Posts Tagged ‘environment’


Friday, September 11th, 2015

amazing cup

Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house a year ago, I’ve been more conscious of the waste that I generate. Much of this self-reflection was inspired from the book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, which was recommended to me by a coworker. The book is a fairly unbiased survey of the origins of plastic, how it completely changed humanity in the past century (in both good and bad ways), how its disposal is managed, what it means to be “green,” and what lies ahead. I found it fascinating and would recommend it to anyone.

Two of the biggest takeaways I got from the book were that most plastic can’t be recycled, and paper bags actually have a greater cradle-to-grave environmental impact than plastic bags. Therefore, minimizing the amount of trash generated is the best route to go. When I examined my life, I found simple solutions for reducing the overall amount of waste I generate, plastic or otherwise, by making only small changes to my lifestyle.

Here are some little habits I changed in the past year:
– I unsubscribed from almost all magazines and brochures I kept getting in the mail – since most of these are unsolicited, it’s a continuous process. For some, the only way is to send a letter to their headquarters with the customer ID number written on the back of the catalogue, but it’s well worth the effort
– I bring my own travel mug to coffee shops whenever I can. I used to do this before, too, but I plan ahead more aggressively now
– I avoid bottled water unless absolutely necessary
– I eliminated almost all ziploc bag use by packing snacks and sandwiches in tupperware instead
– I always use my own mugs at work for water, tea, coffee, etc. and I use real silverware whenever possible
– I always bring reusable bags when I go grocery shopping
– I tell shopkeepers to skip the bag if the object is small enough to fit in my purse
– I reuse shopping bags as bathroom trash can liners, or for compartmentalizing shoes and underwear in my suitcases
– I save gift bags and re-gift them
– I buy items in bulk as often as possible, especially non-perishables. This also means foregoing items of convenience such as pre-sliced fruit or individually packaged single-servings of yogurt, etc.
– I fully consume pretty much all food I buy and try to generate minimal food waste. You can tell from my waistline…. haha, just kidding.
– I print double-sided, and go as paperless as I can. For example, if I need to reference a map or document where I won’t have phone reception, I save a screenshot or pdf of it on my phone to refer to later
– I almost forgot: KEURIGS are so wasteful, and their pods can’t be recycled. I make my own coffee at work now, but if I ever have to resort to those things, I use the reusable pods, which is graciously supplied by our admin at work

The journey isn’t over yet, of course. Below are future steps that I haven’t gotten around to yet:
– Figuring out a way to unsubscribe from credit card offers from other banks – they give you a number to call to stop receiving the mailings, but the automatic answering machine asks for your social security number to remove you. That’s too sketchy for me, so I’ll have to investigate if there’s a better way to do it. You may think I’m crazy for obsessing over this, but I get SO many of these junk mailings.
– Eliminating/minimizing those thin plastic bags when I buy produce. The cashiers don’t like it when you put the items on the conveyor belt rolling all around freely, and I buy so many fruits and vegetables that the number of bags I use irritates me. What do you do?
– Composting. Everybody does it in San Francisco. It’s not as widespread in LA, it kind of grosses me out, and I wouldn’t even know what to do with it afterwards. I live in an apartment and have no garden that I could put it in. Oh well, whatever. Maybe I’ll worry about this later… much later.

I admit that I am not as big of a treehugger as some people; there are some comforts I’m not willing to give up just yet, like q-tips and other sanitary products. But I’m sure there are other potentially simple changes that I’m overlooking. I’m curious to hear if any of you have any “quick wins” you’ve applied in your own lifestyle lately to reduce trash.

Note: The photo above is mine from sometime last year. I was fascinated by how tightly this cup was sealed!

Sustainability nuggets on Earth Day

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Last month, I went to the First Conference of Sustainability for the Pacific Northwest Region in Seattle, sponsored by AIChE’s Institute for Sustainability. The conference had pretty good coverage of progress on various sustainability efforts, and the curriculum was a balanced mix of technical and social topics.

What better day than today to reflect on my learnings? Here is a simple list of “nuggets” or take-away messages I jotted down.

Sustainability General

  • The three pillars of sustainability: Energy Security, Economic Productivity, Environmental Impact.
  • Many speakers mentioned the need for metrics to measure progress in sustainability, especially in the corporate world. Only then will it be possible to compare to benchmarks, set goals, and monitor progress.
  • Water is a raw material, not a utility. ~1 billion people lack access to clean water.
  • Sustainability can be profitable for companies, because minimizing waste and optimizing energy usage save on costs.
  • Optimal sustainability has higher net positive benefit than zero impact.


  • There is much biofuels research, but the constraint to scale-up is insufficient biofuel feedstock needed for an industrial scale.
  • Algae was popular for producing biomass, but it grows too slowly for an industrial production purpose.
  • Gasoline and diesel provide 96% of the United States’ transportation.
  • Even if all cars become electric, liquid transportation fuels are required for heavy truck engines.
  • Ethanol makes gasoline blending difficult; it needs to fit the existing infrastructure (distribution, nozzles, car components).
  • If terrestrial carbon is not valued, it can lead to destruction of unmanaged forests and pastures.
  • Net water intensity of power can be high. Low-carbon energy solutions can be water intensive (i.e. up to 90% more water used in carbon capture and sequestration).
  • Today’s electric grid operates in a “just in time” production process, with uncontrolled demand. Its challenges are a changing supply mix, increased demand, complexity of grid, and the vulnerability of energy infrastructure.
  • A smart grid could turn off idle/unneeded power consumers so that the power distribution is optimized during peak hours. These changes would only last a few minutes and would be unnoticed.
  • Peak shaving can be achieved through incentives. In addition, allowing consumers to monitor the power consumption of their appliances motivates them to minimize their power usage.
  • Closing the nuclear fuel cycle ideally requires 20% of the total nuclear reactors to be fast breeder reactors to manage waste from light water reactors. The key steps for moving forward include improving safeguards technology, lowering cost of reprocessing, identifying disposal path for wastes, and addressing public concerns regarding safety.

Other factoids

  • Biogas generated as a byproduct of digesters in wastewater plants is often treated and used for powering the engines/boilers and for natural gas sales.
  • 3% of the world’s water is fresh water. 0.3% of fresh water is surface water. 87% of surface water comes from lakes.
  • 96% of all consumer goods are petroleum-derived.
  • Mixtures of bacteria can be utilized to produce specialty chemicals (for plastics, artificial flavors and fragrances) from various kinds of biomass.
  • 90% of coal is put into the power system.
  • Reducing end-use by one unit saves at least three units source energy.
  • John Tyndall described the greenhouse effect in the 1860s. Arrhenius wrote about increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1896.
  • Global warming is unequivocal. The principles are settled, but the effects are unpredictable. Global average temperature will “likely” increase 2-5 degC, but it may increase up to 12 degC. This will likely change the distribution of water thoughout the year (rain vs. snow water).

Those were some of the more interesting points I captured in my notes. Of course, I don’t go into much detail here. You can find more infomation about the topics and speakers on the conference website.


Saturday, February 7th, 2004

Some reasons why I really like my classes:

– Yesterday, at the end of class, our physics teacher was explaining how an infinite plane makes a uniform field, no matter how far away you are from it, and that people had a hard time understanding it, because intuitively it makes sense that the field weakens as you get away from it. His closing words were, “Let’s say you’re standing in front of a wall with no marks or anything on it. If all its sides go off to infinity, how could you tell how far away you are from it? .. Let that be a philosophical question to think about.” Everyone was like, “whoa.”

– I learned what “green chemistry” meant. There’s someone in the chemical engineering department who is altering the DNA of E. coli to make it produce biodegradable polymers, from glucose, a renewable resource. Whoa, I want to do that.

– Isoclines are soooo cooool.

– My math TA is kinda hot.

– In our Intro to Western Music class, we’re going to view lots of live performances, mostly performed by MIT faculty. Also the book is a very interesting read, and music professors are always interesting if not humorous.

– Choir!

– In Intro to Chemical Engineering, we’re going to use Matlab to “teach” the computer to solve our problems (programming) because they’re too hard to do by hand.