Many of us have adopted small, easy habits to help make our lives a little more environmentally friendly. Maybe you've given up bottled water, switched to eco-friendly household cleaners, started recycling or switched the lightbulbs in your home to the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent alternative. Each of these decisions is a good way to help combat global warming. But how do you choose which green living changes are right for you? And how can you be sure your choices are right for the planet?
It can be hard to sort out the facts about leading an eco-friendly lifestyle, and there are many shades of green. What you think you know is true may turn out to be more turquoise than shamrock. The big offenders in the global warming crisis are in the news all the time -- coal-burning power plants and high levels of fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, the number of cars on the world's roads. But let's consider the not-so-obvious offenders. Trees, for example. Good for the planet, right? In many respects, yes, but we bet you didn't know that planting trees to offset atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) might actually cause a net warming effect. Yes, you read that correctly: warming.
What other myths are out there? In this article, we'll look into the truths behind five common green myths, including how to drive a stake through the heart of vampire power.
Turning off your computer when it's not in use is a great way to save energy. But did you know that some devices and appliances, including your computer, continue to use power even when they're off?
It's a phenomenon called vampire power, sometimes called standby power or energy leaks. Vampire power is the energy a piece of equipment continues to use even after it's been switched off. In a study done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, researchers found that vampire power may consume as much as 15 to 30 watts per appliance [source: California Energy Commission]. Totaled up, it's estimated that more than 5 percent of your power bill can be attributed to appliances in standby mode, which equals about $4 billion consumer dollars spent to feed vampires each year [source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]. Contributors include any device that relies on standby power, such as televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners, computers, cell-phone chargers and any appliance that maintains (and displays) a clock.
Off is not enough. The stake in the heart of vampire power is to unplug devices.
Each one of us consumes energy as part of our everyday lives. We heat and cool our homes, commute to work or school and flip on lamps or televisions throughout the day. Conserving energy and choosing energy-efficient products are both key to energy sustainability. They may sound similar but, in fact, they're two different things.
Energy conservationis any activity where the outcome is the consumption of less energy, such as choosing to turn off the lights when you leave a room. Energy efficiency is any technology that requires less energy to carry out the same task. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) provide the same illumination as standard incandescent bulbs but use just one-quarter of the energy and last 8 to 12 times longer [source: International Herald Tribune]. They're an example of energy efficiency.
The result of choosing energy-efficient products may be energy conservation -- but not always. Think about it like your favorite cookie: just because they started making a low-fat variety doesn't mean you should consume the whole box.
Which came first? The chicken or the egg? These days, it seems that's not the only chicken riddle we have to solve while food shopping. Were the chickens treated humanely? Were they kept free-range? Are these eggs from organic, cage-free birds?
Choosing organic fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats is smart. While there's no definitive evidence that organic foods have any significant nutritional benefits over conventional foods, they must be produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. This lowers your exposure to potentially toxic substances. And because organics are grown and produced using sustainable, regenerative farming methods, they're good for the soil and good for the planet.
Except when they aren't.
Organic foods are only good for the planet when they're not trucked, shipped or flown around the world before landing at their final destination. Food miles are the distance your food has traveled from farm to store. The idea is the higher number of food miles traveled, the greater amount of energy consumed and pollution released -- both of which contribute to the problem of global warming. On average, most of our meals have traveled about 1,300 miles (2,092 km) before they arrive on our table [source: ATTRA]. Think about it: How did fresh strawberries get to your local store in the middle of winter? In 2005, the total amount of fruits and vegetables that were flown into California alone released more than 70,000 tons of CO2, the same amount of pollution produced by 12,000 cars on the road [source: National Resources Defense Council].
What to do? Choose locally grown foods -- and, even better: locally grown organic foods. Visit your farmers' market or join a local CSA (community supported agriculture) group, and you're guaranteed to get foods that have taken the road less traveled.
The recent rapid spike in gas prices may have you thinking about trading in your gas-guzzler for a hybrid. Since it's estimated that hybrids cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-third compared to many non-hybrids, that's hardly a bad decision [source: Natural Resources Defense Council]. But a little research before you buy could lead you to the used car lot instead.
First, consider the amount of energy needed to make a new car. To make a new Toyota Prius, or a new gas-only vehicle for that matter, roughly 113 million BTUs of energy are used -- that's equal to 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of gasoline [source: Wired].
Also consider gas consumption. Small hybrids are some of the most fuel-efficient cars on the roads, and not all hybrids are equal. Some gas-only used cars may actually have smaller carbon footprints. Take, for example, large hybrid SUVs and trucks. Sure, they're made with hybrid technologies but their gas mileage doesn't measure up against some of the conventional fuel-efficient compact cars on the market. A gas-only Honda Fit gets an estimated 33 mpg compared to the estimated 27 mpg of a hybrid Toyota Highlander [source: Edmunds].
The smart choice depends on what type of car you need, as well as your driving habits. For people who really do need to own a truck or large car, swapping a gas-only model for a hybrid is potentially a better option. But if, like many of us, you're hauling nothing more than you and your family around, consider your options. Or you could always trade your car in for a bike, assuming you could pedal enough to offset the initial carbon footprint associated with making the bike.
Forests have a three-pronged effect on our climate: They cool the air through the process of evapotranspiration; they reduce air pollutants (including CO2, a known greenhouse gas) through photosynthesis; and their dark, dense leaves absorb sunlight that warms the planet.
Most people are familiar with the idea that trees and vegetation help to defend our planet against global warming. However, recent scientific studies show those benefits depend on where those trees are planted. Plant in the wrong part of the world and you may be wasting time and money.
Forests in the tropical belt around the equator benefit the planet. They absorb CO2, in a process called carbon sequestering, which helps lower temperatures. It's the forests outside of the tropics that may have little or no impact on climate change.
The farther away from the equator forests are, the more likely they are to trap heat in their dense canopies, raising temperatures. This is known as the albedo effect. In a study conducted by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Carnegie Institution and Université Montpellier II, scientists found that forests in mid-to-high latitudes could increase temperatures by up to 10 degrees F (5.5 degrees C) in the next 100 years than if those forests were not there [source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory].
While supporting forestry projects remains a popular carbon offsetting option, it's important to be smart about which programs you back: Helping to mitigate the effects of tropical deforestation is a sound choice. And you can't go wrong when you keep your community green and beautiful by planting saplings around your neighborhood.
It's always admirable to choose to make your life greener -- especially when you do a little research beforehand. Each step we take as individuals, no matter how small, helps add up to a healthier planet.
Non-conventional foods are steadily becoming a normal part of the world's diet. Quiz yourself on organically-produced foods at HowStuffWorks.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Bryce, Robert. "7 Energy Efficiency Myths Debunked: Guest Analysis." Popular Mechanics. 2008. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/earth/4255840.html
- "Climate Change - Health and Environmental Effects: Forests." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2007. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/effects/forests.html
- Dratch, Dana. "10 major myths about living green." Bankrate. 2007. http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/energy-environment-2007/environmental_myths_a1.asp?caret=3a
- "Eat Local." National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). http://www.nrdc.org/health/foodmiles/default.asp
- Edmunds.com. http://www.edmunds.com/
- "Energy Efficiency." Energy Information Administration (EIA). U.S. Department of Energy. http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/saving/efficiency/savingenergy_secondary.html
- "Energy Myth: Appliances Use No Energy When Turned Off." Consumer Energy Center. California Energy Commission. 1999. http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/myths/appliances.html
- "Food Miles: How far your food travels has serious consequences for your health and the climate." National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 2007. http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/camiles/foodmiles.pdf
- "Global Warming Basics." National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 2007. http://www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/f101.asp
- "How to Reduce Your Energy Consumption." National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). http://www.nrdc.org/air/energy/genergy/easy.asp
- Jha, Alok. "Planting trees to save planet is pointless, say ecologists." The Guardian. 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/dec/15/ethicalliving.lifeandhealth
- Maffett, J.P. "Top 12 Ways You Can Reduce Global Warming." AOL Research & Learn. 2005. http://reference.aol.com/globalwarming/_a/top-12-ways-you-can-reduce-global/20050802173409990001
- Meier, Alan and Wolfgang Huber. "Leaking Electricity in the USA." Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 1998. http://eetd.lbl.gov/EA/Standby/Articles/Florence/Slide01.html
- "On the Road." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2008. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/road.html
- "Plant a tree and save the Earth?" Lawrence Livermore National Library. 2006. https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/news_releases/2006/NR-06-12-02.html
- Power, Matt. "Don't Buy That New Prius! Test-Drive a Used Car Instead." Wired Magazine. Vol. 16.06. 2008. http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/16-06/ff_heresies_09usedcars
- "Reducing Food Miles." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA). 2008. http://attra.ncat.org/farm_energy/food_miles.html
- Rodale Institute. http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/
- Strauss, Michael. "Efficiency replaces conservation as the goal of energy saving policies." International Herald Tribune. 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/10/30/business/reneff.php
- Streater, Scott. "Busting the 'green' myths." Star-Telegram. 2007. http://www.star-telegram.com/645/story/244103.html
- "Top 10 Green Myths -- Part 1." A Fresh Squeeze, Chicago Edition. http://www.afreshsqueeze.com/articleDtl.php?id=48319aa52269b
- "Tropical Deforestation and Global Warming." Union of Concerned Scientists. 2007. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/forest_solutions/tropical-deforestation-and.html
- Woodyard, Chris. "Nerdy, fuel-stingy cars are hot wheels." USA Today. 2008. http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2008-05-14-economy-cars-resale_N.htm