Monday, February 2, 2009

How green is your footprint?

We know it's important to recycle and save water, but what about the nuts and bolts of environmentally friendly life? Metro consulted some experts with the dumb eco-questions that many are afraid to ask.

Does it use more energy to switch the light on and off every time I enter and leave a room, or to leave it on all evening?Sustainability Victoria advises turning lights off if you're going to be out of the room for longer than the typical television ad break. Kelly Wickham, project manager for energy supply, and John Osborne, project manager for renewables and distributed energy, say that although the life of the bulb is reduced by switching on and off frequently, the remaining life of the bulb (plus time it's switched off) is greater than if it's not switched off at all. Phew! To be clear, Osborne says: "If you're going to be out of the room for more than a few minutes, yes, switch the light off."

Does my leftover pizza box (or soft drink can, or tomato sauce bottle) need to be spotless for it to be recyclable?This depends on the recycling process used.

"We did a tour of Visy, the processing plant in Springvale," Wickham says. "The process engineer told us there that things just need to be 'well eaten and well drunk'. If it's 95 per cent clean, then they'll process it. It gets washed down during the process itself, so rinsing and wasting water is pretty unnecessary."

What's the most fuel-efficient way to drive?

RACV general manager of public policy Brian Negus stresses that smoother driving uses less petrol.

"The most fuel-efficient way to drive is to make sure you accelerate gently, don't rev the engine and avoid large changes in the speed at which you travel," he says, pointing to extensive green tips on the RACV website (under the My Car tab). These include keeping your car serviced and well maintained to minimise emissions and leaks, keeping tyres well inflated and aligned, and avoiding heavy traffic where possible.

To minimise wind resistance, the RACV recommends removing roof racks and other attachments when they are not being used and closing the windows when travelling at higher speeds. You should also remove unnecessary weight from the car boot. So keep those golf clubs and prams in the garage.

The site also provides a guide to choosing a greener car and an online Car Eco-meter.

What's worse, the carbon dioxide put out by a petrol-fuelled car or the environmental effects of hybrid-car batteries?Even the experts are stumped on this one. "The jury is still out," Negus says.

"It is clear (on a daily operational basis) that the carbon dioxide from a traditionally fuelled car is worse for the environment than the hybrid. The qualifier is that you do need to take into account the recycling of batteries. We are still in a fairly embryonic stage with battery technology."

He says advances are likely to have been made by the time the current crop of hybrid batteries wear out over the next decade.

Wickham says what's needed is a "whole life cycle analysis — from the materials extracted from the ground to the car put together, transported used and disposed of".

A recent New Scientist article on this topic said the UK-based Environmental Transport Association put the most efficient conventionally powered vehicles as slightly kinder to the environment than hybrids, but pointed out that the current hybrid technology won't evolve without consumer investment.

If I'm stuck in traffic, do I use more petrol turning my car on and off repeatedly or leaving it running?You may save a bit of petrol, but the wear and tear from turning your car off and on will do more harm than good, Osborne says. Plus emissions at start-up are heavier than during idling.

Negus says it depends on how bad the traffic is and how long you are stopped. "However, stopping is not something we'd recommend, as it's a significant safety issue. But if you're waiting for someone outside a shop (for longer than a few minutes) and you've pulled out of traffic, you should turn the car off."

Can I put window envelopes in the paper recycling?Processors have advised that window envelopes are not a problem.

If I turn my appliances off but don't unplug them, will they still use some electricity?Many items draw energy even when switched off, the experts advise. Called "phantom loads", they draw power for internal batteries, clocks or some other standby requirement.

"If it's got a red (standby) light, then it's still drawing power and even more if it's got a remote control," Osborne says. "The remote control is powered all the time so it can sense the signal sent by the remote when you want to switch on the unit. As well as the little LED shining, there's a sensor and aerial inside the unit that's waiting to receive your signal to switch it on."

So look for light and feel for warmth.

What is the greenest way to barbecue?

That depends on the fuel. Wood might be "greener" if the carbon cycle is closed by an equivalent amount of timber being grown to replace it. LPG, while clean, is still a fossil fuel and non-renewable. Sustainability Victoria's experts say the ultimate solution is now available: the solar barbecue.

"Solar barbecues do work," Osborne says. "Of course, you need a sunny day to do it."

Another tip is to use real dishes or bamboo plates made from renewable sources, instead of paper plates.

The website advises that gas barbecues produce about half as much carbon dioxide as charcoal grills and about a third as much as electric grills.

What's best, paper or plastic packaging?"Paper is better if we're planting trees to make up for what we use," Wickham says. "If we're taking more timber out of the system than we're putting back, then plastic might come out ahead."

Paper can be recycled seven times, but plastic can be used more times than that, he notes. But plastics do come from hydrocarbons. Paper does not and can be part of the solution when managed properly.

What's the best single thing we can do to live greener lives?Osborne says switching off is the way to go.

"Turn off everything that uses electricity," he says simply. "You get about 1.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt hour you use. With gas, for the same amount of energy, you'll get about one-quarter the amount of carbon dioxide."

Wickham agrees, but as "a mad cyclist", he advocates driving less. "I think one of the great messages that people are missing out on is the great link between sustainability and health. The more sustainably we live, the more healthy we are likely to be."

The 2009 Premier's Sustainability Awards are now open.

To enter or for more information, visit the website

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