Turning Off The Outlet

A recent environmental movement that I’ve noticed increasingly often in the United States is an attempt to encourage people to unplug electrical devices. The argument makes enough sense: if you leave things plugged in, they’ll use more and more energy when they don’t need to, wasting money and energy. I have seen this campaign address a wide variety of things that needlessly consume energy, such as televisions, stereos, and video game consoles plugged in and consuming energy when not in use, as well as leaving chargers for laptops and cell phones plugged in longer than necessary or not even when being used at all. Many chargers and devices continue to use electricity even when the device is turned off.

In the UK, however, just about every outlet has an on/off switch. Instead of unplugging a device, the outlet itself can just be turned off. I’ve found that this is not only more convenient than having to unplug devices, which can be annoying, but also somewhat encouraging, making it easier to remember to do. In a conversation with my English flatmates, they were very surprised to hear that outlets in the US don’t have on/off switches, and one simply asked “But doesn’t that use a lot of energy?”. Especially in light of the increasing amount of literature and efforts to make people unplug their devices when not using them from recent years from back in the states, I didn’t really have a good answer for why we don’t have the ability to turn off our outlets that easily. Attempting to look for any answers on Google later revealed that nobody else seems to know why this isn’t a more common practice either.

While the switch was initially introduced partly as a safety feature, the ability to simply turn off outlets has also become quite useful from an environmental standpoint. Perhaps the higher cost of energy in the UK has resulted in a greater awareness for saving electricity than we have in the US, but there seems to be no reason why not to utilize such a simple solution. While it may not seem like much since the same thing could pretty much be accomplished by simply unplugging devices, it reflects the right sort of mindset, and it’s simply another one of many little ways in which anybody can help make a difference.

Bicycles in England

A major difference in sustainability between the United States and the United Kingdom involves another form of transportation, bicycles. Whereas cycling in the US is generally only considered to be for exercise or fun, cycling in the UK is frequently used for getting around. Over the last several months I have seen hundreds of cyclists on their way to work, class, or town. I have even seen cyclists in the cold or rain and people wearing skirts and dress shoes. With the high cost of petrol and difficulty of getting a driver’s license, cycling is an attractive option over driving a personal car. Cycling is more sustainable than motor vehicles due to its lack of carbon emissions and use of fossil fuels.

Cycling is promoted through the design of bicycles, road systems, and safety equipment in the UK. More bikes here are designed for street use than in the US, where most bikes are for racing or off-road use. Cities in the UK are currently better suited for cyclists with plenty of bike racks and designated bike lanes, which are only starting to become common in the US. Sometimes the bike lanes here are combined with the bus lanes, which seems dangerous. People cycle directly in traffic, using hand signals and following special traffic signal lights for cyclists. For safety, bikes are required to have a head and taillight, and cyclists usually wear yellow high visibility vests or jackets. However, not many people wear helmets, which I find very surprising. The expectation that many people rely on cycling also becomes apparent in public transportation systems, with special bicycle carriages on trains, open spaces for bikes and wheelchairs on buses, and options to take bikes on ferries. The University of East Anglia encourages cycling by providing covered, locked bike racks, offering advice on types of locks, and holding a bike sale.

Frequent use of bicycling as a mode of transportation extends to other parts of Europe as well. I particularly noticed cyclists in Copenhagen, where I saw hundreds of people cycling in traffic, despite the fact that it was late December. The main train station had row upon row of bike racks, packed with hundreds of bicycles, most of which were not locked. In addition to serving as a source of exercise and reducing traffic, bicycling eliminates the carbon emissions from motor vehicles that contribute to climate change. Promoting the use of bicycles reduces the United Kingdom’s carbon footprint and increases its sustainability.

Public Transport

One of the differences between the United States and England that still sometimes confuses my flat mates and others is the lack and abundance of public transportation in our respective countries. Whenever I explain this lack to someone they’re shocked by the idea that I need to drive everywhere I want to go back home. When I try to defend the lack by pointing out I live in a relatively small, slightly remote town and the having a bus system would just not be economically feasible, they are able to point out how they live in a similar area to me, but at the same time still have a bus system. It’s not only busses that are frequently used by residents of the UK, but also trains. Not only are they numerous they are also affordable and provide ease of transport all around the country. In comparison, in the United States trains aren’t used very widely and there have even been threats in the past of such companies going out of business due to lack of passengers. Both of these conveniences are so widely used that most people I’ve met her at UEA don’t even have driver’s licenses.

The environmental benefits of having such a wide reaching and readily accessible public transport system aren’t difficult to imagine. By having such a well-used public transport system there is a much smaller necessity to have your own personal vehicle. Even if one does own a car, many are inclined to use public transport instead and this lowers the amount of carbon monoxide being expelled into the atmosphere every day. Many of the transportation companies are also working to ‘green’ up their transport fleets. Though I haven’t spotted any in Norwich, in some parts of the country, such as London, some of the busses are more efficient with lower emissions. The design of the busses, double deckers and the ‘bendy’ buses, allow for more people to use them again cutting down on the umber of busses needed as well.

Overall the abundance of public transport is one of the major differences between the US and the UK in respects to sustainability. By having such a wide and heavily used system there is a reduction of individual harm to the environment with regards to transportation.

Heating

One of the underlying concepts in sustainability is that of conserving energy. Having been in Norwich for a semester already, I’ve had a chance to make friends with local people living in the wider community and have observed a greater concern for energy use within the home. Heating is a particular concern. Outside of the University accommodation, the houses are significantly older which can pose challenges to efficient heating. Residents are aware of this and across the board seem to accept the need to pile on more layers of clothing and make a hot cup of tea. A common way to save energy (and money) is to only have the heating on for a short period of time in the evening, when most people are at home and awake to benefit. Conserving the heat that is created can be difficult with drafty doors and windows, which may be why heavy curtains seem to be popular. Other measures I’ve heard discussed include adding insulation in roof spaces and updating old windows to double glazing. The lanes of terraced houses (the ones sharing walls) manage to conserve some heat by the reducing surface area exposed to the environment. This housing set up also saves space, which is significant in the urban environment by minimizing sprawl.

Keeping a house warm is obviously not an issue exclusive to Norwich or the UK, and in the US concern and approaches vary depending on the location. Coming from Vermont, where snow is not uncommon from the end of October through much or all of March, I have seen many of the same strategies in practice at home. Energy for heating is not as expensive at home as it is here in the UK, but with the usually long winters heating costs can still be quite hard for many Vermonters to afford. Many homes supplement their gas or electric powered heating with a pellet or wood stove, which can be very effective for the room they are located in. Some house still use a fireplace as the primary heat source, as a brick or stone chimney in the center of a house can radiate a lot of heat. Pellet stoves tend to more efficient than wood stoves, and can use recycled materials. However in either case, the source of the energy is still biomass- logs or pellets, it’s a clear conversion to heat, light and ash.
Shelter is one of the basic needs, and homes are a part of social and cultural identity. Heating those homes is a kind of necessary evil, and a comfort the vast majority of people would not want to go entirely without. Sustainable practices concerning homes that are already built tend to revolve around minimizing heat loss, and being conscious of what energy you are using.

Welcome to the blog for spring 2012 Norwich Science Program

This site is designed for students in the Norwich Science Program to share some of their observations on sustainability efforts at the University of East Anglia and in Norwich and the United Kingdom. As an island nation, resources and space are more limited in the UK than in the US and in many ways, efforts to achieve a more sustainable way of life are more advanced here. So, each week, a different member of the group will post an entry describing  something he/she has seen -an event, a facility, a practice – that is designed to increase sustainability and compare it to efforts back in the US.