Archive for May, 2008

PSST!!!  I know where you can buy gas for $1.25 per gallon less than you are currently paying.  Interested?  Here are directions to my secret gas station: from Maine Street in Brunswick, drive across the green bridge into Topsham.  Turn left on Rt. 196, and right onto I-295 north.  Accelerate at a moderate speed, set your cruise control to 65 mph and, ta-da, you’re there.  


You may have heard rumors that excessive speeding and an aggressive driving style (stomping on the accelerator, slamming on the brakes, and tailgating grandma) uses more gas than driving calmly.  However, you probably don’t think it makes all that much difference.  And, if you’re already a calm driver, you probably don’t think that driving yet more calmly could noticeably decrease your gas usage.  Think again.


Over the course of two recent trips to Boston, I conducted a little experiment.  Our car has a fuel economy display which tells us our average miles per gallon (mpg) over any distance we choose.  I made the drives in segments with the cruise control set at 55, 65, and 70 miles per hour (mph), and recorded my fuel economy for each segment.  On the way back to Maine, I drove the same sections at the same speeds.


The results amazed me.  On segments where I drove 65 mph, I used 25% more fuel than on segments where I drove 55 mph.  Similarly, I used 10% more fuel driving 70 mph than when driving 65 mph.  (Do not try this at home.)


The U.S. Department of Energy’s website (www.fueleconomy.gov) confirmed my experience.  They report that driving the speed limit can save up to 23% on gas usage – the equivalent of paying almost a dollar less per gallon.  Driving calmly, without rapid acceleration and hard breaking, increased the possible fuel savings to 33% (the equivalent of $1.25 less per gallon). 


Another interesting website (www.edmonds.com) posts driving test results on a variety of gas-saving tips.  They found that slightly increasing the time it takes to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, and braking gently, improved their fuel economy by 25 – 35%.


Even calm drivers can see significant gas savings by calming down just a bit more.  Dropping highway speeds by a few miles per hour, slowing acceleration times by a few seconds, coasting to red lights (when safe), avoiding idling, and not accelerating up hills, can all result in surprising efficiency improvements.


Interestingly, 65 mph, the speed limit on most highways in Maine, is too high to maximize fuel efficiency.  For most cars, fuel efficiency is highest at a “sweet spot” somewhere between 40 and 60 mph.  Every mile per hour you drive above your car’s sweet spot lowers your fuel efficiency.  Larger, heavier cars have lower sweet spots than smaller, lighter cars.  Even my relatively small car used one quarter less gas when driving 55 mph than when driving 65 mph.


Now hold on there, you say.  Doesn’t it take longer to get places when you are driving slower?  It turns out that unless you’re going on a very long trip, or speeding outrageously, you will, amazingly enough, get where you want to go in about the same amount of time.  That’s because the Good Climate Fairy, seeing your virtuous actions, will zip you to your destination just as fast as the Speed Demon. 


Well, no, actually it’s just math.  If you drive 70 mph on your regular commute from, say, Brunswick to Augusta (about 27 highway miles) you will get to work just 1 minute and 47 seconds sooner than if you went the speed limit.  Even driving 70 mph the entire way to Boston (about 110 highway miles) saves only 7 minutes.


Here I am, almost out of room, and I haven’t even mentioned the environment.  In a nutshell, transportation, mostly from our personal vehicles, is responsible for creating one third of all climate-changing greenhouse gasses produced by individuals in the U.S..  If that doesn’t impress you, transportation also accounts for 51% of toxic air pollution and 23% of toxic water pollution (data from the Union of Concerned Scientists).  No other single thing we do as individuals causes as much harm.


Now, let’s say you were, perchance, overwhelmed by all the ways in which you could change your daily behaviors to protect the environment.   Let’s say you thought to yourself, I wish I could figure out one simple thing I could do that would have the biggest benefit for the environment – well, this is it.  You’ve found it.  Take your foot off the pedal.  


There is no other action that is available to everyone (who has a car), is free, is this easy, and that has this large an impact.  The idea that, overnight, we could take a 10, 20, or 30% bite out of the fuel individuals use in driving – without involving anything truly unpleasant, expensive, or complicated – like carpooling with the grumpy guy next door, buying a hybrid, or moving to a smaller house – why, it’s breathtaking.


And one parting thought.  Also on the the government’s fuel economy page, under the heading, “Why is fuel economy important?” is the following sub-heading: “Strengthen National Security.”  Whatever your thoughts about the current conflict in the Middle East, if using less gas now helps prevent some future conflict elsewhere – and there are many reasons why it might – can you think of a more splendid patriotic act?  So, put that flag on your aerial, get out your “Support the Troops” bumper sticker, lobby your legislators for national 55 mph speed limits  – and drive like your grandma. 

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I have just returned from counting my t-shirts.  I knew there were a lot, but the final tally of 37 was a bit shocking.  According to my calculations, if I live to be 100 and continue to acquire and wear out t-shirts at my current rate, my children (the lucky gals) will inherit 30-40.  Even if I never purchase another t-shirt, I will still leave behind a small stash.


It’s a fair guess that most of you have just as many t-shirts lurking in your drawers (go count ‘em – you may be surprised).  On average, every American household purchases 40 new shirts every year (that’s 4.5 billion shirts annually).  The reality is that most of our drawers are stuffed to overflowing and we donate an astounding amount of clothing to make room for the new items that we want.  In fact, Americans donate so much clothing that only 20% can be reused domestically, and only 45% ever gets used as clothing again, anywhere in the world.


The realization that I already have more t-shirts than I can possibly use up in my lifetime, is relatively recent.  The first problem, of long standing, is that too many t-shirts come into the house.  T-shirts are the American gold-standard for celebrating every event, advertising every cause, and fostering group spirit for every group.  They are fun to buy, fun to use, and impossible to avoid.  I’ve acquired t-shirts for all the usual reasons: events I attended, causes I supported, trips I took, my one and only official 5K run, family reunions, and just because I liked them.  I used to periodically donate excess t-shirts, but that’s where my fateful second problem kicked in.


Over the past few years I’ve developed a nagging sense of obligation to my clothing; indeed, I now actually feel I am responsible for wearing out everything I buy – easier said than done in a world that grades you down for worn cuffs and scruffy patches.  We all have some sense of obligation toward the items that we buy–usually directly related to the price.  The more we pay, the more use and pleasure we expect the item to provide.  In other words, we feel obligated to get our money’s worth.


Yet, there is another kind of accountability embedded in all the items we use.  Just as objects have an economic cost, they also have an environmental cost.  Imagine if the price tag on a t-shirt read: $10.99, use of 1 gallon of Middle-East oil, application of 1/3rd pound pesticides, creation of 6 pounds of global warming gasses, pollution of 18 gallons of water in an Iowa brook, a 0.007% increase in the risk of cancer for 2 textile mill workers in China, the death of 1/16th of a fish and half a monarch butterfly.


Although it is very difficult to quantify the exact environmental costs of a single t-shirt, or any other item, it is entirely fair to say that in a world of 6 billion people, the production of virtually anything, from cars to tofu, has significant environmental impacts.  Even a biodegradable, renewable resource such as cotton, is plagued with problems including heavy pesticide use (between 8 and 25% of all pesticides produced are applied to cotton), water pollution, and fish kills.


My point is not that we shouldn’t buy cotton, or that we should feel guilty about everything we buy, but rather, that before we acquire something we should simply stop and remember that everything has an environmental cost, in just the same way that we stop and remember economic costs every time we look at a price tag.  For the most part, environmental costs are not reflected on the price tag, yet they clearly exist.  Likewise, the environmental benefits we get from not purchasing something, equally tricky to quantify, also clearly exist.  


The question I now ask myself when faced, for example, with next year’s wonderful Common Ground Fair t-shirt, is not just “do I like this shirt enough to pay $16.00?” but rather, “do I like this shirt enough to pay $16 and to wear it out?”  For me, this latter question addresses environmental cost as well as economic cost.  If the answer is yes, I have hopefully purchased something that will bring me lots of pleasure – a good purchase that I won’t feel guilty about.  If the answer is no – then I have saved money, saved drawer space, saved trips to Goodwill, and contributed to some wonderful intangible host of benefits to the natural world, like extra butterflies, a clear brook in an Iowa field, and less pressure to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – things which also bring me great pleasure.


Every once in a while, when my kids, who are perfectly normal and covetous of most things material, decide not to purchase something (usually because they have not saved enough allowance) I will slip in a little comment along the lines of, “hey, did you know you just helped save a harp seal?” and though it surprises me every time, their little faces light up.  The benefits to not purchasing, intangible though they may be, are clear enough to our children.

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