Stop Using Disposable Plastic Bags
Lots of folks these days are talking about the need to reduce the amount of oil we use, in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill, as well as concerns about energy independence and greenhouse gas emissions.
Each year, 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are given out around the planet. Only a tiny fraction of them are recycled, and most are used just once, to get a purchase from a store to home. Yet Environment California reports that plastic bags and similar plastic refuse kill up to one million sea creatures every year, since many of them end up as pelagic litter.
U.S. retailers spend $4 billion a year on 100 billion plastic bags, and they pass on the cost to consumers in the form of higher prices. That takes an estimated 12 million barrels of oil, an amount that would otherwise produce 240 million gallons of gasoline. If we take that 240 million and divide it by the U.S. population, roughly 310 million, that's 0.77 gallons per person, which is how much you'd save if you always bring your own bag. A similar amount can probably be saved by using reusable utensils, mugs and other items.
Savings: 0.77 gallons of gas equivalent per year
Contrary to some popular belief, experts recommend that you shut off your car engine if you are going to be idling for longer than 10 seconds, both to save gas and to increase the life of your vehicle.
According to a report from the Hinkle Charitable Foundation, the average driver spends about five minutes a day in unnecessary idling. That works out to about half a cup of gas per day for a small car or one cup for an eight-cylinder engine. Annually, this works out to 10 gallons of gas for a small car or 20 gallons for a larger vehicle, at a price of $30 or $60 (assuming gas at $3.15 per gallon). That also equates to 220 or 440 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, respectively.
Savings: 10-20 gallons of gas per year, depending on car size
Make Your Own Natural Cleaning Products
You may not have given it much thought, but many cleaning products on the market are made from petroleum derivatives. (This also goes for candles, beauty products, fabrics and many other common items.) The average American uses about 25 gallons of cleaning products a year. Since some of these products have a lot of water in them as well, let's assume that it takes half that volume in oil to make them - 12.5 gallons.
As an alternative, make your own cleaning products! The process can be simple and fun, and you can scent them exactly to your taste with natural essential oils. Also consider switching to natural candles and beauty products.
Savings: 12.5 gallons of petroleum products a year
Check Your Tire Pressure
You may have heard the oft-repeated (and occasionally ridiculed) suggestion to "inflate your tires" in order to decrease rolling resistance and increase fuel economy on the road. In fact, it's sometimes said that if everyone in the U.S. kept their tires inflated to the recommended pressure, we'd save 200,000 barrels of oil a day.
Let's see how it might break down for you. The average amount of under-inflation, 7.5 pounds, causes a loss of 2.8% in fuel efficiency. Since the average American driver logs 15,000 miles per year, and the average efficiency for a passenger car is 23 miles per gallon, that's an average of 642 gallons of gas a year (more for those who drive SUVs). If we take 2.8% of 642 we get 18 gallons.
Savings: 18 gallons of gas a year
Reduce Plane Travel in Half
People often criticize jet-setting celebrities for their environmental impact in the skies, so let's take a look at the actual numbers. According to one pilot, airplanes use roughly .07-.1 lbs of fuel per passenger per nautical mile. So a Boeing 777-200 (348 seats) flying from New York City to Los Angeles (2,144 NM) would burn roughly 24.3 lbs of jet fuel for every mile traveled, or 52,000 lbs of fuel (that's about 7,760 gallons). If we divide that by 348 passengers, that's 22 gallons of fuel per customer for the trip.
If you reduce the amount of trips you make by plane by half, say from six flights a year to three, you'd use 66 gallons of fuel a year instead of 132. How would you do this? Take a train instead (some of which are electric powered), combine trips, or choose to say local, either by conducting business remotely or spending your leisure time somewhere closer. Overall, the 55 billion gallons of jet fuel burned annually around the world result in 540 million tons of carbon dioxide -- and it's true that emissions up in the air are more immediately harmful, climate wise, than emissions on the ground.
Savings: 66 gallons of jet fuel a year
Drive Smoothly and at the Speed Limit
Driver's manuals also point out that you'll get better fuel economy if you drive smoothly, avoiding jackrabbit starts and using the cruise control as much as is safely possible. We're also told to obey the speed limits. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, for every five miles per hour you drive over 55 MPH, you lose 6% of your efficiency. That's a whopping 24% if you drive 75 MPH.
So, if we take those 642 gallons of fuel a year used by the typical driver in our first example, and add another 24% due to lost efficiency through speeding and aggressive handling, we get a total of 796 gallons a year, or an increase of 154. (Obviously, you're not going to be able to drive 75 MPH everywhere you go, but we're taking 24% as an average to include rapid accelerations as well.)
Savings: 154 gallons of gas a year
Carpool, Walk, Bike or Take Transit
Carpooling is slowly catching on, in part because of incentives like HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, toll exemptions and free parking. It's also a good way to bond with coworkers or spend time with friends and family, and it certainly saves on gas and wear and tear on personal vehicles. Even better, if you can bike or walk to work you'll get some exercise and (hopefully) fresh air.
If you get around everywhere just on your own power, you'll save the full 642 gallons of gas per year used by the average driver. Ditto if you only take public transit, as long as that is powered with electricity (even if the trains, buses or ferries use fossil fuels, you'll result in less fuel use than from individual vehicles). If you are more typical and use alternative transportation for, say, a quarter of your annual trips, you'll save 160 gallons of fuel.
Savings: 160 to 642 gallons of gas a year + reduced wear on roads, which are made with oil
Upgrade to a Hybrid Car
Among the more exciting technologies to hit the market in recent years are hybrid cars, which boast higher efficiency as well as cleaner tailpipe emissions (remember, with cars, the amount of oil consumed isn't the only environmental impact). So how much fuel could we really save?
Taking the most popular hybrid in the country, the iconic Toyota Prius, as an example, we see that the reported fuel economy is 51 mpg for highways and 48 for city driving -- let's say 50 mpg to make it simple. An average Prius driver would then use 300 gallons of gas a year (15,000 miles divided by 50). A driver of a typical car uses 642, for a difference of 342.
(By the way, it's worth pointing out that the groundbreaking Model T Ford got 25 miles per gallon back at the turn of the last century. At least we've improved somewhat since our low point in 1973, when we averaged only 11.9 mpg.)
Savings: 342 gallons of gas
Switch to Biodiesel
If you're interested in renewable and homegrown fuels, or want to roll like Willie Nelson or Woody Harrelson, you may have thought about running your vehicle on biodiesel. The fuel can be made from a wide range of feedstocks, from corn to soy, agricultural waste, algae, used cooking oil and other materials. Biodiesel has much cleaner emissions than petroleum diesel, and it cleans your engine and extends its life. It also decreases net gain of carbon emissions, although critics have argued that we shouldn't be using industrial agriculture to produce it from food crops, since that takes resources and could conceivably raise food prices.
Biodiesel isn't yet widely available, though it is often relatively easy to find if you know what to look for. An increasing number of filling stations are offering biodiesel blends, which mix plant-based fuel with petroleum diesel in order to improve performance. These work great in all modern diesel engines without any modifications. Common is B20, made with 20% biodiesel. If you are more ambitious, you can make a few adjustments to run your diesel on straight vegetable oil (SVO), though you may have to add a fuel heater and/or blend with petro diesel in the winter.
One more point is that, according to fueleconomy.gov, diesels tend to be 30-35% more efficient than regular gas models. So a typical diesel driver would use an average of 430 gallons of fuel a year instead of 642. If 20% of that 430 gallons were made up of biodiesel, that would be an additional 86 gallons of petroleum products not used. 430 - 86 = 341
Savings: 341 gallons of petroleum diesel for B20 642 gallons of petroleum diesel for SVO (assuming you didn't have to blend)
Recycle More Cans
It may not be immediately obvious, but one of the benefits of recycling is saving fuel that would otherwise be used to extract and process virgin materials. A typical family consumes 182 gallons of soda, 29 gallons of juice, 104 gallons of milk, and 26 gallons of bottled water a year, and all those containers add up!
Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a TV for three hours -- or the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline. So if you recycle two cans a day that would save 365 gallons of gas a year.
When it comes to plastic, recycling saves twice as much energy as burning it in an incinerator. And the 29 billion water bottles we use a year require 17 million barrels of oil to make, enough to keep a million cars going for twelve months. We also use 25 billion Styrofoam cups a year, which are difficult to recycle.
The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle is enough to run a 100-watt light bulb for four hours or a compact fluorescent bulb for 20 hours.
Savings: 365 gallons of gas equivalent per year
Reduce Home Heating Oil Waste
According to the Department of Energy, about 8.1 million U.S. households burn fuel oil to heat their homes, mostly in the Northeast. Environmentalists generally aren't fans, since oil burns dirtier than natural gas and often requires delivery trucks. But a typical household uses 650-1,000 gallons of the fuel during a heating season -- let's say 825 gallons.
The easiest way to reduce that amount is to ask your oil company to do regular maintenance of your system, such as cleaning filters and making adjustments. That simple act could save you up to 25%. Reducing drafts by caulking, weatherstripping and adding insulation can save you an additional 5 to 30%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And for every degree you lower your thermostat dial, you'll save between 1 and 3% of your heating bill. Let's say you make all these changes, plus get a programmable thermostat, and you reduce your fuel oil use by half: that saves 413 gallons a year!
Savings: 413 gallons of fuel oil a year
Reduce Meat Consumption by Just 20%
On average, Americans consume about eight ounces of meat a day, which is roughly twice the global average. We are 5% of the world's population consuming 15% of the world's livestock, 10 billion animals a year. All those cows, pigs and chickens are responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than transportation!) and 8% of global water use, according to the UN.
Meat takes much more energy to produce than plant-based foods. In fact, Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center and Pamela A. Martin of the University of Chicago calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20%, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan to a Prius. Thankfully, we already know how much gas that would save for each of us: 342 gallons, based on our previous calculations.
Savings: 342 gallons of gas equivalent (Going vegetarian: 1,710 gallons)