Catherine Mohr Builds Green

In her TED talk, Catherine Mohr Builds Green, Mohr articulates a suspicion I often have when trying to figure out the “right” thing to do by our planet: that there are an awful lot of people “long on moral authority and short on data trying to tell us what to do.”

While these tips may be well-intentioned, you really have to figure out for yourself what really makes a difference. Often they are trying to get you to buy a new product? Are you missing the elephant in the room? Mohr has an anecdote comparing several different ways for wiping up a spill: using a paper towel, sponge, cotton towel. Her illustration shows a funny obsessiveness with finding out the truth that I can identify with. Some of these truths can be trivial, but there’s still something interesting in the process of discovery.

Then she takes the obsessiveness to the ultimate level by making spreadsheets comparing different building methods for her new house. She writes about the process on her website, 301 Monroe. Her spreadsheet takes a little effort to pore through, but she has clearly put a lot of time into researching the relative effects of lots of different materials used in building a house. For comparison, she includes the effects of other activities that we are more familiar with, such as driving and flying.

Still, is “embodied energy” the right measure for making comparisons? Tons of CO₂? Water use? A different measure could lead to a different “right” choice. Everything we do or use involves tradeoffs, and we should take care that the tradeoffs are worth the worry, and that they make sense. Mohr gives real examples of how the answers are not always obvious!

Spring cleaning

Spring is here, and we’re working on cleaning out the stuff that tends to accumulate for no good reason. Fishers folks have the opportunity to take care of a few “someday” items next weekend, related to Earth Day activities. Since we often miss learning about these events until after they happen, we’re spreading the word a little further.

  1. Fishers Town Hall will be accepting unused medications for disposal on Saturday, April 24 from 9:00 AM until noon.
  2. Shred old documents for a $5 per box donation at the Carmel Police Department the same day from 10:00 AM until 1:00 PM. They will also be accepting unused medications, as well.
  3. While we’re getting rid of accumulated stuff, we’re going to dispose of some paint and other things that don’t belong in the regular garbage. The Hamilton County Household Hazardous Waste Center accepts these items on an ongoing basis on Saturdays from 8:00 AM until 1:30 PM, and they have weekday hours as well. Indianapolis residents can take advantage of their own Tox Drop program at various locations and times.
  4. Only peripherally related, since it’s one of those recurring things that tends to get brushed aside: check those smoke detectors! Buy yourself some precious extra moments in an emergency. We’ve seen too many house fires.

Phone books, still?

It’s that time of year again, when the phone company dumps 8 lbs of dead trees on everyone’s doorstep. I get rankled every time they show up, because:

  1. They’re irrelevant! Does anyone even use phone books any more? For those of us with this new thing called The Internet, there’s a faster way to get richer, more current information. That is, unless I really am looking for the ambulance chaser with the biggest ad budget, or for the phone number of AAAAA Locksmith.
  2. What a waste. 8 lbs × 650,000 households in the Indianapolis area = 2,600 tons of paper consumed. While phone books are (barely) recyclable, and they not printed on virgin paper, this volume of paper represents around 153 trees.
  3. Phone books are unwelcome in common recycling programs. Because Fishers is not forward thinking enough to have a municipal recycling program, citizens must take it upon themselves to find a recycling center willing to accept phone books. For example, the common Abitibi bins that can be found at local churches and schools, explicitly do not want phone books because phone book paper fibers are so fine that their pulp is essentially unusable. Phone books are the end of the road for recyclable paper fibers.
  4. The phone company makes it our problem to dispose of them. I did not ask for a phone book, but I have to pay to dispose of it, because I write a quarterly check to the garbage collection company/recycling service. This is the same situation that caused telemarketing to mobile phone customers to be banned. They’re marketing to me on my dime. The least that phone companies should be doing is collecting outdated phone books themselves, at their cost.
  5. Get off my lawn! Last spring, the bag of phone books was dropped unceremoniously at the base of our mail box, directly atop a patch of daffodils in full bloom. Yesterday, it was dropped at our doorstep, but there were wheel tracks across the front yard from the delivery person traipsing through everyone’s yards. Carpet-bomb marketing like this is disrespectful of people’s property.

This year I noticed a small box on the front cover suggesting a phone number to call for recycling information. I called it, and after typing in my zip code, the robot informed me that I could leave it in my curbside bin (we don’t have such a service) or take it to a collection center. This I found extraordinarily helpful.

My next step was to call the “place an ad” phone number and ask to opt out of phone book delivery. I was immediately transferred to the “do not deliver” department. This is apparently exactly what I wanted. To stop AT&T phone book delivery, call (866) 329‑7118 and ask to be placed on the “do not deliver” list. Specify carefully that you want zero delivery of any books. Budget 10 minutes of your time for this. (Surprise, the phone company wants to keep you on the line and use up your minutes!)

Additionally, Yellow Book is another phone book publisher that delivers to the Fishers area. Yellow Book has a website where you can submit your address to their do not deliver list. Not surprisingly, they try to make it a little more difficult than necessary to select what book you don’t want (remember, a phone book publisher has every incentive to keep sending you books, so that they can quote high circulation numbers to potential advertisers). For Fishers, select “Hamilton County, IN.”

AT&T says that the do not deliver list will be effective for three years. After that, they will call every year to see if maybe you changed your mind.

Car CO₂ Emissions

Curious about our CO₂ emissions, I decided to look into what our cars put out. CO₂ emissions are directly related to fuel economy and miles driven. According to the Energy Information Administration*, burning one gallon of fuel creates several times the fuel’s weight in CO₂:

Car Fuel lbs CO₂/gal (*EIA) mpg (lifetime) miles/year tons CO₂/year
Beetle diesel 22.384 40.8 6,053 1.66
Prius gasoline 19.564 45.1 15,720 3.42

Google Spreadsheets provides a fun gauge chart tool to illustrate our emissions.


CO₂ emissions, lbs/mi

According to some folks better at the ideal gas law than I, The half-pound of CO₂ associated with driving a mile in our cars has a volume in the atmosphere of about 4 ft³. We’re all filling up the air with greenhouse gases, one mile at a time, unfortunately.

America’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods

Walk Score ranked the largest 40 U.S. cities by walkability. Guess where Indianapolis ranked? 37th. Several factors increase the walkability of a neighborhood, according to their algorithm:

  • a discernable center
  • compact enough to support public transportation
  • mixed income levels, and a mix of businesses and residences
  • parks and public space
  • schools near workplaces