Several years ago, I took a class called Energy Basics, which was taught by the man who installed my solar hot water. I thought I knew a lot about energy until Larry opened my eyes to how it is produced, how it can be conserved, and how it hides in every item we touch.
I grew up driving in the 1970s oil embargo, when gas was rationed while its price doubled. I was young, and this had a big impact on me. Conserving became my way of life, but I knew there had to be energy expended on the other side of a purchase that could be conserved, too.
What I called ‘The Other Side of the Equation’ is now termed ‘Embodied Energy’, the energy it takes to create and deliver the products we buy new. It takes energy to make everything from food to clothes to electronics and every new product any of us purchases. The more aware I became of this, the farther back in the manufacturing cycle my mind went.
Embodied energy is the total energy used from manufacture to consumption
It dawned on me that raw materials are gathered and shipped to a manufacturing facility, where energy is used to produce this item to be shipped to a store for purchase. Consumers use yet more energy to drive to a store that uses energy for lighting, heating, cooling and water. It seems to me an endless and unnecessary waste of resources, and I am overwhelmed when I think about the massive consumption our society thrives on and condones.
For a class project, I examined The Other Side of the Equation of my own consumption.
Paper, energy, and waste
I was working in an office at the time as a real estate agent. If you’ve ever bought a home or some land, you know the paperwork is astounding. I was appalled, and faxing created senseless, multiple copies of everything. No one was using a document storage service, like Scribd, back then. Google Docs did not even exist! I learned to scan and email, but even that was foreign to many other agents and clients alike. Some had no way to open a PDF. That’s hard to believe today, but my lesson then was that people were uneducated about waste and conservation. They needed to be brought up into the 21st century!
To study embodied energy, I had to ask: Where does paper come from, and how does it get to us? Forests are clear-cut, logs are transported to the mill, toxic chemicals are added to water for energy-intensive processing, and the final product is packaged and shipped over thousands of miles. Rivers are polluted while wasted pulp piles up. That’s a lot of energy and environmental damage for a piece of paper.
Paper is only one example. Every product has embodied energy in it, and some of it is very carbon intensive. Just the machinery and fuel to gather raw materials is enough to make me buy used and recycled products, recycle and reuse everything that comes into my house, repurpose old things into new, and use my things and wear my clothes until they are completely worn out.
Learn more about what you’re buying
Another way to offset embodied energy is to purchase high quality items that will last for decades. The longer something is in use, the less overall effect its embodied energy has. It takes just as much energy to produce something you will have to throw away in a year or two because it was cheaply made. If you buy new, buy to last.
Before you make a purchase, study the background of the item. Does the manufacturer harvest sustainably? Do the manufacturing facilities use renewable energy? Are company vehicles hybrid or electric? Think about where that item came from, the raw materials, the energy expended to get it to you and the energy you spent to buy it. Start to consider the other side of the equation, and you may acquire more responsible shopping habits.