Thursday, January 8, 2009

Carbon offsets and other mind games

(This is my entry to the January APLS carnival, which I will be hosting here on the 22nd. Still plenty of time to get your posts in!)


Regular readers might remember that I like to play a bit of poker. Nothing serious, just a low stakes game with friends. I usually break more or less even, but I do occasionally win up to (gasp!) $20.

While I consider my $10 buy-in to be part of my regular expenses, any winnings are "free money" and therefore special. The day after a big win, I might skip making lunch at home, and go out and buy myself something yummy instead. I might treat myself to something funky on iTunes. Or I might have an appie or a more expensive beer the next time I'm at the pub. I mentally offset this expense against my winnings.

The problem comes when I'm still doing the same thing a few days later. Sometimes I offset my $20 winnings against three or four different $15 expenditures. And somehow this seems perfectly reasonable and rational at the time. Free money, woo hoo!

Unfortunately, this bad behaviour spills over into my attempts to live sustainably. As I mentioned in my first APLS carnival contribution, I'm already doing some of the easier things, but struggling with the more difficult items. And my weird little brain tends to offset the former against the latter:
"I'd love a steak tonight. Oh, but red meat, methane... then again I do bike to work, so my contribution to climate change is pretty low, really, when you think about it. Medium rare, please".
"Local apples, or imported bananas? I should really get the apples. But I haven't had a banana in ages and it would be yummy on this cereal. Hmmm, well, at least I'll compost the skin".
"Can or bottle of Dr Pepper?* Plastic is bad, evil. But I don't want to drink all of it at once, and with the bottle I can put the cap back on and save the fizz. The plastic is recyclable. Oh, sod it, there are like two recycling bins on every floor at work."
At least I'm aware of the problem, right? And I'm starting to try a few little mind games on myself. When I'm looking at a restaurant menu I try to imagine the clouds of methane rising, not just from that one cow, but from a whole herd, all of them there only because people like me like to eat steak. In supermarkets I try to visualise the journey of that bunch of bananas (and all of their friends) from plantation to shelf. And when I'm tempted to buy something plastic, I imagine not just my bottle, but all the bottles on the shelf, floating up on one of the pristine beaches I've enjoyed in the last few months.

The latter image has been especially effective - I believe I have bought my last ever bottle of shampoo, as the switch to locally made soap has been very successful. (Now to work on my conditioner addiction). And the cardboard cylinders of frozen concentrated juice are just as good (and much cheaper) than the big plastic bottles.

But I do need more help! Especially with those food cravings... That's why I chose this carnival topic. I'm hoping that some of you more experienced APLS have some better mind games that I can use on myself.

Oh, the power of the carnival host. Mwa ha ha ha!


*I drink pop like once every couple of months, just in case you're shocked and horrified!


  1. ah... nice one. I will have to think of this since I am really bad nowadays with the meat :(

    I wonder though, how on earth to not to use the amount of plastic I am using - shampoo, conditioner are some examples of that.

    As far as I know (which I guess should prompt me to look for alternatives more) there is no "locally made shampoo"...

  2. Oh, man, I am guilty of this too. But I do have some mind games that may help ... though not necessarily with all your problems. I too, have a hard time saying no to the Dr. Pepper, especially British Dr. Pepper which is definitively more awesome than American high fructose corn syrup Dr. Pepper.

    But the frozen concentrated juice and I totally don't mean to be difficult here, I just honestly don't know... is that actually better than regular juice and/or Dr. Pepper? Because doesn't the frozen juice require it to be carted long distance in a freezer compartment? And the frozen makes it fairly heavy, heavier than a plastic bottle of Dr Pepper which would add to the gas use? I guess it depends on how long distance the juice travels? Being eco is hard.

  3. Chall, soap does essentially the same job as shampoo, but my dry and curly hair is so accustomed to conditioner that it would be a huge frizzy mess without it. I know you apparently eventually reach some kind of balance after a while - but I'd be unable to show my face at work in the interim!

    Ruchi, damnit, I thought I was being good by not choosing the plastic option for my juice... Back to cardboard cartons maybe, but they have plastic caps and lining and then there's the cost of unnecessarily transporting all the water. Maybe I should just stick to fruit teas or something instead.

  4. p.s. ice is no heavier than the equivalent volume of water... it is less dense though, hence the ability of ice to float.

    Sorry, science lesson over!

  5. Thanks for the science lesson. I should have known that using common sense, but I don't have much common sense either. Is the equivalent volume of gas the same weight as water?

  6. If you're comparing volumes, then steam will be lighter than the equivalent volume of water - because it is less dense (less mass per unit of volume). BUT if you're comparing actual amounts - in terms of number of water molecules - then they will weigh the same regardless of whether they are in liquid, solid or gas form.

    If you boil water in an open room, it'll disperse into a MUCH greater volume than the original pan of water. But the overall amount weighs the same as what was in the pan.

    But if you're collecting the gas into a closed, sealed system, the pressure will start to increase as more molecules go into gas form. But only up to a certain point, because increasing the pressure makes the boiling point of the water higher, so it's more difficult for further H2O molecules to escape from the liquid into the gas phase.

    The opposite of this effect is the reason why you can't boil an egg at extremely high altitude. The lower pressure of the air makes the boiling point of water LOWER, because it's easier for H2O molecules to escape from the liquid into the gas phase. So the water boils at less than 100C, at a temperature that is not quite high enough to cook the egg properly.

    I think this is all accurate, but it's been many years since I actually studied it. If Massimo is not laughing too hard he will be able to correct me.

  7. Oh oh and this is also why it's possible to have spray cans full of liquids that spray into a much less dense, vapour form. The pressure inside the can forces up the boiling point, meaning that something that would usually be a gas at room temperature is forced to be a liquid instead. But when you release it into a normal-pressured space, its boiling point comes back down again and it becomes a vapour.

    Sorry, I am all excited at remembering how cool all this stuff is. I love explanations that make me understand the way every day things work... no wonder I became a scientist!

    (Not withstanding the fact that any or all of the above may in fact be inaccurate).

  8. And water is one of the few liquids that expands volume when changing into a solid (freezing) - that doesn't address your original topic, just an addition to the science rant!

  9. SM, guilty as charged! You should hear me after a couple of pints!

    SF, I almost included that little factoid in my original comment, but I didn't want Ruchi's jetlagged brain to explode ;) I forget why water expands as it freezes, but I know it's highly unusual. Something to do with hydrogen bonds...? Anyway, it's responsible for floating ice and the destruction caused by freeze-thaw cycles. As witnessed by our many new pot holes.

  10. p.s. this is one hell of a tangent! I am impressed!

  11. but wait, if water expands in volume when it turns into ice, then wouldn't a cup of water once frozen weigh more than another cup of water because it would be more volume?

    "p.s. ice is no heavier than the equivalent volume of water"

  12. No - it's the exact same weight, just in a larger volume. (Density = mass / volume).

    Analogies, analogies... OK this is lame, but you know how cereal boxes tell you that contents settle during transport? They weigh the cornflakes or whatever at the time of packaging, but the volume taken up by the cereal is smaller when you come to open the box, because they've all settled, so there's all that space at the top of the box. But the number of cornflakes, and hence the weight, is the same.

    now imagine the cornflakes are molecules of water - how they are packed together affects density, but not overall mass.

    I don't think I'm doing a very good job at this, does anyone else have a better analogy?

  13. So basically the same number of molecules weighs the exact same whether it is water, ice, or vapor, but the volumes and density are different?

    Dude, I think the answer is juice, frozen or no, is too complicated, we should stick to tea. ;)

  14. Correct on both counts! ;) I shall go and make two cups in your honour (one regular, to be drunk from a ceramic mug while piping hot, the other wild berry, in an insulated mug, for dessert).

    Was this whole thing some kind of mind game to make me want to never freeze or boil water ever again, hence saving on energy? (only kidding, always fun!)

  15. OK, my brain being fried as it is, I won't even pretend I remember high-school science tonight.

    Just wanted to say what a great topic!

  16. I'll go with Robbie. You guys are killing me on the science thing. I will say that I've had the debate between frozen juice concentrate and bottled juice. The very best thing, I've decided, is to make your own juice from locally grown fruit! So there. (Of course, I don't really have time for that and have only done it a few times but it sounds good, doesn't it).

  17. Thanks Robbie! We'll stop with the science now.

    Green Bean, I have been known to do that actually, especially when our pear tree has a good year (not since 2006 - we need to figure out what we're doing wrong!). It is a bit of a hassle though, and there's not much fruit growing up here right now!

  18. Can't believe I forgot to mention one of my biggest mental offsets (pertinent to the cost of freezing juice AFTER it's been transported in):

    Most of BC's power is hydro-electric - locally devastating but globally clean wrt CO2. So I don't feel overly guilty about using electricity. I'm aware though that increasing demand will result in either the flooding of new areas OR an increase in the fraction of dirty power in the province, so I do try to be good. But not as good as I would be if my power came from coal or oil.

  19. As soon as I read the original statement about juice I thought, 'what a great idea!' I had no idea it would lead to such a flurry of comments! Here's my take: frozen concentrate is smaller and lighter, so lots more can be transported for the same fuel usage. The need for a freezer probably doesn't cost much more than the refrigeration of plain juice, so I think we're still winning. But, can you get concentrated juice that's small farm or organic? Maybe I'll just stick with local cider where I know the only transportation was the mile in my car!

  20. I haven't seen any organic frozen juice. Man, no one product has the whole package, in any product range!

    As I said above, I don't worry too much about electricity usage in BC, so I don't feel bad about the freezer aspect of the equation.


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