Hot stuff for a cool Earth
Earth Day, which the world observes Friday, is an increasingly high-tech affair. Here are several green gadgets to help conserve the planet's resources.
Two of Kelly Daley's pet peeves are global warming - and cellphones that always seem to run out of juice.
So as Americans celebrate Earth Day Friday, Ms. Daley plans to mark the occasion by wearing her sporty new "Juice Bag" - a large bag with a flexible solar panel sewn to the back. This way the multitasking accountant can charge her phone, laptop, and iPod as she walks to work. By using sun power, she keeps at least a pound of carbon dioxide from wafting into the atmosphere each year. "I'm my own power plant," she says.
Ever since the first Earth Day in 1970, a steady stream of inventions and gadgets have been popping up to help make the planet a little bit better. The old brick in the toilet, which saved a brick's worth of water with each flush, eventually gave way to today's low-flow models. Stand-alone solar panels have been integrated into systems that let consumers actually sell excess power back to their utilities.
Small wonder, then, that this year's Earth Day is a high-tech affair. From superefficient home appliances to recyclable razors, new ideas to save the planet are quickly coming on the market. Many of these are significantly more expensive than standard-issue stuff. The Juice Bag, for example, costs $199. It's sold by Reware, a division of venture marketing company, Reluminati, which is promoting renewable energy in Washington, D.C.
"Renewable energy has always been ahead of its time," says Henry Gentenaar, a managing partner at Reluminati. "But this is its time. We're seeing a confluence of events and technologies that are getting to point that they're right here. So individuals can really start to make a difference."
Prices, in some cases, are coming down to the point where wise choices - multiplied by millions - can have an impact. Compact fluorescent light bulbs in place of incandescent bulbs are just one example.
Other gadget gains are a bit less obvious. Take the lowly refrigerator. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, the federal government mandated higher efficiency standards for refrigerators that, alone, have made it unnecessary to build hundreds of power plants, energy experts say. Today's models use only about a third of the power consumed by models 30 years ago.
Last week, the government announced steps that may boost refrigerator efficiency another 30 percent beginning in 2011 - saving consumers $10 billion in electricity and cutting energy requirements by the equivalent of more than 230 power plants.
But consumers don't have to wait. Larry Schussler's company in Arcata, Calif., sells the Sun Frost RF-12, which uses just 171 kilowatt hours of power a year, 51 percent better than today's federal standard. There's a downside though. Sun Frost doesn't have an icemaker, holds only about 10 cubic feet of groceries, and costs about $2,400. "We're not making much of a dent in the overall market yet," Mr. Schussler concedes. "They sell 8 million fridges in the US and we're just tiny fraction - less than 1 percent of that. But we're leading the way."
The company ships the machines worldwide, especially to places that have no power grid. They're so efficient they can run using just a modest solar array. And Sun Frost expects them to last well over 20 years.
For those who don't want to sacrifice space or an icemaker, Frigidaire's FRT21FR7E has 20 cubic feet of space and is still 28 percent more efficient than federal standards, tops among comparably equipped refrigerators. Suggested price: $799.
You don't need fistfuls of cash to begin saving the planet, says Eric Hudson, president and founder of Recycline in Waltham, Mass. The company's "Preserve Razor Recyclable," which hit the market last fall, is an alternative to the 2 billion disposable razors the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates are thrown into landfills each year.
At least 65 percent of the handle of the Preserve razor is made out of Stoneyfield Farm yogurt cups. To recycle, the handle can be easily separated from the blade, which isn't yet recyclable. (Mr. Hudson insists they are working on it.) The handles can be pitched into a recycling bin or mailed back to Recycline in a company envelope.
"Using a recycled product saves natural resources," Hudson says. "It's something people are not always thinking about - the long line of energy and resources needed to turn natural gas and oil into plastics. So the more we can use recyclable products, the better."
Recycline's products are a tad pricier than their kin that end up in the landfill, Hudson says. A four-pack of Preserve toothbrushes costs $13 and a four-pack of Preserve razors is $7. You can buy them online at a discount. They also are available at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural-product retailers.
Some green gadgeteers are all fired up about tankless hot-water heaters. Unlike conventional hot-water heaters, which typically keep 50 to 70 gallons of water hot all the time, the tankless version uses high-tech coils and computer-controlled gas jets to heat cold water on demand. Popular in Europe and Japan, the device has a tiny but growing piece of the US market.
"I think it was a little under $1,000, about the same as buying 70-gallon hot-water tank," says Charles Fleenor, a retired high-school teacher from Laguna Beach, Calif. (Today, the unit's suggested retail price is $1,400.)
The plumber who installed Mr. Fleenor's unit warned him that his hot-water flow would be limited, though it has not been, he adds. And the Japanese-made Takagi T-K2 has cut his bill for heating water in half - and puts far less CO2 into the atmosphere.
"Just the fact we're using so much less gas, multiply that by every household, if they all cut their hot-water bill in half, the gas company would probably have to go on welfare," Fleenor says.
Perhaps the most extreme green gadget in this year's eclectic mix is the one that powers Ross McCurdy's electric guitar and amplifiers - and those of the rest of his musical group.
Mr. McCurdy, a high school science teacher at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, R.I., has started "Protium." He bills it as the world's first hydrogen-powered rock 'n' roll band.
The group has played its eclectic rock/rhythm-and-blues mix at fuel-cell conferences across the country, local festivals, and school parties. For Earth Day this year, it will play at a festival at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. The band will rely on about $25 of hydrogen gas, which flows from a big metal bottle into three fuel cells, to create some 3,000 watts, enough to power the band's equipment, including a big subwoofer dubbed the "portable earthquake." Cost for the fuel cells: about $6,500 each - though they were donated by Relion of Spokane, Wash., and Ballard Power Systems in Vancouver, British Columbia. Emissions: a cup of water.
"Combining fuel cells with rock 'n' roll has been a great mix because it really demonstrates what they're capable of," says McCurdy in a telephone interview. "Sure, sometimes you see a fuel-cell car driving along. But when you hit guitar chords of AC/DC and fill up a ballroom with that sound, well, you just know it's generating a lot of power - and helping the environment, too."
People disagree on how many celebrations got started. But Earth Day supporters can't even decide when their day should be observed. Here's a look at how the event that popularized environmental issues got its start:
• In 1969, activist John McConnell persuaded San Francisco's mayor to observe Earth Day on March 21, 1970 - the day of the equinox. U Thant, the United Nations secretary-general, initiated Earth Day observances at the UN on the equinox the following year. This year, three mayors in the United States designated March 20 as International Earth Day.
• Also in 1969, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin proposed a nationwide teach-in for April 22, 1970, that became Earth Day. The event, drawing 20 million people, was an immediate hit. Demonstrators dumped oil-coated ducks in front of the US Interior Department and dragged a net of dead fish down New York's Fifth Avenue. Now run by Earth Day Network, the event involves more than 12,000 groups in 174 countries.
• In 1972, Japan pushed through a resolution at the Stockholm Conference for a World Environment Day to be celebrated on June 5. It is still observed Friday.
Sources: Earthsite.org; US EPA; United Nations Environment Programme