By Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, and Dr. Danny Welsch, Associate Dean, School of STEM, American Public University
No matter what side of the political spectrum you might be on, everyone cares about the environment. We all want clean air, clean streams, cars that do not pollute and a world that we can hand off to our children cleaner than how we inherited it.
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One of the challenges of helping the environment is to know what we as individuals can do to truly help the environment from home. On this topic, I recently interviewed Dr. Danny Welsch, Associate Dean of the School of STEM at American Public University.
Dr. Mercer: Thank you, Danny, for talking about ways we all can help the environment from our own homes.
Dr. Welsch: I’m happy to be here, Bjorn. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors. I grew up in suburbia but am fascinated with mountains, rivers and wild places.
I never put that together with environmental awareness until I met my wife way back in high school. She was really the one who got me thinking, living in a way to lessen my impact on the Earth. So much so that I studied environmental engineering and environmental science, and have really enjoyed the journey.
Dr. Mercer: To start off, COVID-19 has forced millions of people to work from their homes. How do you see this changing the businesses landscape and does it benefit the environment?
Dr. Welsch: There are likely short- and long-term environmental impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are related. In the short term, the large number of people working from home has cut down on commuting and thus reduced emissions from cars and trucks. This change has resulted in a pretty sharp reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a primary atmospheric pollutant, as one example.
But in the long term, this episode has likely proven to many businesses that employees working from home can be just as and perhaps more productive as having them commute into some central facility. It’s expected that working from home may become more the norm, which will have very positive environmental impacts.
Dr. Mercer: Solar panels are not only high tech, but they seem like they would be extremely effective at energy creation. They have come a long way since the early days of residential solar panels (in the ’70s and ’80s), but are they cost-efficient enough to pay for the high cost of installing them on your house?
Dr. Welsch: Anything that reduces your dependency on fossil fuels is going to be a plus for the Earth, and household solar definitely does that. The cost balance really depends on where you live, the size of your system and the amount of energy you use. The efficiencies are increasing rapidly, so that balance is always improving.
There are many new, creative ways to finance solar, as well as a lot of good online tools to help figure out if it’s right for you. Once battery technology catches up and we have a better way to store solar-generated electricity, the equation will shift even further. Tesla’s Powerwall is a good first attempt, but it’s only going to get better from there.
Dr. Mercer: Many municipalities in the U.S. have some sort of recycling. But it turns out that China and other countries were purchasing a large portion of our recycling, and this might be ending or reduced. Is recycling still good for the environment? Does the U.S. have the capacity to recycle our own recyclables?
Dr. Welsch: There are a lot of questions about recycling. The biggest plus to recycling is that it reduces the amount of material that goes into the landfill. But it takes energy to recycle, and there have long been some myths out there that it takes more energy to recycle than to make new stuff.
In most cases, that’s not true. Steel and aluminum are the most efficient and also some of the most recycled materials on earth. Recycling steel and aluminum saves between 60 and 95 percent of the energy it would take to start from the raw materials. Glass is still energy-efficient, but less so since it takes so much energy to both create new glass and to recycle old glass.
Dr. Mercer: We all use toilet paper and paper towels. This paper has a [cardboard] roll as the center that keeps everything together and once all the paper is used, this roll needs to be discarded. The sheer number of rolls used throughout the country and the world each year is unimaginable. Should we all make sure we recycle these rolls?
Dr. Welsch: Yes. Again, keeping content out of landfills is beneficial, and paper is easily recycled into new products. This type of paper is also compostable, but not usually at a household level. Commercial compost facilities break content down at a higher temperature, so that is an option for this type of material as well.
Dr. Mercer: Related to toilet paper, should Americans use bidets to help save on the use of toilet paper or does the increased use of water nullify this possible benefit?
Dr. Welsch: That’s a great question, and the answer to that probably depends on where you live. Where I am, in the Appalachian Mountains, we have a lot of water so a bidet makes a lot of sense. However, in the desert Southwest, where water is much more scarce, it might seem like heresy to suggest such a thing.
But keep in mind that bidet water and TP both end up down the drain, and the TP is formulated to dissolve quickly. So in the end, it’s probably a “wash” with this one — sorry for the bad pun!
Dr. Mercer: As a family, we love to do as much backyard gardening as possible. We do as much as we can, living in a state like Arizona and with a medium-sized backyard. Is backyard gardening good for the environment and should we avoid plants that are water intensive?
Dr. Welsch: Absolutely. Commercial food production and the distribution of that food is exceptionally energy-intensive. Growing food at home is very low impact. Doing so without the use of chemical fertilizer is an even better solution.
Composting yard and garden scraps, grass clippings, and kitchen waste is a great way to add nutrients to your garden without chemical fertilizers. Water can also be recycled and used in the garden.
Gray water systems — which collect shower, dishwasher, and sink drain water — can be used to water gardens without any additional water use. In humid areas, rain barrels that collect rainwater off your house are also a good option.
Dr. Mercer: Is it worth it to compost?
Dr. Welsch: Yes, depending on how you use it. If you use the composted material instead of chemical fertilizer, definitely. Chemical fertilizer is very energy-intensive to produce. People generally apply too much, and the excess ends up in streams, rivers, and the ocean, where it causes eutrophication. Compost is a way to add nutrients to your garden without a big negative impact to the earth.
But composting can take some work. Getting the right mix of materials into your compost and ensuring that the microbial community within has the right conditions to completely break down the material can take some practice.
Dr. Mercer: One way we can help at home is by not wasting water. Should we try to conserve as much water as possible by not taking long showers, not letting the faucet run when washing dishes or not taking many baths? Should we not have too much landscaping or even try to landscape?
Dr. Welsch: Absolutely. There are two factors here. There is the water itself, and then there is the energy used to heat that water. When you take a long shower, you are excessively using two resources.
In an area such as Iceland, where water is plentiful and is heated geothermally, a long shower is no problem. But in Nevada, where water is scarce and is heated by electricity generated from fossil fuels, long showers can have a big negative impact.
Landscaping is also a big water user. Having a bright green lawn in the middle of a desert is really excessive and wasteful. Native landscaping that uses much less water can also be very attractive and is a much better choice for the environment. It costs less, too!
Dr. Mercer: Single-use plastic straws have been banned in many parts of the U.S. Shouldn’t we use one-time use plastics?
Dr. Welsch: Absolutely. Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, and are very long-lived in the environment as waste — think the Pacific garbage patch — not to mention the recent discovery of microplastics that exist almost everywhere, even in our muscles and fats. Reducing our use of plastics reduces dependency on fossil fuels and also keeps persistent pollutants out of the environment.
Dr. Mercer: With advancing technology and with many companies being more flexible with employees working from home, is working from home good for the environment?
Dr. Welsch: Working from home is absolutely good for the environment for lots of reasons. When you work from home, you drive less, which means you use less fossil fuel, and need to replace your car less often — or, maybe not even own a car! Companies that support a large remote workforce are required to build less infrastructure, such as offices, and are then not required to use energy to heat those offices. Commuting to a centralized work facility and then commuting home is really a big drag on the environment.
Dr. Mercer: Another controversy is using reusable grocery bags. For many years, we have been told using reusable grocery bags is better than using single-use plastic bags. Is this true?
Dr. Welsch: Reusable grocery bags prevent us from using a single-use plastic bag. Those plastic bags have a similar story to the other single-use plastics we’ve discussed. In my area, they often end up caught in the wind and tangled in trees and bushes.
In coastal areas, the situation is worse. If they get into the water, they look a lot like jellyfish. Despite our aversion to jellyfish, a lot of marine animals find them to be a delicious meal, including sea turtles. It’s not a pretty picture when a sea turtle tries to swallow a plastic bag.
About the Authors
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
Danny Welsch, Ph.D., is the Associate Dean of the School of STEM at American Public University. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Analysis and Planning from Frostburg State University, an M.S. in Environmental and Resource Engineering from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia.
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