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The Ultimate Eco-Home (It's Tiny)

172house1standaloneprod_affiliate38Living in a New York City apartment on a journalist's budget is one way to rein in your greenhouse gas emissions. But a woman in Olympia, Washington, has it all over our two editors who are vying for green bragging rights. Dee Williams lives in a standalone house, not an apartment. But her house measures only 84 square feet.

The tiny house incorporates recycled materials and cost about $10,000 to build. It has heat, electricity and a composting toilet, but no running water.

Williams says she wanted to reduce her impact on the planet, and didn't feel right about spending a lot of time and money on a house when people in other parts of the world have so little. —Dawn Stover

(Image: The Olympian)

Getting Clean the Green Way

Chesbaystencil I haven’t posted a Smackdown in weeks because, well, I was silenced by self-loathing after two months of intensive, carbon-emitting air travel. The good news is, the travel spree seems to have tapered off, which means I can go easy on the self-flagellating and carbon-offset buying and focus on actions that do some concrete good.

A couple weeks ago, traces of perchlorinate, or “perc”—a highly toxic dry-cleaning chemical— were found in the water supply in Queens, near my apartment. Thoroughly creeped out by this, I did a little research and found a “green” clothes-cleaning shop that I now use instead of my old dry cleaner and laundromat. It eschews perc in favor of natural products made by Ecover for both delicates and everyday laundry, and they even wash in cold water to save energy.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: Soap is the least of our environmental worries, right? Well, not really. Anything you use to clean eventually ends up in the water supply, and most products contain phosphates that are toxic to aquatic life—particularly the plants and tiny phytoplankton that marine animals eat. Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I was made acutely aware of that fact through public-service announcements and in-school environmental programs. Even the storm drains were marked “Chesapeake Bay drainage,” to remind you that anything you poured down there was going to wash into the feeding grounds for your striped bass and oyster-on-the-half-shell dinner.

In New York, people don’t really seem to have embraced the “Save the Bay” ethos. The Hudson is full of PCBs from decades of industrial dumping, Newtown Creek is the site of one of the country’s most toxic sewage-treatment centers, the East River is full of… well, Jimmy Hoffa’s body… you get my drift. These things take time for large communities of people to learn, but sometimes the best we can do is try to be models of good behavior.

So I was pretty psyched about finding a better way to do my laundry, but I was also inspired to make sure I hadn’t slipped into any bad habits with the other household chemicals in my apartment. I don’t have a yard, so there are no fertilizers or pesticides to contend with (although if there were, I’d be using compost and Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap to, respectively, enhance the soil and chase away creepy crawlies). The main sources of chemical pollution in my apartment (apart from the paint VOCs that were unfortunately emitting before I got there) are the products that clean my surfaces, clothes and self.

I know all kinds of hippy ways to clean using vinegar and vegetable oil and so forth, which you can learn more about here, but the best-smelling, most convenient products I’ve found are from Mrs. Meyer’s. Those products—including floor cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners and surface sprays—are made from natural, biodegradable compounds, come in recyclable containers, and smell delicious. All you have to do is spray some on a reusable rag or natural sponge, and you’re in business. What other green cleaning tricks do folks out there know? Tell me in the comments section. —Megan Miller

The Green Smackdown: Gaining Speed

How better to go green?

Listen carefully, blog readers, and you will hear the swishing sound of sharp, protracted claws slicing through the air. Let the eco-friendly catfight begin! MegaCarbon Emitter takes issue with my "diversion tactic" and in the next breath books a cross-country flight to San Francisco? Sorry, sister, but your flirtation with vegetarianism and canvas shopping bags will do nothing to compensate for all the damage your frequent business flying inflicts on the environment. You might as well drive a Hummer to the farmers market. Truth is, as long as you continue to fly as often as you do, your carbon footprint will grow like an unchecked tumor, with every flight making it bigger and nastier until eventually your mere presence will spark droughts and floods.

Meanwhile my carbon footprint continues to shrink. I've made good on my promise to eat locally, which means I'm now packing my own lunch (in Tupperware bins, of course) and, frankly, hating it. (Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches.) The upside is that I'm sort of losing weight, maybe. And that's gotta be good for the environment. Plus, I plan to start bicycling to work once or twice a week in May, which is Bike Month in New York And while I'm making the 22-mile round trip I'll keep an eye out for Talking Heads front man David Byrne's stolen bike, which may or may not still bear a MOST space telescope sticker, more evidence of his supreme dreaminess. But I digress. Back to the green cat fight . . . —Nicole Dyer

The Green Smackdown: Talkin' Trash

Madame Trashheap got nothin' on me.

Boy, Nicole’s last post sure was a lulu, huh? Way to divert attention from the ol’ energy-sucking light bulbs by randomly pointing to some awesome new vertical farm. “Hey, look over there, guys. A giant skyscraper full of vegetables….” Come on, girl. Put your dukes up!

Anyhoo, enough about her, let’s talk about me. My meat-reduction plan has been going swimmingly. Over the past three weeks, I’ve consumed no animal flesh save yesterday’s helping of Easter brisket (legal under my meat-is-a-celebration clause), which was of the succulent, slow-braised with vinegar and onions variety, from a free-range, grass-fed, locally raised steer—i.e., totally worth it. Other than that, it’s been a very Asian diet of veggies, rice, and tofu for me, pretty much. But here’s a tip for anyone thinking of becoming a vegetarian: If someone offers you a banh mi made with “vegan chicken,” run away. Blech.

While I work on mastering such pratfalls of my new nutrition plan, I’m also moving on to the next step of my carbon diet: reducing the amount of trash I create in the world. Living in NYC, this is a pretty tricky thing to do. Every time you buy anything in New York, a well-meaning cashier tries to give it to you in a plastic bag. Since most people don’t have cars, it’s a pain in the butt to shop here, so everything under the sun (including beer, cigarettes, groceries, prescriptions, and random purchases from The Container Store) can be delivered—usually in several layers of cardboard boxes.  Lunch is generally a carryout affair, complete with individual Styrofoam trays, plastic containers, and wooden chopsticks. All in all, this amounts to a massive amount of unnecessary waste. And only a small portion of it gets reused, because NYC recycling is restricted to paper, aluminum, and numbers 1 and 2 plastic. (Also because PopSci’s cleaning team throws the contents of our recycling bins in the trash dumpster. Yeah. We’re working on this.)

I’m finding that the only real way to combat this tidal wave of waste is to do it on a very personal level: I try to remember to carry reusable tote bags with me to the grocery store, and when I’m there, I do my best to choose products with minimal packaging. Whenever I can, I refuse bodega bags (“No thanks! I can just put this, um, pint of ice cream in my purse…”) and when I get up early enough to prepare something, I bring my lunch to work in Tupperware (this one is tough for me because our office is located smack in the middle of the Korean/Indian/Japanese food corridor, and the takeout is oh-so-gratifying). And I skip the plastic bag for my wet workout clothes, and just put ‘em in a different compartment of my gym duffle.

I’m not giving up toilet paper like No-Impact Man or anything—although there’s a certain appeal to the Japanese washer-dryer toilets. I’m just trying to be less… trashy. How ‘bout you, Nicole? —Megan Miller

The Green Smackdown: Growing Up

Vertical farm design by Chris Jacobs

Truth time: The weekend has come and gone, and I’ve yet to make good on last week’s promises to swap out my incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents. I still can’t find CF bulbs that work with dimmer switches. (Hit me with suggestions, folks.) As an alternative, I’m skimping on electricity, keeping the lights on low or off altogether. Let it be known that I enjoy reading in bed with a camouflage Petzel LED headlamp in lieu of bedside lighting. The white light is easier on the eyes, and the whole effect is rather cozy. It feels like camping, except without the funky tent smell.

Speaking of funky smells, last week’s carbon-reducing efforts also included wearing a pair of socks twice—the average washing machine consumes about 40 gallons of water per load, the energy equivalent of leaving the fridge door open for an entire day—and I reduced the number of times I ran the dishwasher from four to two times during the week. Humble measures, to be sure, but like MegaCarbon Emitter says, it’s about making sustainable lifestyle changes. On that score, I applaud MCE’s efforts to ease off the meats. We all know that raising livestock is tough on the planet. But sadly, so is raising sweet little crunchy vegetables. Industrial farming is particularly brutal, using 939 million pounds of pesticides each year and consuming 70 percent of our annual freshwater supply. (You can learn more about the hazards of agriculture at oxfamamerica.org.) For those reasons among others, I’m particularly intrigued by a concept recently featured in New York magazine known as vertical farming: basically, a giant skyscraping hothouse. Its chief proponent, Columbia University microbiologist Dickson Despommier, says that a 58-floor “farm” building with eight million square feet of growing area built on 140,000 square feet of land, can produce the same amount of food as 1.6 square miles of traditional farmland—enough to feed 35,000 people year-round. If these statistics hold true, vertical farms may be all but mandatory come 2050, when the number of humans roaming the planet will increase by three billion and more than 90 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities. Imagine the resources saved if the majority of those people ate local produce? Which brings me to this week’s carbon-reducing goal: to eat locally. And by that I don’t mean ordering from Bo Bo’s Chinese takeout two blocks from my apartment, as tempting as that is. No, it means shopping for produce grown within 250 miles of me. Or, more likely, skipping the vegetables altogether.  —Nicole Dyer

Green Smackdown: The Meat of the Argument

How long will our craven blogger make it without meat?

In last week’s episode of the Green Smackdown, I learned that despite my good intentions at home, air travel is a hurdle to my eco-victory over Little Miss Never-Leaves-Brooklyn. My darling fiancé and I are working out a long-term solution for that (for the short term, I’m paying out the wazoo for carbon offsets), but right now I’m setting my sights on behaviors that are more immediately modifiable—like eating. Now, that might sound incongruous in the context of your usual CO2-reducing tips, like “change your lightbulbs” and “unplug your computer,” but hear me out for a second, because I’m about to say something crazy.

Ready? Ahem.

I’m going to stop eating meat.*

Continue reading "Green Smackdown: The Meat of the Argument" »

Whole-ier Than Thou

According to safeclimate.net, Nicole is an enviro angel

Dear Mega Carbon Emitter... I mean, Megan: I love a challenge, especially one that’s impossible to lose. See, here’s the thing—it’s not that I’m more environmentally savvy than you (hemp? ew!); it’s just that I never leave New York City. I rarely travel. I’m practically a hermit. And hermits have tiny, tiny carbon footprints. Like baby shoes. To prove it, I logged on to Al Gore’s Web site (www.climatecrisis.net) and calculated my carbon impact. I spent two minutes answering simple questions about the type of car I own (a 1996 GTI with 82,000 miles on it), how often I fly (about four times a year), how much I spend monthly on utilities ($65, max.) and how many people live in my little apartment (uno). The results: I emit 5.1 tons of carbon dioxide a year. (Presumably this calculation does not take into account the amount I produce by breathing, which brings up an interesting trivia question: How much carbon could we keep out of the atmosphere if humanity held its collective breath for 20 seconds?)  Anyway, the average person, according to Al Gore and friends, emits 7.5 tons of carbon each year—a conservative estimate compared with Environmental Defense’s calculator (www.fightglobalwarming.com), which says I emit 9.3 tons. Either way, though, I’m better for the planet than you.

Granted, I’m a loser: I seldom leave home, I’m single, and I read in the dark. I ride public transportation, and I rarely shop online (think of all those carbon-emitting FedEx planes!). But these things are beside the point. When cities flood and deserts dry up and plagues spread like kudzu—all the fun promised by global warming—I will feel better knowing that it’s your fault and not mine.

Which isn’t to say I have no plans for making my already petite carbon footprint even more petite. Since you’re buying your way to a cleaner, greener conscience, I’ll definitely need to take action to maintain my competitive edge. This weekend’s project is to replace my incandescent lightbulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescents and hope they’re compatible with the awesome dimmer switches that I recently installed in my kitchen and bedroom (CF bulbs typically have narrow dimming ranges). It would be a huge bummer to sacrifice mood lighting for the sake of this competition and the environment, but I’ll do it if push comes to shove. And if things get really nasty, I’ll even consider running my compact GE dishwasher less and switching to one of those dreadful eco-toilet-paper brands and pray I don’t get a rash. So those are my modest but doable carbon-saving plans for the weekend. What about you, Megan? Oh, wait, you’re flying to New Mexico... —Nicole Dyer

How Green Is My Tally?

My safeclimate.net avatar wears a gas mask

PopSci senior editor Nicole Dyer and I, PopSci.com's editor, have undertaken a friendly competition to see who leads the greener lifestyle. Basically, she thinks she’s more “environmentally savvy” than I am, and I’m not tryin’ to hear that. I contend that I am the greener girl, although maybe I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit lately. I do know a lot about how to reduce my impact on the Earth—I was an environmental educator after college, for chrissake. I worked on an organic farm. I interned at the USDA Sustainable Agriculture office. I read Silent Spring and that Rudolf Steiner book on biodynamics. But Nicole is right: I don’t live 100 percent according to the green gospel these days.

Perhaps you read the post I wrote a few months back, in which I claimed to have achieved perfect carbon neutrality and declared that it is, in fact, easy being green. Well, since then, I’ve been on an air-travel blitz, and all those frequent-flyer miles have made my carbon-neutral days but a distant dream. No matter how many gallons of fossil fuel I conserve by buying local produce, and trees I save by using recycled toilet paper, I’m still guilty of traipsing across the U.S. on a monthly basis to visit my long-distance boyfriend, as well as regularly flying to business conferences and meetings. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

But the idea of the green challenge I’ve undertaken with Nicole is not just to one-up each other (OK, that is a big part of it) but also to mutually and permanently improve our behavior by becoming aware of the activities we engage in that cause environmental damage. Because, you know, knowing is half the battle. So today I calculated my "carbon quotient," the amount of carbon dioxide I'm personally responsible for emitting into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the numbers were staggering. I used three different online calculators because each asked slightly different questions, and I got similarly lousy results from all of them. Apparently, my jetsetting lifestyle equals about 17 tons of carbon per year, or approximately 2,800 pounds of carbon a month. According to climatecrisis.net, 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per month is normal. More damning still, notes fightglobalwarming.com, I could “release about the same amount of carbon pollution by cutting and burning all the trees in a section of the Amazon rainforest the size of 2.7 football fields.”

Alrighty, then. The first thing I’m going to do is buy some carbon offsets to mitigate the air-travel damage (that’s $276 for the year from nativeenergy.com; the “carbon credits” support a wind farm and a methane-sequestration project and help to support Alaskan and Native American communities). In my next post, I’ll take a look at another area of my life (food!) and see what else I can do to make a difference. So, Nicole... what have you got? —Megan Miller

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