For the Conservation Curious

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Green Czech Republic October 3, 2014

On Tuesday I received some excellent news… I was selected as the team leader for the Rotary District 7390 Group Study Exchange trip to the Czech Republic and Slovakia this coming spring. I’ll lead four communications and journalism professionals on a one-month educational visit to these two countries, visiting Rotary Clubs and cultural sites along the way. I went on a similar trip, as a team member, to Germany five years ago and it was a life-changing experience. I know this will be similar, although more challenging with the added responsibilities as leader, but I’m looking forward to it all.

In honor of this upcoming adventure, I wanted to blog a bit about the environmental and conservation-related aspects of the Czech Republic. I ran across some of this information as I prepared for my interview, and have added further information that I found since then:
• According to the Czech Republic’s environmental agency, the Czech people ranks sixth in the European Union in packaging recycling and are the leaders in the EU for reusing materials from new products and energy generation (a whopping 68%!!).

• They have six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, which are areas of the country set aside for natural resource management. There are more than 600 reserves in 119 countries across the globe.

• Unlike our country, they have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, committing their country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and acting against climate change.
• They are above the EU average for the number of acres of organic farms in the country (10.5% of their total ag lands).
• More than 71 percent of the forests in the Czech Republic are certified as sustainably managed.

Not everything is rosy in terms of the environment there. No country is perfect. They deal with air and water pollution from industry, habitat loss and impacts to species, and other issues, but those are common to just about every developed nation. But they are trying hard to clean up sins of the past and move into a more sustainable future.

Of course there is so much about the Czech Republic that I am excited to see. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and since it wasn’t bombed during WWII, much of the old architecture remains intact. In Germany I saw a lot of restored churches, castles and other buildings… now I’ll get to see the real deal. Plus the Czech Republic is the birthplace of pilsner beer, so I won’t go thirsty while I’m there. My trip is still many, many months away, so my excitement will continue to blossom. Na shledanou (goodbye in Czech)!

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Would You Eat an Insect to Save the Planet? August 27, 2014

In my last two blog posts I discussed eating a diet more closely attuned to vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. In the U.S., where fruits and veggies are plentiful (unless you live in an urban food desert, of course), it’s easy to live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, what are people to do in places where droughts, expensive fertilizers and lack of viable seeds make growing their foods a challenge? How can they obtain enough protein for their family members when raising livestock is a privilege of the more affluent?

If the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its way, those people will eat more insects. And perhaps we in the U.S. will follow suit?

In 2013, the FAO published a report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”. In the report they estimate that at least two billion people worldwide make insects part of their regular diet. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is practiced from Australia to Africa to Asia, but tends to skip places like Europe and North America, aside from novelty snack items like cricket lollipops. Are we missing out on a diverse and tasty source of protein? The report notes that 1,900 different kinds of insects have been documented as being edible, from caterpillars to grasshoppers to flies and ants.

The FAO wants more people to eat more insects for a variety of reasons, but the underlying reason is this – the population continues to grow and unless we find new ways to feed people, more and more people will go hungry. Eating insects is a way to fill those hunger gaps. Insects are an inexpensive source of protein that doesn’t come with the high cholesterol, fats and other harmful substances that meat may have. If insects were grown on farms like other livestock, the environmental impacts would be much lower than those animals. The greenhouse gas emissions from insect rearing are lower, the waste generated is less damaging, the inputs needed to feed the insects are much fewer, and they can be raised on a much smaller scale than animals like cows, thus reducing the amount of land converted.

Yet how can we get past the “gross factor”? If eating insects is to take off in any way in the developed world, that is a significant hurdle to jump. Insects are viewed as creepy and dirty. They are a pest of our foods, not a food themselves. The report does address what they call the “disgust factor” and ways to overcome it. They believe that the opposition to eating insects stems in large part from the western view that eating insects is a desperate act of the very hungry, not a conscious decision of people to eat well. They note that arthropods like lobster and shrimp were once seen as “poor man’s food” in the West, but now are sought after. I’d like to point out that spiders are arthropods… so really, are we that far away from eating insects if we eat relatives of spiders?

I ate a couple meal worms once in a chili. I don’t think I chewed them, and I tried not to think too hard about what they were as they went down. It was a novelty act; something done so I could say I did it. Would I eat insects on a regular basis, given that there are so many other choices of things to eat? I’m not sure. I appreciate the fact that they are more environmentally-friendly than other sources of protein. I like that they are lower on the food chain, so they are healthier for me and don’t raise the moral guilt issues as much as I get from eating fish. But I think they would have to be highly disguised in order for me to eat them with any enjoyment. For instance, there is a product called cricket flour, made from ground up crickets. If that was added to a brownie, that might be ok, but could I eat a fried cricket, legs and all, doubtful!

If you’ve eaten insects and enjoyed it, let us know. What was it and how was it prepared? Were you on vacation overseas or somewhere in the U.S.? I’m curious to know your impressions. Thanks!

To read the full FAO report, go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm.

 

Wine for the Conservation Curious July 16, 2014

I am a big fan of wine – reds in the winter (Malbec and Cab Sauv. being my favs), whites in the summer (Pinot Gris. and Sauv. Blanc preferred). I like craft beer too but drinking more than a couple of those can leave me feeling so heavy and full. Wines are a much lighter feeling, more easily drinkable alternative and they go better with a nice meal. Sometimes I wonder though about the environmental impacts of drinking wine. Am I contributing to some horrible habitat impacts when I down a glass of the alcoholic grape juice?

So I decided to do a little digging that will clue me in and perhaps educate you as well…

Wine Spectator magazine had some helpful information that I have summarized here:

There are two types of organic listings on wine bottles. Wines can be made from certified organically grown grapes, avoiding any synthetic additives, or, to take it a step further, “organic” wines are made from organically grown grapes, and are also made without any added sulfites (though naturally occurring sulfites will still be present).
The term “biodynamic” is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. A biodynamic wine means that the grapes are farmed biodynamically, and that the winemaker did not make the wine with any common manipulations such as yeast additions or acidity adjustments. A wine “made from biodynamic grapes” means that a vintner used biodynamically grown grapes, but followed a less strict list of rules in winemaking.

“Sustainability” refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.

Got that? You may also see the term “natural” on a bottle of wine but that’s about as helpful as seeing it on a box of crackers or a tube of toothpaste. The term “natural” is unregulated so it lacks any meaning. Sure, lead is natural but I certainly don’t want it in any product I ingest or put on my body. So don’t fall for the greenwashing there.

I haven’t noticed a large number of organic or biodynamic wines in the local liquor store, but there does seem to be an emerging niche for them. Just because a wine comes from organic grapes doesn’t necessarily mean that is environment-neutral (the vineyard could have been placed on prime habitat for wildlife or the wine was shipped a thousand miles via aircraft to get to your door) but it can be a better alternative than one made from traditionally-grown grapes. According to an article in Slate, the best bet to be environmentally-friendly when drinking wine is to avoid purchasing any wine in a bottle that had to be flown to get where you live. You would think that would make it quite difficult to enjoy a wide variety of wines if you live on the east coast of the U.S. but that’s actually not true. Most international wines are shipped via container ship, so it’s better to purchase a bottle from Europe than it is to buy one from California, where it would have been shipped, most likely, via airplane or truck – both of which have higher emissions and greater carbon footprint. That’s excellent news for Bordeaux lovers!

Another way to balance your wine consumption with your environmental footprint is to purchase wine in bulk… and yes, I mean via the box. Boxed wine doesn’t have the heavy glass bottle that contributes to more carbon emissions. The box itself may be recycled in some areas. You get more wine for your buck so you don’t have to drive to the store as often. The wine stays fresher much longer so there’s less chance of waste. And nowadays the wine in those boxes can be just as high quality as many bottled wines. What’s not to like?

Now that I’ve given you plenty of reasons to enjoy some wine, why not grab a box of biodynamically produced wine, call some friends over, and enjoy?! Can I come too?

 

3D Printers – Will They Help Save the Planet? June 5, 2014

3DPizza_inhabitat
(Photo: Inhabitat.com)

I am fascinated by the idea of 3D printing. I read about it frequently in the online press and see it in action on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” I have seen articles about 3D printed pizza, human tissues, works of art and plastic children’s toys. It seems straight out of a science fiction novel or episode of Star Trek, but 3D printing is a reality today that is poised to become more mainstream over the next few years to a decade.

What is 3D printing and how does it work? According to 3DPrinting.com, it is “a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.” Each 3D printer has a 3D modeling program that takes the digital design and turns it into a real-life object. The applications for 3D printing are nearly limitless. 3D printed objects can fit into the realms of architecture, healthcare, entertainment, manufacturing and so much more.

Of particular interest to me are the conservation and sustainability aspects of 3D printing. According to an article on The Guardian’s website on March 21 by Chat Reynders, 3D printing will lead to great fuel and material waste reductions, not to mention cost savings. In the manufacturing process, typically numerous prototypes are created and shipped overseas before a final product is developed. That takes a lot of time and resources. With 3D printing the printer is usually able to create a perfect final product the first time around, cutting down on not only shipping fuel costs but also reducing material waste, which might otherwise end up in a landfill. Items will be able to be designed and printed closer to the markets that want them, fueling local economies and reducing green house gas emissions.

However, digging deeper I found a study done by researchers at UC Berkeley (http://sustainabilityworkshop.autodesk.com/blog/environmental-impacts-3d-printing) to compare the electricity and material waste generated by two types of 3D printers and traditional manufacturing processes. What they found differed a bit from what was written in The Guardian article. They looked at an “FDM” machine (fused deposition modeling), which is like a 3D version of a hot glue gun, and an inkjet 3D printer, that uses layers of polymeric ink to create objects. The FDM machine proved to be more environmentally-friendly than traditional manufacturing, yet the ink jet printer wasted up to 40% of its ink during printing. However, it all depends on how often the machines are used and if they are left on all day when not in use. The electricity waste of keeping these printers on makes them more environmentally-degrading than traditional manufacturing processes. So in order to maximize the environmental benefits of 3D printing is to use electricity sourced from alternative energy sources like wind and solar, and to maximize efficiencies in the use of the printers.

What about the fact that most 3D printers in use right now use plastic… isn’t plastic bad for the environment? It is true that 3D printers melt plastic down and form it into new shapes. Melting plastic creates fumes that are harmful to people if inhaled. There are greener alternatives, including bio-plastics and wood pulp, and these technologies will be used more often as 3D printing takes off.

3D printing can be a reality for just about anyone. A printer can be purchased for as little as $250. Maybe I’ll pick one up and start printing out some thin crust pizzas. Anyone up for dinner?!

 

Trees do so Much April 9, 2014

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:15 PM
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Trees are terrific! Can anyone argue with that? Well, I guess I should add a caveat to my statement, “MOST trees are terrific!” There are invasive tree species out there that are the bane of many people’s existence, including mine, like Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) and Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), to name just a few. And some trees are more terrific than others. Trees native to your specific area are generally better than non-natives, although if you live in an urban area you may need some non-invasive, non-native trees to withstand road salt, the urban heat island effect and the other tough growing conditions found in urban areas. Trees like Goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata), Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulate) and Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrate) will grow well under tough conditions, yet not grow uncontrollably like an invasive.

Spring is a great time to plant trees, but you need to make sure you’re planting them in the proper site, with the proper techniques. Check out the TreeVitalize program website to learn all about proper tree selection, siting, installation and maintenance – http://www.treevitalize.net. Plus, if you live in certain parts of Pennsylvania you can download a coupon to save $15 off the purchase of a tree at participating nurseries. Municipalities and non-profits can even apply for grants to help defray costs on bulk tree plantings.

redbud_paul wray
(Photo of Eastern Redbud by Paul Wray, Iowa State U., http://www.forestryimages.org)

I live in a city center, surrounded by a lot of pavement. In such situations adding tree canopy cover is essential. Trees provide us with cleaner air and cleaner water, shade to lower heating bills and make sitting outside on a hot day more enjoyable, and aesthetic beauty. There was already a Japanese maple in my backyard when I purchased my home, but I added a native Eastern redbud tree too. It has grown a lot over the last three years, even given the poor quality city “soil” and is just plain beautiful in the spring with its pinkish-purple flowers. The flowering dogwood in front of my house provides food for the squirrels (they love to eat the fruits, sometimes to my chagrin) and blocks some prying eyes from being able to look into my living room window. Trees do so much for us!

 

REPOST: Have a Conservation Christmas December 9, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 9:53 AM
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A month or two ago I was asked to submit blogs to the ConserveLand page (http://conserveland.wordpress.com) so that’s where most of my original posts will go from now on, but I will continue to update this as well, especially with reprints from the other blog site.  Enjoy!

As I perused the aisles of clothing, accessories, home goods and gadgets at a local department store, searching for Christmas gifts, I got an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.  I wasn’t surprised; it usually happens this time of year.  Yes, part of it is just the thought of my next credit card statement, but it’s more than that.  Every November and December (I am a late present buyer) I am hit with thoughts about consumerism.  As a conservationist, the typical American buy, buy, buy mentality runs counter to many of my beliefs.  Shouldn’t we minimize our possessions to help protect the planet? After all, Americans consume nearly 25 percent of all the world’s resources even though we only make up 5 percent of the population.

Yet we are constantly bombarded with messaging telling us that the only way to help get out of this horrible economic slump is to buy, buy, buy.  The federal government gives us tax refunds with the hope that we won’t save it; they want us to spend it all.  I want to do my part to help the economy turn around, but I don’t want to add environmental woes in the process.  Is there a way to have a holiday where you can still give to your loved ones while not creating more useless junk that will end up in a landfill a couple years down the road?

There are many ways, both large and small, to make your holiday season more environmentally-friendly.  Of course the simplest way would be to avoid buying “stuff.”  Instead, you could give a donation to your favorite charity.  Many offer gift donations where you can name the recipient and they receive a real or electronic card of thanks.  Because of the bad economy, non-profits are having an even harder time raising money this year, so these gift donations will help them out, make you feel good, and recognize someone special in your life.  I am giving gift donations to my family members, even though we had agreed to a no gift Christmas this year, because I can say, “It’s not a gift for you; it’s a gift for the kid in the middle east who will get a polio vaccination,” or something like that.  Christmas gifts that do good – I like it!

If you do buy “stuff,” there are ways to make your shopping greener.  Try to buy everything in one trip so you cut down on gas emissions (and save $ on fuel costs).  When you head out to the store, bring reusable bags with you.  Or better yet, stay home and shop online.  If you can purchase most gifts through one retailer and have them shipped together in one box, all the better.  Buying through a local retailer will cut down on vehicle miles driven and spent fuel.  Think globally, buy locally, as they say.

Once you have those gifts at home, how will you wrap them? Well, if you’re a newspaper reader, why not use the old papers, especially the comics?  Or if you’re especially crafty, use some old papers (junk mail, old college term papers, etc.) and use stamps or colored pencils to decorate the wrapping yourself.  Sure that takes a little more time, but it’s a unique concept that your loved ones will appreciate.  I’ll admit that I do use regular wrapping paper for some gifts, when I’m feeling lazy or in a hurry, but when possible I reuse it or recycle it.  No one is 100 percent perfect, but any little steps we can take will lead to a better tomorrow.  And speaking of a better option, gift bags, especially those made from post-consumer recycled content are a good option because they can be reused over and over again. I re-gift my gift bags for holidays throughout the year.  Better yet, why not buy a reusable bag from your favorite store or conservation non-profit and stick the gift in it? That way they’re getting two gifts for the price of one and will think of you anytime they’re out grocery shopping with their bag.

The holidays are a time to remember our loved ones, but we can remember them in ways that don’t involved spending hundreds of dollars on things they don’t really need.  What most people want is to spend time with the people they care about, to eat some yummy food and to feel loved and appreciated.  It’s unfortunate that many now judge how much they’re loved by the size or abundance of the presents they receive.  We in this country have so much already, when compared with most of the world, that we need to get back to basics.  If you are going to go out and buy presents, take a few small steps to make this a conservation Christmas for you and your loved ones.  Happy holidays!

 

Soon to be “Everyday Energy” June 21, 2010

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 3:59 PM
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I understand why things like wind, solar and biofuels are deemed “alternative energies”; they are seen as alternatives to our traditional coal, oil and natural gas-generated energy sources.  However, I don’t like thinking about them as alternative energies because it makes them seem somewhat fringe, somewhat untested, somewhat different (aka. weird).  Opponents of these energy sources like to use that negative connotation to get more people on their side.  They say that only those really left-wing tree-hugging hippies support “alternative energy.”  Patriotic conservatives support all the jobs that are created through the old standbys of coal, oil and natural gas.  Just think about the use of “alternative” when it comes to a person’s lifestyle: goths, punks, homosexuals, transgender people, etc.  Any person that falls into the “alternative” category may be looked down upon by the more conservative folks out there.  Certainly that is not my idea of a good and just America.  I’d like to think we’re all equal in the grand scheme of things.

But all energy sources are not created equal.  The so-called “alternative energy” sources have their limitations, it’s true.  The sun is not out 24-7; wind is not constantly blowing at gale-force speeds; biofuels require large tracts of land to be grown.  But when taken as a whole, these sources of energy provide much more for us than they take away, as opposed to the old fashioned ways of getting energy.  Coal is dirty when burned, it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to extract (think of this year’s Massey coal mine disaster), and mining leaves the land and water scarred and polluted for generations.  Natural gas burns cleaner but is also potentially dangerous to extract (think of the gas rigs that recently blew out in WV and PA), the well pads fragment forest land, and leaking wells can contaminate groundwater.  Oil is also difficult and dangerous to extract (don’t think I have to remind you about what’s happening in the Gulf right now, thanks to B.P.), can pollute the environment when leaks occur, and in the case of tar sands in Canada (Google this… it really is a terrible form of resource extraction!) it can scar landscapes beyond recognition.  Our “business as usual” model for energy creation needs to change.

What I propose is that instead of calling solar, wind, biofuels and others “alternative energies,” why not refer to them as our future’s “everyday energy” or “advanced energies” or something more positive?  After all, one day they won’t be alternative any more. We will run out of coal, oil and gas at some point, and then what?  Solar, wind and other technologies we haven’t even thought of yet will become our everyday energy sources.  Why not start now? 

On a related note, I would like to bring up the Murkowski resolution that (thankfully) failed to pass in the House two weeks ago.  What Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) had hoped to do with her resolution was to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from being able to regulate carbon as a pollution.  Right now large factories, automobiles and power plants are putting out carbon dioxide, a known green house gas.  The Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether or not carbon dioxide is hazardous to human health and welfare, which they did, and now they are trying to take action.  The EPA is working with automobile manufacturers to raise the minimum fuel standard so that our cars and trucks run more fuel efficiently (ie. saving us money at the pump and keeping the air a bit cleaner for our health).  If the Murkowski resolution had passed, the EPA would not have been able to raise those fuel standards (which the auto industry was supporting). 

The supporters of the resolution claimed that the EPA would cripple the economy if they regulate carbon but where do they come up with that?  When the ozone hole was discovered, things like CFCs were banned and the refrigeration and AC industries are doing just fine.  When it was discovered that DDT was killing bald eagles and other animals and it was banned, the pesticide industry didn’t go belly-up.  When lead was removed from gasoline because its harmful to the health of children, the gasoline industry didn’t falter.  So why should regulating carbon be any different?  If people can show me solid science-based data to prove me wrong, I welcome it.  But those opposed to carbon regulation aren’t known to use and support a lot of science, so I doubt anything will come my way in support of their stance.  Again, I’d be happy to be proved wrong.