Petrochemical Chariots

So, the 20-year-old Saturn was finally on its last legs, and I was in the market for a new car. Being a responsible Druid, concerned with the environmental impacts of cars and driving, my knee-jerk assumption (based on all the lovely, green propaganda) was, of course: get an electric car, or at the very least, a hybrid! Right?

Well, if you look at the current research, and policy analyses, in depth…

Hawkins, et al. (2013). Journal_of_Industrial_Ecology, “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles”

…it turns out that the decision is WAY more complicated than the propaganda suggests, and very much sensitive to one’s anticipated use-case.

My use case happens to be VERY low mileage, but LOTS of shortish trips with starts from cold, in hilly terrain. My last car, when retired due to the gradual engine gunking from oil and petrol (which happens to all cars over 20-odd years, given a very high number of starts from cold), had barely 90,000 miles on the odometer when she died. And sadly, since so many of the parts for an old Saturn were no longer made, it was not reasonable to consider rebuilding the engine at that point.

If one considered only the air-quality issues in one’s own backyard, during only the consumer-use phase of an automobile’s life, a case might be made for purchasing an EV or hybrid vehicle. However, when one considers the cradle-to-grave impacts of the manufacture, use, and end-of-life disposal of the automobile and all of its various maintenance/replacement parts, the calculus changes dramatically. The EVs do slightly better, over the lifetime of the car, when it comes to overall greenhouse gas emissions (about 10-20% better) – provided that you get at least 93,000 miles out of your car. If you drive your car fewer miles during its lifetime, that benefit decreases to only 9-14% better for a lifetime mileage of 62,000 miles. However, given the same automobile lifespan, EVs are nearly three times (300%) worse than combustion engines when it comes to the impacts on: human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, and freshwater eutrophication. If you consider people, flora, and fauna, the EV no longer looks so appealing!

So, very much to my amazement, it turned out that a traditional gasoline engine was still the option with lowest environmental impact, at least for me. It was really hard for me to wrap my brain around that one, but the science was right there. And the policy analysis cited above (based on my personal evaluation of the work, as a Ph.D. graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Engineering & Public Policy), is rock-solid.

My final decision: a manual transmission Honda Fit. A high gas mileage, base model to minimize the amount of manufacturing impact, with the intention to maintain it well, and drive it slowly into the ground. If I get 20 years out of this car, as well, then by the time I need another car, perhaps the battery manufacturing, toxicity, and longevity issues will have been addressed, and the calculus will look a bit different than it does today.

On the other hand, by that time I might have retired to a castle in the country, and be ready to trade in my car for a horse.

 

The Importance of Harvesting Low-Hanging Fruit

As a Druid, one of my duties is to change my lifestyle habits so as to live more and more harmoniously with my other-than-human kin. It is a duty that I take very seriously. It can also be quite difficult.

Changing habits of any kind is a challenge because it requires focused attention and the exercise of will power – continually, and without fail – until the new, desired habit is firmly established. Otherwise, we risk slipping back into old habits. And failure to achieve our desired goal(s) can easily lead to despair. In addition, the news media is filled with stories detailing the ways in which the rest of humanity is busy mucking up the environment, even as we struggle to clean up our own acts. It is easy to wonder: why bother, at all?

Therein lies the problem: despair breeds inaction.

By the same token, every successful, little, right action that can be named and celebrated gives a person reason to hope. Every little success makes it that much easier to do the next little, right thing, easier to do the next, slightly bigger, right thing, easier to share the joy of having done a little right thing, so that others might easily do one as well.

For example, consider the Problem of the Plastics-Filled Ocean Gyres

Not long ago, I saw a terrifying documentary illustrating the horrible ways in which marine wildlife die through ingestion and/or entanglement in post-consumer plastic waste. A few weeks later, China announced that it would no longer accept our plastic waste for recycling, so most of the plastic we currently put in our recycling bins now ends up in the dump, instead!

I immediately set myself the challenge of eliminating plastics from my life. I researched strategies on Life Without Plastic. I started trying to implement what I had learned. And within two weeks, I was in a state of utter despair. It simply cannot be done without huge expenditures of time and cash, to completely retool one’s life, as well as the lives and business practices of every vendor with whom you do business — the butcher, the grocer, the pharmacist, the dentist, the list goes on and on and on. Plastic is ubiquitous.

But I needed to do something, so, I decided to think in terms of making it more difficult for the sea turtles of my nightmares to find a mouthful of plastic for dinner. I started harvesting some low-hanging fruit, by switching to:

  • Strips of eco-friendly HE laundry soap, that come in a nice, recyclable cardboard envelope, instead of liquid detergent in plastic jugs;
  • Organic cotton string bags for groceries;
  • A reusable, stainless-steel freezer box for my home-made bread;
  • Reusable, stainless-steel boxes and water bottles for lunch;
  • Waxed, silk dental floss in a glass jar, for which I can order refills;
  • Bamboo-handled toothbrushes, and a natural toothpaste that comes in glass jars (bonus: my dentist was so amazed at the improvement in my dental hygiene, that he asked what toothpaste I was now using!);
  • Purchasing vinegar, condiments, and juices in glass containers only;
  • Bar soaps in paper wrappers, in lieu of plastic bottles of liquid soap, for bodies and dishes, alike.
  • Ordering paper products (toilet paper, paper towels, tissues) that use no plastic in their packaging, and kill no trees for pulp. My preferred source is now “Who Gives a Crap“.

I call this strategy, “Life with Less Plastic.” No, it is not perfect. But my rate of plastic disposal is very much reduced. And every time I use one of my new choices, I am encouraged to look for the next easy way to do just a little more. And I dream of how much of a difference we could make in the world, if everyone harvested those low-hanging fruits, as well.

Small successes make it child’s play to build new habits of right action. For that reason, I consider it imperative to harvest all low-hanging fruit, when it comes to making lifestyle changes.

What low-hanging fruit will you harvest, today?