December 31, 2009

It's for the birds

How did I miss this VERY impressive and thorough first State of the Birds report when it came out in March from a consortium of trusted sources? 

No matter what your political leanings, you should be able to look objectively at this information from Cornell's well-respected Lab of Ornithology, US Fish and Wildlfe Service, U.S. Geological Survey, North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee, American Bird Conservancy, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Klamath Bird Observatory, National Audubon Society, and The Nature Conservancy.

The most comprehensive bird census ever conducted, it found that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are either endangered, threatened, or in significant decline. "The State of the Birds" collected data from thousands of professional and citizen scientists spanning 40 years. It blames habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and climate change for the population drops, which are worst among U.S. grassland birds (40 percent), sea birds (39 percent) and virtually all birds in Hawaii, where 71 species are extinct.

It would have been even more dire without Rachel Carson. Her campaign to ban DDT was successful in reducing significant bird mortality due to the thinning and breakage of eggshells. Peregrine Falcons, Brown Pelicans, and Bald Eagles have really rebounded.

However, this report states that in the U.S., approximately five billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually. A pesticide poisoning database documents more than 2,500 incidents, including 113 pesticides implicated in the deaths of more than 400,000 birds. Carbofuran, one of the few insecticides effective on soybean aphids, has been responsible for more than 20% of all incidents, and the deaths of more than 40,000 birds. Many of the pesticides highly toxic to birds have been eliminated from use in the U.S., but since they're used legally in Latin America, migratory birds are exposed to them during the winter.

(This includes a coal plant alert!) Mercury deposits in forests and on surface waters (as in the Chesapeake Bay and James River) from burning coal becomes concentrated in foods eaten by fish-eating birds and forest songbirds. Industrial chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, once linked to many poisonings, have been regulated and largely cleaned up, but new chemicals such as PBDE fire-retardants are emerging as contaminants that accumulate in plants and wildlife, with unknown effects on birds and humans.

The report "reveals troubling declines of bird populations during the past 40 years—a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems. At the same time, we see heartening evidence that strategic land management and conservation action can reverse declines of birds. This report calls attention to the collective efforts needed to protect nature’s resources for the benefit of people and wildlife. . . .

We have lost more than half of our nation’s original wetlands, 98% of our tallgrass prairie, and virtually all virgin forests east of the Rockies. Since the birth of our nation, four American bird species have gone extinct, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. At least 10 more species are possibly extinct.. . .

The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. An additional 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations. . . .

Other amazing facts from the report:
  • Only about 2% of the tallgrass prairie that existed in the early 1800s still remains. 
  • Development increased from 15 million to 60 million acres during 1945–2002 and is still increasing exponentially.
  • Decades of unnatural fire suppression have created fuel for more intense fires, dramatically increasing the acreage burned in recent years (e.g., 9.8 million acres burned in 2006). Historically, natural fires burned large areas of some forest types annually, but were less intense. These fires were essential for the health of forests and their wildlife.
  • The U.S. harvests 21.2 billion cubic feet of timber from forests annually. Harvest increased by 40% during 1950–1980, but has declined since 1985.
  • More than half of all timber comes from southeastern forestlands, 87% of which are privately owned. Only a small portion of timber originates from federal lands, but important forest types such old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska remain available for logging.

EPA Proposes Pesticide Crackdown


In response to legal petitions filed by 22 environmental groups and 14 states, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a rule requiring manufacturers of "chemicals of concern" to publicly disclose all the ingredients in their poisonous products. [see my past postings on pesticides and chemicals]

Did you know that 350 "inert" pesticide ingredients (defined as anything that doesn't kill or control a pest) are toxic, carcinogenic, flammable, or otherwise dangerous? But current law only requires that ingredients classified as "active" be listed on product labels. I recently learned that an inert ingredient in Roundup is not-too-kind to some critters.

According to the official EPA news release,  the EPA "announced a series of actions on four chemicals raising serious health or environmental concerns, including phthalates. For the first time, EPA intends to establish a “Chemicals of Concern” list and is beginning a process that may lead to regulations requiring significant risk reduction measures to protect human health and the environment. The agency’s actions represent its determination to use its authority under the existing Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to the fullest extent possible, recognizing EPA’s strong belief that the 1976 law is both outdated and in need of reform.

In addition to phthalates, the chemicals EPA is addressing today are short-chain chlorinated paraffins, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA. These chemicals are used in the manufacture of a wide array of products and have raised a range of health and environmental concerns.

EPA also recently announced that three U.S. companies agreed to phase out DecaBDE, a widely used fire retardant chemical that may potentially cause cancer and may impact brain function. . . .

When TSCA was passed in 1976, there were 60,000 chemicals on the inventory of existing chemicals. Since that time, EPA has only successfully restricted or banned five existing chemicals and has only required testing on another two hundred existing chemicals. An additional 20,000 chemicals have entered the marketplace for a total of more than 80,000 chemicals on the TSCA inventory.

 This is the first time EPA has used TSCA’s authority to list chemicals that “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment.” The decision to list the chemicals further signals this administration’s commitment to aggressively use the tools at its disposal under TSCA. Inclusion on the list publicly signals EPA’s strong concern about the risks that those chemicals pose and the agency’s intention to manage those risks. Once listed, chemical companies can provide information to the agency if they want to demonstrate that their chemical does not pose an unreasonable risk.

More information on EPA’s legislative reform principles and a fact sheet on the complete set of actions on the four chemicals: http://www.epa.gov/oppt/existingchemicals  

WILL IT REALLY HAPPEN? Pesticide manufacturers and their lobbyists will likely challenge this rule. Will money talk? Stay tuned.
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WHAT CAN YOU DO? Virginia Cooperative Extension has a dandy new Pest Management Guide: Home Grounds and Animals, 2010 . It has info on turf insects and diseases, weeds, and tree and shrub suggestions.

There's also a cool website from RISE, which stands for Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, that gives you a lot of advice on using pesticides responsibly. 

December 29, 2009

Food labels still confusing?

You are not alone if "Healthy" choices on labels don't help you give your family healthier meals.

The Fooducate blog is a dandy source of info on food. It gives us 7 Suggested Label Improvements:

1. Show REAL serving size. NOT those ridiculously childsize ones. Who eats just 15 potato chips at a time or 3 Oreos? Betcha the manufacturers who minimize the servings to toddler size portions so that the nutrition facts per serving won’t seem too bad (calories, sugar, etc…) eat or drink more than their own suggested servings.

2. How much ADDED sugar that provides empty calories? The nutrition label states the amount of total sugar in a serving, but it does not indicate whether the sugar is added to the food, occurs naturally, or both. Unfortunately, today consumers can only guess how much sugar has been added to a product.

3. Daily Values for Protein and Sugar. These numbers don’t appear on nutrition labels today and consumers can only guess if 5 grams of protein are a lot or a little. People don’t know what amount of sugar is an acceptable daily intake either.

4. Zero should be zero. Did you know that if a product contains trans fat, but less than 0.5 grams per serving, it can legally be labeled as 0 gram of trans fat?

5. How much Caffeine? Most folks are often surprised to discover caffeine in soft drinks, cakes, and other snack items. Some energy drinks contain ridiculously high amounts. Physicians have asked the FDA to require caffeine labeling on energy drinks.

6. Allow rBGH-free labels even though most milk qualifies. rBGH / rBST is a hormone injected into cows to increase their milk output.

7. Label Booze. At least provide serving size and calories.

Our throwaway economy . . .

Is most evident in our trashcans. Throwaway products were first conceived following World War II as a convenience and a way of creating jobs. 

However, there may not be enough readily accessible lead, tin, copper, iron ore, or bauxite to sustain the throwaway economy beyond another generation or two. Assuming an annual 2 percent growth in extraction, a U.S. Geological Survey shows the world has 17 years of reserves remaining for lead, 19 years for tin, 25 years for copper, 54 years for iron ore, and 68 years for bauxite.

For a long time, we have been saying that the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s people, consumes a third or more of the earth’s resources. But China now consumes more basic resources than the United States. If each person in China continues to consume paper at the current American rate, China’s 1.46 billion people will consume more paper by 2030 than the world produces today. That should be a wake-up call to all of us to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

December 28, 2009

Better food labels on the way

Want to improve yourself and your planet in 2010? Seeking to reduce your energy costs and eat healthier this year? Those are lofty goals—especially when food labels are not yet fool-proof. Fruit Loops a “Smart Choice”—with 41 percent sugar? Most nutritionists think not, and the Food and Drug Administration is weighing in. To simplify the system and deal with the nation’s obesity epidemic, the agency is trying to develop nutritional criteria that manufacturers must meet before slapping labels on boxes. We may get one simple front-label on our foods.

One possibility — The FDA is considering the food label used successfully in Australia and the UK. It’s a traffic light system with nutrition info that goes beyond calories. Little red dots on food items will be the “red lights” that alert consumers about high sugar and salt. The best foods, as locavores already know, are usually fresh veggies at our farmers’ markets.

December 7, 2009

The Innovative PLANTBOTTLE™" is on the way

"It's the real thing!" . . . or is it?

The Coca-Cola Company recently announced that Coke and Dasani water bottles will begin to arrive on store shelves in select markets in its innovative PlantBottle™ packaging. They call it the "first generation of PET plastic made partially from plants." The company has a goal of producing 2 billion of these special PET plastic bottles by the end of 2010, reducing their dependence on that non-renewable resource, petroleum..

They are already in use throughout Denmark. "A variety of products, including Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fresca and DASANI will be in Western Canada in the PlantBottle beginning in December and for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. And for select markets in the Western United States, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, PlantBottle packaging will be used for sparkling brands and DASANI in several sizes, starting in January. Future launches are being planned in other markets, including Brazil, Japan and Mexico and for China's Shanghai Expo in 2010."

"PlantBottle packaging is currently made through a process that turns sugar cane and molasses, a by-product of sugar production, into a key component for PET plastic. The sugar cane being used comes from predominantly rain-fed crops that were processed into ethanol, not refined sugar. Ultimately, the Company's goal is to use non-food, plant-based waste, such as wood chips or wheat stalks, to produce recyclable PET plastic bottles.


While the bio-based component can account for up to 30 percent of the resulting PET plastic in PlantBottle packaging, the percentage varies for bottles that also contain recycled PET. For example, Denmark uses recycled content in its PlantBottle packaging. The combined plant-based and recycled content makes up 65 percent of the material, with 50 percent coming from recycled material and 15 percent from plant-based material.

For the PlantBottle packaging in the United States and Canada, up to 30 percent of the content in the PET plastic comes from plants."

The news release states that they will be "100 percent recyclable," but I can't get my head around that claim. If they contain 30 percent sugar cane and molasses, how can they be recycled with traditional PET bottles? Would not that contaminate the end product?

A "2000 Watt" Solution?

Just how BRIGHT is our future?

There's a MAJOR energy solution to climate change taking place in in Zurich and other Swiss cities. In their "2000 watt" program, they aim to  reduce the amount of energy residents use by two-thirds and become a 2000-watt society.

How did they arrive at 2000 watts? By dividing all the energy being consumed on earth by the number of people on earth.  It works out to about 2,000 watts per person--roughly the energy it takes to keep twenty 100-watt light bulbs burning. The Swiss are much more energy efficient than Americans, who use 12,000 watts each. Europeans use about half that much--6000 watts on average. Africans and Bangladeshis use less than 700.

How close are the Swiss to their goal? Down to about 3500 watts. Not quite 2000 but a vast improvement with no loss of comfort. Swiss cities are investing serious public money in the 2000 watt vision. making trains and trams easier and cheaper than cars, and encouraging people to cycle or walk.

December 5, 2009

A Christmas "Wish List" for the Chesapeake Bay

If only the Chesapeake Bay could climb up onto Santa's lap.

On the top of the Bay's wish list would be the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act, recently introduced in Congress. It would create legally-binding pollution reduction mandates for Bay area states through a nutrient pollution trading program that would provide as much as $300 million a year to farmers who meet basic standards for reducing fertilizer runoff. Then there's the other stuff that runs off chicken and dairy farms.

But the Virginia Farm Bureau is the latest Scrooge opposing this bill, afraid that the regulations will be too expensive and put farmers out of business. Now I'm all for the farmers, but there is some accountability here. Agriculture is responsible for about half of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay.

Earlier Scrooges were the American Farm Bureau, the National Chicken Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Fertilizer Institute, and the Virginia Agribusiness Council.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (the Chesapeake's godmother who is watching out for her health and welfare) claims that the bill was carefully designed to do the opposite:
The "World Resources Institute, a think tank that specializes in market-based environmental programs, concludes that the bill would potentially double the amount of federal money available to farmers to pay for environmentally-friendly practices, such as planting trees along streams and building fences to keep cattle out of creeks. That would not only reduce runoff pollution into the Bay, but it would also create jobs and bolster the agricultural economy. . . Moreover, the bill would provide at least $96 million for technical assistance to farmers, and another $75 million in a grant program to fund pollution reduction strategies. There will also be opportunties for more in future federal Farm Bills (on top of the big increases that farmers received in the 2008 Farm Bill).

MAKING CHRISTMAS GREENer

Feeling guilty about the over consumption of “stuff” that we succumb to every Christmas shopping season? Can we use the words “sustainable” and “Christmas” in the same breath? One eye-opener that I read recently is that, by 2030, China will consume more paper than the world produces today if they follow the current American rate of consumption. Goodbye to the world’s forests.

Then there’s the swelling flow of garbage associated with a throwaway economy. Did you know that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, garbage haulers lift about 25 percent more trash into their trucks than usual? That’s a lot of packaging, wrapping paper, ribbons, and wasted food going into our holiday “wastelines.”

Green guilt be gone! No matter what you’re shopping for, ask yourself “Can I get it in green?” Not the color of the sweater—but whether it’s made from recycled or organic materials, or by fair trade workers.

Perhaps the recession will influence us to buy less this year. Give at least some green gifts. Here is some additional “food for thought” as you ponder your gift-giving habits.
All that glitters is not gold. Producing the average gold ring results in 20 tons of mine waste, obliterates the landscape, and uses a lot of water in areas where it’s becoming a scarce resource.

Did you know that Tiffany and Kmart have something in common? They are among the 60 jewelry retailers that now support the “No Dirty Gold” campaign for more responsible gold production. Although the No Dirty Gold campaign has been around since 2004, gold mining is the latest “bad boy” to join mountaintop removal coal mining, Hummers, and “blood diamonds” as companies take closer looks at their supply chains.

If gold jewelry is on your Christmas shopping list, see the retailers who are pursuing “cleaner” sources of precious metals at http://www.nodirtygold.org/. Last year, Wal-Mart launched a unique “traceable jewelry line,” called Love, Earth. Local stores confirmed that they carry some of the 32 gold and silver items: “There’s a batch number on each tag with links that lets you trace the jewelry from mine to market.”

Cyber mania — Began this past Cyber Monday and will continue throughout the Christmas shopping season. But stuff matters. Two recent reports by EPA’s Joshuah Stolaroff are turning “going green” on its head. Stolaroff's studies conclude that the stuff we buy and the packaging that comes with that stuff represent our biggest contribution to global warming. Even more than the electricity used by that stuff, or the amount of fuel our stuff burns on the highway! He shows that plastic and the paper in which our products are packaged account for 44 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions.

His conclusion: choosing to buy products made from recycled materials, repairing items rather than replacing, or choosing to rent what we don't need to buy can be some of the most important choices we make for the environment. Cell phones, appliances, and cars dismantled and remade by the same company that manufactured them? What a sustainable idea! You can see some amazing graphs and the report at http://www.epa.gov/oswer/docs/ghg_land_and_materials_management.pdf.

What can YOU do? Refrain from buying every gadget that comes along. Give at least some green gifts. Buy products made from recycled materials, repair items rather than replacing, or rent what you don't need to buy. If you want a holiday chuckle, ask the jewelry counter clerk for conflict-free jewelry.

Recycle your Christmas tree! Drop it off free of charge by January 31, 2010 at any of the three James City County Convenience Centers. The convenience centers are located at 107 Tewning Road, 1204 Jolly Pond Road, and 185 Industrial Boulevard (Hankins Industrial Park). For hours of operation, please visit http://www.jccegov.com/  or call the Solid Waste Division at 565-0971. Please remember to remove the tree stand and all decorations, including tinsel, before dropping it off.

Dirty electronics?

Congo Conflict minerals?

I’ve never thought about where the raw materials in cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, digital cameras, and video game systems came from. But the "Cyber Monday" marketing gimmick to induce consumers to buy more gadgets than we really need led me to information about the “no blood for gadgets” campaign. Remember “blood diamonds”? The same is now true for electronics and jewelry.

A recent 60 Minutes segment (with the Enough Project of the Center for American Progress) covered the trade in “conflict minerals” for our electronics and jewelry and how it finances the atrocities and sexual violence against civilians in Congo, Sudan, and Uganda. Militias and armies there are warring over the ores that produce tin, tungsten, and tantalum (the 3 Ts)—as well as gold.

Take a closer look at the raw materials for the global electronics industry:
• Tin (produced from cassiterite) – used inside your cell phone and all electronic products as a solder on circuit boards. The biggest use of tin worldwide is in electronic products. Congolese armed groups earn approximately $85 million per year from trade in tin.
• Tantalum (produced from “coltan”) – used to store electricity in capacitors in iPods, digital cameras, and cell phones. Sixty-five to 80 percent of the world’s tantalum is used in electronic products. Congolese armed groups earn an estimated $8 million per year from trading in tantalum.
• Tungsten (produced from wolframite) – used to make your cell phone or Blackberry vibrate. Tungsten is a growing source of income for armed groups in Congo, with armed groups currently earning approximately $2 million annually.
• Gold – used in jewelry and as a component in electronics. Extremely valuable and easy to smuggle, Congolese armed groups are earning between $44 million to $88 million per year from gold

What can YOU do? Not much at his point, except refraining from buying every gadget that comes along. The Enough Project is asking electronics companies to not turn a blind eye toward Congo’s conflicts and mineral trade. This will require them to change their procurement practices and demand that their suppliers provide proof of where their minerals are sourced from. It happened to the diamond industry, so it can happen here. None of the big electronics companies want to fuel these deadliest wars, but the bottom line rules. See http://www.enoughproject.org/  for more information.

Currently, electronics manufacturers do not have a system to trace the sources of their raw materials. That may change if the Conflict Minerals Trade Act of 2009, recently introduced by Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Washington), passes. This bill will also help raise awareness about the issue to both the public and policy makers. If passed, this bill would create a system of audits and import declarations that would distinguish those goods imported into the United States that contain conflict minerals. The resulting transparency would be an important step forward in helping break the links between the mineral trade and human rights violations.