Organic Needle reminded me to do an update on our performance during the Riot for Austerity, which I started 10 months ago. This is the 90 percent challenge that I’ve mentioned on this blog — with the goal of cutting consumption by 90 percent from U.S. average consumption.
Here’s the update on what I did and how it turned out:
1. Gasoline. Average American usage is 500 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR. A 90 percent reduction would be 50 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR.
Our use: With our family of three, we would be allowed 150 gallons per year or 12.5 gallons per month. HA! We live in a city where it would be very difficult to do things like see our families (who live about 15+ miles away) without using cars. They have complex calculations for using public transportation, and no mention of how to figure things like air travel (which, I’m sure, must simply be disallowed). Our average usage was 53 gallons per month in 2007 and 44 gallons per month so far in 2008 (although in May, we have used just 19 gallons so far). Composite average: 49.78 gallons per month or 40 percent of average.
2. Electricity. Average US usage is 11,000 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR, or about 900 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. A 90% reduction would mean using 1,100 PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR or 90 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. Hydro and Wind are deemed to have a 4 to 1 payback over other methods – you get 4 times as many.
Our use: We pay a supplement to use all wind-powered electricity, so we get 360 kwh per month for our household with the challenge. Since the challenge began, we’ve averaged 486 kwh per month, or 54 percent of average. I don’t know how they account for working at home, which in my case requires that our household use include two computers, a laser printer, fax, etc., as well as someone working in my office all day.
3. Heating and Cooking Energy – this is divided into 3 categories, gas, wood and oil. [We use natural gas.] US Average Natural Gas usage is 1000 therms PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% reduction would mean a reduction to 100 therms PER HOUSEHOLD PER YEAR, or 8.3 therms per month.
Our use: Since the challenge started, we used 77.3 therms per month or 773 total for 10 months. We are close to average on this. We have a gas hot water heater, a gas furnace, a gas stove, and we live in Colorado. Again, I work at home so I am here all day. I also tend to be cold, so much so that my fingers turn blue even when the thermostat is set to 68 (which means the actual house temperature is 62 to 64 degrees), as it was this winter. I don’t see a lot we can do here, although we turn the furnace way down at night, and I have tried to divert cooking from the gas stove to electric appliances. 93 percent of average.
4. Garbage – the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. For our family of three, we are allowed 1.35 lbs per day.
Our use: We have generated about 455 lbs of garbage in the last 10 months, or around 1.5 lbs per day. This doesn’t include recycling (I’m not sure of the weight, but we’ve filled our big cart 16.5 times during the past 10 months; if a full cart averages 30 lbs, that’s 495 lbs) or things we’ve donated, given away or sold (another 582 lbs). 11 percent of average (or 23 percent of average including recycling). (Note: I saw a comment on that post suggested 2.5 lbs per person per day is average excluding recycling/compost — I have not measured our compost weight. But we’d be at 20 percent of average for garbage using that figure.)
5. Water. The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons PER PERSON, PER DAY. For our family of three, that’s 30 gallons a day.
Our use: We used 62,000 gallons during the past 10 months. That’s about 206 gallons a day. We use a high-efficiency washing machine, an EnergyStar dishwasher that we run on the lightest cycle every time, I save water in the shower to re-use, and we avoid unnecessary toilet flushing. We water our lawn sparingly, but we do water it; we are converting part of our yard to xeriscape. The catch with this one? We grow a bunch of our own food, and that takes water. Imperfect science. 69 percent of average.
6. Consumer Goods. The best metric I could find for this is using money. A Professor at Syracuse University calculates that as an average, every consumer dollar we spend puts .5 lbs of carbon into the atmosphere. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it averages out pretty well. The average American spends 10K PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on consumer goods, not including things like mortgage, health care, debt service, car payments, etc… Obviously, we recommend you minimize those things to the extent you can, but what we’re mostly talking about is things like gifts, toys, music, books, tools, household goods, cosmetics, toiletries, paper goods, etc… A 90% cut would be 1,000 dollars PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR
Our use: Suffice it to say that I spent $3,500 in the past year in the “household” category of my budget alone, which includes some new furnishings, painting our house, and investments in things like CFL bulbs and water-saving aerators, as well as garden supplies, cleaning products, etc. There’s simply no way. And I must admit, I don’t have a very big interest in not spending money to this extent. But I do work to buy used items a lot, and I am making a conscious effort to try to purchase things made locally or fairly as much as possible (my Target budget is nothing like it was a couple of years ago).
7. Food. This was by far the hardest thing to come up with a simple metric for. Using food miles, or price gives what I believe is a radically inaccurate way of thinking about this. So here’s the best I can do. Food is divided into 3 categories. … #1 is food you grow, or which is produced *LOCALLY AND ORGANICALLY* (or mostly – it doesn’t have to be certified, but should be low input, because chemical fertilizers produce nitrous oxide which is a major greenhouse contributor). Local means within 100 miles to me. … #2 is is *DRY, BULK* goods, transported from longer distances. That is, *whole, unprocessed* beans, grains, and small light things like tea, coffee, spices (fair trade and sustainably grown *ONLY*), or locally produced animal products partly raised on unprocessed but non-local grains, and locally produced wet products like oils. … This should be no more than 25% of your total purchases. # 3 is Wet goods – conventionally grown meat, fruits, vegetables, juices, oils, milk etc… transported long distances, and processed foods like chips, soda, potatoes. Also regular shampoo, dish soap, etc… And that no one should buy more than 5% of their food in this form. Right now, the above makes up more than 50% of everyone’s diet.
I didn’t even go there. All this tracking takes up tons of time. Maybe some day …
How did I do?
Not that great. But it’s really hard. One thing I’ve taken from this type of challenge is that these changes take an enormous time investment. To do them to perfection, one would have to return to off the grid, do it yourself. Like the pioneers. Only the pioneers were not holding down a full-time job, going to graduate school and transporting children to school and activities. We are, and I know from my two months of processing fruits and vegetables in most of my spare time last fall, there’s only so much we can fit into a day.
Some argue that we should give up, for instance, soccer if soccer uses so many resources (gas to drive, uniform, ball, snack, game fees). But I have a hard time with depriving my kid or myself of normal life experiences when we are working hard in many ways to reduce our footprint. Likewise, our household suffers from high aesthetic standards. So I’m willing to make it myself, buy used, etc., but I don’t want to be completely out of style or not maintain a certain level of comfort and attractiveness in my home, where I spend nearly all my time.
And some categories — like using more organics or growing our own food — reflect badly on other categories — like spending money or using water.
What can I do?
We do have a few more goals in mind to help with our consumption:
- Gas: I want to look into carpooling my daughter to school next year. It is only 2.5 miles away, but the drive adds up. Carpooling might cut it in half. Mr. Cheap plans to take public transportation to his job, too.
- Water: We want to install rain barrels — which, as I understand it, are on their way to legality in Denver.
- Food: Last year, I was not that impressed with our local farmers markets, but I did work hard to buy locally produced food or organic food at our grocery store. I will try the farmers markets again this year, or maybe join a CSA (I think I just found another local option that still has openings!). And we want to add more to our home food production, hopefully including chickens when we have a chance to get it together.
What do you think about these challenges? Are you determined to reduce in any particular area? Or do the challenges discourage you by showing just how hard it is?