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Tires, recycling and our planet

March 17th, 2013.

First published November 2006, last updated March 2013

There’s a common perception the tires we put on our vehicles are made of rubber, a renewable resource. Unfortunately, well over 90% of all tires are made from synthetics – and they have certainly proved to be an environmental headache.

Once tires have reached the end of their serviceable lives, they tend to be dumped in huge piles. If these piles should be set alight, the smoke is an extraordinarily toxic cocktail and the runoff from melted residue can contaminate groundwater.

Tires left sitting around in the open also collect rainwater and become perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

In the USA, about 300 million tires are scrapped or dumped per year. While there’s been a lot of talk about recycling tires, 25% still wind up in landfills and nearly half of reclaimed tires in the USA are utilized as “Tire Derived Fuel” (TDF), usually burned alongside other fuels such as coal.

Burning tires creating huge amounts of air pollution, containing toxins such as:

– benzene (carcinogen)
– lead
– polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
– butadiene (central nervous system damage, carcinogen)
– styrene (potential carcinogen)
– dioxins
– furans

So unfortunately, taking tires to recycling center mightn’t be that earth friendly after all. Check with the center that you go to regarding what happens to the tires they collect.

While tires are a necessary evil in our modern lives, there’s some things we can do to reduce the number of tires that may wind up being used as a toxic fuel alternative or just dumped in landfills. You can also save some cash in the process.

You can extend tire life substantially by:

– checking to see if they are inflated to proper levels
– check inflation levels weekly
– don’t speed
– corner, brake and start off gently
– ensure your tires are properly balanced and rotated regularly
– don’t overload your vehicle.

Just an important point on tire inflation – temperature differences will affect pressure levels; even just during the span of a single day. If you check your tires in the morning, chances are the pressure level will be noticeably lower than in the afternoon. This doesn’t mean that you should adjust inflation umpteen times a day; but it’s why they should be checked regularly – as the seasons change, so will your tire pressure. This will also be the case when you travel from an area of low elevation to high elevation.¬† Aside from environmental and financial reasons, ensuring your tires are properly inflated is an important aspect of safe driving.

Tires can be recycled into more tires or repurposed for many other applications, including:

– insulation blocks
– building homes known as “earthships”
– drainage aggregate
– clean fill
– planters for tomatoes and potatoes
– floor mats
– belts
– gaskets
– shoe soles
– seals
– washers.
– garden edging
– compost bins
– retaining walls
– ute/truck mats

I have a mat in my ute (called a ‘pickup’ in the USA I believe) made from repurposed tires. It prevents the load from rattling on the tray and sliding around. While it was rather pricey, I’ve had it for 2.5 years now and it has held up very well. It’s a weaved mat, meaning that water can pass through and doesn’t get caught under it. The bumpy nature of it gives it extra grip.

One of my favorite uses it the potato planter. Lay down a tire, fill with soil and plant a seed potato. When the potato has sprouted and the leaves reach higher than a width of a tire, then add another tire and put in more soil, covering the plant except for the topmost leaves. Repeat the process throughout the life of the plant and you’ll have a huge crop of potatoes.

In regard to concerns about chemicals leaching from tires when used in such a way, it’s my understanding that old tires aren’t such a problem – new tires will offgas volatile compounds; but this decreases and stops over time; while it is in serviceable condition on the vehicle. So when using tires to grow potatoes, the older the tire the better it would seem.

Do you have any other tips for recycling or repurposing tires? Please share them below.

Organic Material And Oil

November 19th, 2012.

How much organic matter is needed to create a gallon of crude oil (petroleum)? Literally a truckload – actually, many truckloads.

I was refueling  my ATV the other day and marveling at how far a liter of petrol (gas) carried me, Niki the Wonder Dog and some gear across some reasonably rough terrain. The environmental issues aside, I still find the amount of work a small amount of this liquid can do to be mind-boggling.

I’m also fiddling with an electric ATV, using solar power to charge the batteries. It takes around 8 hours for 260 watts of solar panels to charge it enough to give me 18 kilometers range, at less speed and carrying less. However, it’s not a very efficient charging system I’m using and the ATV is just a petrol version that has been somewhat crudely converted.

There’s an awful lot of energy stored in crude oil – which is one of the reasons we’re having troubles getting away from the stuff. It’s certainly very compact compared to the batteries I’m using. Of course, the electric ATV is a lot quieter and cleaner though; but anyway, that’s another topic for another time.

As you probably know, crude oil comes from plants and marine organisms that existed many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Dead dinosaurs may also have contributed matter, but it’s believed that it would only equate to a small percentage.

The most popular theory is that as organisms died, they piled up at the bottom of bodies of water and mixed with sediment. As the sediment accumulated, the intense heat and pressure generated turned this organic material into a substance called kerogen. Over time, this kerogen breaks down and becomes natural gas or petroleum.

So, how much of the original organic material is needed to make a gallon of oil?

Around 98 tons of it! That’s according to some old figures I dug up on the California Energy Commission web site, attributed to ecologist Jeff Dukes.

Mr. Dukes said the amount of plant material that went into the fossil fuels we burned since the mid 1700’s was equal to all the plants grown on Earth over 13,300 years (and that figure is over a decade old).

Think about some of the long trips you’ve taken or even how much gas you pump into your vehicle each week. Bearing in mind a gallon of oil produces up to 0.67 gallons of gasoline; my weekly figure (including my main vehicle usage) is around 9 gallons of crude oil equivalent. That translates to around 880 tons of ancient organic material a week or 45,760 tons of the stuff a year.

But it’s more than that – most of the goods and services we purchase have been trucked in from somewhere, so that adds to our fuel consumption.

What about biofuels?

Generally, biofuels are very land intensive and still require a great deal of material. The following are figures I found on the University of Missouri’s web site.

1 acre of corn harvested in 2012:
158.6 bushels of corn per acre
2.77 gallons of ethanol per bushel (56lbs each) of corn
439 gallons of ethanol per acre

1 acre harvested of sugar beets harvested in 2012:
23 tons of beets per acre
24 gallons of ethanol per ton of beets
552 gallons of ethanol per acre

1 acre of harvested soybeans in 2012
42.8 bushels of soybeans per acre
11.28 pounds of soybean oil per bushel (60lbs each) of soybeans
7.7 pounds of unrefined soybean oil per gallon of biodiesel
63 gallons of biodiesel per acre

1 acre of harvested canola in 2012
1557 pounds of canola per acre
0.383 pounds of canola oil per pound of canola
7.7 pounds of unrefined canola oil per gallon of biodiesel
77 gallons of biodiesel per acre

The above figures are just for the feedstock used to make biofuel – not the whole plant; and then there’s the resources that go into turning the feedstock into fuel. Granted, the waste and by-products can often be used in other applications.

Keeping these sorts of stats in mind (aside from just being interesting trivia) can help remind us how hard the earth has to work to provide us with resources – and that some of those resources are being used up far faster than Mother Nature can provide them; not to mention the damage we wreak through heavy usage.

Also, when we start using food crops as fuel or diverting agricultural land to fuel production, it’s a little frightening – the practice has been labeled a crime against humanity. However, another ancient petroleum source mentioned, algae, is showing promise in terms of cultivation and biofuel production. Other promising feedstocks that can be grown on marginal land includes switchgrass and industrial hemp.

Personally, I’m still looking forward to an all electric 4×4 with a reasonable range (and at a reasonable price); but I think I’ll need a few more solar panels :).

Bonus trivia:

Fossil fuels are a form of converted solar power (albeit a dirty form) – as without the sun the many ancient forms of algae and plants couldn’t have grown.

Related:

Gas saving tips

Noise pollution – an underrated environmental problem

March 27th, 2012.

First published April 2008, last updated March 2012

Long gone are the days of pumping Metallica through my skull. To me, silence is golden nowadays – not necessarily total silence, but an environment free of mechanical, electrical and other forms of human generated noise as much as possible. 

I feel I can think more clearly in a relatively noise-free environment and to be able to hear natural sounds that I otherwise wouldn’t is wonderful. Many people haven’t experienced this and I believe they are really missing out.

Unfortunately, I will never be totally free from noise due to tinnitus (the perception of a constant ringing/buzzing and other various sounds) thanks to the time I’ve spent around industrial noise – and Metallica I guess :). 

In the days when I was a fisherman and pre-tinnitus, I experienced what would possibly be the closest thing to total silence. We were over 30 miles out to sea, so there was no land in sight and just drifting along with our lines. It was a flat calm day, the rest of the crew were sleeping; engines and other equipment were shut down and there wasn’t even a sound of water lapping on the hull. No insects, no birds.

It was quite an experience, one that gives the term “the silence was deafening” real meaning. I could hear my heart beating and every breath I took sounded like a shout. But that experience was an overkill of silence – some level of background sound is needed.

Noise pollution however is a growing environmental problem – it’s far from just being an annoyance as it has very real negative effects on humans (beyond tinnitus) and animals.

The effect of noise on humans

In humans, it’s been shown that exposure to moderately high levels of noise for an eight hour period can increase blood pressure and cause other cardiac issues – even if the person is not particularly consciously disturbed. Noise pollution can also cause gastric problems. Sometimes a person doesn’t even realize their body is stressed by noise until the noise is no longer present – they just feel a sudden sense of relief.

Exposure to excessively loud noise over long periods can also lead to partial deafness. Approximately 10 percent of people living in industrialized areas have substantial hearing loss and youngsters in the USA have an impaired hearing rate 250% higher than their parents and grandparents.

Noise also lies at the root of some violence – many assaults and murders can be attributed to a noise issue that spiralled out of control. Where noise is used to irritate or disrupt others, in my opinion it’s also a form of assault.

The effect of noise on the environment

In nature, noise causes many adverse effects on animals and even plants – here are some examples:

  • Birds in a city need to call longer and louder than their country counterparts
  • Birds that rely on hearing to help locate prey are seriously disadvantaged by industrial noise
  • Noise disturbs feeding and breeding patterns of some animals and has been identified as a contributing factor of the extinction of some species. 
  • Aircraft noise and sonic booms have been implicated as a cause of lowered reproduction in a variety of animals.
  • Military sonar has been responsible for the deaths of possibly thousands of dolphins and whales.
  • Even outboard motor noise can confuse some whales and dolphins.
  • In dairy cows, excessive noise reduces feed consumption, milk yield, and rate of milk release
  • Noise causes increased incidence of miscarriages in caribou
  • Intense noise can affect growth of chickens and egg production
  • Canaries can suffer hearing damage at relatively low decibel levels if the noise is sustained
  • Noise has also been shown to have a detrimental effect on the reproduction of some plants through interfering with pollinator or seed spreading activity.
  • Traffic noise could be hampering the reproductive process of frogs in metropolitan areas by drowning out the mating calls of males.
  • When squid, octopus and cuttlefish are subjected to low frequency sound, sever lesions can develop in their auditory structures

Imagine a world without noise

I’ve often wondered how much quieter the world would be if every single combustion engine was switched off and all electrical equipment shut down for a few minutes simultaneously. After all, noise doesn’t really disappear, like all energy it just changes form or dissipates. Given this, even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, does the sum total of all the human-generated noise in the world still affect that area? I suspect it does, even if it’s only to a small degree – like pointing a torchlight at the moon. The light does hit it, but just so widely spread it’s hardly detectable. 

Perhaps if all combustion engines were silenced briefly we may all fling ourselves off cliffs in blind panic? It’s certainly something that most of the humans living on the planet today wouldn’t be accustomed to.

We are very noisy creatures and the din we create in its various forms is just another layer between us and fully appreciating the beauty of the natural world.

Finding easily accessible quiet places, really quiet places, where the only noises are those of nature, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Noise is very much underrated when it comes to environmental issues. We have our “turn out the lights” days, “don’t drive” days – I’d love to see a “no noise” hour initiative. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what quiet is  and if we don’t teach our children, they will never appreciate the concept of a noise-free experience.

Our usual reaction to dealing with noise is to add more noise – for example, turning up the TV or yelling. We simply don’t know what we’re blocking out, and what we don’t know, we don’t miss.

Playing your part in reducing noise

Noise is something we can all do something about; whether it’s fixing a faulty muffler on your car, turning down our music a little so our neighbors don’t have to listen to it  or making the effort when out in the wild not to yell and shout unnecessarily. Here are some other tips for noise reduction:

  • Cell phones ringing annoy the hell out of many people – keeps yours to the lowest level practicable
  • If you have to raise your voice to have a conversation, something is wrong; so see what noise sources around in your immediate environment that you have control over.
  • Discourage your dogs from barking unnecessarily for extended periods. Barking dogs feature heavily in disputes between neighbors.
  • Institute a quiet time in your household’s routine
  • Make special efforts to keep noise to a minimum at night and early in the morning as these are times when people are trying to unwind or sleep
  • Believe me, very few people want to hear your music, no matter how cool you think it is. There’s other ways to make social statements that are likely more effective and will have a more positive response :)
  • If you do want to turn your stereo up; ensure the doors and windows are closed and reduce the bass levels as bass travels even through brick walls quite easily.
  • If your lifestyle is a particularly rowdy one, consider planting more shrubs and trees around your property. Not only will this reduce noise affecting your neighbors, you’ll provide shelter and food for animals (if they can tolerate the din) and also play a part in greenhouse gas reduction.
  • Swapping over a car or motorbike muffler to something that increases the noise substantially as a result isn’t cool; it’s irresponsible and inconsiderate. A four-cylinder car will still sound like a 4 cylinder car that is now trying too hard to be something it isn’t. A dirt bike with this sort of modification could attract the wrong sort of attention and a loud exhaust will set fauna in a wide area on edge. It’s been my unfortunate experience most dirt-bike riders are pretty much oblivious to just how far sound carries out in the boonies; or they simply don’t care.

Teaching our kids about quiet

If you have children, please take them out into the woods or forests, as far away from human activity as possible and get them to sit and just listen for a while. It may not have much effect on them immediately, but it’s something they may remember and cherish years later – a point of reference for what a more environmentally harmonious life should be. Also do it just for yourself from time to time – it can be a very soothing experience in what is becoming an increasingly complicated existence.

Gas pills, gadgets and additives – real savings or scams?

February 24th, 2012.

First published October 2007, updated February 2012

Environmental concerns coupled with high prices at the gas pump and the specter of peak oil continues to fuel the market for magic pills, gadgets and additives promising better gas mileage and less emissions. But do they work?

I still see these products being touted quite often around the web and I occasionally have companies and agents trying to get me involved in actively marketing them.

The reason I don’t is that I find the whole notion of these products rather questionable. With billions of dollars poured into fuel technology and the pressure on oil companies and auto makers to clean up their environmental act, I find it difficult to believe that outsiders have formulated miracle fuel savers. A chemical analysis of any such product by the big oil companies would very quickly allow them to create a similar additive for their own fuels – and charge accordingly.

A blurb about such a miracle product I received some years ago stated:

“Increase MPG 7% to 14% on gasoline and diesel. Laboratory tested, EPA registered, scientific process. Up to 75% reduction in emissions.”

EPA registration means nothing except that a product won’t create any worse emissions that what your car is already spewing out. It is not an endorsement of its claimed capabilities. As for the independent laboratory testing, I couldn’t locate the lab mentioned in the reports. 

The little further research I did found the company in question was at that point, they were under investigation by the Attorney General of Florida (I haven’t been able to determine the result). Investigation doesn’t equate to guilt by any means, but it sows seeds of doubt, especially as you dig around a little more  and read some of the debates and investigative stories published online.

There’s plenty of these fuel-saver products around; sometimes they are nothing more than an octane booster; which is already available at most gas stations in the form of different fuels available – and these are the safest product to put in your vehicle. 

Using 95 RON (Research Octane Number) or 98 RON fuel can give about a 6-7% increase in power and mileage over the standard (in Australia anyway) 91 RON fuels – you’ll also pay about the same amount more for these fuels though. I run a 98 RON fuel where I can. In fact, with many newer cars, a higher than standard RON fuel is recommended by the manufacturer and it’s a recommendation that should be followed (check your manual).

Note: even before putting “premium” fuels in older vehicles, check with the manufacturer to ascertain suitability.

As for some of the separate add-in products, some can damage your car and actually increase emissions.

The FTC has stated that even for the few gas-saving products that have been found to work, the savings have been very small and at times inconsistent.

The Environmental Protection Agency has run tests on over a hundred so called gas saving gadgets and additives and has found none that work as advertised. It makes me very sad to see unscrupulous operators taking advantage of people who want (and need) to save cash and do something towards minimizing their environmental impact at the same time.

If someone’s trying to peddle gas pills and miraculous gas saving gadgets to you, exercise due diligence – run a search on Google for

product name scam

or

company name scam

.. and see what comes up. Read the information both for and against in order to make a more educated decision about whether or not to purchase. You’ll also need to consider if any modification or additive may void your car warranty.

For some real gas saving strategies that help minimize environmental impact, check out my gas saving tips – it’s mostly common-sense stuff.

Read more from the FTC about gas saving pills, additives and gadgets.

Contrails : Scars Across The Sky

January 21st, 2012.

I awoke this morning to another beautiful start to a day in the bush – eucalyptus scented air, the chatter of birds and a stunning sunrise. There were only the sounds and sights of nature – or so I initially thought.
 
When I looked up at the sky, it was marred by a couple of contrails. 
 
Contrail is short for condensation trail, a streak of artificial cirrus cloud made by jet aircraft engine exhaust; also known as a vapour trail. The scars left across the sky are another marker of our conquest of the planet; visible from our cities, suburbs, out in the boonies and increasingly, even the most remote regions of the world.
 
How contrails form
 
Contrails aren’t smoke – such as what might belch from a poorly maintained car – they are more akin to the clouds of fog you see emanating from car exhausts on a very cold morning. 
 
Formation is a similar process with contrails – as water vapor in exhaust gases rapidly cools, a cloud of very small water droplets forms, or they may turn into tiny ice crystals; particularly if the vapor binds with exhaust particles.
 
Contrails are usually formed at above 26,000 feet; where temperatures are at or below -40C (-40F) states Wikipedia.
 
Unlike the clouds of fog from a car’s exhaust that tend to dissipate rapidly, contrails can hang in the sky for minutes, even hours – and this is where an environmental threat lies. Aside from the other chemicals and particulates being spewed out in the exhaust, contrails are thought to have an impact on climate.
 
Contrails and the environment
  
According to a 2004 study entitled “Contrails, Cirrus Trends, and Climate” (PDF), contrails have the potential for affecting climate via radiative forcing.

Radiative forcing is the change in net irradiance between different layers of the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines it as “a measure of the influence a factor has in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth-atmosphere system.”

The study states like natural cirrus clouds, the artificial contrail clouds reflect solar radiation, while absorbing and emitting thermal infrared radiation. Additionally, ozone formed from air traffic exhaust can produce more positive radiative forcing, resulting in additional warming of the troposphere below .
 
Contrails have already been observed to affect regional weather in areas experiencing heavy air traffic. As air travel increases and expands, the impact may become “globally significant” states the study.

While the word “weather” is associated with short term events, “climate” is in relation to the longer term – and with contrails criss-crossing the skies and a permanent feature of some regions; the move from weather to climate isn’t such a big jump.
 
Avoiding contrail formation
 
Given contrail formation occurs at great heights, researchers from the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and the Department of Physics at Imperial College London suggested some years back that jet aircraft should fly below 31,000 feet in the summer and below 24,000 feet in the winter. 
 
However, there is a trade-off – fuel efficiency. By addressing the threat posed by contrails, it could exacerbate others such as an increase in other forms of pollution from aircraft exhaust. The researchers believe this is the lesser of the environmental evils though.
 
While the contrails I spot above my patch from time to time aren’t going to send temperatures in the area skyrocketing or plummeting, nor directly cause a flood/drought/tornado/whatever; it’s just another disturbance on an already very disturbed planet and not one to be disregarded.
 
It’s also a reminder that just because something isn’t happening in our own backyards, it doesn’t mean what is going on in someone else’s, even thousands of miles away, won’t impact all of us in the long run.
 

The importance of recycling used engine oil

January 18th, 2012.

First published October 2009, updated January 2012

Many people are aware that old engine oil shouldn’t be dumped, but recycled.Unfortunately, up to 100 million litres (approximately 26.4 million US gallons) ofthe stuff is improperly disposed of each year in Australia alone according toour Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. The globalfigure would be staggering.

It’s dumped in household trash, used as weed killer, pour in ditches, leftlaying about or illegally dumped. Actually, I’m feeling rather guilty as I writethis as I have a gallon or so of old oil stashed away (safely) – still – evenafter over 2 years passing since I first published this article.

Used engine oil is incredibly toxic stuff and a gallon can contaminate onemillion gallons of water. Pouring it on land doesn’t reduce the risk either asit can seep down into the water table as well as rendering the soil incapable ofsustaining plant life.

Used oil doesn’t wear out – it just gets filthy. It can be cleaned ofcontaminants and recycled continuously. It can even be cleaned to the pointwhere it can be reused as engine oil.

The dirty oil goes through the same refining process as oil that is extractedfrom wells, so it’s not exactly a “green” process, but it doesn’t havethe added environmental impact of the extraction. 

New engine oil made from recycled oil meets the standards used in the industrylubrication industry. According to the American Petroleum Institute, re-refinedoil is of as high a quality as a virgin oil product.

The recycling process is as follows:

– Removal of any water
– Filtering to remove solids and additives
– De-asphalting to remove bituminous content
– Distillation

Environmental benefits of recycling used engineoil

Information from the USA Environmental Protection Agency states that re-refiningused oil takes only about one-third the energy of refining crude oil tolubricant quality. It takes 42 gallons of crude oil, but only one gallon of usedoil to produce a half gallon of new, high-quality lubricating oil that can beused in car engines.

While only around 0.9% of crude oil consumption in the USA is in the form ofproducing lubricating oil, when you consider the US chewed through well over 18 million barrelsa day in 2010, it still amounts to a lot. 

Some quick, back of virtual envelope calculations:

18 million x 365 = 6,570,000,000 barrels a year
6,570,000,000 barrels a year x 42 gallons = 275,940,000,000 gallons
0.9% of 275,940,000,000 = 248,3460,000

So, around 248 million gallons of oil is used each year for lubricating engines andmachinery based on the 18 million barrel a day figure.

If all that was recycled, it would mean 124 million gallons, or 2.9 millionbarrels that wouldn’t need to be extracted each year. It’s not an insignificantamount – both in environmental and economic terms.

Other uses for recycled engine oil

While the following uses may not be all that “green”, it goes to showjust how important that this resource is recycled rather than just thrown out.By recycling engine oil, we reduce the need for extraction of crude oil and theassociated environmental impacts of that activity.

– Engine oil can also be used as fuel oil. By recycling just two gallons of usedoil, it has the energy potential to generate enough electricity to run theaverage household for almost 24 hours. One gallon of used oil processed for fuelcontains about 140,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy. 

– It can be reused as hydraulic oil

– Many petro-chemical based products such as plastics can be made with it

Where to recycle engine oil

To find out where you can recycle engine oil in the USA, try Earth911.organd search for a collection center via zip code.

In Australia, for further information on used oil and to find your nearest usedoil collection facility, contact oilrecycling@environment.gov.au or call 1800982 006

If you’re in Canada, try the UsedOil Recycling site for information on collection points.

For folks in the UK, visit OilBank Line.

Equally as important as recycling engine oil is to buy products made from thestuff. After learning more about it, I’d have no hesitation in using recycledengine oil it in my car if it was offered as long as it was certified as meeting industrystandards. Perhaps its something to have a chat to our mechanics about.

Dirt/motocross/enduro motorbike riding and the environment

March 12th, 2011.

Over the last 5 years or so, I’ve been spending way too much of my time dealing with motorbike riders in relation to environmental issues – specifically the dirt/motocross/enduro variety. Those dealings often haven’t been pleasant.

Recreational motorbike riding in rural areas, forests, the outback and urban parks presents a multitude of issues that some riders either aren’t aware of or choose to ignore – and the problems are getting worse.

I bought my first bike when I was 14. It was an already old second hand Suzuki TS185 for basic trail riding – an agricultural bike, not a dirt bike. It cost around $400 nearly 30 years ago – it was a substantial amount of money back then. I remember a new 185cc cost around the $1,500 mark.

A couple of years ago I was able to purchase a brand new 125cc agricultural-oriented ATV (quad) for just $600 which I use for work around my block – although I much prefer to walk when I can as I see so much more. 

Motorbikes have their place, but  the explosion of cheap dirt bikes and quads has seen ownership and the associated problems increase dramatically.

While working as a volunteer in an urban parkland reserve, I witnessed and incredible amount of damage caused by irresponsible dirt bikers.

Motorbikes of any variety were totally banned from the area and police were often called to chase these riders. Organized blitzes were launched, tying up police resources, but the stream of bikes never seemed to end. The bikes are so cheap now that even if the bikes were impounded, a few weeks later some of the riders were buying another.

It was an unfortunate part of the psychology of these riders that they were convinced simply owning a bike gave them some type of right to ride it where they wished – a right they didn’t have that they would sometimes nevertheless defend aggressively.

Unfortunately, the same traits seem to apply in non-urban parks and even on land privately owned by some riders. Riders often don’t seem to understand or care that their fun creates hell for other people and wreaks damage on the environment. Sometimes trying to politely explain the issues might see some nodding and “yeh, for sure”.. and then they head out and continue all the same.

Lets look at some of the issues of how recreational dirt bike riders affect not only the area they use their bikes, but far beyond.

Noise pollution

Noise pollution is a chronically underrated environmental threat; it’s far more than just annoying – it does real damage. 

I was looking at an exhaust kit for a specific dirt bike that was rated at 99 decibels. The decibel level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss is 90 – 95 decibels.  Some dirt bikes are far louder than the 99 decibel mark too. It’s important to remember that even 10 decibels added to that figure isn’t just a 10% noise increase, it’s double.

A part of the noise problem is the style of riding – it’s one thing to hear a bike put-putting away, quite another for sudden bursts of throttle assaulting the senses, common in enduro riding.
 
There’s been many times in the past couple of years where I’ve heard bike activity so loud, I thought the riders were on my block – but they were a mile away. A single piece of equipment being operated by someone having “fun” having such an impact on such a large area is just plain selfish. Even if I were deaf I would know when the bikes were around because the population of native fauna on my block often suddenly increases.
 
Disturbance of fauna isn’t just giving animals a bit of a fright and then all is well. Noise can seriously disrupt feeding and breeding activities. Depending on the season and conditions, every minute of grazing time is important as is the conservation of energy – energy shouldn’t have to be spent fleeing dirt bikes.
 
Emissions

Even modern dirt bikes and quads lack the sophisticated emissions systems you find in cars. Cubic centimeter for cubic centimeter (or cubic inch for cubic inch) in terms of engine size, motorbikes spew emissions an order of magnitude higher than cars. 

Track related damage

Anywhere a track is laid will see changes to that area from the diversion of water, increased weed distribution, native vegetation damage, disturbance of fauna and general erosion. Existing tracks for hikers and bicycle riders, much quieter activities, can also be damaged.

Fossil fuel consumption

I fully understand kids wanting to ride around in circles all day burning our limited fossil fuel resources for the sake of fun, but adults? There’s not only the issue of peak oil, but all the damage that occurs in the production of that fuel.

Fire risk

During fire season, I carry a fire extinguisher on my quad at all times. I’m yet to see a dirt bike with similar equipment. Additionally, while all bikes should have spark arrestors, some bike owners modify their exhausts, which while boosting power often increases the noise and interferes with this important safety functionality.

Animal injuries and fatalities

Motorbikes have incredible acceleration rates, far outstripping most cars. It can be difficult for animals to get out the way in the time if they haven’t had the good sense to flee already. During my time volunteering in the parklands, I found close to a dozen dead birds and lizards that I know had been hit by bikes.
 
The bottom line

It’s all well and good to have fun, but at what cost?

Some riders will claim to respect the environment and their hobby helps them enjoy it; but how can a 490cc machine that is louder than a chainsaw be justified? It can’t, it’s simply overkill. Nature can be enjoyed equally as well on a much smaller and quieter bike. There’s nowhere that a noisy 490cc bike can go that a quiet 200cc can’t.

Recreational dirt riding hobby is destructive – to others and to the environment. “Green” recreational riding using motorbikes with gas/petrol engines is a little like “green” tobacco use. There’s no such thing.

How destructive it will be is entirely up to the rider – but if they go out with their noisy modified 490cc enduro bikes and then get complaints or hassled, they shouldn’t whinge – and I really wish more people would take action. There is just no need for such a behemoth of a 2 wheeled vehicle out in nature; just as there’s no need for smaller bikes creating the same level of noise either.

Parents, if you’re going to buy your children bikes, please ensure the bikes are as quiet as possible and you have a place where they can be responsibly ridden in order to minimize the impact on the environment – and others in the area.

Landholders – your blocks may not be as remote as they seem and in rural areas, noise can travel a lot further than you may realize. There may also be threatened species on your patch of land you may not know about that could be severely disrupted by the activity. Save yourself, others and the creatures of your area some grief – consult with your neighbors, environmental authorities and your local council before going to the time and expense of creating your motocross heaven.
 
To close on a bit of a bright note – electric dirt bikes and electric ATV‘s seem to be making headway and while the use of electric motors doesn’t address all the issues, it’s a big step forward towards a less environmentally harmful hobby.

Green de-icing tips

January 13th, 2011.

(First published December 2007, updated January 2011)

Ice building up on roads and footpaths isn’t much of a problem throughout most of Australia, so I was fascinated to learn of the environmental issues facing other countries where major de-icing operations are an annual event.

The most common de-icing compound is sodium chloride – salt. When applied, it melts any snow or ice on roads and sidewalks and helps prevent new ice from forming. Sodium chloride is a very effective de-icing agent, is very easy to obtain and is inexpensive.

The problem is that up to 90% of the salt enters the soil near the road as runoff or splash and may even wind up a great distance away in waterways.  The widespread use of salt has created a number of environmental and other problems, including:

– damage to roadside and garden vegetation.

– poisoning of pets

– contamination of well water

– increased salinity of waterways

– corrosion of vehicles and infrastructure

– Salt can plays havoc with soil nitrate and ammonium levels. Over a period of time, the salt ladened soil can nitrify ammonium at a faster rate,  and these nitrates then wind up in local waterways. Very low levels of nitrates increase the risk of eutrophication of rivers and lakes, plus cause algae blooms in coastal waters.

Green de-icing tips

There’s no doubt that icy roads are a killer; so something certainly needs to be done and some governments are looking into various other substances that can be used.

Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA) and Potassium acetate (KA) are both biodegradable materials that have less of an environmental impact than rock salt. Unfortunately, both  CMA and KA are more expensive and ideally need to be applied directly to surfaces before snow and ice is able to build up.

Since first writing this article, I’ve noticed other products are now on the market that contain Magnesium Chloride and Sodium Acetate; both also touted to be gentler on the environment.

Another option being researched is the use of beet juice mixed with brine. Once sugar has been extracted from sugar beets, a waste product remains that producers noticed never froze. This mix has been in use in several states, including Illinois.

For around your own home, here’s some other de-icing substances I found many mentions of around the web said to have less of a negative effect on the environment when compared to rock salt.

– Spreading urea instead of rock salt. Urea is still a salt, but with less impact. Note : rock salt will melt ice down to -15°C (5°F), while urea will only melt ice down to -4°C (25°F).

– Calcium chloride (pretty much as above)

Wood ash

– Sand

– Sprinkle baking soda lightly over steps

– Volcanic rock

– Spent grains from brewery

– Mix a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol, a quart of water, and a drop dishwashing liquid. Increase alcohol levels for a more rapid effect.

Used coffee grounds can also be used, not so much to melt the ice, but to provide traction and help prevent slipping.  

Prevention being better than cure, shovelling snow from paths as soon as it’s fallen can also greatly decrease ice build-up; so if you’re up to a bit of physical effort, it’s another way you can exercise for the environment

Regardless of what you using for de-icing, bear in mind that more is not necessarily better (except in the case of shovelling I guess), so always follow the manufacturers guidelines for any product you use in order to minimize environmental damage.

For keeping your car’s windscreen free of ice, fill your windshield wiper tank with a mix of one part water and two parts vinegar and use the mix prior to leaving your vehicle for the night – this should help prevent ice build up.

Have some de-icing tips? Please share them below!

"Green" Cars – Are We There Yet?

October 12th, 2010.

Note from Michael – the following was contributed by Mark Martin of Moneysupermarket.com.

 
For many years, scientists have been warning of the dangers to the environment from car usage but very little seems to have been done about it. While more eco-friendly cars have been produced but these have either been very unpractical or hideously expensive.
 
However, research by Moneysupermarket.com has revealed that all of this is about to change. 
 
In light of stringent new European Union regulations, all car manufacturers with an interest in Europe are being forced to reduce the average CO2 emissions from  their global model range. Even Aston Martin has been forced to offer an rebadged Toyota IQ to their customer base to adapt to the regulations. 
 
Many manufacturers are taking this very seriously and don’t see the point in investing in research to develop environmental models unless they will sell and make them money. This is leading to an influx of more environmental friendly models of the coming years which could revolutionise road travel. 
 
Electric or fuel
  
Manufacturers have come up with a variety of solutions in their quest to find a viable form of a more environmentally-friendly car. Honda and BMW believe that hydrogen is the future, but the majority believe that electric cars are the best way forward. 
  
Nissan has recently introduced the Nissan Leaf, which is a huge step forward for the electric car industry. It not only looks like any other family car, but has a range of over 100 miles on one recharge and a top speed of 90 mph, making it far more practical than its predecessors.
 
The fact that it is almost as practical as a normal road car makes the fuel cost savings far more attractive. 
 
The average driver covering 12,000 miles annually could save over $1,500 a year through owning the Leaf in fuel costs alone. The total saving is only likely to increase as fuel prices increase on the back of reducing crude oil supplies, with scientists predicting that the decline will begin in 2011. 

The only problem remaining is the availability of recharging outlets, which would limit you to 50 mile journeys to ensure you had the power to get home. 
 
However, the US government has injected $400 million into the electric car industry to help develop the infrastructure to support it, which includes the placing of recharging outlets across the US. 

Coulomb Technologies have recently been given $15 million of this to help fund their programme of placing 4,600 recharging stations across nine states. This is a fraction of the total budget allocated for the programme, and with more environmental cars available there are likely to be more on the road in a couple of years time which will increase the governments responsibility to make recharging stations more widely available in a greater number of areas.

Initial buying cost

Along with practicality, another thing which has put people off buying environmental cars in the past has been the price. However, the Nissan Leaf has taken the first step towards rectifying this by pricing their new model aggressively at $32,780. This may sound a lot when you consider that a new Ford Focus Sedan costs $16,540 (almost half the price), but government tax breaks mean that the price of the Leaf will drop to $25,280 when you purchase it. 
 
On top of this, your employer may be prepared to offer to contribute towards to purchase of your new car if it is environmentally friendly. For instance, Google would be prepared to given one of their employees $5,000 towards the purchase of a Nissan Leaf which would reduce the price to $20,280. 
 
When you consider that further tax breaks, such as those introduced by George Pataki, which will save drivers of “green” cars in New York $2,000 per year on top of the annual $1,500 fuel saving, the price of the Nissan Lead suddenly starts to look very reasonable and affordable.
 
Should I go out and get one?

Although it has been shown that the Nissan Leaf is actually very reasonable in terms of costs due to Nissan’s aggressive costing, the practicality still isn’t quite there. The 100 mile range really is a bit of a worry when you consider the present infrastructure of recharging stations is very limited and if you drive long distances. 

Depending on the circumstances, even when the recharging infrastructure improves the 100 mile range, it still isn’t practical if you have to stop every 100 miles and wait 30 minutes to recharge the batteries to 80% of their capacity to get a further 80 miles out of it. 

But if fuel prices do continue to increase and get completely out of control in 2012 as many are predicting, or you don’t need to drive long distances, this small inconvenience may actually seem much less of a problem when you consider how much money you will be saving. 

Electric cars are improving all the time and the range will likely get ever larger as manufacturers to compete to win over customers. The electric car revolution may therefore be much closer than people think.

Second hand or new car – which is more "environmentally friendly"?

September 5th, 2010.

If you’re tossing up whether to buy a new or used car and the environment is an issue you want to incorporate in your purchase decision, here are some issues to consider.

I’ve traditionally owned old vehicles – old enough that when I was done with them, their next stop was the wreckers or recyclers. It had more to do with finances rather than anything to do with the environment.

While it’s been nice to have been able to squeeze a bit more life out of a vehicle than otherwise may have occurred before it was retired permanently, there has been a cost. 

For example, my last vehicle’s emissions control system basically consisted of extra spark plugs (4 cylinder engine, 8 spark plugs instead of four) – not overly effective. It was also a little heavy on gas consumption. 

By the time I disposed of it, the vehicle was nearly 25 years old and I really didn’t want to sell it to anyone as I knew it had a bunch of looming problems that would cost a small fortune to fix. Luckily, the local recycling center was geared up to accept cars and they even gave me a few hundred bucks for the scrap metal value.

Whether it’s better to buy a new vehicle or a used one isn’t clear cut as it will depend on your circumstances; but the general guideline is if a new vehicle gets far better gas mileage than what you currently have, then a new car is a good move. Fuel economy needs to be dramatically better to offset the energy that went into producing and shipping the vehicle.

However, the same could be said of a used vehicle in good condition that also achieves better mileage, and without the new car energy payback issue, but you will need to bear in mind an older vehicle may not deliver the fuel performance as what it did when it was new.

If you’re in the USA and wish to do side-by-side comparisons of the fuel economy of  your current, new or older model vehicles, FuelEconomy.gov is a good resource – it lists current day models and right back to 1984. If you already know your mileage and want to get into the emissions side of things, check out my article on calculating car carbon emissions.

In your purchase decision, you also need to consider the disposal of your current vehicle – will you sell it, recycle it or will it just end up crushed into a block and taking up space at the local landfill?

Also, go beyond the mileage and disposal issues. Also give careful thought to the application. 

My old minivan was being used for off-road purposes in country where 4×4’s are commonplace; something it wasn’t designed to do. This created additional wear and tear, meaning more components needed to be replaced in a shorter time than what the manufacturer intended. I probably shortened its serviceable life somewhat.

After disposing of the old van, I bought another minivan – second-hand again, but far “younger” at only 10 years old, smaller engine, better fuel economy, emissions control systems and suspension. I patted myself on the back for my purchase decision, but it turned out  it wasn’t the wisest choice. One year later, due to changing road conditions that see me cut off from my patch of dirt each time it rains to any degree, I’m back at square one. I really should have opted for a new/barely used 4×4 given the major fuel economy improvements made over the past few years to these vehicles.
 
Conversely, if you’re hankering after a new car and the one you have now is overpowered for your purposes, consider moving to a smaller vehicle. Buying a thumping great 4×4 for mainly driving around the suburbs and only using it a couple of times a year to head out into the boonies for a short time is a little wasteful when you can rent a purpose-built vehicle for those infrequent trips. The savings you’ll make on fuel and maintenance costs will probably more than make up for the rental.
 
New or used car? It’s a case of horses for courses; but in our search for a “greener” ride, we shouldn’t forget that combustion engine based personal transport will never be environmentally friendly, that it’s more a case of aiming for harm minimization at best. While harm minimization is admirable, harm is still being done – so it becomes even more important then that we try to offset that a little more in other areas of our lives.