Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Energy Cost of Everything

Several days ago while preparing dinner I spilled a couple of cooked and ready to eat grains of rice on the kitchen counter. About 20 minutes later I went downstairs to the basement to take a few items out of the dryer that usually dry much faster than the rest of the load.

My usual response to the spilled rice is that "it's no big deal" and I just wipe them into the sink. When I go to pull the specific items out of the dryer I just cherry pick the specific items out and then restart the dryer until the cycle is complete.

These are actions I've done countless times and I've never given much thought to the energy "cost" of these actions. However, this time something was different. Looking at the riceI saw the energy cost of everything that went into getting those rice grains to the point of being ready to eat, sitting there on the counter, spilled and about to be wiped into the sink. When I pulled the items out of the dryer I noticed that the other items in the dryer were pretty much dry as well. I saw the energy that was required to continue drying the rest of the already dry clothes.

This moment of clarity allowed me the opportunity to make a different choice. I didn't put the rice back in my bowl (the counter was a bit too dirty for this) but I did make a commitment to be more mindful of all that goes into my food. Regarding the dryer, I decided to pull all of the items out and next time I'll watch for that opportunity again.

None of this might seem all that revolutionary but it was a change for me. What this leads me to is the possibility of adding "energy cost" of products on labeling. We do this with nutrition info on food packaging. The co-op where I do all of my grocery shopping labels all of the produce with the country or state of origin. This is a start toward providing the energy cost. But why not add this info to all items. Clothing could have this info provided on the hang tags. This info could easily be added to the nutrition labels on packaged food. this would give us all the choice to buy items that required less energy to produce and provide a new way for producers to create a compeditive advantage. Today all of this cost is hidden behind the final price and there is no easy way for the consumer to find out which brand of cereal is the most energy effecient.

Let's see where this goes.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you bring up the food coops' practice of using geographic labeling here. You're about to start seeing them push local food (even if it's conventionally grown) over organic pretty heavily. The energy cost of an organic apple from Chile is a hell of a lot more than one that's grown with conventional methods in the St. Croix Valley. The Organic Consumers Association already has a campaign on this called Breaking the Chains. Slogan: "Buy Local, Organic, Fair Made."

Anonymous said...

Also, check out Bruce Sterling's book-length essay Shaping Things (a really fun read). In it, he suggests that RFID chips will give objects not just identity, but a detailed history of their trajectory through space and time. He even coined a term for such objects: spimes.

One piece of data that could easily be stored in an object's RFID is the energy cost of every step in its life cycle. Interesting, too, isn't it, how the World Trade Organization has been moving in recent years to eliminate things like country-of-origin labeling. They call such regs non-tariff barriers to trade. If Sterling is right, such regs soon won't be necessary, because RFIDs will make that info totally transparent -- quite the opposite of what the WTO has in mind.

-leif utne
(FYI, I'm the one who posted the Anonymous comment above, too)