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No Impact Week: Focus on Food & Energy

This week’s No Impact Experiment continues… as I wrap it into the goals for this Big Scout Project, I remain curious to find out how living more conscientiously can make a life wider and happier…

NO IMPACT WEDNESDAY:  What’s your carbon “foodprint?” (Well, cheese appears to be my Achilles heel.)

With one-third of Americans obese, we know there are publichealth costs to our nation’s normal diet. It’s a staple news story. We don’t hear as much about the environmental costs from our nation’s normal diet, however. Few of us realize what pollutants were created as a result of the cheeseburgers on our plate.

This was the most interesting part of Wednesday’s focus on food, at least to me, and it might be interesting to you, too. Think about it: what did it take for that lettuce to get from a farm to your table? How far did the lettuce travel? How much pollution did that create? And then ask yourself if you can safely say that the working conditions on the farm were safe and equitable. What chemicals were applied to make those greens grow faster, look prettier, spoil more slowly? What residual pesticides might you be ingesting?

This is a lot to digest (pun intended). First, try this quick and eye-opening experiment in calculating your own carbon foodprint.

Here’s a screenshot of the online calculator. Drag the food you eat over the course of the day into the frying pan and watch the “points” rise in that thermometer. The FAQ explains the points process: each point represents one gram of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s estimated that a  diet heavy in CO2 emissions tallies in at around 4,500 points.

My total for the day as 2,221 points. Could’ve been a lot higher, but sure could’ve been lower, too. Here’s why it wasn’t higher: in the past year, we’ve made a point of buying as much local, sustainable and organic produce as possible. Here in Austin, we can have a box of fresh local produce delivered each week; while we don’t always do it, I made sure to order a box in preparation for this week’s experiment.

Here’s this week’s box: mustard greens, dill, parsley, cilantro, apples, mushrooms, radishes, turnips, grapefruit. Eating locally grown, seasonal fruits and vegetables minimizes our CO2 foodprint. But see that white block in the middle?  THAT’s the reason my points were as high as they were. That, good people, is a block of raw milk, locally-produced feta.

And that’s my carbon foodprint weakness. CHEESE. I’m a cheese-aholic. Soft or hard, stinky or smoked, give me cheese and I’ll eat it. And butter, too. Seriously, I have often said out loud that the purpose of most foods is simply to act as a vehicle to transport butter to my mouth.

But it turns out that the lovely animals who produce our meat and dairy products are also producing methane gas–23 times more potent than CO2. All that methane kind of negates the fact that this block of cheese was locally-produced, doesn’t it? I’m going to have to think about this cheese and butter thing… after I’ve finished the feta, St. Andre, Jarlsburg, cheddar, and parmesan all wrapped up in the fridge’s deli drawer right now. This one’s going to be really, really hard for me. Arrgghhh.

Our nation’s food supply–from farms across the world to market to table–has become remarkably complex (read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watch Food Inc). So one day’s active consideration on my part does not a change make. Change in almost all things comes with through small steps, and so it shall probably be as we move towards reducing our collective carbon “foodprint” and consume more sustainable, healthier foods.

Here’s five ideas, culled mostly from the No Impact Experiment’s resource list and absolutely worth sharing:

Eat local, eat seasonal. We’ve become accustomed to seeing the same fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets year-round, but in the grand scheme of things we have to remember that it hasn’t been like that for long. Until modern farming and transportation practices, we humans have pretty much always relied on what’s growing around us at any given time. So consider a return to the good old days. If you’re in Austin like us, you can give Greenling a try (we love ’em), or check out this website to find a farmer’s market near you. Or consider joining a food co-op if there’s one in your area–here’s a searchable directory.

Purchase Fair Trade Products: Fair trade cuts out a lot of the middleman and creates a more direct, sustainable, and  fair line from producers to consumers. Here’s an excellent article to build your understanding of fair trade.

Organic is worth it for some fruits and vegetables.  Maybe you’ve heard of the “Dirty Dozen?” It’s the list of fruits and vegetables that come to us through modern farming methods with the largest amounts of pesticides: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach (and kale and collard greens), cherries, potatoes, grapes, and lettuce. It’s been estimated that we could reduce our intake of pesticides by 80% simply by buying these items from the organic bin at the market. Having a lousy memory for such things, I keep a copy of this list in my wallet for shopping trips.

Conversely, the “Clean 15” contain far fewer pesticides. If you can’t afford to go all-organic, you can at least feel better about purchasing these non-organic items: onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, sweet onions.

Fish for the best seafood at market. We’ve all heard about mercury levels in fish, but are there other contaminants we should be thinking about? And how far does our fish have to travel to get to market? Food and Water Watch has a stellar guide to the health, safety, and sustainability of fish and shellfish online, or download their pocket guide and take it shopping.

If you’re loving meat and dairy, learn more about labeling. Do you really know what it means when you see meat labeled as  free of hormones, antibiotics and more? What wording should matter, and what’s just marketing hype? This one-page guide from Sustainable Table will help you learn what you’re paying for in that label.

As for me, I will definitely take a look at my consumption of animal products this year. I know we’ll keep buying as much local produce as possible (besides eating well, we like supporting local businesses). I’ll keep carrying around the list of the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables, and now I’ll add the pocket seafood guide to make some more thoughtful choices.


People, if you’ve read the story behind the Big Scout Project, then you know that the idea for this project came during a blackout, with only the dog Freida for company, on a freezing night alone at the beach. I count this as one of the best nights of my life; left without electricity, there was nothing to do but think and be creative.

Of course, other than a few unanticipated power outages, we’ve been powered up almost non-stop since then. So this is an incredibly important reminder to me of the value of powering down–for the sake of the planet and my mental health. This coming Sunday, the No Impact Project asks participants to unplug, at least for a few hours, and I shall revel in this excuse to do just that.

For now, however, let’s focus on the energy we’re using and how normal people with normal resources like us we can reduce it.

Most of us know the basics by now, like making sure your windows have a good, weatherproof seal. And I’ll bet most of you have replaced at least some of your traditional light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs.

Maybe you decided to take advantage of the 2010 Federal tax breaks for improving the energy consumption in your home. After years of yakking about it, we finally  insulated our Texas attic in 2010.  We never used the space, so we chose a recycled cellulose product, GreenFiber. Charles and our friend Josh just blew that stuff up there–it was very affordable and pretty damned easy, too.

But before it sounds like I’m Miss Green, it’s confession time: I regularly use more electricity than I need to.

I’ll forget to turn off lights, I’ll neglect to turn off the computer when I’m done for the night, and I’ll keep the television on just for the sound of talking (not sure what that says about me, but that’s not the point right now).

Anyone who know the story behind Colin Beavan’s No Impact Year has to be pretty impressed at the choices he and his family made to live without electricity. No computers, no television, no stereo, no lights, no washing machine, no refrigeration. His family slept based on natural daylight, they washed clothes by stomping on them in the bathtub like they were making wine, and they used a Nigerian Zeer Pot to keep food fresh.

Living without electricity–really going off the grid–is probably not going to happen any time soon in our house. Not with a woman who telecommutes and a husband who plays electric guitar and produces music.

BUT, that doesn’t mean I can’t improve my energy use.


Aligning perfectly with today’s No Impact Experiment, a task for the Eco-Action badge asks scouts to calculate just how much electricity home appliances use. That’s a great question, and I had no idea.

Even though the task’s language suggests that I can find the wattage information on appliance labels, that wasn’t always true–sometimes only amps were listed. When I found the wattage, I didn’t know if that meant wattage used when the appliance is working at full capacity, or when it’s just plugged in. In other words, I knew absolutely nothing.

But here comes Mr. Electricity (a.k.a. Michael Bluejay) to the rescue. This incredible site has some pretty dense information, but it explains why and how things work. Mr. Electricity’s site was where i learned that when only amps are listed, you can find wattage by multiplying amps x 120 (which equals the volts used by electrical outlets in the U.S.).

In the chart below, I’ve identified the maximum wattage used by 19 appliances in our house. Maximum is the operative word here. As Mr. Electricity points out, an appliance’s stated wattage represents the time it’s being used to full capacity.

This is easy to understand for appliances that always run at the same rate when they’re on (e.g., a TV is either on or off, there’s no in between those two). It gets difficult to measure wattage used for appliances that can be used at less than full capacity (e.g., using the low setting on your hairdryer, or washing your clothes in cold water for a shorter cycle).

So while I’d love to live up to the scout’s task of discovering exactly how much energy the appliances are using, their equation (multiply wattage x the number of hours the appliance is in use), doesn’t provide an accurate picture. So sorry, scouts, I take exception to the task’s requirement, because an honest measurement seems impossible to get, given the information available to a normal consumer.

Even if one were able to calculate the exact amount of energy used (including the ghost energy of appliances still plugged in but otherwise “off”), that information alone provides us with no context for making simple changes that can reduce our energy consumption.

So in the spirit of being a more responsible citizen, and hopefully a better big scout, I’ve created the snazzy table below. Nineteen appliances from our household and their maximum wattage are listed, and they’re followed by a column of simple, actionable steps I can take to reduce energy consumption here at home.

Watts used at Full Capacity
Save Energy By:
Panasonic digital cordless phone (1 year old, Energy Star, includes base and 2 extensions)
Base unit: 5W
Charger: 3.5W
Unplug and put away one extension – we don’t need all three.
Samsung flat screen TV (2 years old, Energy Star)
This baby doesn’t seem to use a lot of power (see next item), so I’m pretty happy with this one.
Sony Trinitron TV (10 years old)
80 W
This 10-year old TV uses significantly more power than our newer Samsung flat screen. Might be time to retire this (freecycle it, or find the best way to dispose of it), or at least watch it a lot less (a good thing anyway). See below this chart for e-waste recycling solutions!
Dell Inspiron Laptop (3 years old)
Laptops use less than desktops, so that’s good. But I’ve turned off my screensaver, which takes processing energy to run. I’m now powering down at night, and remembering to at least put it to sleep when I’ll be away from my desk for a while.
HP 5610 All-in-One Printer (3 years old)
I realize I’ve kept this thing “on” 24 hours  a day since about the day I got it. So even though it’s only printing/faxing/scanning a short time each day, it’s eating up ghost power. Need to power this down at night!
General Electric Digital Blender (1 year old)
Blend at lower speeds? I’m guessing on this one, because while it might use less electricity, it also might take longer…
General Electric Microwave Oven (2 years old)
This is already a pretty low-dose wattage for a microwave, and the downside is it takes more time to warm something up than if it were higher. So I’m not sure to do with this one… yet.
Kenmore Washing Machine (10 years old)
1200 W
Wash in cold water, use shorter cycles, wash full loads. We’re already pretty good at this one, I think…
Kenmore Gas Dryer (10 years old)
Use the Auto Dry cycle to dry most loads… dry full loads only… dry just enough…  keep lint screen, exhaust vent, exhaust hood clean. At least it’s a gas dryer and not electric.
Maytag Quiet Series 200 Dishwasher (3 years old, Energy Star)
Max load: 1,080W
Heater: 660W
Wash full loads… use the lightest cycle to clean… air dry dishes…
General Electric 5-burner gas range and oven (3 years old, Energy Star)
The wattage here was for the oven only, I *think.* We know it’s at least using less electricity because it’s a gas oven/range.
Whirpool Refrigerator (3 years old, Energy Star)
We might’ve been able to get a fridge that consumes even less power if our kitchen had space. This was the best we could find at this cubic foot level. Now, we just want to make sure the temperatures aren’t colder than they need to be.
Hamilton Beach Slow Cooker (1 year old)
Opt for lower settings as soon as possible in cooking process.
Hoover Nano-Lite Vacuum Cleaner (1 year old)
CLEAN LESS – YAY! Actually, we don’t have very many rugs, so we make short work of vacuuming, about every other week.
Revlon hairdryer (4 years old)
Don’t use this item much anyway, but it would help to use the low setting or wait to dry until hair’s just damp.
DeLonghi coffee maker (3 years old)
This one seemed higher than I expected. We can set it to turn off right after the coffee’s made, however—seems like it’d take less electricity to warm up in the microwave for 30 seconds than keep the coffee maker’s heating element on, right?
Sony DVD player (2 years old, Energy Star)
Wow – this doesn’t seem to use much electricity at all! We keep it turned off when it’s not in use.
Scientific American HDTV DVR Cable box (1 year old, owned by cable company)
This uses more energy than I thought it would, and the power is usually on even when the TV is off. Think we need to power this off at the same time we power off the TV.
Sunbeam Toaster Oven (4 years old)
This is where I get confused by wattage. 1100W refers to full capacity usage – which I assume means broiling. We almost never use it for that, and I’m not sure how much we are using for the normal toasting we do. Confused on how to minimize our impact with this one.

Anything else we can all do to reduce our consumption of electricity?

GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE: Unplug appliances not in use. Put office appliances on one power strip. At the end of the day, power down and unplug the one strip. My mom has always unplugged kitchen appliances that aren’t in use – she’s been aware of this for decades now. So it’s time to remember to do what Mom does. 😉

RECYCLE OLD APPLIANCES AND MACHINERY:  Until a little research this week, I didn’t realize that Best Buy has a national eCycling program. Good on them! Bring any old electronics to their store, no matter where you bought them, to ensure that they’re recycled in an ecologically friendly manner, usually for free.

And for you fellow Austinites, I’ve located four possible ways for us to e-Cycle our old TVs, computers, and other electronics:


OH, WELL: I’d hoped to be able to squeeze Friday’s experiment on water into this post, but we’re running pretty long here, so I’ll cover that later.

UPDATE FROM WEDNESDAY’S POST: Thursday afternoon, I was sneezing away into my handkerchief in the company of my friend (and Virtual Troop Leader Adrienne). I asked her if she though it gross to see someone use a handkerchief instead of tissues; I was relieved to learn it didn’t bother her one bit.


2 thoughts on “No Impact Week: Focus on Food & Energy

  1. Pingback: Deepwater Horizon: One Year Later | The Big Scout Project

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