Whether it’s a water bottle, a carrot, a basketball, a freight train, or a pile of concrete blocks you found at BRING, there’s a story about energy that longs to be told.

Embodied energy is a term used to describe all of the energy that goes into the production of a product. From raw resource extraction to manufacturing processes, and distribution by plane, train, and automobile, each inanimate thing that exists originates from the earth and a measurable amount of energy is used to put the pieces together and put it in front of consumers. When we embrace this concept, we can dive deeper into our understanding of what it means to be ecologically sustainable.

Take the average toothbrush, for example. Can you think of all the energy required to create an inherently disposable toothbrush? First, petroleum gas-powered machines are used to extract more raw petroleum, which is shipped using petroleum to the manufacturing factory. Burning fossil fuels to power their computers, toothbrush designers spend countless hours crafting the next shapes and colors to hit retail shelves. After production, shipments of fresh enamel-cleaners travel long routes to faraway corners of the world, consuming even more petroleum and fossil fuels.

It’s mind-boggling, and it doesn’t stop there. What happens when the toothbrush wears down? End-of-life disposal requires energy, too. The garbage truck transports the toothbrush to the local waste-handling facility. Using even more petroleum, machines compact our trash and ship it to the landfill, the final resting place of the product and all of its embodied energy. This toothbrush will surely be replaced, representing an endless cycle of energy use.

Living a sustainable life includes minimizing embodied energy. And you may now be wondering: where is a good place to start? One way is to focus on either growing your own food or purchasing organic produce directly from local farmers, in order to minimize the distance that your food travels and eliminate the chemicals that are common in industrial food production.

The same idea can be applied to building materials. Using indigenous, locally-sourced materials generally saves on transportation and processing energy. Reusing existing materials means keeping the embodied energy that already exists in a product rather than requiring a new energy output. Purchasing durable goods and repairing broken items, instead of replacing, saves embodied energy and drastically reduces your carbon footprint.

What are your next steps for preserving the embodied energy of products you already own, or lowering the amount of energy required for the products you use every day?

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