June 25, 2009

Reduce Your Garbage by Composting

Go Green & Go Brown

Here's a great concise Guide to Composting from Seventh Generation. You do NOT need to build a composter either. Ours just sits in an almost invisible spot in our side yard.

We keep a large Tupperware bin on the kitchen counter to hold the "stuff" (coffee grinds, banana peels, egg shells, orange peels, etc.) until it's full. Add shredded paper as well.

We're going to switch from twice a week garbage pickup to once a week. Between recycling and composting, not much is left.

Food miles?

I've written before about locavores trying to eat more locally grown or produced foods. The Farmers Market is one of the best places to find these foods.But every time I eat a banana, pineapple, or other tropical foods, I feel a tad guilty. But I just discovered a website that really makes those food miles real. Check out this food miles calculator that will help raise your awareness of where your food is coming from.

Visit the VA Dept. of Agriculture's 2009 Virginia Grown Guide for other sources of locally grown produce.

June 23, 2009

Methane, the other bad gas

Methane is right up there with carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. It traps heat in our atmospere 20 times more than carbon dioxide. It's a great fuel because it's clean-burning--as opposed to coal.

It's actually colorless and odorless, in spite of the rear end of cows you're probably picturing right now.
Actually it's the other end of cows that produce it. Cattle belch about 16 percent of the world's methane (according to Wikipedia). So give Bessy a break from the flatulence jokes.

There are natural sources of methane too. See this EPA chart. Methane is also produced in considerable quantities from the decaying organic wastes in landfills. Look for those telltale vents where it can be burned for energy. Get used to the "waste to energy" term since it will be used more in the future. Garbage is a renewable resource!

Desiree Parker, Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily's self-proclaimed ECOfreak (love that name!), recently blogged that there are now about 480 landfill gas energy projects in the U.S., and 27 of them operate here in Virginia. See what she wrote about local stuff that's happening:

Jim Hill, James City’s solid waste superintendent, proposed converting some of the methane in the old county landfill on Jolly Pond Road (which has been closed since 1993) into something useful. “I got a chance to see the Miramar Landfill over in San Diego,” Hill said. “It was really interesting. Their [landfill-to-energy program] provides about a third of the city’s electricity.” So, the county went ahead and did a study to see if there was enough methane in that old landfill to do any good in the relatively small county site – and there is. “We found some vents that have enough methane to heat the school bus garage for 40 or 50 years,” says Hill. “It’ll save the county a lot of money, probably a few thousand a year, I’d guess.”

Hill says he’d really like the county to go ahead with the project. “We don’t have to, of course, but I’d like to see the gas reused, and not just vented into the air,” says Hill. In fact, when I called him Hill was sitting at his desk working on writing a grant to pick up some stimulus money for this project through the state’s Department of Energy. It’s due Thursday, he says. He has no idea what the project might cost, but getting a grant would certainly help convince county administrators to give the go ahead, I’ll bet.

Waste Management, a trash disposal company that serves a lot of localities around us. Hill mentioned they have some landfill gas energy projects going on
now, too. Spokeswoman Lisa Kardell of Waste Management shared some of her
company’s projects with me, which made me even happier. WM has four landfill gas energy projects in Virginia, and will open two more soon. Their sites use the
methane to fuel onsite engines or turbines that generate power (this is about
how most of these kinds of projects work). Their Gloucester facility, slated to
open in July, will be a 6.4 megawatt facility that produces enough electricity
to power about 6,500 homes.

I also asked her about what it costs to build this kind of facility, and she said it’s between $8 and $10 million. That sounds like a lot, but not if you think of how much you’d save in energy costs over the decades – and if you think about how much we’d help out with global greenhouse gas emissions.

But, if you like this idea of Jim Hill’s, when it comes up at the James City board of supervisors meeting, why don’t you let them know you support it? Maybe in that little way, you can make a difference.

Website of the week: Check out the EPA’s
methane outreach homepage. This is where I looked up a lot of this information, but there’s still lots more stuff I didn’t add. Very neat.

Counting Carbon at Madison Square Garden

Can we fathom big numbers?

Deutsche Bank just unveiled a giant 70-foot tall billboard in New York City to increase public awareness about rising greenhouse gas emissions.

This mammoth Carbon Counter was launched by its Asset Management division and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to convey a sense of urgency, by providing the world’s first scientifically valid, real-time emissions display of greenhouse gases.

When the counter was turned on (6-18-09), it showed 3.64 trillion tons. But every second we put 800 metric tons more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we consume energy. Click the link above to see what it's at now.

FYI: In order to keep temperatures from rising more than 2.4 degrees Celsius to avoid more extreme climate change impacts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned we must stabilize carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations somewhere between 350 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm. When the counter was turned on Thursday, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations were already estimated at 385 ppm.

Time will tell if this counter inspires us to change our habits and reduce our carbon footprints.

Just how big is one ton of CO2? Dave Ames, a science teacher at Cohasset High School in Cohasset, Massachusetts built a large cube that represents the size of 1 ton of carbon dioxide.
A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

Cash It; Don't Trash It

Tired of paying to recycle your electronic devices?

Here's some valuable green info from Josh Dorfman and Mother Nature Network: a handful of entrepreneurs have created services that pay you to recycle. Instead of contributing to the already challenging problem of e-waste by tossing your used electronics into the regular trash -- which eventually ends up in a landfill -- turn to a company like Gazelle. Simple search menus on the company’s website inform visitors of the residual market value of their desktop computers, laptops, digital cameras and other devices. Gazelle then sends you a prepaid postage box in which to ship your product back to the company. Once you send in your products and their condition is verified, Gazelle will mail you a check. It’s that simple.

Got an old cell phone hanging around? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that across the United States, more than 500 million old cell phones languish in desk drawers and other storage spots. A similar philosophy fuels GreenPhone.com. The site tells you how much your cell phone or PDA model is worth and then allows you to mail it in for cash. Disposing of these devices properly is of vital environmental concern since the devices contain hazardous chemicals like arsenic and lead that can be released into the atmosphere, soil and groundwater.

GreenPhone.com allows you to protect the environment while earning a little spending money — never a bad thing. And if you’re feeling more virtuous, visit GreenPhone.com’s sister site, CollectiveGood.com, which offers the same service and donates your proceeds to charity.

CellPhonesForSoldiers.com is an organization that collects and recycles used cell phone and uses the proceeds to pay for calling cards that it gives to soldier serving overseas so they can connect with friends and family members back home.

Are you addicted to plastic?

I’m a typical consumer and enjoy the convenience of plastic. But I’m reluctant to buy a lot of it, since it increases our reliance on foreign oil and it’s not easily recycled. The sale of Pur and Brita water filters increased 22 percent in recent months as more folks switch away from bottled water. That's good news.

We are seeing more bioplastics, made from corn, sugarcane, wheat, and other crops. They sound promising, but not if they contribute to a global food crisis by using land that grew crops for human consumption.

It’s easy to mistake Primo’s #7 bioplastic water bottles for #1, but they’re made out of corn and don’t belong in the recycling stream. Only #1 and #2 plastics (with necks) are OK in our curbside bins. There’s also the question of whether Primo’s polylactide (PLA) bottles truly are biodegradable, or release methane in a landfill.

After viewing the recent documentary, “Addicted to Plastic,” I took a closer look at how much plastic surrounded me. OOPS! I'm typing this on a plastic keyboard on a predominately plastic computer. I enjoy sailing on the Chesapeake in my (oops) fiberglass and plastic resins sailboat--definitely oil-based products. The Captain and I started out as purists 35 years ago with a wooden boat, but ease of maintenance now rules the day. I guess we’re doomed to live with the stuff.

We’ve experienced as many tranquil bay tributaries as possible, as well as Baltimore Inner Harbor (after the recent huge odoriferous fish kill). The recent heavy rains wash a lot of flotsam into this particular area. But a generous grant has funded a gizmo that’s called a “Water Wheel Powered Trash Interceptor.” It’s a floating-garbage-picker-upper that handles the stuff that flows into their storm sewers, then ultimately into the harbor. Eventually, our local litter travels to one of the two big garbage patches that are forming in the Atlantic.

I've posted before about floating plastic dumps. They exist as humongous “ocean landfills.” The largest one, midway between Hawaii and California, is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and is now almost as large as the continental U.S. Almost all of this floating debris started out as litter, tons of it held in place by swirling currents and winds.

First seen by a sailor who ventured into these doldrums in 1997, this flotsam patch is growing at an alarming rate. Plastics will not biodegrade, but instead break down into small chunks that float just below the surface.

Or check out Mother Nature Network's info on the garbage patch.

Green cleaning or laundry time?

“Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub?” Does that nursery rhyme bring a vivid mental image to mind—of a hard-to-clean ring around the tub?

But which green products really work? Terms like natural, nontoxic, eco-safe, and environmentally friendly are largely unregulated.

Companies launched more than 500 eco-friendly products so far this year. If that trend continues there will be 1,570 new green products on our store shelves this year, triple the amount in 2008.

Seventh Generation and Simple Green products have been around the longest and do a good job. The Route 5 Farm Fresh has an eye-catching display of Seventh Generation products. Farm Fresh VP, Janie Ceclic, says, “We have the full selection of Seventh Generation., and consumers are getting more choices every day.” I've tried Seventh Generation's laundry products and they work! Check out http://www.seventhgeneration.com/ for coupons.

Read the label — Although detergent companies are not required to list the ingredients. You’ll see vague terms such as surfactant or washing soda or brightener. You might learn more from what they say their products do NOT contain.

Phosphates are the worst since they cause algae blooms, but they still show up on many labels, especially on dishwasher products. Other non-green ingredients to avoid are bleach, triclosan, petroleum, and the surfactant nonylphenol ethoxylate or NPE (an endocrine disruptor).

If a strong perfume odor lingers after you clean, it’s a good sign that your home’s air could be irritating your lungs. Look for detergents that are "free and clear" of dyes and perfumes.
Baking soda/sodium bicarbonate, vinegar, lemon juice, and good ole 20 Mule Team Borax are usually sufficient to get the job done—especially with a little elbow grease. Much cheaper too.

Is it good for you?
Here's another new website, http://www.goodguide.com/, that evaluates googads of products to help consumers find out what's really good for them. It's still in beta testing, but it's already a great tool. You can see ratings for foods, household cleaners, toys, and personal care products. Check out the surprising information about dishwashers too. GoodGuide has 12 full-time and 12 part-time employees, half scientists and half engineers. They have scored 75,000 products with data from nearly 200 sources, including government databases, studies by nonprofits and academics, and the research by scientists on the GoodGuide staff. There's also an iPhone app.

See through the FOG

No, not the San Francisco version. I mean the FOG (as in Fats, Oils, and Grease) that can easily clog our sewers if we continue to dump them down our drains.

Why is it such a big deal? Los Angeles experienced more than 800 dangerous sewage overflows a few years ago due to pipes filled with FOG. In addition to the yuck factor, there’s the unappealing cost. The price tag for James City Service Authority to make our sewer lines as “spill free” as possible is possibly $4 million just to inspect—with another $2 million for repairs.

Restaurants have grease traps, but what should homeowners do? Remove excess grease left on cookware with a paper towel and scrape excess food into the trash. Pour cooled oils and grease into an old glass jar and dispose of it in the trash. Or take it to the FOG recycling container at James City County’s Convenience Centers at 107 Tewning Road.

June 15, 2009

More jobs in wind than coal?

The wind industry now employs more people than coal mining in the United States.

It surprised me, but according to a recent report from the American Wind Energy Association, wind industry jobs jumped to 85,000 in 2008, a 70% increase from the previous year. In contrast, the coal industry employs about 81,000 workers (2007 DOE report).

The big spike in wind jobs was a result of a record-setting 50% increase in installed wind capacity, with 8,358 megawatts coming online in 2008 (enough to power some 2 million homes). That's a third of the nation's total 25,170 megawatts of wind power generation. Wind farms generating more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity were completed in the last three months of 2008 alone.

Get Kids Outdoors

Soccer Camp is not enough.

The national Wildlife Federation has a great new online resource for parents. "BE OUT THERE" will give you lots of good ideas to improve your children's mental, physical, and emotional states this summer.

June 10, 2009

Toxins in Shampoo?

Baby not-so-magic?
A few weeks ago, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics folks asked Johnson & Johnson to remove traces of two potentially harmful chemicals from baby shampoos and other children's bath products and switch to safer alternatives. Japan already requires J&J to sell products free of formaldehyde.

FDA asleep at the wheel? No, the FDA does not review—nor does it have the authority to require pre-market safety assessment as it does with drugs. So cosmetics are among the least-regulated products on the market. 89 percent of all ingredients in cosmetics have not been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution. The FDA website states: “FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency .... Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.”

In the absence of federal oversight, a few states have taken steps to ensure that consumers have access to safer products and more information about the products they buy. In 2008, Washington State adopted legislation that bans phthalates from personal care products marketed to or used by kids. In 2005, California became the first state to pass state legislation governing the safety and reporting of cosmetic ingredients by requiring manufacturers to disclose to the state any product ingredient that is on state or federal lists of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects.

In March, the Campaign’s report showed that 82 percent of baby shampoos and other bath products tested had traces of formaldehyde and 67 percent of those tested had 1,4 dioxane. You’ll be surprised to see these test results.