For the Conservation Curious

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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?!

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Sustainability Makes Sense for All March 12, 2014

Sometimes I am amazed by how controversial a seemingly harmless word can be to certain people. I understand why some people don’t like the terms “climate change” and “global warming” – they have become highly politicized and the actual events behind the terminology threatened people’s comfortable way of life. Even I have become annoyed by the abuse and misuse of those terms in the media. But I cannot fathom why the term “sustainability” has such a negative connotation in various quarters of the population. Lately I have had to defend the importance of this term, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I first came across the negative perception of sustainability in reference to the Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is itself a non-binding, voluntary action plan of the United Nations in regard to sustainable development. However, groups of right-wing and libertarian organizations have used Agenda 21 as an example of the UN’s desire to take over the world. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing Agenda 21 and their party has stated that “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Numerous states have passed (or are drafting) legislation barring government participation in the Agenda. The Tea Party calls Agenda 21 a conspiracy by the UN to deprive people of their property rights.

That’s a lot to put on the imaginary shoulders of a non-binding, voluntary document!

I have only read portions of Agenda 21 so I’m not going to defend the document here. What I will do is discuss why even if someone is opposed to the tenets of that document they can and should support sustainability. A compilation of the definitions for “sustainable” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary equate to something that can be used now but still be around for future generations to enjoy. When we practice sustainability we are ensuring that our future generations are not harmed by our actions of today. To me, that seems like a non-partisan ideal.

Through my job I promote sustainable landscape design and management for anyone who deals with land – municipalities, schools, homeowners, business owners, etc. The goal of the program is to show people how they can save money and improve human health and quality of life by rethinking how they deal with the natural world. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate saving money. And you don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate better health. Anyone can find benefits from sustainability.

I do believe that there is a limit to growth. If we sacrifice the environment and natural resources for ever-increasing economic growth we will reach a point where it all crashes. I don’t believe anyone would want that or have something to gain from it. So if we start to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives we can continue to have enjoyable experiences without dooming future generations. And in the end we may even save some money to put toward things we’ll really enjoy (like vacations and better benefits for employees) while enhancing the aesthetics of our communities.

So when you think of the term sustainability, think of a town where kids walk to school, getting enough exercise to cut the obesity rate dramatically: a town where small businesses thrive, where tree-lined streets clean our air and shade us during the hot summers. A sustainable community is one that will survive the ups and downs of the market, find new ways to compete in the global marketplace and attract new residents because of its desirable homes and businesses. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in!

 

Nature is Your Valentine February 14, 2014

This week’s blog is inspired by a quote from Thomas Jefferson. The past president once said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” I think this is very appropriate for today’s date – Valentine’s Day. On this love it or hate it holiday, many people are thinking about something they want – love. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, love plays a very important role in your life.

Valentine’s Day centers on romantic love, but I want to focus this blog post on a different form of love. I want to write about a love of nature. Think about all that nature provides for us: the oxygen we breathe, the clean (we hope) water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials for the products we buy and use on a daily basis. Without a healthy, productive natural world we would be limited severely in what we consume and how we thrive. Yet how many people think about nature and say to themselves, “I love nature?” Perhaps more people should!

Jefferson said we must be willing to do something we’ve never done before in order to get what we want. If we want nature to love us, by providing us with abundant natural resources and healthy environments that improve human health, we need to do something new. We need to pay more attention to nature, listen to what it is saying to us, and treat it with more respect. Just as you would treat your significant other, nature deserves the best too.

What does that mean? Nature is talking to us, even though it doesn’t have a voice. It tries to converse with us through freak weather events, species’ extinctions and temperature extremes. If only we would be more open to listening. So on this Valentine’s Day, instead of buying a dozen pesticide covered, imported roses or a box of corn syrup-filled candies, make a point to open your ears and eyes to nature. It is a Valentine that is worthy of your love, and one who will return it ten-fold to you if you’re willing to try something “you’ve never done” before.

 

Conservation Wish List for 2014 January 2, 2014

It’s 2014, which means it’s time to create a list of things I hope to see happen (or not happen) in the coming year. I like to think about my sustainability and natural resource conservation dream list… if the sky’s the limit, what could we see take place in 2014? Here are some of my desires, in no particular order…

The Sustainable PA Program will be rolled out to the public and embraced by municipalities across the Commonwealth

New York will keep its moratorium on fracking

Orcas can no longer be held in captivity

Genetically modified foods will have to be labeled if they are sold in the U.S.

More people will embrace the use of native plants in their gardens and yards

Dolphins and whales would not be killed for food or “research”

No new invasive species will enter the country

More municipalities will embrace “green” storm water management strategies like porous pavement, rain gardens and bioswales

Pennsylvania gets a new governor

More climate change deniers are shown the light and start spreading the word about its dangers

When someone abuses an animal they get more than a slap on the wrist

More people decide to live a vegetarian lifestyle or at least cut way down on their meat consumption

Do you have any conservation-related hopes for 2014? If so, let us know about them. Thanks!

 

New Year’s Resolutions for the Environment January 3, 2011

One of my new year’s resolutions is to blog more often, but I suspect that just about every blogger out there promises to do the same. I got my stats from WordPress for 2010 – over 1,100 views. Not too shabby for someone who writes 1-2 times a month if lucky, but I’m sure I can do better than that. Posting once a week might be a pipe dream, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

New year’s resolutions are always easy to keep initially; much harder to do so long term.  But some resolutions are so important that every effort should be made to make sure they come true.  If the environment could make a few resolutions for 2011, what would they be?  Taking some liberties and pretending to be Mother Earth for a few moments, here are the top five new year’s resolutions for the environment this year:

5.) Let Fall stick around a little longer; none of this jumping from Summer straight to Winter!

4.) Send out an insect plague to devour all the Japanese knotweed and Kudzu in the U.S.

3.) Put out some extra wind near turbines to keep that alternative energy flowing.

2.) Improve rainforest habitat so that a few species can come back from the brink of extinction.

1.) Show more clear-cut signs that the climate is indeed warming so that deniers have nothing to say.

The environment, unfortunately, cannot speak for itself and cannot purposefully make any of these resolutions come true.  But hopefully through the actions of concerned and curious conservationists, some of these objectives can be reached.

 

The Joys (and Squeamish Moments) of Organics September 30, 2010

Organic food is really taking off.  Of the 3 groceries stores I frequent, 2 out of 3 have a pretty good selection of organic produce, not to mention organic processed foods.  Sometimes the sticker shock of organic foods has the penny pincher in me steering towards the traditionally grown foods, but price differences seem to be narrowing as demand grows.  Let’s hope that trend continues!

For those of you not intimately acquainted with organics and wondering what all the fuss is about, here is a quick primer:  Organics are those veggies, fruits, meats and other foods grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, fertilizers and hormones.  Instead of bombarding insect pests with potentially toxic and environmentally-harmful chemicals, organic farmers use a variety of tactics like predator insects, natural herbicides and hand weeding to keep their produce healthy.  When organic foods reach your store they are safer to eat and have had less of a negative impact on the nature world (usually, and I’ll get to that in a minute).

Not everything that I eat is organic… again, it’s a thrift thing… but I made a giant leap forward this year when I joined a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture.  CSAs are popping up all over the country as people learn the benefits of eating local.  Eating local cuts down on the fossil fuel emissions created by trucking produce from California to Maine and it helps grow local economies.  The CSA I joined also happens to be an organic farm – a double whammy of goodness for the environment!  Every week I drive roughly 2 miles to the drop-off point where I pick up a box full of produce.  You never know what you’re going to get until you open up the box. Could it be a watermelon? Heirloom tomatoes? Yummy orange peppers (yes, that is the real name of them!)? You name it, at some point they send it!  I get to experience vegetables that the local chain grocery stores would never stock, so I expand my palate and get to try cool new recipes.

Once a month they open up their farm to all the CSA members.  You can go pick herbs and flowers, stock up on leftover produce and eat at their organic restaurant (the mint green tea is a must!).  For a city dweller like me, these trips are like a little vacation.  Joining a CSA is like putting your money in a bank with a high interest rate and seeing the balance increase at a rapid rate – my yearly fee is helping keep this farm in business. How neat is that?

But I digress.  This local, organic produce is usually so tasty (I’ve never liked a tomato so much until having their heirloom grape tomatoes!) but occasionally I am given a squeamish moment… Given that no toxic herbicides are used, there are rare moments when little critters hitch a ride in my produce bag.  Oh, there’s a daddy long-legger! Hello, you little caterpillar in my lettuce! Those incidents are few and far between and are easily fixed by shaking the bag out in my backyard. You’re free, little ones! This week, however, was a test of my patience with insects.  The farm had sent a warning: “Our lettuce has been over-run with aphids and there is no organic means of controlling them. We are deciding whether or not to distribute future batches of the lettuce, but for this week, please be understanding. Here’s how you can deal with them…” 

I was not around to pick up my box of produce, so my significant other did so, leaving the bag on the counter as is usual.  I forgot to mention the aphids to him so when I returned later that night they were crawling all over the bag, and probably on my kitchen counter too.  Aphids are tiny insects and cause no harm to people, but still, who wants insects crawling (and some, flying) all over their kitchen? Not me! I grabbed that huge head of lettuce (seriously, this farm sends me the biggest lettuces I have ever seen!), stuck it in a big pot of soapy water, and drowned those little guys.  Did I feel a twinge of guilt? Honestly, yes. I’m the kind of person who looks where she’s walking so she doesn’t intentionally step on ants.  But what else was I to do? That’s what the farm recommended.  The aphids in the bag? Well, they went in my outdoor trash can.  Perhaps they’ll find some nice rotting veggies to munch on at the landfill, perpetuating their circle of life?

The moral of my story? I love eating organic and will continue to do so, but now I’m a little more aware of my surroundings. I know not to just reach my hand in the produce bag without taking a careful look at what’s in there.  We can’t be perfect all the time – I’m going to drown an occasional aphid (and squish those centipedes that continue to plague my house) but on the whole my actions are helping to protect the insects, animals and plants of the world, not to mention keeping our waterways cleaner.  If you can eat organic, do so, but even more important is to eat locally.  I mentioned earlier that organic foods are great, but if they’re trucked all the way across the country to get to your plate, the negatives might outweigh the benefits.  If you can find a local organic farm, shop there! The next best thing is any local farm stand, followed by a local grocery store that stocks some local produce.  The fewer miles your food has to travel, the better. 

Bon appetit!