It wasn't too long ago that green was just another color. But in recent years, it's become an easy way to describe a wealth of environmental problems, solutions and ideas for living. Because it's vague enough, "green" can be applied to seemingly disparate topics -- anything from cleaning up a power plant to recycling your old bathwater.
In 2008, green, and all the issues it encompasses, got ramped up another notch. You probably saw newspapers, business journals and even food and fashion magazines (green makeup, anyone?) that splashed the word across their articles and titles.
So how did all this green awareness get going? Well, the warming of the planet is reason enough for many people to want to modify their behavior or take interest in scientific and legislative solutions. But people have also begun to pay more attention to our unsustainable reliance on oil, the precarious state of our world water supply and the contentious roots of some of our favorite products. The interest hasn't been lost on the folks here at HowStuffWorks. We've been tackling some of the biggest green conundrums for years. For 2008, we've picked 10 of the year's most important topics.
When the cameras at the 2008 Beijing Olympics weren't tracking Michael Phelps on his amazing climb to eight gold medals, or following the drama of the Chinese and U.S. gymnastics teams, they'd swoop in for a shot of the nest-shaped National Stadium backed by hazy skies.
China won its Olympic bid by promising to hold the world's first "green" games and clean up a city known for air quality worse than that of Los Angeles. To meet the goal, the city implemented real changes, such as adding scrubbing systems to power plants and updating subway lines. But Beijing also employed some short-term fixes in order to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of athletes competing in gas masks; they banished sooty industries outside city limits and applied an even-odd license plate law to stem car pollution.
Did Beijing's efforts work? Yes and no. The city improved its infrastructure dramatically and constructed some of the most energy-efficient and architecturally stunning green buildings to date. But Beijing was unable to tamp down particulate matter and ozone levels that were reported at five times the upper threshold considered safe by the World Health Organization. To learn more about the 2008 games, read What is China doing to create a "green" Olympics?
When you buy a cup of coffee, where does the money go? After everyone else gets their cut, how much cash actually makes it back to the people who grew and harvested the beans? As consumers begin to pay more attention to the power of their purchases, some are choosing to better support the bottom of the production line -- even if it means paying a little bit more.
The fair trade movement aims to strengthen the living conditions of low-paid farmers and producers of basic goods like coffee, cotton and rice by paying them fair wages. By cutting out the middleman, fair trade organizations are able to generate more direct profits for those who need it most while still supervising the production and certification of goods. And because consumers usually want a superior product if they're paying more money, many fair trade products are high quality or organic. To learn more about fair trade, read How Fair Trade Works.
You may have noticed a sudden uptick in dirty cars and withered lawns due to the sweeping bans on outdoor watering. But you've probably also seen signs assuring the public that operational sprinklers aren't breaking any laws -- they're just shooting out something called "gray water."
Gray water is the wastewater that drains from your sinks, shower and washing machine. Unlike black water (the wastewater that leaves your toilet and is best kept in the sewers), gray water can be treated and reused in your home without much fuss. While small concentrations of detergent, food particles, skin and fecal matter make gray water unsafe for drinking, your lawn and ornamental plants won't mind a bit.
You can collect gray water with professionally installed systems that hook up to your washer, or tote buckets yourself. Gray water alone can't stop our immersion in what the United Nations calls a "water crisis," but combined with conservation, it could definitely help. Learn more about collecting wastewater in What is gray water and can it solve the global water crisis?
For some people, "clean coal" makes for an irreconcilable combination of words. After all, the sootiest, blackest of all major fuel sources has never had much of a reputation for being clean. But certain treatments ranging from the obvious (washing the crushed coal before it's burned) to the complex (avoiding the burning process altogether) can make coal seem like less of a sooty holdover from the industrial revolution.
Clean coal technologies, or CCTs, help cut the hazardous byproducts of burning coal -- including the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. But, of course, coal can only get so clean, so why spend money on technologies that make a dirty fuel less dirty instead of investing in alternative energy sources? Well, because coal isn't going anywhere soon. It's already got a strong hold on the world power market, providing 50 percent of the electricity in the United States and dominating large emerging economies like China and India (according to the U.S. Energy Administration). Until other fuels are as cheap and plentiful as coal, it's helpful to build and retrofit power plants and factories with CCTs. Find out all about it in What is clean coal technology?
As far as environmental guilt goes, vampire power usually ranks pretty low on most people's list. Few folks contract severe cases of eco-anxiety when they forget to unplug their cell-phone charger. Still, what seems like small and even insignificant power drain adds up to a lot of wasted energy when it's happening across a country -- or even just a home. The United States alone spends more than $3 billion a year on such wasted energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Vampire power, also known as standby power or phantom load, refers to the energy electronics and appliances suck from their sockets during standby mode. While they might look like they're switched to "off," most gadgets continue to power certain systems or display screens, while things like cell-phone adapters supply a constant charge, even if they're not charging. So what's an easy fix, short of unplugging all your appliances every time they're not in use? Consolidate several of your electronics and gadgets with a surge protector or power strip. Simply flip the switch off when they're not in use. Find out more about vampire power and how to stop it in How Vampire Power Works.
When gas prices soared through the summer and fall of 2008, many consumers scaled back on their driving. They carpooled, took public transit and even telecommuted when business allowed. Some U.S. lawmakers, however, took the opportunity to ramp up a debate that's been going on for years -- whether to lift a longtime ban and open the protected areas of the U.S. outer continental shelf (OCS) to offshore drilling. While proponents of drilling think expanding offshore operations would reduce dependency on foreign oil and have few environmental consequences, detractors argue that the protected OCS would only produce a small amount of oil years down the road, and that extracting it would wreck a delicate ecosystem. President Bush lifted the executive ban in July 2008. Two months later, Congress followed suit and allowed the 26-year ban to expire. But that's not to say the debate is over. Offshore drilling proved to be a contentious topic during this year's presidential election. To learn more about the turbulent world of offshore drilling, read Why is offshore drilling so controversial?
Between the high price of oil and the rising price of food, it would be easy to think ethanol was an economic boon or just a good recipe for famine. Ethanol, the low-percentage fuel additive typically made from corn or sugarcane, burns cleanly and emits fewer greenhouse gases than its oil-based counterpart. It's also grown from crops that are produced domestically, providing work for the agricultural industry and reducing reliance on foreign oil.
So what's the problem with making crops into fuel? Well, to start with, ethanol doesn't contain as much energy as gasoline. That means that the energy that goes into growing, producing and transporting the fuel potentially outweighs the energy content of the end result. Also, growing corn is no easy task -- it takes up a large amount of land that could lie fallow or be used for growing actual food. But while ethanol is on the outs with many environmentalists, its cousin cellulosic ethanol is faring much better: The fuel made from nonfood products like corn stalks, switchgrass and wood chips could wind up costing less and having fewer of the environmental side effects of crop-based fuel. Read all about the fuel in Is ethanol really more eco-friendly than gas?
You might think your feet stopped growing in high school, but there's a footprint of a sootier variety that's likely to have grown a lot since then. Carbon footprints measure how much carbon dioxide (CO2) you produce in your daily life. Since CO2 is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, most do-it-yourself environmentalists want to produce less of it. Carbon footprints act as a benchmark -- kind of like a weigh-in before a diet -- so that people striving to reduce or even eliminate their carbon output know where they stand to start with.
Carbon calculators, programs hosted by a variety of Web sites, turn easy-to-supply numbers like average power use and gas mileage into a single figure: usually a monthly or annual total of CO2 output measured in tons. With such a clear-cut total, it's easy to see the environmental payoff of seemingly small changes like replacing an inefficient appliance or teleconferencing instead of flying to a business meeting. Learn what kind of tracks you're leaving in How Carbon Footprints Work.
Lately it's become trendy to think about food in a decidedly old-fashioned way. While plenty of gourmands still explore the bounty of exotic fruits, vegetables and spices available from around the world, others are sticking closer to home. Locavores are people committed to eating only foods that have been grown and produced locally. They're at the forefront of the local food and Slow Food movements, and they restrict their diets for environmental, economical and gustatory reasons. Some like the challenge of cooking with seasonal foods; others say food that goes from field to plate in one day just tastes better.
The definition of locavore, however, isn't as strict as it sounds. Locavores set their own radius for what they consider "local." That can limit them to 100 miles (80 kilometers) from home or be as broad as an entire state. Some locavores also make exceptions for mainstays that aren't local to most places: sugar, salt, coffee and olive oil. The movement might sound expensive, but it's actually in keeping with slow economic times -- locavores sometimes supplement their food with produce from their own gardens. After all, it doesn't get any more local than your own backyard. Learn more about eating and buying local foods in How Locavores Work.
Eventually we're going to run out of oil. No, it won't be that your car just sputters to a stop one day, or the tune-up station shutters its windows forever, but it will happen, and we might already be halfway there. Peak oil is the theoretical point when the Earth's oil supply begins an irreversible downward descent -- when oil demand outpaces production. Most folks agree that there will be a peak, but there are lots of opinions about when that peak will be: now, soon or a ways down the road.
What's so scary about a potentially imminent peak in oil supplies? Currently, we don't have the capacity to make up for a major loss in oil production with alternative fuels. A peak could also drive oil companies to drill in protected places to slurp up the Earth's remaining fuel.
Mitigation seems to be the best way to cope with the tap eventually trickling to a stop. By expanding the supply of alternative liquid fuels and conserving the oil we have through increased fuel efficiency, we're more likely to weather what might be a slippery transition. Find out more about the theory in Have we reached peak oil?
If you haven't gotten your fill of 2008 or the topics above, go to the next page to find out more.
Wind turbines harness the power of the wind to run electricity. HowStuffWorks looks at purported health problems surrounding these massive windmills.
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