Sunday, March 16, 2008

Light up your Bathroom - LED, CFL or Incandescent?

What kind of lighting is best for your bathroom? You have the choice between purchasing a Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb (CFL), a Light-Emitting Diode Light Bulb (LED) and a normal Incandescent Light Bulb. There are a number of different categories you should consider before making a decision – check out their rankings below:

Best Light Quality

  1. Incandescent – the obvious winner. Yellow, warm light is much preferred!
  2. Two way second place/last place tie. LED bulbs (which are used to light up the computer screen you are reading this on) are slightly dimmer and have a daylight quality to them. They tend to stream light in one direction so you’ll end up with dark spaces in your room. CFL bulbs – people say the lighting isn’t that bad. Maybe it’s something you have to get used to but I can’t stand it in a small space.

Environmentally Friendly
  1. LED bulbs are by far the most environmentally friendly. They use the least amount of electricity, they last the longest and they do not contain hazardous materials. If you’re willing to sacrifice on light quality and spend more upfront, choose this bulb.
  2. Incandescent bulbs use the most electricity and fill up the landfills more quickly than the LED and CFL bulbs. If you’re going to use these bulbs, make sure to turn off your lights when you’re not using them or try to make use of natural light from windows. And don't forget to recycle them.
  3. CFL bulbs each contain about 5mg of mercury. You should use CFL bulbs only if you plan to recycle them (drop them off at IKEA or check out Earth 911 for a list of local drop-off locations). When these bulbs break in your home or in a garbage bin, mercury (which is very toxic to the environment and your health) is released. As more and more people jump on Al Gore’s CFL bandwagon, more and more mercury will be released into the environment. Check out NPR's story “CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury” for more information.

Longest Life – The lifetime of a light bulb in the bathroom may be slightly shorter because of moisture, but here’s the standard for these bulbs.
  1. LED – 50,000 to 60,000 hour
  2. CFL – 10,000 hours
  3. Incandescent – 1,000 to 1,500 hours

Lowest Electricity Bill – Check out the Light Bulb Comparison Spreadsheet from Product Dose for an in depth comparison.
  1. LED – these bulbs use slightly less watts of energy than the CFL bulbs. You’ll see the biggest impact in your bill in high energy cost areas.
  2. CFL – according to the EPA these bulbs use 75% less energy than the common Incandescent bulbs.
  3. Incandescent – the energy hog of the light bulb family.

Upfront Costs
  1. Incandescent – as cheap as they get.
  2. CFL – midrange price – often about $10 per bulb.
  3. LED – most expensive initially - usually $30+ per bulb (but this investment will pay off). Check out the C. Crane website to compare prices of different LED models.

Lifetime Cost
  1. LED and CFL – with their long life and low electricity use, these bulbs will save you money in the long term.
  2. Incandescent – over a course of a year, these bulbs can cost you hundreds more than the LED and CFL bulbs.

The choice is up to you. Which ever you chose, just remember to turn off your lights and recycle your light bulbs!

Friday, February 15, 2008

So Why Is Toilet Paper White Anyway?

I recently wrote an email to Kimberly Clark (famous for their paper products including Kleenex, Scott, Viva and Cottonelle) and asked why they bleach their toilet paper white. Their customer support explained that bleaching is not only for aesthetic purposes – it also removes the lignin or glue from the wood. The removal of lignin helps improve the strength, feel and shelf life of their tissue and paper.

Unfortunately, most paper mills and companies like Kimberly Clark use chlorine to bleach their toilet paper. The chlorine bleaching process creates many incredibly toxic by-products including dioxins which end up in our water systems and soils.

Humans are most often exposed to these chemicals by eating contaminated food (e.g. fish), drinking contaminated water, or by working at companies that produce dioxins (e.g. paper mills). It is believe that populations exposed to high levels of dioxins have increased risks of birth defects, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. You can learn more about studies on dioxins at the Nation Institute of Health.

I also wrote an email to Seventh Generation and asked why they whiten their toilet paper and why they, in contrast to Kimberly Clark, bleach without chlorine. Here’s Seventh Generation’s response from the Director of Contract Manufacturing:

"Our tissue products are whitened using processes that are chlorine free. Hydrogen peroxide and/or sodium hydrosulfate are typically used to whiten. Because our tissue products are made from 100% recycled feedstock, this lignin (glue) is not an issue for us. It has already been removed. The whitening process helps provide a tissue with consistent look and feel.

Although I tend to agree directionally with the statement about the lignin and its potential undesired impacts on tissue characteristics, I don’t necessarily agree that chlorine containing substances are the best overall methods for bleaching wood pulp when considering the potential adverse impact on the environment in which we live. Furthermore, I am not necessarily agreeing so readily that bleaching is absolutely necessary in order to make a tissue product that can meet consumer’s expectations. As a matter of fact, we offer an unbleached version of paper towels and napkins which tend to be well accepted by the Seventh generation customer. So, I am suggesting that even if bleaching result in somewhat better tissue characteristics, the value added may not be worth it if all aspects of the situation are being considered."

As Seventh Generation mentions, there are alternatives to the chlorine bleaching processes. Here are your more eco-friendly options when it comes to toilet paper:

  • Unbleached: Completely natural – no bleach added. May not be a winner on softness or comfort.
  • Processed Chlorine Free (PCF): Recycled paper bleached with oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide. Examples brands of PCF toilet paper: Seventh Generation, Green Forest, Planet, 365 Whole Foods, Earth First. See the NRDC’s toilet paper comparison chart.
  • Totally Chlorine Free (TCF): Non-recycled paper bleached with oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen.

That was the good, now here’s the bad (and the ugly):

  • Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF): Paper bleached with chlorine dioxide. This process releases fewer dioxins than bleaching with chlorine gas, but it is still is harmful to the environment. Examples brands of ECF toilet paper: Charmin, Quilted Northern, Cottonelle, Angle Soft, Kleenex, Safeway Select
  • Chlorine Gas: Dioxins galore!

So the next time you're purchasing toilet paper, try out paper that is chlorine free. It's better for the environment and still white and soft.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Where Does All That Water Go?

What happens to the water you flush down the toilet? What about the water that goes down the drain when you shower or wash your hands? These are questions that I never gave much thought to before I became interested in greening up bathrooms. But Wikipedia and the USGS have helped educate me. I’m hoping to take a trip to a water treatment center to verify all of this, but in the mean time, here’s a simplified look at what happens to the water we use:

  1. Water from the sink, shower, toilet, and so on (now contaminated with chemicals and waste) goes down the drain and heads for either a wastewater/sewage treatment plant or a septic tank. I’m going to focus on the sewage treatment plant in this post.
  2. At the treatment plant, water goes through a primary or mechanical treatment where 60% of suspended solids are removed. Machines remove large objects including human waste, sand, gravel, rocks, oils, greases, rags, fruit, cans, and other objects that could clog or damage the equipment. These solids are usually sent to a landfill.
  3. The remaining liquid goes through a secondary treatment where aerobic bacteria breaks down soap, detergent, human waste and food waste. The bacteria consume the organic components and combine the less soluble parts into blocks called floc (which are removed).
  4. Finally, the water goes through a tertiary treatment where it is filtered and disinfected so it can be released back into the environment. Here are some common steps taken during this stage of treatment:
    • Nitrogen and phosphorus are removed (if necessary) to prevent algae blooms (where algae acts like cancer - it multiplies, uses all of the oxygen in the water, releases toxins and kill animals).
    • Treatment facilities disinfect with chlorine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to reduce the number of microorganisms in the water. Chlorine is commonly used because of its low cost, however, it can be toxic to the environment and aquatic life. Ozone is much safer but expensive. UV light is safer but high in maintenance and not always as effective.
  5. The treated water (or effluent quality water) is released back into the environment via streams, rivers, lakes, ground, etc.

As you can imagine water treatment plants use large amounts of energy to clean water. Unfortunately, most of the water that goes into these treatment plants comes from excessive water use and didn’t need to go down the drain in the first place.

If we can all reduce our water usage in the bathroom by brushing our teeth without the water running, by taking shorter showers, by adding water displacement devices to our toilet tanks, or by purchasing other water saving products, we can significantly cut down the amount of energy we use to clean water at water treatment plants.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Story of Stuff

To continue with the landfill, recycling and composting themes, I wanted to add a quick link to a video a friend of mine told me about. It's a 20 minute video called The Story of Stuff and is about our patterns of consumption - where our products come from and where they end up. Although the video doesn't discuss consumerism in the bathroom (that's my job!), it is still full of interesting facts and is worth a view.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Composting and Recycling ... In The Bathroom!

Now that you have a basic understanding of how a landfill works from my last post, why not apply the practice of recycling and composting in your bathroom? Add a small bucket (or two) next to your bathroom trash bin and set it aside for plastic (numbers 1, 2 and 6) and paper products and other recyclables. If you’re interested in composting you can compost the following bathroom items:

  • Cotton swabs
  • Hair from your brush
  • Lint
  • Plant trimmings
  • Soap scraps
  • Paper products (e.g. paper towel, toilet paper*, kleenex, cardboard rolls. *you should definitely flush your toilet paper down the toilet. It breaks down relatively easily in water, but if you use it to blow your nose or blot your face, you can dispose of it in the compost bin if you'd like)

Recycling allows us to reuse material. Composting allows us to produce rich and fertile soil (called humus) in a cost-effective way for use in vegetable, fruit and flower gardens. Many cities and townships like San Francisco are trying to encourage recycling and composting and offer free or discounted pick-ups of your blue (recycled) and green (compost) bins. If you’re interested in learning more about getting your compost and recycled waste picked up at your home, check out the EPA's "Where You Live" composting map and recycling map.

If you live in an apartment building, ask your landlord to provide your complex with this service. My apartment complex recycles but does not compost so I recently wrote the following short and simple letter to my landlord in the hopes of changing this. Feel free to send the same letter to your landlord (or even to your office building).

As a tenant at your apartment complex, I was wondering if you would consider getting our apartment a composting bin. The green carts are picked up at no additional charge and could greatly reduce our building's garbage volume every week. Let me know what we can do to make this happen. Thank you.

I also attached a link to a local composting service. And guess what? The next day I received an enthusiastic reply from my landlord that said they had ordered a composting bin for my apartment. The green bin was delivered the next day! Being green is very trendy these days. Your landlord may jump all over the composting and recycling idea if you express interest.

One more composting tip. If you plan to compost, you will need to use a compostable trash bag liner. You should be able to find these liners at Whole Foods, some Walgreens, and possibly your local hardware store. Try BioBag - their bags are 100% biodegradable.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Landfills 101: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Paper or plastic? Which do you prefer? Which do you think is better for the environment? Unfortunately there have not been many studies on the subject, but most people think paper is the lesser evil because if it were to end up in a landfill it would degrade more quickly than plastic. But this isn’t true! Biodegradable wastes are only able to breakdown into harmless substances under normal environmental conditions. There is nothing normal or natural about a landfill.

I recently heard a discussion on NPR's KQED where scientists visited a landfill to sample its contents. They found perfectly preserved guacamole and lettuce from the 1970’s! Ugh. Think of all those food scraps you’ve thrown away in the past 30 years – they are still there. Landfills tightly seal in waste to protect the outside environment from contamination (thank goodness!) but, as a result, any biodegradation that does take place happens very slowly. In the absence of oxygen and moisture, bacteria must degrade landfill waste through anaerobic digestion which releases methane gas and carbon dioxide (which must be controlled and regulated by the landfill because of its explosive nature).

According to the EPA, in 2006 Americans generated 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day. This equates to 251 million tons of waste every year. 32.5% (or 82 million tons) of this waste was recycled or composted and 12.5% is burned. That means 55% of our waste goes directly to landfills. Much of that waste can and should be composted or recycled. For example, in 2000 only 2.6% of food waste was composted. You can help by composting and recycling in both your bathroom and kitchen.

I’m hoping to take a field trip to a Bay Area landfill and will report back on it as soon as I go. In the mean time, both the Environmental Protection Agency and How Stuff Works are great resources for learning more about our landfill and municipal solid waste systems. I believe understanding what happens to our trash after we dispose of it is an important step in reducing our waste and our consumerist habits. So think twice when you throw things in the trash, and the next time you’re at a store, don’t choose paper or plastic. Bring a cloth bag instead.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bathroom Water Usage Calculator

I recently ran across a nifty water usage calculator on the U.S. Geological Survey website. To find out how many gallons of water you use in the bathroom every day enter the number of times you flush the toilet, wash your hands, brush your teeth, and take a shower on a daily basis into the appropriate cells. Leave the dishwasher and laundry machine cells at zero if you want to look at just your water usage in the bathroom.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Showers: Money & Fresh Water Down The Drain

Do you know how many gallons of fresh water you use in the shower every day? How about every year? Most likely it's much more than you realize. Being aware of the amount of water you use in the shower is important. With awareness you'll be more likely to reduce your daily water usage and as a result you'll reduce your water and energy bill and also do the planet some good.

How Much Water Do Showers Use?
On average 30% of household water is used in the shower. Homes built in the U.S. before 1992 have showerheads that use between 5 and 7 gallons per minute (GPM) or between 15 and 20 liters per minute (LPM). In 1992, however, the U.S. government began mandating that new buildings install low-flow showerheads that have a 2.5 GPM or less.

Check your showerhead to find out your shower's water flow per minute. If your showerhead uses more than 2.5 gallons per minute (or more than 9 LPM) you may want to seriously consider replacing your showerhead. If you already own a low flow showerhead and are due for a replacement, you can find high quality showerheads that use even less water than 2.5 GPM.

What Are You Saving?

Using less water will not only reduce your water bill but it will also lower your energy expenses (because you are heating less water). You'll also be doing the planet a favor by saving water and reducing greenhouse gases.

By switching to a showerhead with a lower water flow a family of four can save hundreds of dollars every year. Check out this shower calculator to determine your savings. Fill in your household statistics and try adjusting the showerhead GPM to see how much you could save if you purchased a showerhead with a lower GPM.

Types of Low Flow Showerheads
Aerated showerheads mix water and air together which reduces the amount of water used and helps maintain water pressure. Even though the flow of water is lower, the air mixture will make the shower feel more like a high pressure shower.
Non-aerated showerheads, on the other hand, pulsate individual streams of water. The water pressure of these showerheads is equally as strong. If you are partial to massage showerheads, the non-aerated showerhead is best for you.

Be on the lookout for showerheads that offer shut-off or pause buttons. This will allow you to stop the water while you are lathering up or shampooing and resume the water at the same temperature when you are ready to continue.

Eco-Friendly Showerhead Brands

Low GPM/LPM showerheads do not need to sacrifice your shower experience. Here is a compilation of eco-friendly showerheads that have gotten positive reviews and use less than 2.5 GPM (or 9 LPM). If you recommend any other brands or have some opinions about the brands listed below please add a comment or write me an email.

Check out this Consumer Report to learn more about other low flow showerheads.

More Tips
It’s easy to daze off while you’re in the shower. Don’t let time pass so quickly - try using a timer to monitor how much time you’re spending in the shower. Use a timer that you already own or check out Neco's Sand Shower Timer and Digital Shower Timer. Limit yourself to a certain amount of time in the shower every week.

Finally, try playing a mind trick on yourself. Imagine that the water coming out of your showerhead is actually money. Or imagine that it’s transparent gold. Don’t let all that money go down the drain!