Another Day, Another Dollar

The average American is fairly conscious of their monetary spending. With an issue such as climate change why not use this reality to our advantage? Truth be told, a number of daily activities can be altered to help the planet without hurting your wallet!

While this may seem like old news, I want to reiterate some very simple, money saving changes that we can make to reduce waste and improve the climate trajectory. Since food is necessary and continually present in our daily lives, let’s focus our attention there. In fact, let’s cut an even smaller slice of the pie and consider our household refrigerators and the foods we put in them.

The average American household spends around $6600 on food annually – about $4000 on groceries with an additional $2600 spent eating out [4]. Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 5.27.34 PMBehind housing and transportation, food represents one of the largest portions of the American budget – approximately 13% [4]. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this money is wasted when food spoils or is left uneaten. Scientists believe that approximately 40% of American food is wasted [2,6]. While much of this waste can be attributed to practices outside of individual homes, it’s hard to deny our partial accountability. In fact, the average American is accused of wasting 25% of the food they bring home [6]. Ok, lets do the math – $4000 spent on groceries and 25% goes to waste – the average household throws out $1000 each year! If you had 1000 dollars would you wrap it in plastic and toss it into a landfill? Probably not.

As a consumer we can only benefit from reducing our waste. Some strategies for reducing waste are as easy as planning meals, being conscious of the foods in your home and strategically using the freezer. If $1000 isn’t enough of an incentive, consider the environmental impact of these simple changes. By reducing household waste we can moderate greenhouse gas emission from multiple angles. Reduced waste means reduced demand – food production is a major source of carbon emission – lower consumer demands equal lower emissions [2].
Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 11.08.18 AMAdditionally, less food decomposing in landfills means less methane entering the atmosphere [2].

Why not protect our pockets and the environment at the same time – being aware and resourceful with the food in our fridge is a small contribution with double the incentive. Speaking of refrigerators… lets shift gears and consider the “cool incentives” this appliance has to offer. Chilling food allows us to significantly extend shelf life, improve food accessibility and when used appropriately, reduce waste. The refrigerator has its down sides of course. Refrigerators require a constant supply of electricity and account for 10 to 15 percent of a household’s monthly energy consumption [3]. Being one of the biggest electricity consumers in the average home, its important to ensure that this appliance is running as efficiently as possible [3].

When considering energy saving alternative, new “Energy Star” rated refrigerators are by far the most efficient option – up to 50% more efficient then their older counterparts [1,3]. However, replacing the refrigerator is not in the cards for many of us. Luckily, there are a few simple steps we can take to boost the efficiency of any run-of-the-mill refrigerator.

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 7.16.13 PMFirst off, check the temperature settings! Your refrigerator should be set at 38 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer should be between 0 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit [5]. Saving energy is as easy as the flip of a switch – the “power-save” or “energy saver” switch that is – be sure it is turned on! Dropping the thermostat down by even 1 degree can make a significant difference in energy consumption [3].

Location and upkeep are other simple fixes that should be considered. Take a few minutes to look at your fridge. Is it near a large window or located by a heating vent?
If moving your fridge isn’t an option – and lets be real, its not for most – then consider covering the window to reduce sunlight exposure and be sure to close any heat vents near by. Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 7.16.51 PMReducing external heat sources will improve refrigerator efficiency [1]. While your admiring your refrigerator take a gander at the condenser coil (typically found on the back or underside of the fridge). Is it clean? Likely not. Cleaning the condenser coil is a very simple task that can improve the efficiency of your refrigerator by 1/3! [3] That’s basically free money!

Why not use monetary incentives to our advantage, sure these changes help the planet, but they also keep money in your pocket – anyone can afford to save money! These changes might seem trivial, but minor day-to-day actions add up. So, get acquainted with your refrigerator, give it a little TLC and lighten its load. As for the food, be aware of your purchases and the contents in your fridge; don’t let wasted food toll the environment, or your wallet!

Help the planet: Waste less. Save money!

Sources:

[1] http://learn.compactappliance.com/refrigerator-efficiency-tips/

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/03/upshot/what-you-can-do-about-climate-change.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.livescience.com/4091-10-ways-improve-earth-health.html

[4] http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/03/07/the-average-american-spends-this-much-on-groceries.aspx

[5] http://www.nrdc.org/air/energy/genergy.asp

[6] http://foodshift.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/FoodWasteStatisticsandBibliography.pdf

The Grass is Always Greener

When it comes to energy, grass is the greener option. In the quest to phase out fossil fuels, researchers have recognized perennial grasslands as a practical and effective source of green energy. Grasses may hold the key to lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower energy costs, and healthier more sustainable agriculture.

Among the leading alternatives to fossil fuels, biomass is a low carbon emission and low cost alternative [3]. Other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, also perform well on the low cost/low carbon scale. However these sources – which are better suited for electrical energy – are unable to fulfill our fuel demands. Transient in nature and more vulnerable to variable weather conditions, wind and solar may prove better suited for supplemental energy [3]. Biomass, on the other hand, can be grown continually and converted directly to liquid fuels.

switchgrasscropWhen considering the viable sources of biomass, perennial grasses deliver a rather impressive resume. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Eurasian elephant grass (Miscanthus giganteus) are perennials characterized by resilience, versatility, and high productivity [2,4]. With low moisture and high sugar content, these grasses are a great source of cellulosic material [2]. This material can be used as feedstock for anaerobic digesters to produce liquid biofuel or used as a combustion facility to produce energy or heat [2].

lIn a world facing increasing global hunger, the use of food crops for fuel production has come under great scrutiny. To address this issue, many countries have moved away from food crops – or food cropland – for biofuel production. In come perennial grasses! Switchgrass and elephant grass are resilient in nature and ideal for cultivation on land unsuitable for food crop production [4,5]. Even when grown on marginal lands, these grasses require little to no fertilizer, chemical assistance or mechanical maintenance [1,3,4]. Allowing for large-scale cultivation with limited impact on food crop production. In fact, if implemented properly, these grasses have the potential to improve food crop yields.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 2.19.56 PMSince these grasses are perennials, tilling can occur less frequently. This allows for higher levels of sequestered carbon to remain in the ground [1]. Switchgrass in particular, has exceptionally thick deep-set root systems, making it a highly effective carbon sink [4]. This sequestration process reduces greenhouse gases, while also improving soil quality. The increased carbon content in soil improves agricultural productivity by acting like an organic fertilizer [4].

The switch from corn to grass could have an immense impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 40% of the US corn harvest is currently being grown for biofuel (ethanol) [1]. Imagine the impact if this land was converted to perennial grasslands! Evan DeLucia, and his research team at the University of Illinois, created a climate model to test this impact. The results suggest that a shift to perennial grasses could transform the Midwest from a net source of greenhouse gases to a net sink! [1]

Shifting from corn to perennial grasses comes with additional advantages. Prairies and perennial grasslands provide considerable ecosystem services [5]. Ben Werling, and his research team at Michigan State University, compared ecosystem services in perennial grasslands and cornfields. They found nearly all ecosystem services, including methane consumption, pest suppression, pollination, and conservation of grassland birds, were higher in perennial grasslands [5].

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These grasslands also improve biodiversity, naturally reduce invasives, and improve soil health [4,5]. If croplands are surrounded or intermixed with perennial grasses, they too may benefit from these services.

When it comes to the issues of climate change, cellulosic biofuels are just a bandaid on the bullet hole of excessive consumption. We the consumers must realize our impact and actively work to reduce our waste and energy demands. It’s important to be informed of our options when it comes to the future of energy. Prior to writing this post I had little knowledge of the diverse prospects for biofuel. Learning about the services that perennial grasses provide and the innovation of cellulosic bioenergy, I now have a brighter outlook on the future of biofuels. If we are able to transition away from food crop fuels toward a well-implemented mix of biomass, we may see benefits far beyond energy production. Through reduced consumer demand and help from cellulosic biofuels, we can foster a future of cleaner and greener energy. With perennial grasses at the forefront of biomass production, there is hope for low cost energy – both economically and environmentally.

Sources:

[1] Grasses’ growing role for American cars http://climatenewsnetwork.net/grasses-growing-role-for-american-cars/

[2] Can Grass Be a New Biofuel? http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2014/01/can-grass-be-a-new-biofuel.html

[3] Biomass versus fossil fuels, solar and wind http://www.viaspace.com/biomass_versus_alternatives.php

[4] Switchgrass Carbon Sequestration http://climate.org/smart-solutions/?p=220

[5] Perennial grasslands enhance biodiversity and multiple ecosystem services in bioenergy landscapes http://www.pnas.org/content/111/4/1652.full?tab=author-info