It’s a scary thought that the things we do today might hurt our children’s and grandchildren’s generations. Although it’s difficult to predict the reverberations of our actions, there's a growing concern that we've become too dependent on natural resources and that we're depleting them at the expense of future generations. Aside from global and national decisions about what can be done to prevent a possible energy crisis, many people are seeking ways to do their part to provide a sustainable future.
Sustainability refers to the idea of providing for the needs of today while ensuring enough resources for the future. The conventional wisdom is that we need to reduce our energy consumption -- especially the energy we needlessly waste -- in order to properly conserve much needed energy for the future. Even if you’re not concerned about future generations, however, consider that most personal choices in reducing energy consumption come with the added benefit of saving money.
Some of the most important sustainable choices are obvious and even easy -- it isn’t terribly inconvenient to flip a light switch off before you leave a room, for instance. Others we’ll discuss aren't so obvious -- such as paper versus plastic, or direct flights versus connecting flights.
Like charity, energy conservation begins at home. If you’ve always prided yourself on being a shrewd consumer who favors long-term cost savings and durability, you’ll appreciate that energy-saving products will also help you pinch your pennies.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has made this easier when you need to choose an appliance -- the organization requires an Energy Guide label on many kinds of major appliances that tell you how much energy the machine uses compared to similar models. Products can also earn Energy Star labels from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program if they meet certain standards of energy efficiency. Such appliances often cost more than others, but the savings in energy costs often make it cheaper in the long run.
Smaller purchases can also make a difference. Energy-efficient florescent light bulbs, for instance, are a better choice than incandescent bulbs. In addition to remembering to turn lights off when you’re not using them, you could invest in motion sensors or timers to help minimize their use.
Conserving water not only preserves it as a resource in and of itself; it also helps reduce our energy consumption. That’s because it takes a lot of energy to not only deliver but also treat the water that comes to you. To give you an idea of just how much energy our water use consumes, consider that letting a faucet run for 5 minutes is like leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours. Add on to that the energy our hot-water heater uses for providing hot showers, clothes and dishwashing loads, and you can see how effective conserving water can be.
Half of the water we consume in our homes is through toilets and showers, so let’s start there. Older toilets and shower heads often use more water than newer models. Definitely consider an upgrade if your toilet was made before 1993, or if your shower head was made before 1978. Try to take shorter showers when you can. When brushing your teeth, don’t let the faucet run. And when washing clothes and dishes, rinse in cold water and only run full loads.
Without realizing it, we commonly waste a lot of the energy that we consume. Try not to use your heating or air conditioning more than necessary. Instead, keep them on the lowest setting that you can feel comfortable with. Consider putting your heat and AC on a timer so that they aren’t in use when you’re away during the day.
To maximize the heating and cooling you do use, make sure that your residence is properly insulated. The escape of warm or cool air only makes your heating and air conditioning systems work harder and suck up more energy than they have to. Thermopane or argon-filled double-glazed windows, in addition to storm windows, are all good choices. You should consider weather stripping and caulking to prevent leaks.
We can also minimize the energy we waste through the materials we consume. For instance, the theory behind recycling is that it's more energy efficient than making whole new products. Aluminum cans are an excellent example of this and considered the most energy-efficient items to recycle.
We eat food to provide our own bodies with energy. But an enormous amount of energy often goes into getting that food to our plate. That’s because it consumes energy to prepare, preserve, package and transport food. One of the simplest and best things to do is to not waste the food that you purchase. One study from the American Chemical Society found that the United States could save up to 350 million barrels of oil merely by not wasting food.
Other significant ways to reduce your energy consumption have to do with the foods you choose to purchase. Because a lot of energy goes into transporting food long distances, buying foods grown and produced locally will help minimize that energy consumption. A lot of energy also goes into the process of manufacturing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So, buying organic food grown without such things also helps reduce energy consumption.
Remember that this doesn’t only apply to the produce aisle. Consider that animals consume much of the grains that are treated with manufactured pesticides and fertilizers. Raising animals takes a good deal of energy, so cutting meat out of your diet can help reduce the energy you use, too. Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians save 160 gallons of oil per year, and vegans save 250 gallons.
Much of the energy we consume is in the form of transportation. So, some of our most effective energy-saving decisions have to do with how we get from place to place. Choosing a car with good mileage is just one factor. Carpooling rather than driving alone is one good choice, and it allows you to split gas money with others. Taking advantage of the public transportation in your area is one of the best ways to reduce your energy consumption. And, of course, simply avoid driving when you can; instead, walk or bike (and get some healthy exercise in the process).
When you have to fly, you might be faced with the decision of whether to book a nonstop flight or connecting flights to get to your destination. Because takeoff and landing take up so much of the fuel in a flight, a direct flight uses less energy. However, the answer isn’t actually so simple. You’ve probably noticed that getting connecting flights is often cheaper. Why would an airline charge you less to use more of their fuel? It’s because they use a hub-and-spoke system to fill as many seats as possible on their flights: A full plane is more fuel-efficient per passenger than a partly empty plane.
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