Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Read this book to learn the surprising emissions cost of everything from oranges to a Google search to drying your hands

How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything

By Mike Berners-Lee
Published by Greystone Books, 2011
232 pages; $19.95 trade paperback

It’s hard to argue with the endorsement on the cover of How Bad Are Bananas?. “I can’t remember the last time I read a book that was more fascinating and useful and enjoyable all at the same time,” writes best-selling author Bill Bryson. It’s an interesting choice for a testimonial, considering Bryson is better known for his hilarious travel books than his tree-hugging tendencies. And it’s the first signal that both greenies and non-greenies will take something away from this scrupulously footnoted book (and related blog) by UK carbon footprinting expert Mike Berners-Lee.

In calculating the emissions toll of everything from a heart bypass to a ton of fertilizer to a mortgage, Berners-Lee hopes not to make us feel guilty, but to make us aware. In a CBC Radio One interview, he talked about carbon like money: we know the cost of a cup of coffee, so why not know the climate-change cost of everyday items and decisions? It might help Canadians reduce our oversized footprints: North Americans average 28 tons of CO2 emissions annually — four times the world average.

The carbon footprint of….

A web search
0.2 g CO2 emissions: Google’s estimate for the energy used at their end
0.7 g CO2 emissions from an efficient laptop
4.5 g CO2 from a power-hungry machine
So a single search for the location of a restaurant, say, includes your machine time, wait time, reading time, emissions from the manufacture of your system, servers and networks hosting the info, etc.
Reduce your footprint: Use the most energy-efficient browser.

Drying your hands in a public restroom
3 g CO2 emissions drying with the Dyson Airblade
10 g CO2 emissions for one paper towel
20 g CO2 emissions for standard electric dryer

The Dyson Airblade is more efficient than typical dryers because it doesn’t heat, it just blows hard. Paper towels are in the middle, though that would double or triple if you used two or three per dry. Conventional hand dryers take longer than the Dyson and use around 6 kilowatts of power because it takes a lot of energy to create heat.
Reduce your footprint: Drip-dry and you’ll release zero emissions.

A plastic vs. paper bag
3 g CO2 emissions for very lightweight plastic bags
10 g CO2 emissions for standard disposable supermarket plastic bag
50 g CO2 heavyweight reusable plastic bag
12 g CO2 emissions for lightweight paper bag if recycled
80 g CO2 emissions for an elaborate bag from virgin paper as supplied by many clothing shops

Supermarkets and cities have been making an effort to reduce grocery bags. Uganda and Tanzania even banned them altogether. Berners-Lee says this is fantastic news for other environmental reasons (wildlife, landfill, etc.), but doesn’t constitute a response to climate change: the food in that bag, however, accounts for up to 30 per cent of our carbon footprint. How does this compare with a paper bag? Plastic beats paper for carbon: Paper manufacturing is highly energy intensive, and since paper bags have to be made heavier, they have a bigger footprint overall. A lightweight paper bag costs 12 g CO2 emissions if recycled; an elaborate bag made from virgin paper
Reduce your footprint: Carry a backpack, wheelie basket or washable and reusable shopping bags. Refuse or reuse fancy paper bags, then recycle: paper rotting in landfill releases carbon and methane.

An orange
Zero g CO2 emissions grown in your own garden (in Canada, we wish!)
90 g or 500 g CO2 emissions per kilo shipped 2,000 miles by boat and 500 miles by truck
1 kg CO2 emissions per orange air-freighted for the start of a season

Most oranges (and apples and bananas, for that matter) are great from a carbon perspective: they keep well and can be grown in natural conditions and shipped around the world for wherever they are required. A quart of orange juice can have a footprint equivalent to several pounds of oranges because of the inefficiencies in its production: pulp is thrown out; processing, pasteurizing and concentrating cause emissions for transportation and refrigeration; transport miles are often higher as the product moves from farm to juicer to packager to distributor.
Reduce your footprint: Avoid fruit shipped by air; buy juice with pulp to avoid waste.