Creating Green Infrastructures

Metropolis Magazine
Infrastructure Activism
By Tiffany Meyers, November 12, 2009

To introduce his panel at last Thursday’s Infrastructures for Change Workshop, in Chicago, Giles Jacknain reminded us that the ancient Greeks had two words for city. The first was asty—or the inanimate bricks and mortar. The other: polis, or the city as a human entity. The conversation we were about to have, he suggested, was about moving from “asty to polis.”

Jacknain is the founder of the consultancy the Oikos Collective and a faculty member of Archeworks, which sponsored the day-long Infrastructures for Change event. The conference offered a mash-up of bottom-up and top-down projects designed to make cities of the future sustainable “before it’s too late,” as more than one speaker put it. It’s the first in a series of Archeworks workshops that will showcase design alternatives to the waste-intensive, auto-dependent, low-density infrastructures of the 20th century.

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Which Is Greener: LED’s or CFL’s?

Author’s Note: For The Chicago Tribune, I answered a series of readers’ questions about living a greener, more sustainable life. This Trib reader wrote in to find out if LED lights were more efficient than CFL’s. Here’s what I dug up.

There’s no question that LED’s have a bright future, but Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFL’s) remain your most accessible, environmentally responsible lighting option for the home. Which is not to say the CFL is perfect. It is vastly more efficient than an incandescent bulb, but each CFL contains about 5 milligrams of environmentally harmful mercury-about equivalent to the size of a ballpoint pen’s tip, by ENERGY STAR’s calculations.

Not only are LED’s mercury-free, their long lifespan makes the Energizer Bunny seem like a quitter.Unlike traditional light sources-which throw off relatively consistent light and then, poof, burn out–LED’s get dimmer over time. Analysts recommend that the LED’s last rites be administered when they emit 70% of initial light output. Using that measurement, the Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE, EERE) calculates that the highest-quality white LED’s have a useful life of around 35,000 hours.

Some context: You could turn on a high-quality, white LED and forget about it for four years, when it would finally need replacing. Compare that to your garden-variety, 75-watt incandescent bulb, which throws out 1,000 lumens for about a buck, according to the DOE. That dollar bulb-which converts only about 5% of the electricity it consumes into light-will expire in about 1,000 hours. Comparable CFL’s-which are five times more efficient than incandescent bulbs-cost less than $5 and last 10,000 hours.

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Which Is Greener: Styrofoam or Ceramic Mugs?

Author’s Note: A Chicago Tribune reader wanted to know: Are disposable coffee cups made of Styrofoam more or less harmful to the environment than reusable mugs? Here’s how I answered, with much help from sustainability engineer Pablo Päster. 

The debate over coffee cups-disposable or not-happens torunneth over with tough-to-measure variables. For instance, do you use a dishwasher? Is your model energy efficient? And: Just how clumsy are you? (Reusable mugs: Useless when broken.) Scientists analyze this issue in myriad ways, but overall, consensus is that brew imbibed from reusable, ceramic mugs is the most sustainable option.

But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. To reap environmental rewards of the mug, you’ll need to hand rinse it–putting it in your (energy-efficient) dishwasher only when absolutely necessary. That’s according to Pablo Päster, a San Francisco-based sustainability engineering consultant who also writes a column at AskPablo.org on the science of sustainability, including a technical analysis of this very issue.

In his analysis, Päster found that a ceramic mug has a higher total “material intensity”- a measure of resources used to manufacture a product (like the extracted clay and gas to heat the kiln)-than a Styrofoam cup. But the mug’s reusability-which means it can provide multiple “service units”-justifies its higher material intensity after about 46 uses. “If you have one cup of coffee daily for a year, that’s 365 ‘service units,'” says Päster. “That can be accomplished with either 365 disposable cups or one reusable mug.”

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