Preserving the environment: energy- and cost-saving alternatives to recycling abound

The more you conserve, the less you have to recycle

On June 5, mayors of some of the largest cities around the world took the historic step of signing the Urban Environmental Accords in San Francisco in recognition of United Nations World Environment Day 2005.

The international treaty sets out 21 specific actions for sustainable urban living. The accords address seven environmental areas common to all the world’s large cities: water, energy, waste, urban design, transportation, urban nature and environmental health.

“Many fluorescent bulbs now produce a more natural-looking light and they use less energy, which will save dollars over the long run,” says WUSTL’s Bruce Backus.

While the focus was on the mayors’ pledge to take specific actions toward making their cities greener, an environmental health and safety expert at Washington University in St. Louis says there are many things individuals can do in their own homes and offices to promote sustainable living.

Bruce Backus, assistant vice chancellor for environmental health and safety at Washington University, says that recycling can certainly help — it’s always better to fill those ubiquitous blue bins with unwanted paper than it is to throw that paper right into the trash.

But he also suggests another, less-thought-of method of keeping costs down while preserving resources at the same time: conservation.

Conservation could be considered a precursor to recycling — the more you conserve, the less you have to recycle, says Backus. And there are several ways to practice conservation in your office and home in some of the most important areas of environmental concern — lighting, heating and cooling and water.

“The benefits to conservation are twofold,” Backus says. “I don’t think people often realize that there are both economic and environmental benefits to conserving materials.

“From an economic standpoint, simple common-sense use of lighting and water can save thousands of dollars a year. And conserving more energy, paper and water also leads to less waste that sometimes gets distributed into the environment.”

Simple ways to save money, energy

Perhaps the biggest way to save money and energy involves lighting. A quick rundown of a checklist shows several very simple — and in some cases, obvious — ways to conserve: turn off all lights not in use; use bulbs of lower wattage; use natural sunlight when possible; keep bulbs and fixtures clean; focus light on your task; and use fluorescent lights wherever possible.

According to the Department of Energy, compact fluorescent light bulbs use just 25 percent of the energy of normal lights and can last 10 times longer, saving energy and replacement labor.

“Manufacturers are making more energy-efficient bulbs these days,” Backus says. “Many fluorescent bulbs now produce a more natural-looking light and they use less energy, which will save dollars over the long run.”

Adding occupancy sensors can also help. In rooms that are not occupied constantly, such as conference rooms, lunchrooms and bathrooms, occupancy sensors will automatically turn lights on when people enter the room and off after they leave. Lighting accounts for approximately 40 percent of energy used in office buildings.

When washing dishes, let the dishes soak before rinsing, instead of using constantly running water.
When washing dishes, let the dishes soak before rinsing, instead of using constantly running water.

Regarding water, a way to avoid waste is to never put water down the drain when there may be another use for it such as watering a plant or garden, or cleaning. When washing dishes, fill the sink and let the dishes soak before rinsing, instead of using constantly running water.

Heating and cooling is another area prone to wasted resources. Some easy pitfalls and their solutions include using natural ventilation or fans for air circulation and cooling needs; using window shading devices and placing work stations away from direct sunlight in the heat of the summer; setting the thermostat at 68° F or lower in the winter and 78° F or above in the summer.

Perhaps most important is to keep the heating and cooling to a minimum. Heating and cooling accounts for half of the total energy use in office buildings. Or find a way to manage the temperatures of rooms not always in use.

“If you have special heating or cooling needs in a specific room, such as a large meeting room that is heavily occupied only one or two days a week, newer ventilation control systems can now be programmed to handle those peak loads,” Backus says.

“Similar cost savings can be accomplished at home by installing a programmable thermostat. You can program it to increase or decrease heating or cooling needs based on your family’s schedule. And that can result in a significant savings, both of energy and related costs.”

Finally, a third big way to save energy is through judicious use of electricity. You know that computer you leave on every night? Turn it off — if you can’t turn it off every night because of system backups or upgrades, talk with your administrator to find nights when you can shut the machine off. Weekends are especially important.

The Department of Energy reports that a single computer can use more than 100 watts of power, and most desks in an office have at least one. The same goes for printers. When replacing computers, purchase the new energy-efficient types that use up to 90 percent less energy.

An energy conservation Web site uses the example of Cole & Weber, an advertising agency in Seattle with about 30 workers. The workers turn their computers off at night and on weekends. This saves $3,000 in energy costs a year — enough to pay for a new computer.

However, sometimes there is no alternative but to recycle.

Before recycling your home and office paper, make sure you have fully used the paper. Print draft documents on the reverse side of no longer needed documents. Use the duplex feature on photocopiers, making copies on the front and reverse sides of paper.

Use the recycling bins in your homes and offices to recycle paper and aluminum cans, and do not contaminate those waste streams with other trash.

And feel free to recycle nearly every kind of paper.

“One thing we have noticed is that the recyclers of paper are being much more accommodating in what they will take,” Backus says. “They’ll take almost anything that tears and that is uncontaminated by foods. They are much more willing to accept nearly all kinds of paper.”