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Good News: Being Lazy Can Be Good for the Environment

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You may feel bad about the days when you never leave the couch, but there is an upside to working remotely, watching Netflix, ordering food and consumer goods online, and lying around your house scrolling through Facebook. A new study in the journal Joule, spotted by Fast Company, finds that as technology allows people to spend more time at home, it's reducing American energy usage.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual American Time Use Survey, finding that between 2003 and 2012, people spent more time at home and less time traveling to and from stores and work. According to this data, Americans in 2012 spent a total of 7.8 more days at home than in 2003 and 1.2 fewer days traveling. That means they weren't getting in their cars and burning up fossil fuels to drive around town. And, if fewer people are working in offices overall, presumably those buildings require less energy to run (for example, they don't need as much power for lights or air conditioning). In total, the researchers estimate that Americans used 1.8 percent less energy as a nation because of this home-bound change in lifestyle.

Considering that these metrics are from 2012, it's likely that people are spending even less time traveling outside their houses these days. U.S. government data show that e-commerce has been a steadily growing portion of total retail sales for a decade.

There's reason to resist becoming a total hermit, though—and it's not just the need for Vitamin D or exercise. There are aspects of staying home that aren't quite so carbon-friendly—ones that aren't fully addressed in this study. You may be staying off the road, but the trucks delivering your groceries and goods aren't, and they require fossil fuel. Cities are currently overwhelmed with delivery trucks ferrying packages from Amazon, Peapod, Postmates, and all the other online services that people can now use as their go-to shopping destinations. The massive upsurge in people getting groceries, office supplies, home goods, clothing, and just about anything else delivered to their homes has led to an increase in freight traffic, because trucks still have to be deployed to get those packages to front doors. (At least until drone delivery takes off.)

Staying at home and watching a movie on Netflix instead of going out to the movies saves energy, but having your toilet paper sent to your home still requires some gas. Time will tell whether shipping services dropping off purchases, versus people going out shopping, significantly reduces carbon usage. One study found that results depend on whether the shopper lives in a suburban or urban environment, among other issues [PDF]. So enjoy your Netflix night, but don't get too smug about your Amazon purchases just yet.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images
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McDonald's May Be Getting Rid of Its Plastic Straws
Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images

First Seattle and then the Queen. Could the Golden Arches be next to join the anti-straw movement? As Fortune reports, McDonald's shareholders will vote at their annual meeting on May 24 on a proposal to phase out drinking straws at the company's 37,000-plus locations in the U.S.

If passed, the fast food behemoth would join the ranks of other governments and businesses around the world that have enacted bans against straws in an effort to reduce plastic waste. Straws are notoriously hard to recycle and typically take hundreds of years to decompose.

McDonald's is currently in the process of removing plastic straws from its roughly 1300 outlets in the UK. However, McDonald's board of directors opposes the move in the U.S., arguing that it would divert money from the company's other eco-friendly initiatives, The Orange County Register reports. This echoes comments from the plastic industry, which says efforts should instead be focused on improving recycling technologies.

"Bans are overly simplistic and may give consumers a false sense of accomplishment without addressing the problem of litter," Scott DeFife of the Plastics Industry Association told the Daily News in New York City, where the city council is mulling a similar citywide ban.

If the city votes in favor of a ban, they'd be following in the footsteps of Seattle, Miami Beach, and Malibu, California, to name a few. In February, Queen Elizabeth II was inspired to ban straws at royal palaces after working with David Attenborough on a conservation film. Prime Minister Theresa May followed suit, announcing in April that the UK would ban plastic straws, cotton swabs, and other single-use plastic items.

It's unclear how many straws are used in the U.S. By one widely reported estimate, Americans use 500 million disposable straws per day—or 1.6 straws per person—but it has been noted that these statistics are based on a survey conducted by an elementary school student. However, plastic straws are the fifth most common type of trash left on beaches, according to data reported by Fortune.

[h/t Fortune]

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Mario Tama, Getty Images
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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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