Smaller is better? Car size in the UK and America

While several other blog posts on this site have compared transportation in England and the States, including discussions of public transit, bicycles, and diesel engines, one topic has not yet been covered in great detail: vehicle size. Having traveled throughout the United Kingdom, including several cities in England, Scotland, and Wales, one of most immediately noticeable differences between here and home is the size of the vehicles, with cars driven in England tending to be significantly smaller (and thus more energy efficient) than their counterparts on American freeways. In the States, families tend to have large SUV or minivans, able to carry their children and an entire team of friends as well. Here, cars tend to be significantly smaller, only able to hold four or five individuals at a time. Pickup trucks, a normal vehicle on the highways of American, are nearly non-existent in the United Kingdom, in my personal experience.

 Perhaps one of the reasons for this difference in size is the importance of the car as a symbol of success in American life. As has previously been discussed in this blog, public transit enjoys a much higher, more successful profile in England and Europe than it does in the United States, where car culture continues to reign supreme. As Taras Grescoe, the author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities And Ourselves From the Automobile, says, “Car culture is just so deeply ingrained in our spirit and philosophy in North America, for some people the idea of relying less on them just doesn’t compute” (Kives 2012). This spirit seems to include driving the largest car that you can, rather than one that is just large enough to suit your needs or is more efficient: both traits prized across the pond in England.

 Decreased vehicle size in the UK also leads to sustainability benefits in other ways too,  besides just a smaller carbon footprint. For instance, smaller cars require smaller spaces in general, for parking and driving. This space saving means that parking lots do not need as much room to house the same number of cars in Britain as they do in America, thus cutting down on the amount of land required to put them. With smaller cars, new roads and driveways can also be smaller than those found in America, again sustaining a larger amount of natural landscape. For instance, in a study looking at car sizes on freeways in Detroit, Michigan (incidentally the car capital of North America), the authors found that if all of the cars observed in the study were replaced with sub-compact size cars, at least 8% gains in available freeway space would result (Wasielewski, 1981). This 8% number is generally agreed throughout the industry, as an additional study focused on the speed of queues at traffic intersections, which can be increased through a smaller-size car fleet (Herman et al, 1974). While 8% does seem like a relatively small number, with personal transit as one of the biggest contributions to carbon footprints for most individuals, any decrease in this area, particularly in oversized American cars, is likely to make a big impact.

Works Referenced

 Herman, R., Lam, T., (1974). An experiment on car size effects in traffic. Transport and Road      Research Laboratory, 90-92.

Kives, Bartley (2012). New busway too little: author says route only starts to address city’s          transit needs. Winnipeg Free Press – PRINT EDITION. April 24th 2012

Wasielewski, Paul (1981).  The Effect of Car Size on Headways in Freely Flowing Freeway         Traffic. Transportation Science 15.4: 364-378.


The Business of Doing Your Business

When my best friend visited me over Christmas break, she was confused by something surprising: how to flush the toilets. As my friend is a very intelligent person, she quickly figured it out, but remained curious as to why two buttons were necessary on some toilets.  These were dual-flush toilets, which have been installed in an effort to conserve water and save money.

Did you know that the amount of water necessary to flush a toilet before the 1950’s was 7 gallons or around 30 liters?  That’s some dirty history (sorry, couldn’t resist)!  Today, the amount of water used to flush toilets still takes up about 30% of a home’s water usage, even though the maximum cistern (storage) capacity is 1.6 gallons (around 7 liters) in the US and 6 liters in the UK.

Dual-flush toilets, along with the more traditional low-flush toilets, are a big part of this trend.  Some low-flow systems use up to 6 liters less than older toilets, which adds up to about 16,000 fewer liters of water used per year for a single toilet. That’s over 4,000 US gallons. Because modern UK toilets are required to have a maximum cistern (storage) capacity of 6 liters total, even a savings of 2 to 4 liters per flush can be a reduction of up to 60%. Dual-flush systems give the user a choice between a high-volume or low-volume flush and have both a large and a small flush button. This makes these systems less efficient overall but, one would imagine, the more effective and therefore preferable option. What’s more, normal toilets can be retrofitted to be dual-flush, which saves homeowners the cost of replacing their existing system and cuts down on waste.  Low-flush toilets simply flush using less water and can be flushed using a handle, as we are accustomed in the US, or with the push of a button, as is more common in the UK and Europe.

As of 2009, around 40% of UK homes had installed low-flow or dual-flush toilets, but in my experience they are very common in businesses and other public buildings throughout the UK and Europe.

Energy Saving Trust. (2012). Water-Saving Products. Retrieved 20/4/12. From

Waterwise. (2012). Saving Water: At Home: Indoors. Retrieved 20/4/12. From

Greenworks. (n.d.). Toilets: Water Conserving Toilets. Retrieved 20/4/12. From

Environmental Information Exchange. (n.d.). Water Saving in Toilet Areas. Retrieved 20/4/12. From:

Ideal Standard. (2009). Flush With Pride. Retrieved 20/4/12. From:

Toiletology.  (2011).  Low-Flow (1.6 gal) Toilets.  Retrieved 20/4/12.  From:

Google Calculator was used for all unit conversions.

Charity Shops

Roaming the streets of any English shopping area inevitably leads to one of the many chains of charity shops.  Charities like Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals collect used clothes, dishes, books, bags, linens, and even furniture to sell it back to consumers at reduced prices.  This raises money for the charities, while at the same time providing affordable goods to people in the community.  It is also a great way to recycle.  Buying used merchandise instead of new saves all the energy that it would take to produce a new item.

In terms of clothing, both natural and synthetic fabrics can take a lot of energy to produce.  The cotton has to be grown, processed, then woven into fabric.  Synthetic fibers are generally made from crude oil and the manufacturing method often creates dangerous byproducts.  Even natural fibers like cotton have negative environmental impacts.   Cotton requires a high amount of water and pesticide.  The US is a large producer of cotton, and a lot gets shipped overseas after growing.  Then, processing the cotton into fabric costs energy, and creates unwanted, volatile byproducts.  After production of the clothing, it still has to be shipped to retail stores to be sold, using more energy.  So, manufacturing a new shirt costs an enormous amount of energy compared to buying one that has already been manufactured.  The same theory can be applied to many items beyond clothing.  Buying used books saves all the paper that would have had to go into manufacturing a new copy.  Used furniture also saves on textile production, manufacturing, and shipping energy.  It is always more efficient to buy something used rather than new.

While America certainly has used items available to those who make an effort to find them, it is much simpler in England.  Even in a small city like Norwich, there are at least eight different charity shops in the city center.  In London there are many more.  The location of the shops makes a difference too.  In England, the charity shops are located right next to normal retail stores, allowing customers to easily shop at both in the same trip.  Often in America used clothing stores do not have enough money to sell in a prime area, so they don’t get as much exposure to shoppers.

The prevalence and convenient locations of charity shops in England make reusing clothing, books, and household items very easy, which translates to energy savings.  This system is beneficial for consumers, charities, and the planet.

The Efficient Tilt and Turn Windows

One of the things I find really peculiar about England, and Europe, is their windows. Windows come in different shapes and sizes, but they all have the same underlying design. They are “tilt and turn” windows, and they are found in almost all newer buildings by default. For many of us, they seemed impossible to operate at first, like trying to work out puzzle. But their design is simpler, convenient and efficient.

They are usually single sash and single pane, which creates a wide and open glass window, a feature that allows sunlight to go through without any obstruction and maximizes the amount of heat getting into the room. The double glass prevents water from condensing and fogging up the glass on either side and adds another layer of insulation. All the sides of the window have metal bolts that thrust themselves into the window jamb upon turning the knob, becoming one with the wall. This feature is not only very secure (gives you the feeling of closing a vault), it highly efficient in its ability to insulate, along with its rubber lining that analogous to a refrigerator door. Air leakage, though to an extent necessary to keep houses ventilated and equilibrium with the environment, can also become a problem when it allows for heat loss. In most un-weatherized houses, this is perhaps the biggest contributor to high gas and oil bills. This design is energy efficient, allows us to conserve heat in our homes and contributing to more sustainable living.

Perhaps the best feature is their ability to “tilt” inwards from the top rail. It allows air inflow while preventing precipitation, birds and leaves, which are all common throughout the seasons in England, from coming in. When completely open, like a regular casement window, is provides an open gateway to the outdoors that is very flexible, moving with the airflow and taking pressure away from doors in sealed rooms.

This design is not only attractive, but it efficiently serves the purpose of a window. The typical American vertical sliders are less flexible, require more force to open and close, obstruct light and heat from the sun, allow heat to be lost, are very limited in the extent they can open, and are just becoming too old fashioned. “Tilt and turn” are perhaps the future of windows, efficiently separating us or opening up our rooms to the outdoors as we desire, with no obstruction and little energy loss.


Motion-Activated Lighting

While some buildings on Dickinson’s campus have incorporated ‘smart’ lighting, the use of such devices is more prevalent around UEA’s campus.

The emphasis on saving energy is important to the University of East Anglia because energy is much more expensive when compared to American prices. These devices are brilliant in their simplicity because they ‘know’ when someone is there and will stay on until you leave.

There have been more than a few occasions when I am walking through some strange recess of the library and I begin to feel like God as lights begin to come on as I stroll down the corridor. Especially considering the fact the library is open 24 hours, this increases the life-span of light bulbs and lessens the economic and environmental impact such immense buildings would otherwise have on the surrounding area.

These devices are not only prevalent in large educational buildings but also in residence halls themselves. Right outside my door, I have located the curious motion-sensor that tells the lights to illuminate. I feel that often times the best solutions to energy problems are the simplest solutions!

The device pictured below blinks green when it ‘sees’ you and the faster it blinks the more motion it detects. When it goes dark (a.k.a. doesn’t blink or detect motion) for a certain period of time it tells lights to turn off…


Auto-shutoff Taps

While I know that this is not true in every flat at UEA, in most of the flats that I have visited at UEA the taps been the sort where the water automatically turns off about ten seconds after the button has been released. These auto shut off taps have been linked to sustainability time and time again in the past, and the link should be obvious. After all, how many times have you turned on the tap to brush your teeth, and then simply left it on the entire time? It’s usually not a conscious decision, but that extra two minutes of water flow causes millions of wasted liters every year.

I know that like many other students living in the student village I am often annoyed by the fact that I can’t have my hot and cold water coming out of the same tap, but this simple inconvenience actually represents another sustainability advantage of auto-shutoff taps. Essentially, because I do not want to scald myself with the hot water from the tap (it heats up quickly) I almost never use it. Using less hot water is a known energy saver, and the simple fact that I find it unpleasant to use the hot water in my bathroom sink potentially saves a huge amount of energy.

After thinking about this issue, I looked into ways that contractors and developers are advised to be more sustainable when the build new homes and places of business. One of the first things was that they were advised to use auto-shutoff taps. So while I find the auto-shutoff taps in the village to be very annoying, there is a silver lining in that they are actually saving a huge amount of water and energy. Luckily, it is in fact possible to have non annoying auto-shutoff taps. These usually involve motion sensors and a separate temperature valve on the side. While these don’t cause less usage of hot water, a convenient auto-shutoff tap that people actually use in the home will save a huge amount of water. They are very easy to purchase and install, and I highly suggest that people start getting them in their homes, because I have found that I actually do notice a significant decline in my water consumption with them.


“Sprays and Automatic Taps Standards V1.0.” « Sustainable Development in Government. DEFRA, 30 Mar. 2011..

“The DART Energy Research Programme.” Energy In Education. Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, 2011. Web. .

Buying local, reducing our “food miles”

Another effort towards sustainable living made in the UK focuses on motivating people to consume locally produced food items. What exactly entails buying “local” can be defined in several ways, depending on the accessibility of the given product in one’s area, but could range from growing our food at home, to products grown in our immediate community, town or region. It simply means that the food should be consumed as close as its point of origin as possible. The closer, the more sustainable, the better. I have personally encountered examples of these efforts within UEA, supermarkets in Norwich and online promoters of the regional produce of the East of England.

Alternatives to buying from the great retailers such as Tesco and Asda (owned by the US Wal-Mart chain) achieve a range of goals related to sustainable development, while enhancing the social and economic welfare of communities. In terms of the first, they allow for rural regeneration, reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation of products over long distances (or “food miles”), promote livelihood security and sustainable consumption. Industrial food processors also use a large amount of paper and plastic packaging to keep food fresh while it is transported and stored for long periods of time. Such packaging is difficult or impossible to reuse or recycle. In addition, industrial farms are a major source of air and water pollution.

An article published in the International Journal of Justice and Sustainability in 2008, cites a poll reflecting that 52% of UK respondents preferred to purchase locally grown food, and another 46% chose to buy UK-produced food. The article also reports that this growing interest in local and organic produce has given way to an explosion of direct marketing outlets, such as farmers markets and farm shops. The first UK’s farmers’ market took place in 1998, and by 2006, there were 550 locations throughout the UK holding 9500 markets every year.

However, the major supermarkets have made efforts to keep up with the demand for organic and local produce, by increasing the availability and visibility of regional produce. Asda introduced in 2001 a special “local produce” section and currently offers over 2500 regionally produced items from 300 local producers, such as Norfolk beers and ales. I have encountered small sections of this sort at Sainsbury’s so far, and a great variety of vegetable, fruit, meat and pork products in Norwich farmers’ markets on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of every month. I would also attend the farmers markets while at Dickinson, as their products represent a healthy alternative to many mainstream packaged food products sold at Wal-Mart. I would assume they are popular and very convenient alternatives for those who live near rural areas as we do in Carlisle, but not as accessible within the big cities. Since I have not lived in the US outside of college myself, I cannot offer further insights on this point. However, last year the cafeteria added panels and signs around the food lines with questions for students such as “Where does you food come from?” and statements like “The tastiest food grows closer to home” followed by an explanation related to sustainability. I think this is a great way of creating awareness of the origins of the food we consume, which would be a good idea to apply in a greater degree at UEA.

Finally, one grass-roots effort I have encountered while researching online is the “Taste of Anglia” marketing group, which is based in a farm in Suffolk and committed to support local growers in the East of England. Their rich website helps promote and distribute regional products locally and nationally to wholesalers, retailers and consumers alike. Customers can order online, and find food and drink expositions, festivals, competitions and fairs in the area. It also links to an article that explains why buying local fruits and vegetables in-season helps eliminate the environmental damage caused by having to ship foods for long distances – from a remote location where they are in season at the time.

On the same lines, the University of East Anglia has developed a sustainable food policy, by which it committed to have all of its local eateries’ menus reflect the seasons. UEA stocks seasonal fruit in preference of non-seasonal fruit, and ensures that all of seasonal orchard fruits (apples, pears, plums, etc) and 60% of fresh soft fruit purchased between August and March comes from producers in regional rural communities. All of the milk sold on campus is certified British, and often from East Anglian diaries. Over the course of this year, I have also witnessed several local producers who were invited to promote their products on campus. Linzers bakery has held a stand at the Zest offering free trials of their delicious bread and some of their pastries, and since last week Ronaldo’s ice cream stand at the Street, right outside the Paper Shop, advertises homemade ice cream.



GRACE. (n.d) Eat Seasonal – Shop sustainable. Sustainable Table. Retrieved on 16.03.2012. From

Seyfang, G. (2008). Avoiding Asda? Exploring consumer motivations in local organic food networks. The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability13(3), p. 187-201

Tastes of Anglia (n.d.) Buy Local. Tastes of Anglia. Retrieved on 15.03.2012. From

University of East Anglia. (n.d.) Healthy and Sustainable Food Policy. Sustainable Food Policy. Retrieved on 16.03.2012. From

Plastic Bags

When grocery shopping, it is inevitable that you will need a bag in which to carry all of your new food.  The question is whether you have brought your own with you, or whether you need a carrier bag.  I have noticed that the use of reusable bags is more common in Norwich than Saratoga Springs, where I live, or Carlisle.  Some shops in Norwich assume that you will need a bag, while others only give you a bag if you ask.  Overall, this is similar to America but I think it is more common in America to be automatically given a bag with your purchase.

Plastic bags are notoriously bad for the environment and unsustainable.  Plastic is one of the most prevalent forms of marine trash, and this is important because garbage in the world’s oceans leads to the death of at least one million sea birds and 100,000 mammals yearly according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Plastic bags are also not biodegradable, and occupy precious landfill space taking an estimated 400 to 1,000 years to disappear fully.  Additionally, plastic bags are made from crude oil, a resource that is finite and is already being rapidly exhausted by gasoline production.

Taxes have been introduced to discourage customers from using single-use plastic bags. There is a plastic bag levy in Ireland of 22cents per bag.  It was introduced March 4, 2002 and was originally 15 cents per bag, but it was increased to 22 cents in 2007 when the bags per capita had increased.  When the tax was first introduced there was a dramatic decrease in plastic bag usage from about 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita overnight, proving the value of a bag tax. Wales introduced a similar tax of 5p in October of 2011.  Northern Ireland will introduce a 5p tax beginning in April of 2013. In England there is no such tax, however some stores have chosen to charge customers for using a carrier bag.  For example, Marks & Spencer began charging 5p per bag in 2008.

In the US there is no national ban on plastic bags or bag tax but some cities have enacted their own policies on plastic bags.  Washington D.C. has a 5 cent charge on plastic bags that was put into effect in 2010. Seattle has banned the use of plastic bags while simultaneously introducing a 5 cent tax on paper bags.  However, some cities such as Philadelphia have rejected a proposed ban on plastic bags.  Some states or cities have instead chosen to require stores to recycle plastic bags.

Overall, plastic bags use is more regulated in the UK than in America.  I think living in England has made me more conscious of how many bags I would use if I were back home.  It might be possible in the future to introduce national legislation in America related to this issue, but I don’t think that will happen just yet.


30 January 2012. Tax on plastic bags introduced in April 2013. BBC News, [online] Available at:

28 February 2008. M&S to charge 5p for carrier bags. BBC News, [online] Available at:

Cemansky, R. How Many Cities Have a Ban on Plastic Bags? [online] Available at:

Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, 2007. Plastic Bags. [online] Available at:

 Merchant, B. 2009. Study Reveals Two Biggest, Deadliest Kinds of Marine Trash. [online] Available at:

1 October 2011. Carrier bag charge for shoppers in Wales introduced. BBC News, [online] Available at:

1 December 2011. Plastic Bag Bans Spreading Across The United States. Huffington Post, [online] Available at:

Yardley, W., 20 December 2011. Seattle Bans Plastic Bags, and Sets a Charge for Paper. New York Times, [online] Available at:

18 June 2009. Council Trashes Philly’s Plastic Bag Ban. NBC News, [online] Available at:

Diesel Engines

After a run and walking into town I noticed that I had a gritty taste in my mouth, as if I could taste particulates in the air. I thought back to my first day in the UK and my conversation with the private hire driver, Ian. The car he drove had a diesel engine and contrary to the negative preconceptions we have of diesel engines in the US, it was a quiet and smooth ride. Ian told me that diesel engines were becoming more and more common in the UK. An article I later found from the Guardian validated that claim since there were more diesel-powered cars sold than unleaded gasoline in the UK in July 2010 at 50.6% of the market. Diesel engines are stigmatised in the US due to the antiquated stereotypes of much earlier models; however, in the UK efficient diesel engines have been gaining an increasing amount the market share because of rising fuel costs.

Today in the Financial Times, there was an interesting article covering the consequences of the sanctions on Iran on oil prices. The article, somewhat facetiously, worried for Americans gearing up for summer road trips in ‘gas guzzling SUVs’ in a climate of rising oil prices (speculated to rise above $4 a gallon). It also mentioned that the US national average for a gallon of unleaded is $3.49 and that the equivalent of a gallon in the UK would be $8 (justifying their condescension on American SUVs). In 2008 there was a similar rise in oil prices and this was the first original increase in diesel engine use in the UK. European Voice, an independent EU news source, stated that an innovative Bosch diesel engine had the potential to reduce pollution up to 20% and fuel consumption up to 3%. Overall, diesel engines are 15% to 20% more fuel efficient than regular gasoline engines (The Guardian). Diesel engines not only achieve more miles to the gallon, but they also supposedly last longer. Based on the correlated timing of the rise in diesel engines and the rise in fuel prices, English drivers made the switch to diesel for its long-term fuel savings.

Although diesel engines have higher fuel efficiency, they are typically more expensive to initially purchase and at times diesel fuel is more costly than petrol. The Guardian argues that British people’s willingness to pay these costs upfront for a saving in the long run, coupled with the fact that in 2010, alternative energy vehicles had 1.4% of the market share signifies opportunities to further promote hybrid and alternative energy cars. This trend is encouraging, in that it will incite automobile manufacturers to introduce more sustainable vehicles.

Even though diesel engines fall in the category of more efficiency than regular gas engines, they also have their disadvantages. Diesel engines pollute less CO2 but more nitrogen oxide gasses and particulate matter than unleaded engines, despite improvements from the original models. Nitrogen gasses lead to smog, acid rain, and depletion of the ozone. Less harmful but equally unpleasant, particulate matter is most likely what coated my mouth with a grimy taste and causes smog and respiratory problems. Therefore diesel may be more efficient, but as far as pollution it simply trades one evil for another.

Diesel brings to mind the likes of Willy Nelson and his bio-diesel coach or massive trucks. While diesel engines are often used in the US for trucks, their higher torque capacity could be useful to anyone looking to use their vehicle to tow trailers. There is also Willy Nelson’s sustainable option of using bio-diesel made from recycled frying oil. However the US took the path on unleaded gasoline and currently lacks the infrastructure and gas price pressure to encourage consumers to consider diesel. Perhaps this is for the best because even for all of their efficiency and reduced CO­­­2 emissions, diesel engines have their drawbacks of increased purchase cost and different pollutants. Thus diesel seems to be only a slightly better alternate to unleaded petrol and attention should be focused on more sustainable alternative fuels.

Works Referenced

“Diesel Engine.” Just the Basics. US Department of Energy-Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Aug. 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <>.

Mallinder, Lorraine. “Less Polluting, but Diesel Is Far from Being Clean.” European European Voice, 24 Mar. 2005. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <>.

Wray, Richard. “Diesel Car Sales Overtake Petrol in UK for First Time.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Aug. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <>.

The Roller Towel

An issue that has been of great interest in the world for the past few decades has been how to reduce the amount of trees we cut down in order to make our paper products. Although this has improved due to the reduce/ reuse/ recycle campaign we still use a fair amount of paper products in our everyday lives. I’ve noticed that it has been getting better in the US, especially after most schools and businesses enlisted in recycling their paper wastes. I have also noticed that England follows these same guidelines.

Something that has caught my eye while here in England is the availability of reusable towels in the rest rooms. At first seeing this contraption I thought that the paper towel dispenser was broken due to its odd appearance, but after seeing someone dry their hands with the blue and white towel I realized it was a reusable towel. This reusable towel, also named Roller Towel, by the UK company, Initial is actually more hygienic than it sounds. Each time an individual wishes to dry his or her hands, they get a clean piece of the Roller Towel to use. It is a smart invention since there is no waste from the Roller Towel and the towel roll can be washed up to 200 times before having to purchase a new one. The Roller Towel feels like a cloth towel and one can dry their hands with it much faster than electric hand dryers.

This is a great alternative to the paper towel role that is commonly used in the US and still used widely throughout the world. Paper towels are used and discarded and mostly end up in a landfill without ever being recycled. This Roller Towel invention can save many trees and precious land fill space, especially here in England where landfills are filling up very fast. It can also cut down on the amount of electricity spent when there are the electric hand dryers in the rest rooms. I think if these Roller Towels were installed in rest rooms in the US we would find the amount of paper wastes severely reduced and in so doing save more trees and be more sustainable.