On Sustainable Thinking

This is the first in a series of guest posts by Ted Borer, PE, the energy plant manager for Princeton University. He is actively involved in campus and community energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction efforts. He has over 25 years of experience in the energy industry, is a registered professional engineer, and holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering as well as the CEM, CEP, and LEEDAP Certifications. He has published numerous magazine articles, technical papers, and a book chapter on topics relating to energy and cogeneration. 

What is sustainability? It’s not an object or an action. Ignoring basic grammar, sustainability is not so much a noun or a verb as it is an adjective or better, an adverb. 

A widely used definition was expressed by the Brundtland Commission of the UN in 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” More poetically, the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy states: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

But, what does this mean to the average person? 

Thinking and acting sustainably suggests an approach to whatever we do, not so much what we should do.  Acting sustainably doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feed, or dress, or house, or transport, or entertain ourselves, it simply means that we should do these things with consideration for their larger impact. 

The concept of sustainability suggests questions like: Would it matter if I did [this] a lot or for a very long time? Could [this] be done indefinitely? Would it matter if a vast number of people did what I’m doing? In many, if not most cases, there are lots of ways to do whatever we want to do. Acting sustainably calls on our creativity and suggests we consider ways to do whatever we want to do that have the least negative impact and use the fewest resources.

To travel three blocks away we could: walk, bicycle, drive a car, or hire someone to come and transport us. These each take different amounts of time and resources. If we were traveling to have coffee with a neighbor, walking or cycling might be the best balance of time, energy, and pleasure. If we were going to buy a half-gallon of ice cream, cycling or driving might be better choices. If we were going to move a piano, hiring a truck might be best. For all three types of trips we could drive a big truck, but it is only necessary for one. Thinking sustainably suggests we select lower-impact means to do whatever we’re doing. We benefit in many ways since the lower-impact choices offer more health benefits, have less environmental impact, and cost us less money!

What does sustainable thinking suggest about the use of resources? It doesn’t say not to use resources. But it suggests that if we do, we should use the least and get the most out of them that we can. If we’re going to buy a child three new shirts, we could order and have them each shipped to us at different times in different packages and throw away the boxes and packaging and throw away the shirts once they were worn out. Or we could buy more durable shirts, buy three at once so they are packaged and transported together, wear them until they were out-grown, and then pass them on to another child. The box they were shipped in could be re-used to store or ship something else. Once the box was no longer useful, it could be burned in a fireplace for heat, composted, or recycled into paper again.

Sustainable thinking suggests we should ask: “Where is the waste and how can I take advantage of it?” We want to use any "waste stream" for the highest value possible, use as little additional energy as possible, and co-mingle waste streams as little as possible. Another familiar example might be how we should handle kitchen scraps.  Sustainable thinking suggests the following order of priorities:

1. Waste less food. “Reduce.”

2. Feed it to animals on your own property. “Re-use.”

3. Compost it yourself. “Recycle.”

4. Add it to the town's composting system. “Recycle.”

5. Do not grind it up and send it down the drain.

We can use Wattvision to measure our total energy use and observe patterns of energy use. Then by looking for what is happening at times of high use, we can consider what is necessary vs. what is being wasted. When turning off un-necessary lights and appliances we can immediately observe both our energy and financial savings via Wattvision. Consider questions such as these:

  • Sitting at dinner, are there still lights on elsewhere in the house? 
  • If everyone is watching TV, is the computer on too?
  • If we run the oven on “self-cleaning” mode, how much power does that use and what does it cost compared to scrubbing it? Would it make more sense to run the self-cleaning feature at night during the winter heating season, or when we’re running the air conditioner on a hot afternoon?
  • What takes more energy, heating a quart of water in the microwave, or on the stove top?
  • Does the hot water heater need to be turned on during a week-long vacation?
  • Many of the following consume “phantom power” even when they are turned off: TV, Wii, Computer, DVD player, printer, scanner, phone charger, power tool charger, camera charger. Can the power be disconnected when not in use? An inexpensive power strip could be used to do this easily.

With simple measuring tools, sustainable thinking, and our own creativity there is much that we can do to reduce our costs and environmental impact.

Buy an easy to install wattvision system for your house, at wattvision.com.