The ULS Report TM
Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving resources and reducing waste.

January-February-March 1999
Volume 6, Number 1


Sustainability        Thinking Critically About Global Warming       


Buzzword for a New Millennium

Because you're an environmentally aware person, you have probably come across the term sustainability, or its longer cousin, sustainable development. But do you really know what it means? Here's a definition that's close to what The President's Council on Sustainable Development uses: Sustainability means meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

Frankly, this definition doesn't appeal to us, because it is based solely upon meeting the needs of humans. What about the needs of other animals, as well as plants, bacteria, etc.? To us, this definition contains a trap: It rests upon the debatable assumption that new technologies will always be available to offset any harm we humans might cause other living organisms or the overall environment. A careful look at history will show that in many instances, technology has been a leading cause of environmental degradation, not a shining knight that has come to the biosphere's rescue.

Before you start calling us old fashioned or even Luddites, please understand that we are not anti-technology. But we don't think it's a good idea to assume and even hope that some as yet unforeseen invention or discovery will clean the air and water, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and arrest overpopulation, deforestation and urban sprawl.

We do know one thing, however. In the effort to create a sustainable 21st Century, a key strategy must be to dramatically improve efficiency. We must live lighter, love lighter and locomote lighter. In short, we must do an even better job of using less stuff in the future to deliver the same benefits we receive today.

Obviously, this will not be an easy task. But it is good to know that learning about, and contributing to, sustainability efforts is becoming part of mainstream academic thought. This is true even in the most unlikely of places -- the nation's top business schools. When schools like Kellogg (Northwestern), the University of Michigan, and Kenan-Flagler ( UNC) start talking sustainability, the business world listens.


What We Can Do

We can't wait for business to first understand, and then solve, our environmental problems. Besides, the commercial sector only creates waste in the service of consumers. That's all of us, folks. And that means it's time we all got involved. Given that it's pretty much the dead of winter, we'll stick to tips that you can use now.

Avoid the draft.
Leaking windows and doors rob your home of heat, energy and money. And if your furnace works harder than it has to, its useful life declines, maintenance costs increase, and emissions go up as well. There's a simple thing you can do to cut your utility bill: Run a small piece of paper around the edges of your doors and windows. If it flutters, you've got a leak. All you need to do is put a small piece of insulating putty, such as Mortite, at the leak point on windows. A big roll costs under $5. Doors may require insulating strips, which cost less than $10 and only take a few minutes to install.

Also, if you have drapes, use them. They will help keep in warm air by insulating the room from cold air leakage through the windows. If you're about to buy drapes, please consider having them lined. The extra cost will be offset by the energy savings you'll receive from the added insulation value.

Keep it clean.
When it comes to energy efficiency and long service life, there's nothing like a clean machine. That's because dirt and lint-free equipment runs better, keeping down wear and tear and the increased service costs associated with higher usage.

Cleaning appliances is simple: Remove lint and dust from the coils of your refrigerator, freezer and humidifier/dehumidifier. Ditto for the lint in and around your dryer, furnace and any vents leading to or from these machines. Change or clean the filter in your air purifier or furnace. The dollar it costs to do so will be saved many times over in reduced energy and maintenance costs. And don't forget to regularly clean or replace the filter and dirt bags in your vacuum cleaner, dust buster, etc.

Stay Out of Hot Water.
Your hot water heater may be the most energy consuming appliance in your home. Try turning down the temperature a bit, and see what happens. You may be able to save up to 15% on your overall energy bill by just dialing down the temperature 5 to 10 degrees.

And, as we've said before, use the vacation setting on the dial when you go away. This will keep the pilot light going, or if electric, minimize the number of heating cycles. After all, why pay to keep water hot if you're not at home to use it?

Also, don't forget that many washing machines will do a fine job with warm or cold water. If you do need to use hot water, wait until you've got a full load. This same logic applies to your dishwasher: pile in the dishes and cutlery, then try one of the lighter duty settings.

Turn it down!
Not the music, the thermostat. This is especially true at night, when you won't notice the cooler temperatures. You may even sleep better, too! We'd recommend 60-62 degrees F at night, and 66-70 degrees F during the day. If you're still uncomfortable, a blanket or sweater is a lot cheaper, and uses a lot less energy, than running the furnace or boiler.

Lights out!
Make sure lights are off when you leave the room. When bulbs burn out, consider replacing them with compact fluorescents. If lights have dimmers, try turning down the lighting level. You'll enjoy the ambiance while saving money and electricity.

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Are these tips new and radical? No. But you'll be amazed how much can be saved by following a few of them. And you'll be doing your part to assure that the next 1000 years creates a more sustainable world than the previous millennium did.

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Thinking Critically
About Global Warming

As the debate regarding the reality of global warming rages on, we are bombarded with arguments from all sides. The problem is, most of us aren't experts, and don't have the time, or even inclination, to become professional climatologists.

However, this does not absolve us from the need to understand the issues and be able to make decisions for ourselves. To help, we will be looking at a few of the typical arguments that are used to try and reduce concern for issues related to greenhouse gases, global warming and climate change. Our hope is that we can help you see through some of these points so that your own thinking becomes clearer.


Argument 1: Humans are only responsible for a small portion of the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated and emitted into the atmosphere. Therefor, our effect is small and need not be of real concern.

The first statement above is true, since it is estimated that humanity accounts for less than 5% of total annual carbon dioxide emissions. However, it doesn't really lead to the conclusion presented in the second sentence. Here's why: Let's say that you have an old fashioned two pan scale, with a weight sitting on one side and an empty pan on the other. You and some friends start adding sand to the empty pan. At some point, the sand and the weight will be of equal mass, and the scales will balance. This situation is comparable to the way in which our climate worked up until about a hundred years ago.

Now, if one of you adds even a small amount of sand, the balance will be tipped. Did it matter who added the sand, or how much he or she had contributed to creating the balance in the first place? No!

This example provides the perfect way to think about climate change. Before humans started burning large amounts of fossil fuels in the mid-Nineteenth Century, there was an apparent balance between the amount of carbon dioxide being naturally emitted and the amount being naturally absorbed. Our need for energy is removing that balance. Thus, what matters is whether or not we are "tipping the environmental scales" not whether we are a big part of the overall process. Think of the parable "the straw that broke the camel's back" and you'll be on the right track.


Argument 2: Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will encourage tree growth, which will "suck up" the extra CO2 and give off additional amounts of oxygen. Thus, the problem will solve itself.

Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, it doesn't take into account what's commonly known as the law of unintended consequences, which states that every solution creates new, and hard to foresee, problems.

Some of these problems are just beginning to come to light. Researchers at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment have been exposing plants to increased amounts of CO2. What they've found is that while increased carbon dioxide does cause increased growth, it's not uniform growth: The nutrients in the plant leaves declines as a percentage of total weight. This means that animals eating the leaves receive less nutrients per pound of food, and as a result may have to eat more in order to get proper nutrient levels. This will cause an increase in their body weight, making them more susceptible to predators. Such an occurrence would create havoc with the food chain, as predator populations intially grow while prey populations fall, leading to reductions in the predator population, etc.


Argument 3: We all want warmer weather, so global warming would be good.

Tell that to countries like Bangladesh and island nations that would cease to exist, thanks to rising seas. Ditto for parts of Florida, California, Mexico, Japan, etc., with coastlines that would become part of the local continental shelf.


Argument 4: A warmer climate means calmer weather and fewer major storms.

This statement may have been true in the past, but current climate history is quite different. For example, the number and severity of violent hurricanes and tropical storms in 1998 was larger than anticipated. The same number of major ocean-forming storms is expected this year, too. These increases are occurring during some of the warmest years on record.


What Should We Do?

A little precaution is called for, if we expect to either prevent or reduce the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Some of our suggestions may surprise you:

  • Forget about the paper, glass and plastic debates. Buy products that are concentrated and/or come in the lightest weight, most efficient material available. Those products with significantly lighter weight packaging use far fewer energy resources, and thus create far few emissions, than products packaged in heavier, more rigid, containers. Thus, when you take a long term, lifecycle approach to environmental concerns, you find that light makes right.

  • Keep the pedal from the metal. Gasoline consumption is the primary way that consumers burn fossil fuels and spew CO2 into the environment. Slow down, drive less and carpool when possible. Also, keep your car tuned and, if buying a new one, check the fuel efficiency numbers.

  • Practice sensible family planning. Let's be honest: products and packages don't create environmental problems -- people do. A sustainable world thus starts with sustainable population levels.

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Winter Reading

Now's the time to settle in with a good book. We have a few suggestions, thanks to readers who have passed along their favorites, or who have written books of their own:


Preventing Waste at the Source (Norman J. Crampton, Lewis Publishers, 1998, $49.95)

Norm is well known as the Director of the Indiana Institute on Recycling. As a progressive environmental leader, he was one of the first recyclers to see that waste prevention strategies must also be addressed and developed.

If you're a solid waste professional, environmental manager or businessperson interested in reducing waste and saving money, this book is filled with excellent case histories. Examples include ways to cut waste in the front office, warehouse and factory floor. The book also contains ideas for moving from disposable to reusable packaging, as well as procedures you can use to measure progress or results.


Profit Centers in Industrial Ecology: The Business Executive's Approach to the Environment (Ronald Smith, Jr., Quorum Books, 1998, $65)

This book is also aimed at a business audience looking to integrate better environmental stewardship into everyday practices. After taking readers through ways in which environmental factors affect products and productivity, the author cites case histories in a wide variety of fields.


50 Ways to Make the Most Money Having a Garage Sale (Send $5 to CMS Publishing, Box 583303, Mpls., MN 55458)

OK, it's not really a book. It's a great little pamphlet that will help keep your old stuff out of the dumpster and put a few extra bucks in your pocket. Examples: Put old clothes on hangers, as shoppers will buy more "off the rack" than off the table. Also, put out lawn chairs so that shoppers' companions can relax. This will make it easier for buyers to spend time purchasing rather than babysitting friends and relatives.


Invest in Yourself: Six Secrets to a Rich Life ($22.95, Wiley, 1998, 326 pages)

From our good friends at The Pocket Change Investor, this book can help you improve the financial and emotional quality of your lives. Tips include ways in which you can pare down debts, live within your means, simplify your living and financial situations, and invest for the future.


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The Times, They Are A Changin'

The success of this newsletter has created an inadvertent problem for us: We can't go on like this. So to help us control costs, the following changes will take effect immediately:

  • The report will be published quarterly.

  • Subscriptions for those who start receiving the paper version of the report after March 31, 1999 will cost (a measly) $6.00 a year.


We ask our current subscribers to do the following:

  • Switch to e-mail if possible. (Call us to do so.)

  • Provide us with change of address information.

  • Make a contribution of $6 or more.

  • Arrange to have your company or organization sponsor our Earth Day and ULS activities.

Thanks for your understanding and support!


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Reduction Roundup...
Green Greeks --
That's they're name, and they're serious. We're talking about a program at the University of Michigan being created by brothers and sisters to help the fraternity and sorority systems become more sustainable. Current projects look to reduce water and energy consumption as well as food waste. Increased recycling is also on the agenda. For more info, contact Tracey Finlayson at 734-827-1318.

Re-Roll Out the Red Carpet -- Commercial carpet producer Collins & Aikman Floorcoverings has developed a way to recycle old carpets into new ones. Besides reducing their costs of production, the process offers two important environmental features. First, it keeps literally tons of carpet out of landfills. Second, it reduces the need to produce carpet from virgin materials. The company is also looking to replace both its pile and backing with more environmentally sustainable polymers. CAF's efforts earned it the National Recycling Coalition's 1998 Annual Buy Recycled Business Alliance Innovative New Product Award. Contact Lee Schilling, 706-259-9711.

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