Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Entries in people & products doing good (11)


An Assessment of Television’s Environmental Impact: Common Sense Considerations to Reduce Energy Consumption

My life recently shifted—away from friends and family, career, a splendid city, and the life I had built for nearly a decade to the unknown of a new country, city, and job.  With this transition came a new perspective and radical changes that are mostly welcome, sometimes challenging, and always unexpected.  These changes will soon be reflected in my postings.  However, before my departure I finished research on a topic I long avoided due to my lifelong addiction—television.

While my new life means that a television is no longer my low maintenance companion, offering entertainment and the constant hum of background noise, it does not mean that its presence is no longer felt.  Many homes in Thailand have at least one television.  In the country I left, the numbers are staggering.  The U.S. is home to almost as many televisions as people—approximately 275 million televisions live in our homes and offices.  

We are a culture that loves its TV.  I am no exception.  But what are the costs of our devotion to small screen entertainment?  What are the ecological impacts of our televisions and viewing habits?

The Creation, Life, and Disposal of Televisions

There are three stages in the "life" of a TV that create environmental impacts. These are (1) manufacturing and transport; (2) use; and (3) disposal

(1) Manufacturing and transport

Making a television is an energy intensive industrial process. This process requires fossil fuels to provide the considerable amounts of energy necessary to manufacture the highly refined glass and semiconductor components that make up modern television sets.  These components are comprised of non-renewable materials that contribute to the increasing problem of electronic waste

Once a television is manufactured, it must then be packaged and transported to its point of sale.  Some large retailers have made efforts to reduce their ecological footprint vis-a-vie transport (Sony, for example, now has a policy of shipping its goods by rail or sea rather than truck or air to reduce its energy costs).  Others have incorporated transport concerns into the CSR or corporate social responsibility programs.  However, while some CSR programs are effective, others should be viewed with skepticism and employ more rhetoric than actual corporate accountability. 

(2) Use

The environmental impact of your television will vary based on the type of television you own and how often you watch it.  Old-fashioned televisions use cathode ray tubes (CRT), which require more electricity than televisions based on newer technologies.  Yet new technology does not necessarily mean smaller carbon footprint.  Plasma televisions ionize gas to create the colors needed for its pixel cells, and this process requires significant amounts of energy to brighten the screen. 

Currently, the best choice for energy consumption is a flat-panel liquid crystal display, or LCD.  LCDs use fluorescent backlighting, which draws less energy than traditional technologies.  LCD technology has also advanced so that the backlighting is only on for certain areas of the screen or as needed, an improvement on earlier models that required backlighting to be constantly on full. 

An emerging technology that offers further energy reductions are sets using organic light emitting diodes or OLEDs.  OLEDs use an array of small LED lights in a very thin screen, promising to double energy efficiency from the best available current technologies. 

Size also matters.  Larger screens and longer duration of use increase energy use.  Standby or vampire power further increases energy drawn from TVs (see previous livingneutral post on how to reduce standby power usage).  Even when a television is off, it is not completely shutdown and still requires power to remain on standby.  There are ways to reduce our standby power consumption, or eliminate it entirely, which are discussed in a previous entry. 

Manufacturers are also mindful of this issue, working to improve efficiency to stay in line with energy star ratings in countries like the US and Japan.  Choosing a certified energy efficiency model will ensure that these kinds of considerations went into the design of your television.  If possible, try to find a manufacturer that complies with ROHS, or the European Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive. The ROHS requires the elimination of hazardous substances like lead and mercury in electronics imported into EU member states.  Because the US does not have similar restrictions, many available electronics still contain lead-based solder, mercury, cadmium, and brominated fire retardants.  Manufacturing with these chemicals creates toxic waste and emissions and pollutes disposal sites.

Broadcast power further contributes to TV’s broader environmental impact.  Transmission of broadcasts signals requires large amounts of power.  Alternatively, programs downloaded via the internet require much less energy on the front end to reach your screen.

(3) Disposal

Even at the end of its life cycle, a television continues to impact the environment.  According to the EPA, approximately 20 million televisions are disposed of in the US annually, with more than 80 percent going to landfills.  Toxic chemicals from these TVs can leach into soil and groundwater, creating environmental and health hazards.  Recycling offers a promising alternative.  However, it is important to understand where the television goes when recycled.  Often, they are resold in developing countries.  CRT tubes can also be melted down to make products like car batteries.  This often occurs in countries where environmental regulations are non-existent or go unenforced. 

In summary—if you are in the market for a television, consider an energy efficient model that complies with international standards.  Letting go of your need for a massive screen will also lower your energy bill and ecological impact.  Finally, try to use a television for its full life cycle, and do not simply discard it into a landfill once its reached expiration date. 

With recent news that we’ve passed the 400 parts per million carbon dioxide milestone, it is important that we begin to make changes in our lives.  These might be radical—giving up the use of a television entirely as I have—or small—using energy efficient models for the duration of their lifespan.  We owe our future selves and generations the foresight to make better decisions today.  Indeed, our choices should be obligations—to reduce our ecological impacts and encourage businesses through our behavior.


Style and Sustainablity: The Environmental Impact of Handbags 


When I received a request to research the sustainability of handbags, I had two reactions.  First, I felt a surge of guilt, knowing that the leather handbags sitting in my closet are far from eco-friendly.  Second, I thought information and alternatives to traditional products would be easily found.  Nearly every woman I know owns at least one handbag.  Surely, this must mean that information on the issue would be prolific.  I assumed incorrectly.  As I’ve discovered, there is little transparency in the fashion industry.  Unlike other products, there appears to be little push for eco-friendly handbag substitutes and consumers seem content with mainstream design.  I must confess that I have been guilty of purchasing based on aesthetic whim rather than considering looks and environmental impacts.  While the impacts of individual products remains unclear, here is what I was able to learn and what will now inform my future handbag decisions:

The Impacts of Leather

Most designer handbags are made of leather.  Leather requires cows, and raising cows creates impacts due to their grazing, the land needed to raise them, and the carbon emissions they produce.  Leather manufacturing also has environmental costs, at all stages of the three-step process: preparatory stages, tanning, and crusting.  Dehairing during the preparatory stages uses chemicals such as sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, and sodium sulphydrate.  This process creates air pollution (hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming).  Chemicals are also used in traditional tanning processes, and the amount of energy required to create a usable leather hide is 20 times greater than what is required to produce synthetic materials.

Leather biodegrades, albeit slowly for a natural product.  The 25-40 years it takes for leather to decompose is much shorter than the 500 or more years it takes for petro-chemical derived materials. Where leather production occurs also affects its environmental impacts.  For example, India is the third-largest producer and exporter of leather.  Its lax environmental laws, however, allows tanneries to create far greater amounts of hazardous waste without repercussions.  Producers have dumped wastewater directly into waterways and wetlands.  This occurs in other countries with loose environmental regulations, and at times in those with more stringent laws.

There has been a move by local artisans to use vegetable and naturally tanned organic leather, which greatly reduces the toxicity stemming from the traditional process.  This does not eliminate the ethical and animal-cruelty arguments against leather's use, and the reasons designers like Stella McCartney refuse to incorporate it in their products.  Vegetable tanning also uses the same energy intensive process as its traditional counterpart.

Alternatives to leather are discussed below.  Bear in mind, however, that petro-chemical based materials have vast environmental impacts.  The use of plant-derived or renewable fabrics is on the rise, which offers a promising shift in the handbag industry. 

Environmental costs of traditional production

There has also been a move to place a monetary value on environmental impacts by large corporations.  PPR, parent of upscale designers like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Girard-Perrecaux and Sergion Rossi, claims that it will incorporate the impact of ecosystem services in its reporting by 2015.  This means that monetary costs will be associated with the environmental impact of these companies' products.  Puma, also a PPR brand, recently estimated its ecosystem costs at $196 million a year.  These costs cover water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and land use costs.  Half of these costs are related to raw materials.  Louis Vuitton has also implemented a carbon inventory to measure its footprint and reduce carbon emissions.  They have also agreed to donate 15% of online sales to The Climate Project, but admit that eco-friendly materials are not a priority in its product lines. 

What does this mean for the impact of individual products?  First, that the environmental impact of raw materials—like leather, cotton, and rubber—are not only drastically underestimated in current production, they aren’t a factor at all.  While the promise to estimate impact by these high-end designers is admirable, these costs do not affect companies’ net earnings and are currently not addressed in most corporate reporting.  This means that the impact of a product-line, much less an individual product, is often not calculated.  If it is calculated, it need not be transparent.  Little information exists about these products because such information is not required.  This also means, when selecting an individual product, material matters.  Eco-friendly handbags are made out of eco-friendly materials.  It’s that simple.

Eco-friendly Handbag Materials:

What are eco-friendly materials?  Look for organically grown fibers.  Traditional cotton, for example, requires oil for production and use of pesticides and fertilizers needed for cotton.  Alternatively, organic cotton is durable, washable and reusable and does not rely on pesticides. Bamboo is also an excellent substitute for traditional materials.  Organic fibers are biodegradable and do not require the bevy of chemicals often used in synthetics, or traditional materials via pesticides. 

Recycled materials are also popular in handbags.  Foil wrappers, seat belts, and other recycled materials are repurposed into fashion items.  If you like the look, Ecoist makes an array of recycled handbags.  It’s worth considering, however, that even recycled materials have impacts.  Recycled vinyl, for example, will take 500 years to biodegrade in a landfill and will leach its chemical contents into the ground.  This may make naturally tanned leather preferable. 

As well as being functional, handbags are often a reflection of style, an individual statement used on a daily basis.  For those wishing to make a statement about their commitment to renewable energy, they can invest in a solar powered bag.  Others may wish to choose organic materials or plant-based bags.  In the past, solar bags have meant a sacrifice of style.  Yet the handbags made by Noon Solar are attractive and functional.  They can charge your electronic gadgets in a matter of minutes.  Each is made with vegetable tanned and dyed leather with an interior of organic hemp and cotton hand-dyed with natural pigments.  The hardware and panels are also removable so the bag is fully biodegradable should you ever wish to part with it.   Noon Solar’s collection includes non-solar bags made out of natural materials, including organic hemp, cork and cotton.

Buy Local, Used, or Nothing at All

Before purchasing a new handbag, stop, look in your closet, and consider if you really need a new one.  If you are like me, you probably use the same one or two bags most of the time.  If you are going to get a new bag, you may want to visit a second-hand store.  You can find great vintage or well-loved bags there, and sell or trade one of your own underused bags at the same time.   If you are looking for a unique, new bag, turn to local artisans first.  A simple internet search will turn up many, or visit local craft fairs and ask the vendor how he or she makes their products.  This is a link to a local designer I found in the Bay area.  Local purchase also reduces the impacts from manufacture and transport of large brand-named bags.  Finally, any bag you purchase should be one you intend to use.  Environmental impacts aside, finding a versatile bag will allow you to get more use out of the bag, offers to weather ever-changing trends, and prevents additional purchases and an accumulation of unused bags. 


Green Holiday Habits: Tips for an Eco-Friendly Holiday Season

An inundation of Christmas music and gift advertisements, a series of food comas, and invitations to ugly sweater parties can only mean one thing—it’s holiday season again.  It’s a time to celebrate with family and friends, to show gratitude, and make plans for the coming year.  The holidays also mean gifts, cards, wrapping paper, lights, Christmas trees, parties and travel. These material things impact our environment.  At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, here are a few suggestions to cut down on your holiday eco-footprint.   

Reduce Your Paper Use

1.  Holiday Greeting Cards

A staggering 1.5-1.9 billion holiday greeting cards are sent in the U.S. each year.  The impact of this volume of paper, combined with packaging and the transportation costs to deliver these cards, adds up quickly.  Paper waste accounts for 40% of the contents of our landfills. The paper products industry is the third largest source of green house gases, behind petrochemical and cement manufacturing.

The alternative to paper cards is simple, cheaper, and more environmentally sound: email.  For those concerned with etiquette, Huffington Post's Ms. Eco Etiquette and the Post family agree that e-cards are the greener, logical alternative to paper holiday cards.  E-cards, once a bit garish and obnoxious, now come in a number of attractive and witty forms.  Paperless post is an excellent example.  Another email option that I always enjoy receiving are holiday email updates from family and friends. This can come in the form of a recap of the year and often includes photos and other personal flourishes. 

Emails do have an eco-footprint, albeit much smaller than paper.  An email has 1/60th the carbon footprint of a traditional letter.  Still, our virtual impacts add up: internet use accounts for 3% of U.S. energy consumption

For those who just can't let go of the tangible card option, consider purchasing recycled cards or buy form local card makers.  Miss Eco Etiquette also suggests Botanical PaperWorks, cards made of 100% post-consumer waste that include plantable wildflower seeds.  A recycled card that grows into a beautiful plant—what could be greener?!  If you receive greeting cards, try to reuse them.  Recycled cards make excellent gift tags, postcards, and bookmarks. 

2.  Wrapping Paper

In addition to the large amount of paper consumed through holiday cards, wrapping papers' near ubiquitous use—an estimated 98% of consumers claim that they will wrap presents for the holidays—contributes to the large volume of holiday paper waste.  Nearly half of the timber harvested makes its way into paper products, and paper requires more water than any other industrial activity in developed countries.  Between Thanksgiving and New Years, Americans dispose of a million extra tons of trash a week.  That’s 25% more waste than the rest of the year.  Half of the paper products we consume goes towards packaging, wrapping and decorating products (with wrapping paper and shopping bags accounting for 4 million tons of trash annually). 

Instead of wrapping gifts in new paper, try to reuse other gift bags or paper and recycle or reuse any paper from gifts you unwrap.  Note, however that most conventional giftwrap is not recyclable.  Tape also complicates the process: it isn’t biodegradable or recyclable.  By wrapping three gifts in recycled paper, we could save a collective 4.5 million yards of paper Boxes can also be reused, and look for “tree-free” giftwrap made from bamboo, hemp, or cotton.  Newspaper, fabrics, shopping bags, and even cereal boxes can also be repurposed as giftwrap.

3.     Gift tags and invitations

The same suggestions apply to gift tags and party invitations. Try a DIY option, think about reusing household items (file folders, old cards, etc), send e-invites, and be creative!

Lessen Your Electricity Load

If you must decorate your house with lights, upgrade to LED lights, which use 90% less energy than conventional lights.  This can also save you $50 a month on your energy bills.  The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if everyone replaced their conventional holiday lights with LED lights, we could save 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each month.  Switching to smaller bulbs also reduces energy consumption. 

Another simple energy-saving solution is to simply turn lights off.  When you are not home or asleep, there is no need to illuminate an unseen room or space. 

Be Tree Friendly

Christmas trees are a must in many households. Of course, there are fir-free alternatives.  These, however, require energy and materials to manufacture and supply, although the one-time purchase of a fake tree can save energy.

If you, like many, want a live tree and the pine smell it brings, then at a minimum recycle your tree as soon as possible.  Fresh trees can be ground into woodchips rather than taking up space in a landfill.  Earth 911 provides further info for tree recycling in your area.  

And . . . a few miscellaneous things.

Consider donations in lieu of gifts or buy local.  Look for organic, sustainable foods and try to keep your portions and leftovers minimal.  Making a few changes can ensure happy holidays for generations to come.  Be well and enjoy!


Greening Your Laundry Habits Part II: Natural Alternatives and Efficient Products

photo credit Jefferson Sisters blog

The environmental impact of laundry is considerable.  In fact, between 75 to 80 percent of the lifecycle of our clothing comes from its washing and drying.  Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives to conventional laundry habits that can significantly reduce your laundry’s eco-footprint.  In addition to reducing the temperature of the water used while washing, as discussed in my last post, ecological impact can be reduced by line drying, purchasing concentrated and eco-friendly laundry detergents, and being smart about the kind of appliances we purchase and use.

Reduce Dryer Use, or Better Yet Line Dry

The dryer uses enormous amounts of energy.  It ranks second in energy use for household appliances, right after the fridge, and accounts for approximately 6% of home energy consumption In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 88 million dryers, each emitting more than a ton of carbon dioxide a year.  On average, this also adds over $70 to your annual energy bill. 

You can save energy, lower your utility bills, and improve your ecological footprint by simply reducing your use of the dryer.  Try line drying all or part of your laundry.  Like washing with cold water, line drying is better for your clothes and increases their longevity.  There are excellent resources that provide tips for line drying, including how to avoid clothes becoming too stiff and products that make line drying easy.

Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergent

Conventional household cleaning products, including laundry detergents, often contain ingredients that are toxic to the environment and human health.  Phosphates—found in some laundry detergents—can wreak havoc downstream on marine life and aquatic habitats.  Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives that are phosphate free and biodegradable.  Look for a detergent that has plant or vegetable derivates rather than being petroleum based. 

In addition to being eco-friendly, your detergent should also be super concentrated.  These detergents come in smaller bottles, which means less packaging and reduced transportation costs (fuel, air impacts, etc).  I use method’s Lighthouse, which is eight times more concentrated than traditional detergents.  There are other concentrated detergents, and the trend towards soaps that contain less liquid is on the rise.  Most of these detergents can be used in cold water cycles, which as we have learned dramatically reduces energy use. 

For the do-it-yourself crowd, making your own laundry detergent is an option—and several sources provide recipes and instructions.  Fabric softeners also should be avoided.  Instead, trying adding a cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle, which naturally balances the pH of the soap and leaves clothes feeling soft. 

Maximize the Efficiency of Your Appliances

The kind of washer and dryer you use is also a factor in the environmental impact of your laundry.  For example, switching to an Energy Star washer reduces energy use by 50% and can save up to 7,000 gallons of water each year.  Treehugger estimates that over an 11-year lifecycle, that is enough water to provide a lifetime supply of drinking water for six people.

Your dryer choice also matters.  If you can’t live without a dryer, use one with a moisture sensor to optimize efficiency.  Clean out the lint filter after every use, which will improve the performance of the dryer.  Like fabric softeners, avoid dryer sheets if possible.  They contain toxic chemicals and actually wear out fabrics

The proper load size is also important for a machine’s efficiency.  Small loads waste water and fail to maximize a washer or dryer’s space.  Conversely, large loads are hard on the machine’s motors, which lead to energy inefficiencies.

Finally, the carbon neutral fanatic can always use a handcrank clothing washer, which reduces energy use—aside from your own—to virtually nothing.


Greening Your Laundry Habits: Tips to Reduce the Impact of Washing Machines

Laundry is one of those household tasks I try not to think too much about.  Often tedious, never inspiring, laundry is relegated to my must do but actively avoid checklists.   Yet this single task accounts for about 14% of our household water use and has a heavy impact on our carbon footprint.  What accounts for the large energy and environmental costs of washing our clothes?  How can we reduce the impacts of the estimated 400 loads of laundry the average American household does each year?

There are several simple solutions that can dramatically cut your water and energy use, and reduce your laundry’s footprint.  These include adjusting the temperature of your wash, reducing dryer use, maximizing your appliances, and using more concentrated green laundry detergents.  This post will tackle the first of these issues, with follow-up on the remaining laundry strategies to come.

Turn the Temperature Down: Wash in Cold Water

Nearly 90% of the energy used to wash clothing goes to heating the water.  This energy use has monetary and environmental implications: a single load of laundry washed in hot water is equivalent to driving nine miles in an automobile.  It also adds over $100 annually to your utility bill.

The simplest solution to this energy problem: reduce the temperature of your wash cycle.  Switching to warm water will cut a load’s energy use in half.  Washing in cold water is even better—it is estimated that if Americans switched to washing in cold water rather than hot, we could reduce our national carbon emissions by 1% and save over $3 billion dollars in energy costs.  Cold water is also better for your clothes.  Hot water reduces fabric longevity and speeds up color fading. 

Furthermore, washing with hot water is often unnecessary.  Washing machines are more advanced and efficient than years past when hot water washing was the default.  There are also many effective, ecologically sound laundry detergents that are formulated for cold water washing (including for whites and stains).  In light of these product advancements, there is simply no reason not to wash your clothes in cold water.  Unless there is a particular reason, such as allergy prevention or oil stains, each load of laundry done in hot water wastes energy.

Finally, be sure to set your hot water heater to no higher than 120 degrees and try to minimize water use.  This may mean wearing clothes more than once before washing or shortening your wash cycle.  For example, the UN Environment Programme estimates that if you wear a pair of jeans at least three times and wash in cold water, you consume five times less energy than washing after each use.  These changes are crucial.  Water is and will continue to become a valuable resource, with demands for clean, reliable sources increasing.