10 ways to help save the planet

From fake trees to showering with friends—these ideas might even save you money

Simple steps to salvation1. Sell solar power back into the grid

Solar panels are costly, so only the most committed environmentalists have thus far been willing to install them on the roofs of their homes and businesses. But new government programs that permit small renewable-energy producers to sell excess energy back into the power grid are making it easier for anyone to jump on the solar bandwagon. Last week, the Ontario Power Authority launched Canada’s first feed-in tariff program, which will offer a buy-back rate of up to 80.2 cents per kilowatt for solar power—more than seven times the rate paid for other forms of green power, like wind.

Want in? A grid-connected system at home, including installation, will cost about $10 per watt of output. If you installed a 2,000-watt system (at a cost of $20,000), then depending on your energy consumption you could bring in roughly $1,850 in revenue each year, recouping your investment in just over 10 years. And considering solar panels can last 30 years or longer, that’s a fairly sunny long-range forecast.—Jen Cutts

2. Fake trees

Trees, we all know, are carbon catchers. Problem is, they don’t catch enough of the stuff, and the process is slow. So scientists have built a better mousetrap, so to speak. According to a new report out of the U.K., the most effective way to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) levels is to construct hundreds of thousands of artificial, greenhouse-gas-scrubbing trees.

Prototypes already exist—they’re made up of a type of mesh suspended between a two-pronged fork, and look like gigantic fly swatters. As air blows through the structure, CO2 binds to an absorbent compound, a process that removes the carbon 1,000 times faster then normal plants.
There are problems: the trees are expensive—more than $20,000 each—and “planting” 100,000 of them would offset only 60 per cent of the CO2 produced by a country the size of the U.K. With enough government funding, though, fake forests could start popping up around the world within the next few years.—Tom Henheffer

3. Open drains

At Southeast False Creek, Vancouver’s newest downtown development—and site of the Olympic athletes’ village—the city has cut open trench drains down the main thoroughfare. It’s a simple, and effective, environmental tool.

Instead of channelling storm water through an underground sewer, the water will flow above ground. Rock pits, then grass lawns, at the end of the drains will slow the pace of runoff, and the water will enter the soil, which naturally filters it before it flows into False Creek, an ocean inlet separating downtown Vancouver from the rest of the city.

The above-ground drains send a strong message: “When people are changing their oil, or washing the car, they can see the water—see that it doesn’t just wash into a hole in the ground, and disappear,” says Vancouver city planner Thor Kuhlmann.—Nancy Macdonald

4. White roofs and roads

Darker hues absorb heat, while lighter hues reflect it—if you’ve ever worn a black shirt on a hot day, you know that well. It’s the same for the roads we drive on and the roofs over our heads: according to a new study, painting driving surfaces and house and building roofs white in the 100 largest urban areas in the U.S. would offset 44 metric gigatons of CO2. That’s more than all the countries of the world emit in a single year, or equivalent to taking all cars off the roads for 11 years.

It’s worth pointing out that whitewashing only works in warm and temperate climates, where it reflects heat. But in colder spots, dark roofs actually help warm our buildings and houses—which translates into less energy spent on heating.—Rachel Mendleson

5. Tankless hot water

Tankless hot water heaters are the oldest new idea in energy conservation. They’ve been in use in Europe and parts of Asia for more than a generation. Canadians are starting to pay attention, attracted by energy savings of up to 50 per cent, says Shell Busey, who operates the House Smart contractor referral service in Surrey, B.C.

There are many advantages and some drawbacks: the small wall-mounted units instantly heat water as it flows through a compact maze of pipes, providing a limitless, continuous supply. Not only are you spared the cost of keeping 40 or 60 gallons of hot water on standby, you regain the floor space where the tank once stood. Plus, the units last 20 years or more, about twice the life of a standard tank. Many are eligible for government ecoEnergy retrofit grants; in Ontario, that can mean savings of between $630-$750.

Supply can be a problem, though. There is no storage capacity—so be sure to buy a system large enough to meet your household demand. Also, expect to pay twice the cost of a regular tank, as well as additional costs to install and vent the system.—Ken MacQueen

6. Paperless office

When easy, cheap printing invaded the workplace and home in the ’80s, paper use skyrocketed, more than doubling between 1980 and 2000. Now, one Canadian company is working to reverse that trend.
WestJet, the Canadian airline known for its novel business approach, is leading the way toward a paperless revolution—and all it took was a couple of simple changes. The company found that the temptation to hit the print button correlated to the proximity of the printer: if you’re sitting near it, you’re more likely to use it.

So WestJet moved all the printers out of arms’ reach and into “tech shops”—two central locations on each floor with three printers per location. On top of that, workers have to scan their employee cards in order to use them—and a screen shows them their record of personal paper use.

WestJet has already noticed a huge change in printing habits, and estimates that it will save 20 per cent annually in paper and toner costs as the program continues.—Tom Henheffer

7. The induction stove

It’s eco-friendly. It’s also very, very cool.

Induction stoves use electricity to create a magnetic field, so—and here’s the cool part—while you heat up last night’s leftovers, the sleek system remains cool to the touch. The result: you save 50 per cent in cooking time versus an electric stove, and 25 per cent in energy costs.

Until recently, high price and size (early versions were behemoths) have made induction stoves impractical for many homeowners. But that’s slowly changing: Samsung recently released a standard kitchen-sized version that comes complete with a convection oven for US$1,999. —Rachel Mendleson

8. Contraception

According to the UN, about 40 per cent of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended—that’s a lot of babies spewing CO2 into the environment and consuming precious resources. So, of all the green technologies out there, birth control might be the most environmentally friendly.

A new report from the Optimum Population Trust at the London School of Economics finds that for each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next 40 years, global CO2 emissions would be reduced by more than one tonne. By comparison, the minimum cost it would take to get the same results with other carbon-reducing technologies—wind power, solar power, plug-in hybrids, etc.—is $32.

Not bad for a simple piece of rubber. —Kate Lunau

9. Algae-wrapped buildings

Algae—a group of organisms of which seaweed is the largest marine form—could be much more than just the slimy goo that irritates swimmers at the beach. It could become a powerful tool in the fight against global warming.

Strapping it to skyscrapers could produce a huge environmental payoff: researchers are pushing for the use of “algae-based photobioreactors,” which are transparent tubes filled with the stuff that can be attached to the sides of buildings. Carbon dioxide would then be pumped into the devices and the algae would absorb it through photosynthesis.

The end result can be either a liquid biofuel for energy and heating, or a CO2-absorbing soil conditioner called biochar. —Tom Henheffer

10. Shower with a friend

In the early ’90s, as the Earth Day movement transformed from hippie-dippy ideal to celebrity-studded cause, a group of well-meaning types, including Bette Midler and Bill Cosby, made the first televised Earth Day special. Their suggestions were mostly bland, save for one. “Save water, shower with a friend.”

Shower sharing makes complete sense. Canadians are water hogs, ranking 28th among the 29 nations polled by the OECD in terms of per capita water consumption. Part of the problem, says Environment Canada’s senior policy adviser Liz Lefrançois, is that we shower for too long and leave the water running when soaping up.

Environment Canada suggests low-flow showerheads and “sailor shower” valves that switch off with the push of a button. As for showering with a friend? The government isn’t getting behind the cause: “I don’t think we could promote that,” says Lefrançois. “It infers something other than water savings.” But just because the government has no place in the showers of the nation, that’s no reason you shouldn’t give it a try.—Martin Patriquin

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