You recycle, you buy eco-friendly, you eat organic, you live green and you feel good about yourself.
What does it all mean?
As a society we’re lured with marketing agendas to buy into concepts that bombard us with new terminology that we want to use and a movement that we want to be a part of. We get fooled into thinking we’re making a difference but we’re just being sold another product with a buzzword tag.
Why is terminology so important?
If you went around today thinking that a sandwich was called a stapler, you’d end up with an interesting lunch. Obviously I’m pushing it but the idea is knowing what you’re getting because everyone will call a sandwich, a sandwich.
Looking through the aisles of your go-to stores, you may find an abundance of terms that make you feel like the company is being eco-responsible, whatever that means.
For example, what is natural? This is a big category that as far as I’m concerned encompasses just about everything, maybe excluding some man made elements, maybe. Does natural mean found in nature? Is it extracted from nature? From nature without any modification? Made by animals? Humans are animals; is what we make natural? Your guess is as good as mine.
Eco-friendly, environmentally friendly, and green are only a few of the ways we say good for Earth. These terms can mean no harm to the environment or just reduced or minimal harm. Clearly this is a vague term and its use might only mean there’s something worse out there not that it’s actually good. I guess you can be proud of your purchase since it’s not the worst option.
I won’t even touch the term organic but I’ll let you try to find what standards that the industry universally uses and what it really means.
This next one is something that I really enjoy as a chemist: chemical-free!
If you get anything from this article I hope, it’s this: everything is made up of chemicals, even you! Everything you eat, drink, wear, etc. All chemicals, all of the time.
Some are good, some are bad, just never believe that it’s chemical-free.
Did you know there’s a difference between biodegradable and compostable?
Biodegradable can mean that it breaks down to tiny particles in some biological fashion while composting can mean that it returns to a useful form for the earth.
I understand it is difficult to define these specific terms and that they do change but it has definitely become necessary. Even having a government organization that clearly and easily keeps track of what is defined and how, while also keeping a lit of non-defined terms would be helpful for the average person as myself just trying to understand.
I’m not saying that recycling, being eco-friendly, eating organic, or living green are bad things. I’m saying, stop and think. Are you actually accomplishing something or just being trendy?
The right words could start the right conversation.
Thomas Di Nardo
Remember, you’re made of all kinds of wonderful chemicals.
We have used solar power at our house in Nepal for longer than I have been alive. In fact, as I mentioned in my first blog post, many houses in Nepal rely on the sun to power their homes. The main reason we use solar power is the lack of known oil, natural gas, or coal reserves in Nepal. We have to import gas from India, which makes it extremely expensive and we have a very unreliable supply of electricity. In dry, winter months, when our hydro-powered plants that produce 90% of our electricity are not running up to their full capacity, we have up to 18 hours of “load shedding”, which is essentially 18 hours of blackout. This means people in Nepal are forced to come up with alternative sources of energy to power their homes. For example, in my house, we use a solar powered inverter to illuminate our home in times of darkness.
Furthermore, after the disastrous earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015, which has damaged the hydropower plants, Nepal is trying to switch to solar energy. This is especially important for remote areas in Nepal, as it is expensive to expand the electric grid to hilly areas that are hard to reach through many forms of transportation.
While solar power is very important for developing countries, there are a multitude of advantages that come with adopting a clean form of energy in your homes even in the developed part of the world. In addition to the obvious advantages with respect to climate change, adopting a clean source of energy is financially beneficial for the country. The United States currently produces 12GW of energy through solar power and is 5th in the world for solar energy production. The solar industry has installed 32% of all new electricity generating capacity in the U.S. - second only to natural gas. Major U.S. corporations, including Walmart, IKEA and Macy's, are going solar at an incredible rate because it helps them save money. Additionally, the solar industry has created one out of every 80 jobs since the financial crisis. It is helping people gain employment in meaningful careers that involve building, making and creating.
Although there is a small degree of inconvenience that comes with switching to alternative sources of energy, it provides us with a sustainable and clean energy that is advantageous to both developing and developed countries.
I am a distance runner, and distance runners hate to run into the wind. There is nothing worse than one of those days when the wind seems to be in your face every direction you turn, making eight miles feel more like eighty. But you don’t have to be a distance runner to be with me on this one: it is simple physics that running, or walking, into the wind is more difficult than if the wind just weren’t there.
At 37%, electricity is the United States’ biggest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. Replacing fossil fuels with wind as the source of our electricity would play a major role in slowing down climate change. When we have a problem this big, how can we ignore a solution when it is literally whipping into our faces?
Wind is annoying, especially when it isn’t blowing the way we want it to. It is time for us humans to swallow our pride, and get the wind on our side.
As a runner, I believe it is ok to be “anti-wind”. But now it’s time to be all in for wind energy.
When I first came to college to study chemistry, I intended to become a medical doctor. Three years later, I’ve distanced myself from any science courses that might require me to dissect anything and instead am interested in topics like materials science and renewable energy. While it’s easy to see the connection between those topics and climate change, an often-overlooked impact of climate change is its effect on human health – and so it looks like I’ve come full circle!
The primary reason that the climate’s effect on health can be trivialized is because in well-developed countries, like the US, so many of us are protected in our homes from the elements. However, it is much more apparent in our most vulnerable populations, who may not have access to luxuries like air conditioning or in some cases, any real housing.
Our last blog addressed some of these effects, especially air pollution, but I’m going to focus on infectious disease. At one point, many infectious diseases were effectively eliminated from the United States; however, the changing climate may have some role in their resurgence. The primary culprits are mosquitoes, which are capable of carrying and transmitting diseases like dengue fever. Once restricted by colder temperatures and rainfall, these insects now live in at least 28 states spanning the southern half of the U.S. On a global scale, warmer temperatures and longer summers have resulted in mosquitos being more active, increasing the risk of disease transmission to people. Likewise, West Nile Virus, also spread by mosquitos, and lyme disease, spread primarily by ticks, have seen a surge of reported cases.
If you’re curious how some states are addressing the spread of infectious disease with climate change, check out some of the data compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council here!
At this point, a lot of this data is correlative, so our understanding of the association between climate change and public health is limited to be sure. But strong, foreboding parallels exist between it and the early studies of smoking’s effect on lung cancer – we know that we are hurting ourselves. The only question is, how much?
One day a professor asked me, a chemist, “Why are you studying the environmental applications of chemistry if the biomedical and health sciences are more important, and there are more funding opportunities?” However, I started to reflect on it and realized that everything is a chain reaction. Whatever happens to the environment has a direct or indirect impact on our lifestyle, which includes our health. Climate Change affects the social and environmental determinants of our health such as clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, secure shelter and others [Figure 1].
The topic that I am most passionate is clean air. High temperatures raise the ground-level ozone concentrations, which can damage lung tissue, affect the respiratory system and reduce visibility by creating smog together with other pollutants. (The ground-level is the bad ozone, but the high-level ozone is a good one, which protects us from the sun.) Similarly, in extreme heat, pollen and other allergens concentrations are higher. The reduction of air quality is also due to the identity and concentration of aerosols. As I explained in my previous blog, the aerosols affect the climate and public health. Epidemiological studies have linked acute and chronic exposure to aerosol to increased morbidity & mortality, as well as to respiratory & cardiovascular diseases in the USA and Europe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2005 over 800,000 deaths occurred as a result of poor outdoor air quality. These deaths result from many pathways including respiratory infection, interference with lung function, asthma, cancers, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and developmental impairment in children. Recently, there is a lot of research regarding the air pollution and the reproduction.
Let's explore briefly the other factors. For example, increase in air temperatures will lead to hotter days and more frequent and longer heat waves, especially during the summers. The heat waves can lead to heart stroke and dehydration. High temperatures can also increase the food-borne diseases such as salmonella and other gastrointestinal distress. Another consequence of climate change it’s the extreme weather events. The rise of variable rainfall patterns will affect the supply of fresh water. The shortage of safe water can compromise hygiene. Also, the floods could contaminate those freshwater supplies, increasing the risk of water-borne disease, and create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. Water-borne diseases typically lead to gastroenteritis and multiple infections. Some animal-borne diseases sensitive to climate conditions are dengue, malaria, West Nile virus, etc. (I remembered how worry I was when my brother got dengue three times.) Moreover, another consequence could go the other way like droughts. (There is currently a drought in my hometown in Puerto Rico, which it is limiting the tap water supplies, obligating the people to adjust their lifestyle.) In general, all these factors (change in temperatures, precipitation, floods, and droughts) will likely affect agricultural yields and production. To continue the chain reaction, this could lead to socio-economical problems. For example, I invite you to analyze objectively the situation in Syria based on climate change and social sciences rather than purely in its political aspect. I want to end this with the picture below [Figure 2], a visual representation of the climate change implications on human health and its feedback loop.
During the summer of 2010 I had the privilege of being an interpretive intern at Glacier National Park in Montana. One of my responsibilities as an intern was to create and give a campground talk about some aspect of Glacier National Park. After much contemplation and help from fellow interpretive rangers I developed a program entitled “Delightful Disturbances.” The hour-long program focused on how fire and avalanches can actually be beneficial to the Glacier ecosystem. While I still stand by all the assertions I made when I gave this program once a week throughout the summer of 2010, it is important to realize that our climate is changing. Just five years after I stood in the St. Mary valley in the eastern section of Glacier National Park informing visitors that wildfires HELP the ecosystem, the east side of Glacier was pummeled with the Reynolds Creek Fire, consuming nearly 3000 acres. And while this fire attracted the attention of many National Park goers, it was not the only wildfire burning this summer.
As of September 2, according to an article in The Washington Post (see link at the end of this post), over 8 million acres have been burned so far this year. 2006 currently holds the record for most acreage burned by wildfires, however, in early September of 2006 about 7.5 million acres had burned, while 2015 has already seen over 8 million acres consumed, and there are still fires burning. Check out the active fire map to see where fires are still burning out west!! --> http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us
So what does this have to do with climate change? While wildfires are not a direct result of climate change, climate change creates perfect conditions for wildfires. As many locations in the western United States see a decrease in precipitation, and an increase in temperature, fires are raging.
While I am originally from the east coast, and wildfires were rarely mentioned, I am currently living in Moscow, Idaho. For over a week our town was inundated with smoke from surrounding fires. Air quality reached hazardous levels, and there weren’t any fires burning for miles. Now imagine all of the people living in towns close to the fires, all the people evacuated, everyone who lost their homes.
As a young, interpretive ranger intern it was easy for me to give a cheery little talk about why wildfires are so great, but as our climate is changing, as wildfires are becoming more common and burning more and more acres, the argument that wildfires are good for the ecosystem seems slightly naïve, and simplified.
Learn more about the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park:
Washington Post article on 2015 wildfire season:
Check out Smokey the Climate Scientist video:
Everyone has heard of different natural disasters in one point in time. If you look at the map below, I'm from Maryland, right in the edge of the hurricane section.
Needless to say, almost everyone in the United States has witnessed some form of a natural disaster. The map above leaves out wild fires but Jill lives out in the west where it's most prone to them and we're going to let her talk about them more closely. The graphs below show the change of natural disaster trends over the past 40 years, the left being the number of disasters per decade, also split into type and the right shows deaths caused by each type also spread over the past 40 years.
Natural disasters don't only affect the local area but also have a nation-wide effect. For example, Hurricane Katrina devastated southern states; it was estimated that more than 10% of Mississippi's cotton crops were destroyed. Gas prices shot up to $6-$8 in some of the lower states on Labor Day weekend and more northern states received a 40-70 cent jump.
Luckily, the United States showed their unity and launched dozens of campaigns to help pay for the rebuild, recover and regrowth of the affected areas.
The more we allow climate change to occur the more natural disasters will be caused.
Garbage can be compared to mixing flour and sand, don’t ask me why you would want to do it but work with me here. Each part can be very useful and is valued individually, but together it’s a difficult to separate mixture that has a lower value. In most cases this combination would be tossed because of the difficulty associated with useful purification.
The effort to separate the parts involved may not be seen as economically viable. Imagine it was the last pound of flour on earth and you were starving. You might even risk eating the sand at that point!
Sorting your waste can actually be a viable process but do we really know where it goes and where it ends up? I often wonder if my efforts are mounting up to something or if they are just mounting up to a mountain of garbage?
When you're done with something, whether it's packaging, construction/destruction materials or even an old toaster; there's a place for it and possibly a continued life.
We live in a world of finite resources – this is a fact that cannot be argued. The resources are, limited “new” materials as well as lingering “old” ones, which begs the question how do we make old new again?
In Montreal, there are separation centres, which handle all kinds of refuse from regular recyclables to hazardous materials; they’re called ecocentres. Any resident of Montreal can dispose of basically anything and be assured that what can be recycled or reused will be and what can’t will be processed appropriately from there on. There is no direct cost associated with the use of the disposal centres unless you use it as part of your industry like a construction worker. The seven local ecocentres help refuse avoid the place whose name shall not be named…the landfill.
There are designated places for wood, recyclable construction materials, non-recyclable construction materials, concrete, soil, compost, metals, batteries, electronics, and waste chemicals such as paints or solvents. They even have a pilot program for collection of polystyrene.
The metals can be easily melted down and transformed as they continue their adventure. Wood products can be chipped or milled into secondary wood products like MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and chipboard or even turned into pulp for the paper industry.
Not everything at the eco-centre has to be ground up or melted down, you can bring clothing and accessories for donation, as well as any functional items or furniture that you want to discard but could be a gem for someone else as these are donated to a second hand store.
These centres don’t eliminate garbage altogether, 70% of what comes is reprocessed and avoids the landfill while the rest doesn’t make the cut.
If you’re lucky, you may see garbage, recycling, and compost pick-ups in your neighborhood but I doubt you’ll start seeing battery or e-waste specific collections door to door. With a little effort on your part you can make sure they don’t end up in a buried heap taking up space on our precious land.
Don’t get me wrong, there is room for improvement but if we looked back and could easily remove 70% of what is already in our landfills, I think we would see the impact that these kind of projects can have on our communities.
A colleague once asked me, “What’s the point of recycling? It’s just to make you feel good about yourself.” I would whole-heartedly disagree and so would companies now turning a profit off of your “garbage”.
A little effort goes a long way; a lot of effort may just change the world.
Thomas Di Nardo
Ever felt the inspiration and willpower after an Earth Day talk all ready to be the change in the world, only to be pulled back into reality once reaching home? Trust me, I’ve been there. Aquinas College, where I go to school, is a zero-waste community. This means they divert all possible waste from landfills by using recycling, composting, and special collections (which can be found ALL over campus).
I returned home after my first semester recharged and ready to change the way not only my house functioned, but also the way my neighborhood and community viewed the trusty 3R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. What shocked me was how deeply embedded in my house were practices of wastefulness and lack of knowledge of the topic. For this reason, I compiled a list of tricks and tips to help you pull your roommates, family, or campus out of the consumer culture lifestyle and into a more sustainable future, and I hope they can help you start creating change one recycled item at a time.
1. Recycle – this one is the most basic. You can recycle aluminum and tin cans, aluminum foil, cardboard, magazines, office paper, newspaper, juice cartons, phone books (do people still have these?), clear/green/brown glass, and CLEAN plastic. Your recycler probably collects certain batteries as well (but check with them first).
2. Compost – most people have either a) never heard of composting or b) are absolutely terrified to start composting (no shame). Composting is the process by which organic material (like leaves or vegetable peels) are converted back into a very rich type of soil. I like to say that you can compost anything that came from the earth; this can include any food waste, used napkins, lint from the dryer, paper, Q-tips, and much-much more.
3. Special Collections – Instead of throwing them away, donate your old electronics and clothing. Also try to find vendors in your area that will recycle Styrofoam or has TerraCycle (think chip bags).
4. Bring your owns bags to the grocery store – reusable bags are the new chic
5. When at the grocery store, don’t use the plastic bags for vegetables and fruits – who needs those bags anyway?
6. Reusable water bottles – never plastic. never. ever.
7. Buy clothing secondhand – thrift stores are economical as well as green
8. Use rags in the kitchen instead of paper towels – it is surprising how much waste this reduces
9. Real dishes – try to avoid using paper and plastic if at all possible (unless you plan to recycle and compost them later)
10. Tupperware not plastic baggies to pack your lunch – this is my personal favorite
Although I could probably list 100 more tips, these 10 are a good place to start. I know it can be hard to completely change your lifestyle overnight, but with a little determination, you (regardless of where you live) can make a difference and lower the amount of waste you generate.