A Match Made in Heaven

In my recent post Why Stuff Goes Bad, I pointed out that nothing ever sits around unused for long. Nature won’t allow it. Nature doesn’t hoard; and nothing in nature is trash.

We humans try to stockpile stuff in “nature-proof” containers, and that’ll work for a time but not forever. Prime example: Paint cans rust. The lids can even rust right through! And once the lids get rusty you have to be super careful opening the cans because rust-flakes fall into the paint. A little bit is no big deal but it’s not something I would want much of.

In my garage are a number of cans of paint left by the previous owners. Most are just small cans of the house colors, for touch-up painting. But yesterday I discovered I also had THREE GALLONS of white paint. Three full cans. And since it had been sitting around for awhile, the lids were rusty.

What prompted me to inventory my garage paint-shelf yesterday was that a friend who’s fixing up her storm-damaged house needed white paint. I expected to find maybe a gallon if I was lucky. Three gallons will probably be enough for her whole project.

It’s a match made in heaven! Two thrifty gals, both passionate about reuse and recycling, help each other out. The one with three full cans of unused paint (which are on the verge of “going bad” due to rusting lids) gets to clear space in her garage; the one working hard to fix up her home on a shoestring budget gets free paint.

Yep, a match made in heaven! Though it may seem like a small thing, both sides are thrilled. It would have been heartbreaking if all that paint had ended up getting ruined without ever being used.

(Not to mention, the disposal would have required special care, probably a trip to the dump or household chemicals drop-off station or something.)

How about you, have you had a “match made in heaven” lately, or noticed one in the world around you?

Electronic Decluttering: Online Footprint (Part 2)

(Part 2 of a 2-part post)

Internet use has a very large energy footprint. Most of that energy is consumed by remote servers and other equipment, making it complicated for everyday people to calculate their personal internet footprint. In this post I share some simple tips for reducing your online footprint, without having to perform any calculations or track down any numbers.

***IMPORTANT NOTE: Online footprint is a work in progress for me, and I’m finding out I may be one of the worst offenders! I’m learning that this blog and website may have a huge footprint, which of course is unintended. I am now looking into the scope of the problem, and how to address it.*** UPDATE 11/3/18: My tentative conclusion is that this website does not have a particularly large footprint. I’m still awaiting more information from my webhosting service. That said, I was immediately able to cut the bandwidth of my site in half just by reducing the size of the uploaded photos to match their display size. HUGE reductions in bandwidth and storage space can be achieved by reducing the size of photos.

According to some experts, internet use now accounts for as large a share of the world’s carbon footprint as airline flight! As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, the internet infrastructure industry can reduce its footprint considerably by eliminating inefficiencies; for example, servers running when they don’t need to.

But the real power lies in our personal everyday choices. So how can we as everyday people do our part to reduce the internet’s footprint? How do we even calculate our share of it? The electricity used to power our household computers and devices is a tiny drop in the bucket. Most of the energy cost of the uploading, downloading, streaming, and cloud storage we do is external and invisible to us.

One Riot for Austerity member suggested that we use online time (hours per day) as a measure of our internet footprint. For a starting point, I googled and found:

The average American spends 24 hours a week online, says Technology Review. This is up from 9.4 hours a week in 2000. 17.6 of those hours are at home, up from just 3.3 hours a week in 2000.

Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, according to CNN. But this includes non-internet devices such as TVs too.

I spend an average of 5 to 7 hours a day on the internet. Probably 90% of that time is related to my work. Since I don’t have a TV or DVD player, all of my screen time is laptop or smartphone.

In the past few days, since starting to focus on the topic of online footprint, I’ve cut my actual internet-connected time to about 3-4 hours a day just by being more deliberate: I disconnect the wireless connection unless I’m actually doing something such as uploading a blog post, or interacting on Facebook. I’m experimenting with composing blog posts offline. I really notice how much online time I was using just gazing and surfing idly, or hitting the refresh button.

Another possible measure of internet footprint is how much cloud storage we are using. KOOFR, a cloud-storage company, posted an article on how much cloud storage an average person might want. KOOFR says 10GB will be enough for about a year — assuming you only want to back up the photos you’re taking with your phone, and that you upload an average of just 3 photos per day and one 1-minute video per week. Obviously some of us do a lot more than that! The KOOFR article also has a handy chart showing the storage requirements of various kinds of files including movies, music files, documents, and ebooks.

I don’t have any of my devices backed up to the cloud (I use memory sticks to back up crucial files), but of course my blog and YouTube channel live on the cloud, as does my Facebook and other social-media presence, and some email messages. I’m currently in the process of calculating the cloud storage used by this blog, and by my YouTube channel.

And yet another measure of our internet footprint is the bandwidth we are using. If you have a data plan on your smartphone, and that data plan has a limit, it should be pretty easy to know roughly how much bandwidth is being consumed by your uploading, downloading, and streaming activities. I haven’t yet determined whether there’s a similar way to find the total for a laptop or other computer.

As for how much electricity our online habits are using, this paper from ACEEE reports that “the Internet uses an average of about 5 kWh to support the utilization of every GB of data.”

It’s hard to know exactly how many gigs we’re consuming, since most of the consumption is externalized. The paper goes on to say, “Only 38% of those costs are borne by the end-user, while the remaining costs are thinly spread over the global Internet through which the data travels; in switches, routers, signal repeaters, servers, and data centers … This creates a societal ‘tragedy of the commons,’ where end users have little incentive to consider the other 62% of costs and associated resources.”

Powerful stuff, literally! Huge potential for footprint reduction.

Based on my research so far, here are a few suggestions for reducing your internet footprint:

– Set out to cut the number of hours you spend online per day. Think about what you would most like MORE of in your life: more time, feeling more focused and less distracted, being more present with others, spending less time sitting down and more time moving around — and with those goals in mind, you’ll find it easier to reduce online time.
– Close browser tabs when you’re not actively using a site (this affected my computer RAM usage, and affects streaming bandwidth as well).
– Be very deliberate and selective about your consumption of videos and other high-bandwidth media. Even in the case of content that you consider really worthwhile, try just reading the transcript (if available) rather than watching the video. Some people actually find this faster and retain the information better.
– Invite others to watch media with you – spread the footprint over more people! This also helps alleviate another major problem associated with our long hours in front of electronic screens, namely, loneliness and isolation.
– Some apps and sites, such as YouTube, allow users to set video viewing quality. Choose the lowest possible resolution.
– Have an “Internet Sabbath” day. I’ve been doing this on Sundays for awhile and the world hasn’t come crashing down.
– Turn off router and modem at night, or whenever you usually sleep. I’ve found this helpful because I used to be one of those people who would reach for her smartphone as soon as she woke up in the morning, or couldn’t sleep at night, etc. Nowadays, I go outside and look at the moon til I get sleepy again. Or count sheep or whatever. Or sometimes enjoy a realtime chat with one of my night-owl friends who I wouldn’t usually get to talk with!
– Decide to refrain from taking your smartphone or other device with you to certain places, such as church, restaurants, social evenings at friends’ houses, etc. Or if you have to take it with you, keep it turned off.
– Cut the data plan from your smartphone. I sharply reduced my internet use a few years back when I did this to save money. I used to check email and social-media sites constantly; now I can only do it when I have a wifi connection. It felt strange at first but I soon got used to it and enjoyed suddenly having hours of free time (as well as saving about $40 a month).
– Whatever reductions you pursue, take care that they don’t end up increasing your overall footprint and defeating the purpose. For example, if you start to take a lot more long-distance trips to visit friends and family as a result of quitting Facebook, or if you end up missing out on work opportunities because you dropped off the radar of your online communities, that’d be something to look at.

A final suggestion: If you’re using the internet for work, social activism, civic engagement, connecting with loved ones, and other beneficial purposes, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Do what you reasonably can to reduce your footprint, but also recognize that the internet is a tool of modern life, and it’s done a lot of good to spread social movements and help people stay connected. And it’s expanded the possibilities for teleworking! Rather than quit Facebook, stop blogging, and so on, we’d do better to boost the QUALITY of our online time in terms of emotional wellbeing, beneficial impact on other people, and so on.

A couple of examples from my own life:

• Not having an internet connection at home could be an option for me someday, but I’d have to write a lot offline and then go to a public wireless network to upload a batch of material all at once. That would take discipline and might improve the quality of my work — or it might just make life inconvenient and I’d end up posting less, thus limiting my ability to support people in their efforts to reduce their footprint.

• I may delete my YouTube channel. For the moment, pending further research, I’m simply suspending new uploads to my channel. The videos take a lot of energy (my personal energy, not just fossil), and the quality is less than professional. I suspect that my writing and my in-person education services are reaching people more effectively. But I could find out that I’m mistaken.

The Riot for Austerity sets targets for reducing one’s consumption by 90% of the U.S. average in various categories such as electricity, water, gasoline, and consumer purchases. No Riot category exists for internet usage. Calculating the U.S. average and setting targets for online footprint will be new terrain.

I’ll let you know what else I find out about my internet footprint, and how my reduction experiments go. Research I still need to do: Calculate the footprint of this blog, and also of my YouTube channel. My blog webhosting service, Dreamhost, has first-rate tech support, and I’ll let you know what I hear back from them after I email them with my various questions.

Also, I invite you to keep me posted on your journey! I apologize for the inconvenience of not allowing comments on this blog, but comment-spam takes so much time and energy to deal with (even with a spam filter), I’ve decided to keep comments turned off at least for now. I look forward to your emails though.

Further Reading:
Internet Energy Consumption Report from ACEEE: “This paper is a thought-piece on the how’s and why’s of end-to-end, IT energy use. It will pursue questions like: What type of equipment is used to get a MB from the data-center to your desktop? Is multi-tabbed browsing the IT equivalent of leaving the refrigerator door open? How much energy does it use? How much does it cost; and who pays for it?”

Greenpeace article on how much energy the various video-streaming services use, and the percentages of renewable energy that power them.

Article on bandwidth of video-streaming services vs. audio: video-streaming takes up much more bandwidth than audio-only music-streaming. This article shares ways for users to control their bandwidth consumption (which, depending on your data plan, can help save your wallet as well as the planet!)

Electronic Decluttering: Online Footprint

(Part 1 of a 2-part post)

One of the more knowledgeable, longtime participants in the Riot for Austerity recently brought up the topic of online footprint. She pointed out that the energy cost of video streaming, cloud storage, high-data-usage platforms like Facebook, and so on is far more than people realize.

She rightfully questioned why we were sitting around, ONLINE, discussing the pros and cons of replacing old refrigerators, while ignoring the footprint of our internet use.

The electricity required to charge and power our laptop computers and mobile devices is just a drop in the bucket. Most of the footprint of our internet usage is invisible to us as end-users. For example, there’s the constant maintenance and replacement of server equipment, the air-conditioning required to cool those vast banks of servers, and of course the electricity used by the equipment itself. Calculating one’s individual contribution to the total footprint of the internet is a bit tricky, but surely not impossible.

And, from an environmental standpoint, the matter is quite urgent: Data-center web servers, such as those used by Google and Facebook, contribute just about as much to greenhouse-gas emissions as air travel, the Guardian reports. The data-center sector and air travel each generate about 2% of the total volume of greenhouse gases.

And, IT as a whole now accounts for 10% of electricity use worldwide, according to this article in the Register. “Although charging up a single tablet or smart phone requires a negligible amount of electricity, using either to watch an hour of video weekly consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year.”

Yikes! Can it really be true that my one-hour video chat with a friend in faraway Tokyo consumed as much electricity as two refrigerators use in a year? Sounds crazy but it could be true. What’s not in dispute is that we ordinary people have, as the article puts it, “very little idea of the exact footprint our habit for lolcats, frequent emails, brand new fondleslabs and streaming video takes up.”

Since the data-center industry as a whole has such a large footprint, any reductions that sector can make would obviously be very helpful. Data Center Knowledge published this article offering suggestions for greening the industry. The suggestions include identifying inefficiencies in existing power and cooling systems; utilizing free outside air and water sources for cooling whenever possible; and targeting “zombie servers” — servers that run even when it’s not required. These zombie servers are a little-known source of waste, which can account for up to 30% of all servers! Data Center Knowledge also suggests the industry take various steps to optimize usage of network assets.

Now, what about us as individuals? How can we get a handle on that “habit for lolcats, frequent emails, brand new fondleslabs and streaming video”? It actually might not be as hard as it seems, since a lot of people these days are noticing the personal costs of online addiction and are voluntarily limiting their usage via “internet Sabbaths,” self-imposed hour-per-day limits, and so on.

In Part 2 of this 2-part post, I’ll share some options for measuring one’s personal online footprint, and reducing it.

Electronic Decluttering: Devices, Cords, etc.

I sometimes joke that I once had the distinction of being the only known person in the Continental United States who managed to completely weed out all “unidentified mystery items” from her office drawer of cords, chargers, and other electronic impedimenta. You know, those chargers for battery packs and other things that are long gone. Or those mysterious A/V cords with yellow or red ends, that are supposed to be plugged into the back of some portable speaker or CD player you donated to Amvets or Goodwill ages ago, and the cords you never used anyway even while you had that device in your possession because it seemed to work fine without them.

Yet you can’t 100% be sure you remember what devices those cords and things are supposed to go with, so you hang onto them, afraid to throw them away. Sometimes you KNOW FOR A FACT that a charger belonged to a phone that died, and still out of superstition you hang onto it. (Surely I’m not the only one?)

Well, one day sometime in 2009 I cleaned out that drawer for real, and for years afterward I existed in the blissful state of ONLY having plugs and chargers and cords that I could actually identify as belonging to devices I still had in my possession. Ah, ecstasy!

Recently, though, a few strays have crept in. Still, it’s a big improvement; they all still fit into a ziploc baggie, which fits neatly into a drawer in my kitchen, and hopefully should not be too hard to sort out.

An electronic device I let go of recently was a pair of speakers I inherited from my Mom’s house. They have a base station that they must connect to by wire, and also each one needs to be plugged in to a wall plug for power. In other words, the two speakers require a total of three power outlets. All those wires notwithstanding, the label on the box reassures the consumer that these are “wireless speakers.” I donated these to my AmVets thrift shop. I will keep my itty bitty baby speaker that’s the size of my smartphone, uses only one cord, and produces better sound than the big fancy “wireless speakers” pictured above.

Interesting backdrop to the wireless speakers: At one point they were sitting on top of a quilt made by one of my aunts, who was an epic quilter right up until she passed away a couple years back. The quilt measures about 6 feet by 7 feet, and every single stitch was made by hand.

(By the way, speaking of drawers and the decluttering thereof, I was also at one point possibly the only known person in the Continental United States to clean out her drawer of sauce packets from Chinese takeouts. I actually used up all those little packets of soy sauce and hot mustard and duck sauce! But at some point over the past year or so, I seem to have accumulated a full jar again! Hey, at least now I’ve wised up and confined them neatly in a jar, rather than filling up a corner of a kitchen drawer where they somehow, despite being sealed packets, manage to leach their brown and yellow and peachy-orange goo all inside the drawer.)

Electronic Decluttering: Hard Drive

Although it doesn’t take up physical space, clutter on a computer can be a major drain on one’s time and energy! I’m not a huge picture-taker, but I do have a fair number of photos, and am not that great about naming the files and putting them into folders. Today I got the idea of making one file that’s like an electronic photo album.

I could do one for my whole life; or do different albums for different periods of my life. Deleting the photos from my hard drive after making the album would be an option. Or copying the photos onto a memory stick and then deleting them off the hard drive.

Here’s a page from “Starshine,” a little 2-page album of my favorite photos of my cat. She lived just about 16 years, and was such a sweet and joyful part of my life. She came to me as an abandoned stray in Austin, and made the move with me to Florida. She always was a good traveler.

Making the album brought back happy memories. My mind feels cleared and energized just knowing all my favorite photos of her are gathered in one file, with the very easy-to-find title “Starshine Album.”

I created the file in Pages for Mac, but it would be easy to export as a PDF to make it more shareable if I wanted to.

Best Dustpan Ever


I made this dustpan a few years back, from a detergent container I got out of a recycling bin. I think I saw the idea online; I don’t remember thinking of it myself. In any case, this has been my favorite dustpan ever, and the little caddy for daily household goods or toiletries was a nice bonus. Goes nicely under the kitchen sink or bathroom sink, and keeps those jars and bottles organized.

When the dustpan isn’t in use, it stows neatly right on the broom.

On Treasure and Clutter; “Stuff” and Soul

Check out this old-school lighter bearing a bas relief image of Mount Rushmore. I bought this a few months ago. What a beautiful lighter. So retro America. So evocative of my childhood. (Even though we never visited Mount Rushmore, we got to visit so many other parks and monuments. So any classic monument/park/Route 66 memorabilia always brings back memories of rich, magical times growing up in a family that took multiple cross-country car trips.)

Yes, a beautiful lighter indeed. And purchased at a local shop. I have loved this lighter for the months I’ve owned it. The only problem is, it doesn’t work properly. It doesn’t hold a fill. So, having unsuccessfully tried to figure out a fix, I am taking this lighter back to the shop owner, not for a refund but so he can put it in the display case and use it to sell other lighters. (You know how it is in a shop: The greater the variety of items, the easier it is to sell one.)

Now, this lighter is small. It’t not BIG clutter. But for me, after a while, it became annoying clutter, because every time I saw it, I’d think about how it doesn’t work, and what a shame that this purchase didn’t accomplish my objective of having a refillable “old school” lighter. So it’s time to let it go.

Now, if you are in possession of a beautiful but non-functional item, you may not consider it clutter and may choose to keep it. And that’d be fine too. Low-footprint life doesn’t mean feeling obligated to get rid of all your stuff. Even a minimalist lifestyle (if you choose to practice that) doesn’t mean getting rid of all your stuff. You want to keep the good pretty things that feed your artistic soul (because really we ARE all artists — artists of living); the things that make your heart smile. Selective minimalism, I call it!

Actually sometimes I call my lifestyle “ornate minimalism.” At one point I owned about 20 pairs of platform shoes, while living in a 19-foot travel trailer lined with colorful Indian print silk curtains and pillows. There were a lot of things I did NOT own, such as an iron and a washer/dryer and any stove other than a single burner. But I owned everything I wanted to own, and that continues to be the case, though I’ve let go of some items and acquired others as the flow of life invites.

Nice synchronicity with the theme of this post: Today’s email newsletter from DailyOM has a great little article by Madisyn Taylor, “Honoring Daily Life.” She talks about the human tendency to try to save things for “special occasions.” For example, buying an item of clothing and never wearing it; saving it for a special occasion that never comes. And meanwhile the item goes out of style!

Something similar happened to me, back when I was living in my little travel trailer, as a matter of fact. I had two beautiful leather jackets. One of them I NEVER ended up wearing, and one day when I finally decided to wear it, I pulled it out of the closet only to see that it had become mildewed to the point of being unwearable. I was touched with sadness at the waste, and vowed to avoid doing that again.

From Madisyn’s piece in DailyOM: “It’s interesting to think of what it would mean to us if we let ourselves wear our nicest clothes and eat off the good china on a daily basis. We might be sending ourselves the message that every day we are alive is a special day and a cause for celebration, and that we are worth it.”

That is one thing I’ve been doing: using my grandmother’s china as my daily dishes. I even bring them out for potlucks. And I always know my grandmother is smiling down from heaven. But what if one breaks, some people might say. Actually, a few teacups DID break, some years back. But look how many there still are! And the plates — I mean, SIXTEEN plates!

As a bonus, using Grandma’s china as my everyday dishes means I don’t need a whole separate set of “everyday” dishes, which would require more cabinet space and also mental energy to keep track of. I do have a couple of sturdier bowls and plates acquired from a friend who was downsizing, but there are only a couple, and I DO use the china regularly even when it’s just me alone.

All of which is to say, I hope you enjoy your deliberate acquisitions, don’t be afraid to let something go when it no longer serves you (even if it’s pretty). But don’t feel obligated to let go of things you treasure. And, finally, don’t be afraid to use your “good stuff” for everyday. Wear your best jewelry; put on that fancy jacket just to go to the store if you feel like it. Every single day is a magnificent occasion, and you deserve it.

This kind of selectivity and refinement in everyday life ends up supporting a low-footprint lifestyle, so it’s a win for the planet as well as for you.