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Monday, June 1, 2009

Simple Answers to 13 Questions about Going Green

Should I turn off the lights every time I leave the room?

Turn off incandescent light bulbs if you’re leaving the room for more than five seconds; turn off compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) if you’ll be gone at least 15 minutes. Why? You save energy with the lights off, even for a few seconds, but flickering that switch shortens every light bulb’s life. Incandescent light bulbs are cheap, so turn them off when you can. CFLs aren’t cheap – about $4 each – but using one will save you about $30 in electricity charges throughout its life span compared to an incandescent.

Do I really have to unplug my TV, phone chargers, CD player, etc.?

Always unplug. To make it easier, plug everything into power strips and make use of their on/off switches. Why? Even when they're not on, electricity courses through the plugs of your electronic gadgets so that they’ll jump into action more quickly. This “vampire electricity” sucks up $4 billion a year in energy for things that aren’t even on. Your laptop alone, turned off but plugged into the wall, will cost you $9 a year. Cell phone chargers that aren’t connected to a cell phone cost 14 cents a year. With some 260 million chargers out there, it adds up.

I know cold-water washes are greener, but will they get my clothes clean?

Washing your clothes in warm or even cold water will get rid of almost anything, except for the worst dirt or oily stains. Switch from hot to warm water to cut energy use in half; use cold water to cut it even more. Why? For a hot-water load, about 90 percent of the energy used to wash clothes goes to heat the water, not to agitate your clothes.

Dirty dishes: by hand or by machine?

Stick to full loads in the machine and use the pot-scrubber option only if necessary. For extra green points hit the no-heat or air-dry options. Why? By the time you wash a sink load of dirty dishes by hand, you’ll go through four to five gallons of water. Modern dishwashers use as little as two gallons and usually clean well enough so that there’s no need to prerinse. Sure, dishwashers require electricity, but new ones use 95 percent less electricity than machines built 30 years ago.

Peanut butter jar: a simple rinse or a full-on scour before recycling?

Rinse out what you can, then recycle. Why? A small amount of food won’t gum up the recycling works, so don’t waste a lot of water making that peanut butter jar pristine. You should do it mostly to keep pests away. And that lime in your empty beer bottle? Leave it.

Soda bottle tops: on or off before recycling?

Off with their heads! Why? It depends on where you live. Some localities insist on no tops; others are more laidback. Leave them off because: 1) the caps are not always made from the same plastic as the container, and 2) they can jam the processing equipment.

Paper or plastic?

Paper and plastic are both lousy choices. Take your own reusable canvas bags. Why? A key ingredient in plastic bags is fossil fuel, and making them—from drilling and refining oil to actually manufacturing the bags—is a messy business. Turning timber into paper bags isn’t exactly clean either. Paper mills contribute to acid rain, global warming, and respiratory ills. Plus, they demand loads of energy and water. Even bags made from recycled paper are six times as heavy as their plastic cousins, so trucking them across the country means more gas consumed and more noxious fumes. But, you cry, paper bags decompose in landfills and plastic doesn’t. Wrong! Virtually nothing decomposes in a landfill, where garbage is kept from air and water to prevent bad stuff from leaching into groundwater. And what does biodegrade can take tens, even hundreds, of years and, in the process, releases methane gas, which is linked to global warming.

In public restrooms, paper towel or electric hand dryer?

If there’s a choice, go for the hot air. Why? Far less energy is needed to heat and blow air at your hands than to make paper towels and haul them around. One study found that nine trees are cut down to supply an average fast-food restaurant with paper towels over a year; the tossed towels then create 1,000 pounds of landfill waste.

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