Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/08/coffee_washing_not_for_you/

'We must all stop washing to save the planet'

Peel your socks off the wall for Gaia, chaps

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 8th December 2009 15:17 GMT

Analysis A "world-renowned expert on carbon emissions" has stated that Western consumers must avoid five "eco crimes" committed every day in order to save the world. Dr Dave Reay's main assertion, in fact, is that we should stop washing so much - but the national press has chosen rather to highlight his assertion that drinking instant coffee is better for the environment than filter.

Dr Reay, whose PhD and early training were in marine biology, is nowadays Edinburgh university's first ever Senior Lecturer in Carbon Management. He seems as much a campaigner as a researcher, devoting much time to running his greenhouse-gas website and writing books aimed at the lay audience - Climate Change Begins at Home and Your Planet Needs You! A Kid's Guide to Going Green.

Apart from all that, Dr Reay last week put out his top five eco-crimes list, in the form of a piece for New Scientist. He is at least, unlike many pop-eco analysts*, aware what a kilowatt-hour is and able to do back-of-the-envelope calculations. Even better, he has realised the inconvenient truth that it is not easily dispensable things which account for most of Western civilisation's energy use.

"For the largest cuts, simply washing less frequently is the way to go," says the doc, and of course he's right. Personal hygiene and laundry are massive domestic energy hogs. Even Reay isn't quite willing to advocate the end of daily baths or showers, but he probably rightly thinks that around half of the population believes it is made to wash its clothes too often at the insistence of the other half, and so focuses on laundry.

Advertisers [have] convinced us that our shirts must always be "whiter than white", our sheets should forever smell of spring flowers, and that to be dressed in freshly laundered clothes at all times is a badge of success. We live in a "wear once and wash" culture.

It is easy to see how these emissions stack up. A full load in a washing machine uses around 1.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity per cycle and tumble drying clocks up a further 3.5 kilowatt-hours, resulting in over 2 kilograms of CO2 emissions per wash. With four or five loads per household per week, the total annual emissions from each home can easily pass the half-tonne mark. That's a significant proportion of the 10-tonne annual emissions of the average European.

Reay is using a figure of 500g CO2/kilowatt-hour there, which is actually more than a bit on the high side these days, as the British wind-energy lobby were recently compelled to admit by the Advertising Standards Authority. So you can actually factor all these CO2 figures down by 15 per cent, which is disappointing in the case of a Senior Lecturer in Carbon Management - but pass on.

Reay's central point, that washing is a major home energy user for wealthy westerners, is quite correct. Stinky socks and pants are ecologically very sound - ideally trusty old holey ones, too; Reay also fingers the tendency to replace clothes before they're worn out as an eco-crime.

And you can stop drinking coffee while you're at it

Yesterday, in fairly standard style, the mainstream broadsheets decided to lift the New Scientist story without attribution. They even do this to us here on the Reg sometimes, and they probably figured it was safe in this case as New Scientist has many fewer readers.

In any case, we hear again of the Reay five-point plan in the Telegraph and the Scotsman today: but the big energy-gobblers like washing are barely mentioned. The headliner, of course, is the doctor's contention that instant coffee is more eco-friendly than filter.

The average cup of black filter coffee is still responsible for 125 grams of CO2 emissions. Of this, two-thirds comes from production and most of the rest from brewing.

Opting for the more prosaic joys of instant coffee reduces that figure to around 80 grams. Yet that still means a six-a-day caffeine habit clocks up more than 175 kilograms of CO2 each year.

Except that actually the average Brit only drinks 1.6 cups a day. And the difference between instant and filter - the headliner - is only 45 grams. That adds up to a measly 16 kg of CO2 saved per year.

Or in other words, the difference between drinking instant and filter coffee is utterly insignificant in the context of a Western citizen's energy use and carbon emissions. Ditch the headline, chaps. And indeed Reay isn't really advocating that we switch to instant, he's saying we should stop drinking coffee altogether:

The environmental group WWF has calculated that it takes 200 litres of water to produce the coffee, milk, sugar and cup for just one regular takeout latte. So if everyone ditched their pre-work coffee fix that would do wonders for the planet.

Never mind that water is just energy by another name - and that energy use, anyway, isn't the same thing as carbon emissions. Carbon-free nuclear and renewable energy can be used to desalinate seawater, to farm coffee, to ship it to you and then put it in your hand in a recycled cardboard or washable china cup.

But renewables almost certainly can't deliver the energy the human race needs to live at Western levels of luxury, and everyone's afraid of nuclear. So we have earnest fellows like Dr Reay telling us - though he doesn't quite dare to, not wishing us all to turn against the possible Copenhagen accords - that we need to stop washing, stop drinking coffee, stop doing anything at all in fact that involves energy use - which means pretty much anything other than inefficient farming for most of the population.

The real news here - and the blunt truth, barring a worldwide shift to nuclear power or some other massive breakthrough - is that carbon emissions cuts in line with those demanded by climate activists mean we'll all have to become very dirty and smelly. And that's just for starters. ®

*Consider this from Guardian eco-scribe John Vidal: "[The solar plant] is expected to supply 45MW of electricity each year."