Think reuse before recycle

October 6th, 2010.

(First published April 2007, Updated October 2010)

The recycling movement has gathered plenty of steam in recent years which is wonderful as there is far less waste hitting our landfills and far more resources being reclaimed.

However, there is concern building that the recycling wave is allowing us to still be rampant consumers, a throwaway society; and recycling some justification for maintaining this mindset.

Take for example those very handy cans of gourmet tuna. These are great to pack in a lunch box but I can empty the contents with a single mouthful! I can alleviate my guilt somewhat by recycling the can, but in order to get that mouthful of tuna, an awful lot of resources have gone into the packaging – and that’s not to mention the added costs in purchasing products using “convenience packaging“.

What’s more economical and energy efficient is buying a larger can of tuna and spooning out the equivalent amount into a reusable container. The only problem there is if the contents of the larger can aren’t eaten – and food waste is another massive environmental problem.

It’s the same sort of situation with a plethora of other products – cans vs. large bottles of drink, traveller packs of anything – all these handy sizes which cost us more can be recycled; but we forget the amount of energy it takes to do so.

While the energy required to recycle the aluminum in a drink can is one twentieth of that to produce the can from raw materials; when you start thinking in terms of billions of cans; it’s still a lot of energy consumed. You can buy the equivalent of 5 cans in a plastic PET recyclable bottle and I suspect (I’m not sure on this) that the recycling process would require less energy (although PET bottles are actually downcycled).

The downcycling aspect is another trap many of us fall into – downcycling is different to recycling in that the packaging being processed is made into something of less value. True recycling is where more of the same product is made; but the term has been extended to cover a variety of different actions.

The case for reuse

In terms of larger items, let’s say an old busted washing machine – we can send it to scrap merchants who may strip it of useful components for recycling which is great; but Fred from down the road is handy with washing machines and he may find that it just needs a fuse or some cheap component. Fred may be able to make use of it or resell the item. Reuse extends the life of a product before it has to hit the recycling stage. You may have saved Fred (or someone else) some cash in having to buy a new washer, so there’s also a definite feel good aspect to re-use aside from the consumption issue.

According to a (rather old) article on the US EPA’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance site, “New recycling-based manufacturers create 25 times the number of jobs as landfilling. Some reuse operations employ 200 jobs for every one job at a disposal facility.”

With the growing number of people understanding that reuse is the first option before recycle, all sorts of groups have started up where you can offer your items for free to others who can make use of them. One such service is The Freecycle Network™ which currently has nearly 7.6 million members globally. 

Another interesting service is ecofreek; which searches over 45+ sources for free and swappable items being given away by people who no longer need them

I’ve read some amazing stories of people who believed *no-one* could make use of their junk, only to find it snapped up when posted to these sorts of sites.

There are also an increasing number of trash removal services that will sort through your waste for you, diverting whatever possible for composting, recycling and reuse. These services cost a little more, but in my opinion are well worth the money.

So, recycling (in all its forms) is bad then?

While some will understandably frown upon the heavy emphasis of recycling for the reasons above; I still think that recycling is an incredibly important thing to encourage. Aside from the reclamation of resources, recycling is a “gateway” green action.
So many people start their green journey by recycling. It’s these easy actions than can encourage bigger changes down the track. For those of us down the green road a little however, the reuse vs. recycle issues are something we should bear in mind.
Even more importantly, we need to reduce the amount we consume – that’s why the 3R’s of green living are in the order they are – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Double glazing – without the hefty price tag

June 6th, 2008.

Note from Michael: this article was kindly contributed by Libe Chacos, author of The Better Building Guide – Thanks Libe!

There are around 8 million homes in Australia and many millions more around the world that have been built without real consideration of energy efficiency, the comfort of those who live in them, rising power costs or the impact on the environment.

If you live in one of them, you can easily transform your home and:

  • Dramatically reduce your heating and cooling needs
  • Slash your energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Make your home much more comfortable all year round

Industry reports have shown that even when a house is fully insulated – walls, floor and ceiling, that up to 48% of the heat loss occurs through single glazed windows.

The following are qualities that will help you to choose the most appropriate glass for your situation:

  • The U-value or R-value
  • The Insulation level of the window (not just the glass); the lower the better
  • SHGC – Solar Heat Gain Co-efficient.  This is expressed as a number between 0 and 1. The lower a window’s SHGC, the less solar heat it transmits.

So let’s take a look at one alternative and see how it applies the right principles of energy efficient windows to save you thousands of dollars on your heating and cooling while you do your bit for a much better environment:

Double Glaze your home for under $400

Double glazing usually consists of two layers of glass and therefore costs an arm and a leg. But there’s alternatives you can install yourself such as a transparent membrane you attach to the inside of your window frame to provide a still air gap and thereby create a double glazing effect.

Depending on the type of windows you have in your home some supplementary framing or support may be required. I have installed the ClearComfort membrane on a house in Canberra (Australia) which is well known for being terribly cold in winter and very hot during summer. The effect was instant and surprisingly good. Condensation was pretty much reduced to zero and you could really feel the difference when touching the membrane to how cold the glass used to feel.

To avoid condensation occurring in the air gap you should the membrane system when the air humidity is low. You should also check that there is no moisture trapped between the glass and the frame and also that the frames are in good order and won’t let moisture into the air gap from the outside. If you have recently been renovating or painting, ensure that any paintwork or silicon etc has thoroughly cured.

Membrane installation

The membrane is fixed in place using double sided tape, cut to size and then made taut using a hair drier. There is a little patience and skill requited to do a good job. It’s recommended to use two strips of tape placed side by side for large windows, thus effectively doubling the tape width, eliminating any problem using these products on large windows. So even with large windows, in many situations the system is unobtrusive and an excellent addition to making your home more comfortable.

The ClearComfort system is available internationally and has been tested by a NATA accredited auditor using the Australian Window Energy Rating Scheme (WERS) developed by the CSIRO and the Australian Window Association. ClearComfort and other similar products are eminently suited to affordable sustainable housing, in particular to retro-fitting, while providing the same insulating U-value as plain clear double glazing.

Other alternatives

Have a look at some alternatives and find which is available in your area. You can use different solutions in different rooms of your home; for example films can be applied to provide shade during the hotter months. North facing windows may need to be treated differently to south or west facing windows.

Remember use the fundamentals to your advantage and always ask suppliers or sales consultants how their product performs or improves the following areas:

  • The U-Value of the window
  • The SHGC
  • Maintenance / warranty

It is easier than most people think to have an energy efficient house. You can make a dramatic improvement to your heating and cooling bills with a small investment and lessening your environmental footprint as you do so.

Libe Chacos from Sunrise Homes offers easy to follow advice and recommendations on how to create a sustainable and energy efficient home that feels great to live in. They follow the first forgotten principle of sustainability – sustain your budget! Find out more about The Better Building Guide

Tank vs. tankless hot water heating

September 11th, 2007.

Through the many houses and places I’ve lived in over the years, I’ve experienced quite a few different hot water systems. Everything from a kettle when I was a fisherman (that was rough), to the solar shower bag and wood stove when I was in the outback and the more traditional types – electric tank, gas tank and tankless water heaters. I haven’t had the pleasure of owning a solar hot water service as yet, but I regularly drool over my neighbor’s!

If your hot water service is on its last legs and solar is out of your reach too; consider a tankless water heater.

Traditional tank systems have a couple of major drawbacks – firstly, they tend to wear out in under a decade; so millions of these things wind up in landfill annually. Another biggie environmentally speaking, not to mention ongoing costs – is energy consumption. Heating water accounts for over 20% of residential energy use in the USA and up to 40% of energy used in Australian homes.

All that energy has to come from somewhere and usually it’s from fossil fuels (gas) or coal-fired electricity generation. For each kilowatt of electricity produced from coal, around 1.5 pounds of carbon emissions emissions are created. Then there’s mercury, nitrous oxide and sulfur and all sorts of other toxic goodies thrown in as well.

The energy hog aspect of tank based hot water systems is due to the fact that much of the time they are cycling on and off to maintain water temperature. While you can reduce/retard the amount of heat escaping using a water heater blanket; you (and the environment) is basically paying for heating water that you aren’t using at that moment – this is called standby heat loss.

Additionally, each time you use the hot water, cold water is flowing into the tank which lowers the temperature of water that had been heated; therefore even more energy is then required for reheating.

The tankless water heater

Tankless water systems work very differently by heating water on demand. A tankless hot water service applies heat directly to the pipe after being automatically activated when a hot water valve is opened. Once engaged, the heater delivers a constant supply of hot water. Tankless water heaters are continuing to gain popularity and now account for over 50% of all the new domestic systems installed in Britain.

Tankless hot water savings

While the initial outlay for a tankless water heater can be double the cost of a standard tank water heater – sometimes more; it should pay for itself in just a few years or less. The hardware should also last twice as long as a tank system. The average family can expect to save between 30 and 50% on water heating related energy bills each year. Both these points make it not only good for your wallet to switch to a tankless system, but good for the environment too.

Disadvantages of tankless

Aside from the initial cost, there are a few other common disadvantages of a tankless system.

a) Tankless systems are somewhat limited in the quantity of hot water that can be produced simultaneously. I don’t remember this being an issue with the gas tankless system that we had in our last house (family of four).

b) I’ve read reports that hot water can take longer to reach faucets that are some distance away from the unit. Again, this is something I didn’t experience with our system.

Something very important to check into if you’re replacing an existing system is if your plumbing, gas/electricity systems are compatible with a tankless setup. While there are energy savings in using a tankless, they do use a lot of energy in a short space of time in order to produce “instant” hot water. This may mean some (expensive) modifications are required to your hourse – so it’s best to get professional advice from a plumber first before purchasing.

Unless your current water heater is a voracious energy hog; given that a tankless system isn’t cheap; consider keeping it until the end of its service life. There’s plenty of other things you can do around your home to minimize environmental impact in the meantime.

Something else I noticed when researching this article is that within the water heating industry, there’s definite sides – those in the industry who love tankless and those who seem to absolutely hate it. Reading some of the debates was a bit like reading arguments between car lovers over different manufacturers. My advice is that if you are considering replacing your hot water service with a tankless system – make the plumber you consult is not prejudiced either way so you’ll get a balanced professional view of what’s best in your circumstances.