Dumb eco-questions you were afraid to ask

Great article on New Scientist with some answers to questions I’m sure many of us modern folk wonder about on a regular basis. Are hybrids really more of a fashion statement right now? Should I be leaving the lights on or switching them off and on? What can and can’t I recycle? Is washing clothes at 30 degrees ok? Et cetera.

Some of the answers are surprising – shipping receycling to China isn’t always bad, for example – others are obvious, but I reckon there’s something here for everyone. Even if you knew most of it already, it’s probably nice to have it validated by New Scientist. :)

One answer I’m not so sure about: Is it really still bad to charge electronics early and often? I used to be very careful to fully deplete my batteries to avoid the dreaded memory problem, but I read somewhere recently that this no longer applies with modern batteries. In fact I got the impression that the opposite is true, that I should be charging whenever I can. Does anyone have a definitive answer on this?

  1. If I switch the light on and off every time I enter and leave a room, does this use more energy than leaving it on all evening?
  2. How clean does the pizza box have to be for it to be recyclable? Likewise cans and bottles
  3. Are laminated juice cartons recyclable?
  4. What’s the most fuel-efficient way to drive?
  5. Is it worth recycling when stuff gets shipped to China and back in the process? Given the carbon footprint of all that, maybe we should just let the stuff rot
  6. Can I save the planet by staying slim?
  7. What’s worse, the CO2 put out by a gas-fuelled car or the environmental effects of hybrid-car batteries?
  8. What is recycled organic waste used for?
  9. If I offset my flights, can I fly as much as I want?
  10. If I’m stuck in a stop-start traffic jam, do I use more petrol turning my car on and off repeatedly or leaving it running?
  11. Can I put window envelopes in the paper recycling?
  12. How long does it take for a micro-windmill to pay for itself?
  13. Is it better to buy an eco-friendly car, with all the energy that is needed to produce it, or just run my old one into the ground?
  14. What’s the best way to charge my laptop – little and often or let the battery run down completely?
  15. Will washing my clothes at 30 °C really get them clean?
  16. Why can’t the machines in my gym be used to generate electricity?
  17. Does switching from bus to bike really have any effect? After all, cycling isn’t completely carbon neutral because I’ve got to eat to fuel my legs
  18. Is a full commercial plane more fuel-efficient over long distances than a car?
  19. If I turn my appliances off but don’t unplug them will they still use up some electricity?
  20. Does it really take more energy to recycle an aluminium can than to make a new one?
  21. What is the single most effective thing I can do for the environment?
  22. How environmentally damaging is barbecuing?
  23. When and how is the most energy-efficient way to defrost my fridge-freezer, and is a self-defrosting fridge more eco-friendly?
  24. What does the circling-arrows logo on European packaging mean?
  25. What’s greener, paper/cardboard or plastic packaging?

4 Responses

  1. Battery question: there is no definitive answer. It depends on the particular construction of the battery, and even if hysteresis effects can be minimised, they can’t be eliminated, so its behaviour will change over time in any case.

    On our two laptops, the best idea seems to be to run it to empty as often as possible, and then charge to full without interruption. We still get 3½ hours out of the 4-year-old batteries (compared to nearly 4 hours when new, but it’s still pretty good). It doesn’t seem to matter if we start or stop charging somewhere in the middle now and again, except that sometimes throws the calibration in the software off, so the computer insists on shutting down even when I know there’s an hour or so battery life left (my mobile phone does this too).

  2. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, but I bought a device within the past year that told me to charge as often as possible and to specifically NOT run the battery to empty as it would reduce life. God only knows what it was though, I read instructions once and then forget all the cool stuff I learned and realise years later that I was missing out on all sorts of useful things. As you do.

  3. That thing about changing gears at 2,500 rpm is bull. That depends first of all on the particular car and particular engine. It probably varies from gear to gear as well. The curves are normally in the manual…