Readers sound off on biodiesel, waterless urinals, jocks, and more
I am currently considering a new car, and was interested to read Jim Motavalli’s recent article in Grist. I was disappointed, however, that in his vehicle summaries, he failed to mention biodiesel as an option for environmentally conscious consumers. Why? Is there something about biodiesel I have not heard?
I was appalled to realize that the reporter didn’t think to include the fossil fuel-free contender that runs on biodiesel fuel. Not only are diesel vehicles that run on biodiesel cleaner than hybrids or any gas-powered vehicle, particularly when you factor in destructive and filthy oil-extraction methods; they also get great mileage. But above all, they don’t use fuels that are non-renewable and that create energy insecurity and dependence, and they don’t start bloody wars. Biodiesel can be obtained locally, is less toxic than table salt, and is biodegradable. Depending on where you live, biodiesel may now be hard to find, but it is a growing market.
I’m disgusted that Grist seems to be condoning a media blackout on biodiesel. I’d like to see more coverage of this important alternative to gasoline in the near future.
I was surprised that Volkswagen’s Golf and Jetta TDIs, which can be purchased in the U.S., weren’t mentioned in the article. They get 40-50 mpg at less than the price of the hybrids and not much more than a Suzuki Aerio!
J. E. Lopez
One thing you missed when you mentioned two-wheelers as an alternative to cars is that for those of us with freeway commutes (and no public transit) or who use our vehicles for work, any motorcycle in the 250-400 cc range has a better power-to-weight ratio than any four-cylinder car, requires considerably less energy to manufacture, and consumes less fuel than a Honda Insight.
Ladner, British Columbia, Canada
You missed one source of transportation worth mentioning, the BMW C1 scooter. I ride one of these daily and it is a low-emission vehicle that gets 73 mpg. It zips through traffic without holding it up (70 mph) and keeps the worst of the weather off too. I’ve heard it’s not available in the U.S., but maybe if more people knew of it that might change.
Auckland, New Zealand
Jim Motavalli replies:
While cars can and do run on vegetable oil (animal fat, too), and converting them is a favorite cottage project, it’s hard to imagine biodiesel as the Holy Grail replacement for fossil fuels.
First, the good stuff. Biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable, and it can help reduce dependence on foreign oil and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. It’s an oxygenated fuel, so it burns more completely than fossil-based products. Filling your car with biodiesel cuts down on emissions of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur, and the nastiest of all diesel byproducts — particulate matter.
But there are drawbacks. According to some reports, biodiesel exhaust actually contains more emissions of nitrogen oxide than regular diesel. In Europe, where rapeseed is used as the basis for biodiesel, a study indicates that carcinogenic (and air-polluting) organic compounds are produced when the fuel is burned. Also, car performance is decreased by 8 to 15 percent because of biodiesel’s lower energy content. And cars using biodiesel may experience cold starting problems.
And then there’s the fact that biodiesel fuel is often a blend of 20 percent vegetable oil and 80 percent standard diesel (the fuel for one reader’s choice, the Volkswagen TDI). That’s because older engines will suffer seal and gasket problems if they burn 100 percent biodiesel. Diesel cars are touted by some environmentalists for their excellent fuel economy, but the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, “Diesels are allowed to pollute over twice as much nitrogen oxides as gasoline vehicles, and 10 to 100 times more particulate matter.”
So by all means, let’s support grassroots biodiesel. But let’s be very careful. (For more on biodiesel, read my recent article in Electrifying Times.)
Shouldn’t air travelers accept that their travel is a risk to the environment and that there must be some physical consequences in a reasonable attempt to reduce that risk? Every plane that comes to New Zealand has to be treated (either by spraying long-term insecticides on surfaces inside the plane or by spraying immediately after the doors of the plane are opened, before passengers disembark), and it’s a damn good idea.
My city, Auckland, New Zealand, is regularly sprayed to get rid of two insect species that were recently introduced. This spraying is far more intrusive and damaging to the environment than that in any plane, but it has to be done, otherwise insecticides will have to be used every season throughout our country to control these pests. The pests probably arrived via shipping containers, which unfortunately are not all treated. I am sure there would have been more insect pests released in our country if not for our decades-old plane-spraying program.
Auckland, New Zealand
Re: Go Fish
One thing Umbra didn’t mention in her response to the reader who asked about sustainable seafood is the damage caused to the ocean floor by some commercial fishing techniques. In many places, underwater topography is being completely leveled. Complex marine ecosystems, including reefs, are being destroyed. The ramifications of this flattening of the ocean floor are only beginning to be understood by the scientific community.
Thank you for helping to bring this issue to public attention.
Re: Wetland’s End
I read with interest the article about waterless urinals and former Vice President Al Gore’s relationship with the company that produces them. All I have heard or read before this article were cheap shots, insults, jabs, and jokes aimed at Al Gore. This article, although it took some jabs, at least took the time to explain about the product and how much water it can save.
I hope that people will grow up and give Mr. Gore credit for addressing a critical need. One would think that our fast-approaching global water shortage, which the average citizen is doing nothing to slow or stop, would give us pause to stop and thank those who are coming up with solutions to avoid or at least minimize this crisis.
Re: Wetland’s End
Your coverage of waterless urinals has done a disservice to your readers and the environment. It comes across as if you’re in favor of the status quo of rest rooms with flush urinals, the crude, unsanitary contraptions that should have been left behind in the last century. You might do less harm by defending the use of outhouses!
Apart from reducing water demands and sewage flows, waterless urinals lower construction and maintenance costs and soften sundry environmental impacts of public buildings. Waterless urinals also reduce bad odors and diminish public-health risks, as has been demonstrated over several years by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. [Download a PDF about the center’s experience with waterless urinals.] Furthermore, they can substantially reduce the use of harsh cleaning chemicals that impair the effectiveness of sewage treatment plants, and may decrease the amount of air pollution from generation of the energy needed to expand and operate water-supply and sewer systems.
Waterless urinals are a timid first step toward getting a handle on a little-studied environmental issue: the impacts of human excrement on ecosystems. These impacts are getting worse as human numbers continue to increase rapidly while our water demands deplete and outstrip the capacity of the world’s water resources and world consumption of pharmaceuticals continues to grow explosively.
Urine contains worrisome micro-pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and endocrine-active compounds, which can cause havoc in aquatic life forms and may reduce biodiversity. Waterless urinals don’t address this facet of the problem yet, but they may help change public attitudes toward sanitation technologies, foster a better understanding of what is sanitary and what is not, and help gain acceptance for more environmentally sensible fixtures in the private bathrooms of the future.
The next step — separation and advanced treatment of urine — could have great environmental as well as economic benefits. A recent study in Switzerland determined that the nutrients in human urine could cover between 15 percent and 37 percent of the country’s current demand for agricultural fertilizers, and even more if the trend to convert production to organic agricultural methods continues. [Find out more from Novaquatis.]
I hope to see a more balanced and positive treatment of the subject in a future issue of Grist.
Senior Research Scientist
Energy, Environment & Resources Center
University of Tennessee
Umbra did a good job, as always. However, the No. 1 hint for curbing consumption, highlighted and all in caps, should have been “REDUCE OR REFRAIN FROM PROCREATION.” Nothing else really matters if we continue to create more consumers, especially in Western societies.
Janet and Mark Thew
As an avid reader of Grist, a vegetarian, and a bicycle commuter, I am troubled by the apparent ignorance and laziness of your readership concerning the environmental policies of Wesley Clark, Democratic candidate for president. Letters responding to your article “Go Wes, Young Man,” be they in favor of or in opposition to the general, reveal basic misconceptions concerning his proposed policies on the environment, assuming him to be weak on fundamental knowledge and conviction in this area.
However, on his official website, which is the first place I look for any candidate’s basic policy positions, there are extensive and sophisticated plans outlined for the protection of our natural environment. To paraphrase some basics, he advocates Smart Growth rather than sprawl, reengagement with the international community on climate change, a 20 percent renewable energy portfolio by 2020, roadless wilderness, and curbing oil drilling (particularly a ban on all potential drilling in that darn Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). He spent several months prior to his presidential bid (soon after his military retirement) as CEO of a company called WaveCrest, which is developing a revolutionary type of electric motor intended for private transportation use.
More facts (as opposed to uninformed assumptions) on his environmental positions can be found at enviros4clark.com, which has posted the full texts of various questionnaires put to the Clark campaign on environmental issues, including those issued by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.
Not only is Wes Clark, in my opinion, the Democratic candidate most likely to defeat the present (shudder) president, he is also a man of progressive values and personal integrity. And to all those who oppose him, I say this: A close-minded liberal with preconceptions about a career military man is still close-minded, and that doesn’t help anybody.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Re: See How They Run
I read your interviews with Kucinich, Kerry, and Dean with interest. While Kerry and Dean both had substantive things to say about the environment and related policies, I came away from the Kucinich article feeling that all I’d received was political fluff. He couldn’t articulate anything about sustainable development and relied on vague appeals to goals and visions. Very dissatisfying. I’ll be supporting someone else.
Ohioan living in Singapore
My family operates a business importing and selling tankless water heaters nationwide. We have been in business for 25 years and our main product is made by Bosch, a company most people know. And our products are available in stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Umbra’s discussion of storage tank water heaters recommends putting on a blanket or turning down the thermostat. While I agree that these are valuable ways to decrease the wasted energy many homeowners experience, she doesn’t offer the more environmentally friendly alternative: switching to a tankless water heater. Why pay to keep water hot for 24 hours a day? Doesn’t it make sense to heat only the water you use?
Controlled Energy Corporation
Re: Jock Itch
You wrote: “Here’s a new green group you may want to join: Jocks for the Environment. Actually, that group doesn’t exist …”
Actually, such a group does exist! OrganicAthlete is a nonprofit organization based in Santa Rosa, Calif., that educates, connects, and fosters athletes in an effort to promote healthy living and ecological awareness.