September 12, 2010

Recycling in the big cities

As Dustin Hoffman was advised in The Graduate . . . "Plastics!"

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently signed legislation that will significantly expand the city’s recycling program to include all rigid plastic containers for recycling. Bring on the yogurt tubs, flower pots and medicine bottles! That may mean more than 8000 more pounds of plastics annually, in addition to plastic 1 and 2 that are already collected. The only catch is that it won't begin until a new recycling facility in Brooklyn is completed--probaby not until 2012.

MEANWHILE in Philadelphia,  I learned that the City of Brotherly Love now will accept all 1 through 7 plastics. The city's recycling rate used to be among the lowest for large cities, so this is laudable. In 2006, Philly households recycled only about 5.5 percent of their waste. That rate has risen to 16 percent as the city has added materials, moved to weekly collections, and switched to "single-stream" recycling, in which all items can be placed into one bin.

In 2009, the city hired RecycleBank, which operates a program that gives residents coupons and other rewards for recycling. They don't expect a huge increase in tonnage since these additional plastics are light--supposedly categories 3 to 7 amount to only 4 percent of the waste stream. In addition to Philly, RecycleBank is a nifty program that seems to be succeeding in Hartford, CT; Wilmington, DE; Chicago, IL; Atlanta, GA; Albuquerque, NM and Plano, TX.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city also rebid its recycling contract, getting more favorable rates. "It not only saves $68 a ton in landfill costs but also recoups $51.37 a ton for recyclables from Waste Management Inc., based in Houston." That savings will likely exceed $400,000.

Adding numbers 3 through 7 to the municipal recycling stream is a growing trend. Washington State expanded to recycling all plastics in 2008 when a local market for the commodity opened up. In the Philly region, some suburban towns expanded two years ago when the Allied Waste sorting facility in King of Prussia completed a $5 million upgrade. Even small township Haverford started recycling 1 through 7. The first year, the township increased its recycling by 400 tons and saved residents about $150,000 through lower tipping fees and higher payments for the recycled materials. Neighboring Radnor expanded to single-stream recycling and added all the plastics categories in February of 2010. Pottstown's nonprofit Recycling Services Inc. is still renowned among recycling addicts for the variety of materials it accepts, including waxed juice cartons and fishing line.

Across the Delaware River in N.J., Collingswood claims to be the only municipality in Camden County to recycle all plastics. Their hauler does not accept 3-and-up plastics. But borough residents raised such a ruckus that officials installed a special dumpster at a drop-off site. In the first five months, Collingswood collected seven tons of plastics. This year, they predict that the town will collect 25 to 30 tons, that would otherwise cost $2,000 to dispose in a landfill.

The higher-numbered plastics were always recyclable, but sorting was expensive and the commodity market was low. Now prices are rising, so more communities are recycling more plastics. Partly due to the extra categories now accepted in more cities, recycling of plastics rose 11 percent from 2007 to 2008, the last year for which nationwide statistics are available. The list of haulers accepting all numbers of plastics keeps expanding.

Still, environmentalists are not all gung-ho on increased plastics recycling. They worry it will lull consumers into complacency about all the packaging they buy. Their golden rule is now Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle as a Last Resort.

Another thorny problem is that many of the higher-number plastics are sent to China for further sorting and reuse. Transporting all that plastic raises concerns about the carbon footprint, plus the human-rights aspect of using cheap labor with minimal environmental protections.

When it comes to being reused, each has a different melting point. So contamination can cause a mess. So that's part of the motivation for a city to collect all the plastics. Then consumers don't need to make the distinctions.

No word yet on if or when Virginia residents can toss ALL plastics into our curbside bins.

Chesapeake Bay Cleanup or "Snow Job"?

Beware legislation in sheep's clothing. Or perhaps I should say, "don't let them pull the wool over your eyes."

But Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has done just that by endorsing a proposed bill called the Chesapeake Bay Reauthorization and Improvement Act. McDonnell calls this legislation “the right step forward to continue the fight to preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay.”

Improvement usually implies a change for the better, but many, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), are not supporting this bill. These well-informed folks say that the legislation would be a huge step backward in efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay because it does next to nothing to ensure that farmers achieve pollution reduction goals. Think about those cows chewing their cud while standing in a creek. Then remember what's coming out the other end of these bovines, and ultimately into the Chesapeake watershed.

CBF prefers the Chesapeake Clean Water Act (CCWA), introduced by Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland because it requires the EPA to create strict stormwater pollution control standards. But Farm Bureau groups balk at the more stringent cleanup regs in CCWA and endorse the farmer-friendly "Improvement" Act.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Act would provide financial incentives to Bay area states to create meaningful pollution reduction plans, authorize more than $2 billion in federal funds for cleanup projects, plus hold the states accountable for spending this money wisely and meeting their goals.

Putting the Bay on a pollution diet is a worthy goal, but a diet without measurable standards is like going on a diet without a working weight scale to monitor your progress. Total Maximum Daily Load (or TMDLs) are like calories to you and me, and someone needs to count them.

And consider this: the EPA experts now say that the Chesapeake can “consume” no more than approximately 187 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus, and 6.6 billion pounds of sediment each year to be healthy. That’s a very generous plate full of nasty stuff.

Drill here; drill now, pay less. Really??

If I hear one more person complain that renewable energy is being highly subsidized, I will spit oil! The truth is that global subsidies for fossil fuels (gasp) is 12 times higher than they are for renewables. As Bloomberg reports, that's $557 billion (with a capital B) vs. $45 billion.

Speaking of money:
Fall elections are right around the corner. More contributions than I can fathom have been paid by fossil fuel industries over the last decade to buy access and influence in Congress. There's a nifty new website,, that offers an interactive tool that tracks the flow of oil, gas, and coal money in U.S. Congress--using data provided by the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.

Check it out, but the folks on the top of their list includes:
  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) -- recipient of $1.86 million since 1999
  • Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) -- recipient of $1.7 million
  • Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- recipient of $1.15 million
  • Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- recipient of $1.12 million
  • Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) -- recipient of $1.09 million
  • Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) -- recipient of $1 million)
One oil giant, Koch Industries, has given $4.38 million to politicians since 1999, especially climate-change deniers.

American Solutions for Winning the Future, an innocuous sounding group if I ever heard one, might demand a second look as well. They are the political action group/PAC behind "Drill here; drill now; pay less" and have been funding their chairman, Newt Gingrich, in his latest fosssil-fuel promoting activities. Their big funders include:  

  • Devon Energy, a huge oil and gas outfit in Oklahoma -- donated $250,000
  • Arch Coal of St. Louis -- donated $100,000
  • Plains Exploration and Production Co., a Houston-based oil and gas firm -- donated $100,000
  • Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, based in Ohio -- donated $100,000
AND (in case you're still interested) two Texas-based oil companies, Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp.) have kicked in almost 75 percent of the money behind California's Proposition 23, which would repeal the state's landmark law to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Hmmm.

Good News & Bad News for the Potomac River

The bad news first: You may have read about the bull shark recently found in the Potomac River. Goverment pundits, I'm sure, made some wisecracks about sharks always being alive near the White House. But seriously, bull sharks (especially 8-foot ones) are not common sights in the Potomac.

Now for the good news: There's been a ten-fold increase in seagrasses (otherwise known as "submerged aquatic vegetation" or SAV) in the Potomac according to measurements taken during 18 years of surveys. That means a good chance that the Potomac's water quality has also improved. That's good news for the Chesapeake Bay as well. The surveys (by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGC) and England's National Oceanography Centre) included a 50-mile reach of the tidal Potomac downstream from Washington.

So SAV restoration efforts and upgrades to wastewater treatment plants are paying off. That's especially good news since these efforts are labor-intensive and costly. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual report card for the Chesapeake have not been especially positive in recent years.

Virginia has invested big bucks in improving out-dated wastewater treatment plants. Maryland is playing catchup, and Pennsylvania still needs to do more with agricultural and poultry farm runoff (yuck). Dairy cows standing in creeks chewing their cud may look pastoral, but think about the other end of those critters. Humans need nutrients, but our watershed does not. They stimulate algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching SAV. Then the SAV dies back and the sealife critters have nowhere to hide. Catfish can then find the baby crabs, and so on.

Key Findings on the Potomac River's SAV:

• Native SAV cover increased tenfold from 288 to 3081 acres.
• The overall area covered by SAV in the Potomac more than doubled since 1990, increasing from 4207 to 8441 acres.
• The diversity of SAV has increased. In 1990 the exotic hydrilla was 10 times more abundant than any other species. In 2007 the abundance of the 7 most frequently occurring species are more evenly matched.
• In 1990, more than 80% of the total SAV was hydrilla; in 2007 hydrilla declined to 20%.
• Results suggest declining fitness of exotic species relative to native species during restoration.

September 8, 2010

Surry coal plant delayed by 18 to 24 months

This news made my day! But maybe I should be cautiously optimistic?

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative announced today that it is delaying construction of what would be Virginia's largest coal plant by 18 to 24 months.

The $6 billion coal plant which ODEC hopes to build in the Surry County town of Dendron, is now on target to begin producing electricity in 2020, four years later than ODEC's original goal (announced nearly three years ago). I certainly pray that none of the 300 residents in this town try to sell their home soon. Or perhaps they should.

ODEC said that the delay is a result of uncertain federal regulations and the slumping economy, which has altered the nation's projected electricity demands. But I'm guessing that environmentalists' opposition and increased conservation had a tad to do with this delay. See what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had to say about this delay.

The ODEC cooperative is a utility group with 11 power generating facilities in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. It provides power to a grid that serves about 51 million customers in the Northeast and Midwest. The proposed plant (sometimes called the Cypress Creek Power Plant), would provide electricity to about 375,000 homes and businesses. ODEC has already spent $30 million purchasing land, etc.

Meanwhile, the EPA still needs to call coal ash (fly ash) "hazardous waste" and deal with its disposal in a safe way.

The wrath of Mother Nature

Mother Nature (sometimes called Mother Earth) is a misnomer, if I ever heard one.

This personification of nature implies a maternal life-living force—a kind, nurturing, forgiving woman. But this gal is really strict about enforcing her laws. Mother Nature doesn’t take kindly to those who try to fool her, let alone conquer her; she knows that what’s gone is gone forever. She is especially irked when offshore oil wells threaten her oceans.

In recent weeks, this matriarch has shown herself as a powerful force rather than a giver and sustainer of life. More like a “Mama Grizzly.” Oops; that term’s already taken!

Then there’s Father Time, usually depicted as an elderly bearded man, dressed in a robe, carrying an hourglass and scythe. But that image also brings to mind the Grim Reaper.

We can take many earth-friendly actions, but we can’t fool either of these two parental figures. They have apparently teamed up in the last month, bringing Russia and most of the East Coast record-setting heat (even in Bar Harbor, Maine), deadly floods in Pakistan and Tennessee, drought in our area, deadly mudslides in Guatemala, and Hurricane Earl aiming toward us for awhile.

How will Mother Earth deal with man-made threats such as the 130 million tons of toxic coal ash left over from coal-burning power plants in the U.S. each year? Perhaps Brook Benton was on target, crooning, “If Mother Nature don’t stop you, Father Time sure will.”

La Niña is another female we can’t reckon with.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center warned us months ago that La Niña was coming and that we’d be sitting ducks along the East Coast in 2010. But we frequently greet an “above average” hurricane prediction with “cry wolf.” These climate experts told us about La Niña’s uncanny ability to help young Atlantic hurricanes become especially powerful. She reduces the wind shear over the Atlantic and that allows wind gusts to evolve into major hurricanes.

Pray for her blustery brother, El Niño, to visit us next year. He is the bully we actually like because he can blow these winds apart.