeps environmental education in the forefront is by sponsoring a yearly Earth Day festival. In April, we invited students and the Waterbury community to attend the Third Annual Earth Day festival on our campus.

In attendance was Danbury native Alicia Ghio, the creator, producer, and host of the Web series The Natural Princess. She created a video on her blog, Local Food Rocks, with highlights from our Earth Day festival.



There are a number of lessons from the Earth Day activities that we can continue to learn from this summer. With that, I give you five ways to celebrate the lessons of Post University's Earth Day festival all summer long.

1. Calculate your ecological footprint. One of the things I have learned from teaching introductory environmental science courses at Post University is that many of us are unaware of how unsustainable our lifestyles actually are. In order to voluntarily make a lifestyle change that benefits the earth, we often need to see in black and white that a change is necessary.

To that end, one of the activities at my Environmental Science Major table at Earth Day was having attendees calculate their ecological footprint. You can take a short quiz at MyFootPrint.org to determine your impact on the environment.

The average ecological footprint for my students is 5.8 earths. This means that if everyone on earth lived the way my students do, we would need 5.8 earths to sustain it. Yikes!

Since we only have one earth for us all to inhabit together, this is the very definition of unsustainable living. I highly recommend that you go to this website calculate your own ecological footprint. It might just inspire you to make a change!

2. Avoid using plastic disposable water bottles. Yes, we all need to drink more water during the hot summer months, but avoiding disposable plastic bottles is an easy step to living more sustainably. Plastic bottles are made from oil, which is a non-renewable, natural resource. They are not often recycled (only recently have some states started taking deposits on them), making for huge amounts of garbage.

Plus, from a personal economics standpoint, they are expensive! Let's do a little math. If there are 128 fluid ounces in a gallon, and we pay approximately $2/16-ounce bottle of water, then how much are we paying for one gallon of bottled water?

OK, pencils down. The answer is $16/gallon! We complain about gas at $4/gallon, but we are willing to pay $16/gallon for water? Something we can get for free from the tap?!

But tap water doesn't taste as good, right? Wrong! One of the activities at Post University's Earth Day was a Tap Water Challenge. Participants were challenged in a blind taste-test with identifying which cups of water were filled with Waterbury tap water and which were filled with bottled water.

More often than not, participants identified that the best tasting water was the tap water. So fill those reusable water bottles with great tasting tap water, and help save the earth while saving yourself some cash!

3. Keep your air conditioner at or above 74 degrees. Seriously? Yes, seriously. Energy conservation becomes everyone's problem when a heat wave hits, causing people to escape inside and turn their air conditioners on high. More often than not, this results in roving brownouts. These brownouts are not just a pain, they are a tangible sign that we are not using our energy sustainably in the U.S.

There is no need to keep the air temperature in your house the same temperature during the summer as you keep it during the winter (typically 68 degrees). In the winter, we all sport long-sleeves, pants, and socks, so 68 degrees is comfortable. In the summer, we are in shorts and T-shirts. The temperature in our homes can be a little higher to account for this.

Try increasing the temperature on your AC unit by one degree each day. As you increase the temperature, you will likely find that what makes your home so much more comfortable with the air conditioner running has more to do with the lack of humidity than the frigid temperature. You might also consider turning off/down your air conditioner while you are at work or traveling. Just be careful if you have pets!

While we are on the topic of energy conservation, don't forget to change those old incandescent light bulbs to a more energy-efficient variety. If you are making a new purchase, aim for products that are energy-efficient, such as flashlights with LED bulbs. They might have a greater up-front cost, but they will last longer, making it worth the investment.

4. Create a compost pile for food and lawn waste. I will fully admit that as a soil scientist who loves chemistry, composting hits home with me. Composting is an ecological process whereby microbes (microscopic organisms) break down food and lawn waste (corn cobs and husks, coffee grinds, egg shells, lawn clippings, etc.) into natural, rich, brown fertilizer for your lawn and garden.

Compost releases nutrients to plants slowly, so it is better than chemical fertilizers, which can be washed away from your plants roots with the first rain. And, you don't have to pay a cent for it. Thank you, microbes!

You can buy one of those fancy composter bins or barrels (I love the tumbler composter I got for my birthday last year), but all you really need to get started is a designated spot in your yard to dump your food and lawn scraps, and a tool with which to aerate (add oxygen) the pile, such as a pitchfork or shovel.

Composting is great for the earth because it diverts waste materials that would otherwise go to landfills. But wait, won't these food and lawn scraps decompose in a landfill, too? Yes, they will, but with a different chemical byproduct.

In a compost pile, there is plenty of oxygen, allowing for aerobic decomposition to take place, the byproduct of which is carbon dioxide and a bunch of stable soil nutrients. In a landfill, there is little oxygen, so anaerobic decomposition takes place, the byproduct of which is methane gas.

As a greenhouse gas, methane gas is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This means that by composting out food and lawn scraps, we can decrease the greenhouse gases that lead to global warming! Oh, the power of compost!

5. Buy green products and support green companies. Many of the tables at Post University's Earth Day were set aside for fantastic companies that sell or produce green products, such as Mr. Ellie Pooh, The Natural Princess, and Sustainable Earth by Staples.

These companies brought their recycled and compostable pens, their sticky notes made from 100 percent recycled paper, and their pens and flashlights made of re-purposed water bottle plastic, in order to show us, the consumer, that sustainable products are widely available.

I am not trying to use this tip as a selling point for these companies or their products, but rather to point out that you, as a consumer, DO have a choice and you DO have a voice. Talk to anyone in business and they will tell you that money talks.

We, as consumers, speak our opinion, intentionally or not, every time we make a purchase. If we want to see more green, recycled, compostable and otherwise sustainably made and packaged products, then we need to purchase the ones that are already available.

Ultimately, what it boils down to is that many of us fall prey to the misconception that we have to become flower-loving, tree-hugging hippies in order to live green. Not so! Here is the true lesson of Post University's Annual Earth Day: The lifestyle change required to live more sustainably is not as big or difficult as you think.

Enjoy your summer and celebrate the lessons of Earth Day every day!