Zero Waste

A to Z of Zero Waste: E – Energy

Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!

An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.


Today we will be talking about energy and how we can approach it as part of a zero waste lifestyle.

Climate change is huge and I don't know about you but there seems to be thousands of different suggested solutions but none seem to be being acted on. Also when there are that many, it can feel overwhelming knowing where to start. Zero waste living often starts with packaging of food and single use plastics, but it also encompasses any waste. Fossil fuels are often single use items. They're mined from the ground and often burned to generate energy. They are a finite resource that we are using in a single use manner, and it is wasteful and unsustainable.

The energy sector is also closely linked to climate change as burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2) which is a green house gas, contributing to the overall warming of our planet. If we want to see energy be produced in a more zero waste way, we need to move away from our current model.

The Drawdown project has recently come up with 100 solutions to reverse global warming, and 20 of them are to do with energy generation, making it the largest section of possible solutions. Many of them are not ones you can specifically do yourself but you are able to influence these areas by engaging with local and government policy makers. However another, relatively simple way to engage with these big areas of potential impact is by changing how you create and use energy.

In this area the quickest and the simplest thing you can do to reduce waste and support the planet is to change to a green energy supplier. In the Drawdown list of potential solutions some of the highest impact energy creation solutions are not ones you can do yourself, like wind turbines, solar farms, geothermal energy, wave and tidal energy, but by swapping energy supplier to one that uses theses methods, you are supporting these industries to grow.

The way energy production works is like multiple taps filling up a bath. The taps are all the electricity producers in the UK, and the bath is the national grid where all energy goes. Your electricity comes out of the bath (like the plug), so you don't know exactly where your electricity is coming from, but your suppliers then make sure the same amount of electricity you use is generated and put back into the national grid.

What is green energy?

Green energy is energy from renewable sources - i.e. ones that won't run out. Examples of green energy include wind power, solar power, hydroelectric power, wave power and tidal power. There is also biofuels where plant matter is used to generate fuel. It can be generated from food waste or specifically grown crops, but biofuel does still produce green house gas emissions when it is burnt, and specifically growing material means less land to produce food. In the UK, of electricity generated in 2018, renewables share of electricity generation increased to 33.3% in 2018 - a record high, whilst gas accounted for 39.4% and coal accounted for only 5.0%(1)

What is a green energy supplier?

This is where it gets more tricky as there isn't a clear definition.  Some smaller suppliers, like Bulb, Green Energy or Ecotricity, buy energy from fully renewable generators in the UK, making them truly green. However other suppliers just buy the right to call their tariffs 'green' by buying certificates from green energy suppliers or by buying carbon offsets.

So why wouldn't you swap to a green energy tariff? 40% of people said it was because it the more expensive, however interestingly 44% of people who had swapped said they did it to save money. Realistically some people may be able to save money and other may pay the same or a little more, and a good way to find is to check out the rates on a price comparison website. Other concerns were not knowing enough about green suppliers, not knowing it was possible or not wanting to leave their current supplier(1).

What else can I do?

Well, as there is still problems with the transparency of "green" suppliers we cannot stop at changing our energy supplier. Currently, globally we do not have the infrastructure to produce enough renewable for the world's energy use. Modern renewable energy consumption globally in 2016 was at 5,877 TWh(3), whereas estimated world energy consumption was 157,482 TWh in 2013(4) and increasing every year. Needless to say we are way off!

Reducing the amount of energy we use can help alleviate our global reliance on non-renewable sources of energy, which when combined with growing infrastructure for 'green' energy, can help increase the proportion of energy produced by renewables. The amazing Dora from Mamoradiary has 40 ways to reduce energy usage as part of her free e-book "The Wasteless Life"

I have recently come across the report "Climate Change Needs Behavior Change: Making the Case for Behavioural Solutions to Reduce Global Warming" and it has been really helpful for me to help create this A-Z of zero waste for you. This report takes the 80 solutions to climate change described in the Drawdown project, and delves deeper into the ones that require behavioural changes in us. There is a lot of ways we can improve the climate but not all of them are areas that are possible to personally act in. Yes there's other ways to influence those areas, but there is still areas where you can have a direct effect.

Of the 30 solutions that we can personally engage in, here are the ones regarding energy: Rooftop solar (#6), Solar water (#14), Methane digesters (#20), LED lighting (#21), Smart thermostats (#24), Micro wind (#30). Some relate to creating energy and others to reducing usage and wastage.

Not all of these will be applicable to all people. If you live in a flat or rented accommodation it is unlikely that you will be able to get solar panels, solar water heaters or micro-wind turbines - although it may be worth looking into! If you own your own home these are really worth looking in to. These option generate energy for you but often generate more than you need so this energy can be sold back to the national grid for others to use. Over an extended period of time these methods can earn you back the money you spent on them, through reducing your bills and earning you extra money, and even generate a profit.

However, there are some solutions that are much more accessible to all, and they are LEDs and smart thermostats.

Smart Thermostats:

Smart thermostats are devices that control the temperature in your home to optimise energy savings. Most thermostats are quite simple, meaning most homeowners are probably not able to control the temperature well enough to save energy. "Smart thermostats are able to store data of homeowners’ preferences while also adjusting heating and cooling patterns during the day and night. This can create a 10-15% increase in energy savings while maintaining a comfortable home temperature"(5). These devices will have an initial cost and require installing but once  fitted have the ability to reduce not just energy wastage, but also your energy bill.

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LED (light emitting diode) Lighting:

All electrical products convert electrical energy into different forms of energy like light, sound, heat etc. Traditional light bulbs obviously convert energy to into light, but often they are converting this energy into heat too. As most people don't use lighting as a source of heat, the energy that is being changed into heat is actually being wasted. LEDs are more efficient as the majority of the energy is converted into light rather than heat so need less energy too create the same amount of light. They tend to be a little more expensive than traditional light bulbs but they last an average of 5-10 years which reduces the cost long term whilst also reducing your energy bill.

Zero waste living isn't just about packaging and plastic. There is invisible waste we create every day, like carbon emissions, and we need to be just as proactive, if not more, in tackling that waste. How we use and create energy is going to have a big part to play in how we are able to tackle this climate emergency and whether we are able to stabilise our environment. It can be overwhelming at times but as you've read, there is things we can do ourselves. So lets be as enthusiastic about reducing energy wastage and waste emissions as we are about plastic!

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