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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Environmental Pet Peeves

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In the first class of my Environmental Issues course, as an ice-breaker, I ask students their main environmental pet peeve. The results agree with what most people of BC think, according to an Insights survey: littering tops the charts.

Over eighty percent of us get annoyed when people litter, don’t pick up dog poo, or throw away cigarette butts.

Dog poo is ennoying, sure; as a tourist, one quickly learns to look down before looking up at tall church spires or minarets. But my class didn’t really dwell on this, as dog poo is biodegradable (though, if there’s a lot of it, runoff carries it to our beaches and streams, where it causes high coliform counts and other pollution).

What irks my students, though, is cigarette butts, chewing gum, and plastic littering.

The case for gum is intriguing. The idea is that birds and other small animals eat it and die from it. Snopes and Hoax-Slayer dismiss this as unlikely, as does the British wildlife protection group RSPB, though the latter points out that one ingredient in sugar-free gum, xylitol, is very dangerous. Regardless, it’s a disgusting practice.

In contrast, the case against cigarette butts is clear: the filters collect the tar and other toxins from cigarette smoke, and have been implicated in wildlife death. Plastic litter, even more so; a quick search reveals that plastic litter is the main contributor to the various oceans “garbage patches”, and the plastic itself concentrates toxins such as pesticides dissolved in the ocean and then release them to animals such as birds or fish that ingest them. Floating plastics are mistaken by turtles for their jellyfish food; and, of course, there are numerous cases of death by entanglement.

Just don’t litter, people! How do ever expect to get a date that way?  Not with any of these students, at any rate!

But nobody mentioned my own environmental pet peeve: using elevators, push-button door openers, or similar devices needlessly.

It bugs me because it uses a lot of electricity, for one thing. I don’t know exactly how much, but one automatic door opener supplier lists the following specs: 3 amps with 115 volts, and each cycle (opening and closing) lasts about 15 seconds. A quick calculation: that’s about 5000 Joules for every door opening. Okay, not the end of the world; but assume twenty automatic doors (because that includes the indoor ones too) for my building, each opened a thousand times a day, that’s over 10,000 kilowatt-hours every year.  And that doesn’t include the air exchange, as these doors are programmed to stay open for longer than manual (there’s even a YouTube about that!)

Maybe it’s not that much for a mid-size building complex, you’ll say. Sure. But it still counts, and it irrationally bugs me to see perfectly healthy people take a couple of extra steps to push a button and wait for the door to creep open, when they could simply have opened the door themselves without breaking stride. Sheesh!

(Though when I reproached a friend for pushing the button, she said “I wrenched my shoulder awhile back, and I just can’t pull the door open. Have you tried this stupid door yourself? I use my hip to push the door open, but I just can’t pull it open the other way.” Properly chastened, I agree that some of these door openers are murder to open manually, and, yes, sorry, I should not be so judgmental…)

But it still bugs me; and elevators are worse. One study reports that elevators account for half of the electricity used in residential buildings (less in commercial – no mention of where schools lie in that tally). Half! Even if it’s less on a campus like ours, it’s still way way out of line. Like the push-button doors, elevators are meant for people carrying heavy loads, or mobility impaired people. But the vast majority of elevator users are healthy staff and students who should know better.
Part of the problem, I suppose, is building design. Elevators are always easy to find; stairs, when at all accessible, are often hidden. But on our Richmond campus, there are a large set of stairs as a kind of monumental feature in the main foyer; you can’t miss them, but I still see students line up at the elevator doors rather than taking the very obvious, and fairly empty, stairs. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be judgmental…

Just last fall, I was watching a man use an electric leaf blower. He was trying to dislodge the leafs that hadn’t yet fallen from his tree. He was leaning out his second-floor window, grinning at his own cleverness. I could only shake my head at how much we take electricity for granted and are wasteful of it.

Anyways, dear students, consider yoursalves warned: if I see you push a door button on your way to my class, you better have an explanation…

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Written by enviropaul

September 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm

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