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EarthTalk®

by E - The Environmental Magazine


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I heard about something called the Green Café Network. What is it and what are they trying to accomplish for the environment? -- Jane Stevenson, Los Angeles, CA

The Green
Café Network (GCN), a project of the non-profit Earth Island Institute, seeks to reduce Americans’ environmental impacts by greening the coffeehouse industry and harnessing cafe culture for community environmental awareness. By educating and working with cafe owners and staff, GCN helps network members reduce waste, save energy, conserve water and increase community stewardship. GCN’s 30-plus cafes scattered across Northern California (as well as one in New York City and another in Keshena, Wisconsin) are committed to reducing their carbon footprints, promoting environmental responsibility and generally operating in as sustainable a manner as possible.

The approach of the GCN is to build on the influence of key institutions—neighborhood cafes and Americans’ infatuation with coffee—to try to raise environmental awareness and spur individual action. The idea is that when people see their local café as a positive example of green business practices and community building, there is a ripple effect, and the community is strengthened accordingly.

For cafes interested in getting involved, GCN provides personalized consulting services to help owners reduce their ecological footprints, enhance and streamline their operations, and set a visible good example of environmental responsibility for the community at large.
Services can address specific areas in need of attention, such as energy and water conservation, waste reduction, toxics minimization and eco-friendly purchasing, and also overall efforts to green the business from top to bottom. GCN can also consult on green building issues in the design, construction and remodel phases of a cafe’s lifecycle. With a project tagline of “Love Our Planet a Latte,” how could one not love what GCN is doing?

Cafes and coffee shops can take steps to align environmental considerations with business operations even without membership in GCN. The Barista Exchange website, for one, offers a treasure trove of information and tips on greening up cafes and coffee shops through energy and waste reduction, eco-friendly procurement and the sourcing of organic fair trade coffee.
U.S. coffee shops serve up about 25 million cups every day, so coffee shops can make a huge difference by being green.

For its part, the nation’s leading coffee retailer, Starbucks, has been a pioneer in greening the coffee industry, and the company considers environmental stewardship a priority. With dedicated programs for increasing recycling, conserving energy and water, sourcing greener beans, using sustainable building techniques and materials in new stores, and offsetting carbon emissions, Starbucks has worked hard to set a green example.


Of course, cafe owners and staff aren’t the only ones responsible for greening your coffee habit. You can play a role too. One obvious place to start is to bring in your own reusable mug to fill up on your favorite blend to cut down on paper cup waste. And requesting fair trade coffee will help ensure living wages for coffee workers out in the fields and send a message to café owners that you value doing the right thing.

CONTACTS: Green Cafe Network, www.earthisland.org/index.php/projects/grn; Barista Exchange, www.baristaexchange.com; Starbucks Environmental Stewardship, www.starbucks.com/responsibility/environment.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: As I understand it, “Debt-for-Nature Swaps” are arrangements by which countries can erase debt by preserving land. Are any being done today? -- Bill Hunt,
Topeka, KS


The debt-for-nature swap concept, whereby a portion of a developing nation’s foreign debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures, dates back to the mid-1980s when Thomas Lovejoy of the non-profit World Wildlife Fund (WWF) first proposed it as a way to deal with the problems of developing nations’ indebtedness and the negative consequences for their natural resources and diverse environments.

The theory goes that if a country with, say, valuable tropical rainforests, is up to its ears in debt, it will sell off or otherwise deplete those natural resources, instead of protecting or conserving them, in order to raise the money needed to pay off its debts. Debt-for-nature swaps can therefore be useful financial mechanisms for helping countries reduce debt without destroying their most valuable natural resources.

Since the first swap was brokered with Bolivia (to protect its Beni Biosphere Reserve and adjacent areas) by the non-profit Conservation International in 1987, many national governments and conservation groups have engaged in similar types of debt-for-nature swap negotiations, especially in tropical countries which contain diverse and threatened species of flora and fauna. Costa Rica has exchanged tens of millions of dollars in debt to protect some of its most pristine and biologically productive rainforests.

In 1998 the U.S. government passed the Tropical Forest Conservation Act to codify debt-for-nature swaps, including formally welcoming non-profit groups like Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, WWF and others to help arrange the deals and oversee implementation of local initiatives. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report found that since 1987, debt-for-nature swaps have channeled upwards of $1 billion toward tropical forest conservation initiatives instead of back into creditor nations’ coffers.

But far fewer deals are occurring today for a number of reasons. For one, says the Congressional Research Service, other agreements for debt restructuring and cancellation have reduced developing nations’ debt by significantly more than debt-for-nature swaps can. Another is that the concept has fallen somewhat out of favor. Some experts argue that the financial benefits are overstated, that funds are misdirected to less needy countries, that external debt is not a primary driver of deforestation and other environmental ills, and that funding does not necessarily equate to effective implementation of conservation strategies.

Criticism aside, some deals are still getting done. In 2008,
France forgave $20 million in debt owed by Madagascar to help the biodiversity-rich nation triple the size of its protected areas to better protect its native flora and fauna. In 2010, the U.S. forgave $21 million in Brazilian debt to fund several ecosystem protection initiatives in Brazil’s still vanishing tropical rainforests. The U.S. has also forgiven debt from the Philippines, Guatemala and Peru in recent years in exchange for on-the-ground conservation efforts. Germany and the Netherlands have each forgiven some of their foreign debt to tropical nations for forest protection as well. So while debt-for-nature swaps are not as popular as they once were, they are still a key tool in the toolbox of environmentalists looking to promote conservation in tropical countries.

CONTACTS: WWF, www.wwf.org; Conservation International, www.conservation.org
The Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I heard of a practice called cyanide fishing, which is used mostly to collect aquarium specimens, but I understand it is also used to catch fish we eat. Isn’t this very unhealthy?
-- Phil Seymour,
Albany, NY

Cyanide fishing, whereby divers crush cyanide tablets into plastic squirt bottles of sea water and puff the solution to stun and capture live coral reef fish, is widely practiced throughout Southeast Asia despite being illegal in most countries of the region. The practice began in the 1960s in the Philippines as a way to capture live reef fish for sale primarily to European and North American aquarium owners—a market now worth some $200 million a year.

But today the technique is also used to supply specialty restaurants in Hong Kong and other large Asian cities. There high roller customers can choose which live fish they want prepared on the spot for their dinner at a cost of up to $300 per plate in what the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) calls “an essential status symbol for major celebrations and business occasions.” WRI adds that as the East Asian economy has boomed in recent decades, live reef food fish has become a trade worth $1 billion annually.

Of course, the cyanide itself is no good for the fish that ingest it. Internet chat boards are rife with comments about cyanide-caught aquarium fish developing cancer within a year of being purchased. And many aquarium owners are willing to pay a premium for “net-caught” ornamental fish as they have a longer life expectancy.

But perhaps the greater damage inflicted by cyanide fishing is to the coral reefs where it is employed, as cyanide kills the reefs and also many of the life forms that rely on them. Researchers estimate that more than a million kilograms of cyanide have been squirted onto Philippine reefs alone over the last half century. These days the practice is much more widespread, with some of the world’s most productive reefs being decimated.

“Despite the fact that cyanide fishing is nominally illegal in virtually all Indo-Pacific countries, the high premium paid for live reef fish, weak enforcement capacities, and frequent corruption have spread the use of the poison across the entire region—home o the vast majority of the planet’s coral reefs,” reports
WRI. “As stocks in one country are depleted, the trade moves on to new frontiers, and cyanide fishing is now confirmed or suspected in countries stretching from the central Pacific to the shores of East Africa. Sadly, the most pristine reefs, far from the usual threats of sedimentation, coral mining and coastal development, are the primary target for cyanide fishing operations.”

While there is not much evidence of cyanide-caught fish poisoning the people who eat it—the dose retained by a fish after being puffed is relatively small—the risk nevertheless remains, especially for those who ingest a lot of it. Nausea and gastritis are the typical symptoms of cyanide poisoning, and of course larger doses can cause death.
WRI estimates that some 20 percent of the live fish for sale at markets across Southeast Asia are caught using cyanide. Children, the elderly and pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid cyanide-caught fish.

CONTACT: World Resources Institute, www.wri.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I don’t hear much about the environmental impacts of our consumer culture any more, but it seems to me that our “buy, buy, buy” mentality is a major contributor to our overuse of energy and resources. Are any organizations addressing this issue today? – M. Oakes,
Miami, FL

There is no doubt true that our overly consumerist culture is contributing to our addiction to oil and other natural resources and the pollution of the planet and its atmosphere.

Unfortunately the tendency to acquire and even horde valuable goods may be coded into our
DNA. Researchers contend that humans are subconsciously driven by an impulse for survival, domination and expansion which finds expression in the idea that economic growth will solve all individual and worldly ills. Advertising plays on those impulses, turning material items into objects of great desire imparting intelligence, status and success.

William Rees of the
University of British Columbia reports that human society is in a “global overshoot,” consuming 30 percent more material than is sustainable from the world’s resources. He adds that 85 countries are exceeding their domestic “bio-capacities” and compensate for their lack of local material by depleting the stocks of other countries.

Of course, every one of us can do our part by limiting our purchases to only what we need and to make responsible choices when we do buy something. But those who might need a little inspiration to get started should look to the Adbusters Media Foundation, a self-described “global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.”

Among the foundation’s most successful campaigns is Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest typically “celebrated” the Friday after Thanksgiving in North America (so-called Black Friday, one of the year’s busiest shopping days) and the following Saturday in some 60 other countries. The idea is that for one day a year we commit to not purchase anything, and to help spread the anti-consumerist message to anyone who will listen, with the hope of inspiring people to consume less and generate less waste the other 364 days of the year. The first Buy Nothing Day took place in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1992 with a few dozen participants, but today hundreds of thousands of people all over the world take part.

In recent years some anti-consumerists have added Buy Nothing Christmas to their agendas as well. Some ideas for how to leverage Buy Nothing Christmas sentiment without looking too much like Scrooge include giving friends and family “gift exemption” cards and asking shoppers in line at a big box store, “What would Jesus buy?”

Beyond Buy Nothing Day and Buy Nothing Christmas, the Adbusters Media Foundation stokes the fire of anti-consumerism throughout the year via its bi-monthly publication, Adbusters, an ad-free magazine with an international circulation topping 120,000. Do yourself a favor and subscribe...and cancel all those catalogs stuffing up your mailbox in the meantime.

CONTACTS: Adbusters, www.adbusters.org; Buy Nothing Day, www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd.


EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk:
What is a “dead zone” in an ocean or other body of water?

-- Victor Paine, Tallahassee, FL

So-called dead zones are areas of large bodies of water—typically in the ocean but also occasionally in lakes and even rivers—that do not have enough oxygen to support marine life. The cause of such “hypoxic” (lacking oxygen) conditions is usually eutrophication, an increase in chemical nutrients in the water, leading to excessive blooms of algae that deplete underwater oxygen levels. Nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff are the primary culprits, but sewage, vehicular and industrial emissions and even natural factors also play a role in the development of dead zones.

Dead zones occur around the world, but primarily near areas where heavy agricultural and industrial activity spill nutrients into the water and compromise its quality accordingly. Some dead zones do occur naturally, but the prevalence of them since the 1970s—when dead zones were detected in Chesapeake Bay off Maryland as well as in Scandinavia’s Kattegat Strait, the mouth of the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the northern Adriatic—hints at mankind’s impact. A 2008 study found more than 400 dead zones worldwide, including in South America, China, Japan, southeast Australia and elsewhere.

Perhaps the most infamous U.S. dead zone is an 8,500 square mile swath (about the size of New Jersey) of the Gulf of Mexico, not far from where the nutrient-laden Mississippi River, which drains farms up and down the Midwest, lets out. Besides decimating the region’s once teeming shrimp industry, low oxygen levels in the water there have led to reproductive problems for fish, leading to lack of spawning and low egg counts. Other notable U.S. dead zones today occur off the coasts of Oregon and Virginia.

Fortunately, dead zones are reversible if their causes are reduced or eliminated. For example, a huge dead zone in the Black Sea largely disappeared in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union, after which there was a huge spike in the cost of chemical fertilizers throughout the region. And while this situation was largely unintentional, the lessons learned have not been lost on scientists, policymakers and the United Nations, which has been pushing to reduce industrial emissions in other areas around the globe where dead zones are a problem. To wit, efforts by countries along the Rhine River to reduce sewage and industrial emissions have reduced nitrogen levels in the North Sea’s dead zone by upwards of 35 percent.

In the U.S., dead zones have also been reduced in the Hudson River and San Francisco Bay following clean-up efforts. Hypoxic conditions continue to plague the Gulf of Mexico, however, with matters made worse by pollution unleashed by Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, as well as by a federal push to increase Midwest corn production, which effectively loads even more algae-inducing nutrients into the already overloaded system. The Mississippi Basin/Gulf of Mexico Water Nutrient Task Force, a coalition of federal, state and tribal agencies, has been busy monitoring the dead zone and recommending ways to reduce it since its formation in 1997. But with industrial and agricultural activity throughout Gulf and Midwestern states only increasing—and Mother Nature not making the job any easier—the task force has an uphill battle on its hands to say the least.

CONTACT: Mississippi Basin/Gulf of Mexico Water Nutrient Task Force, www.epa.gov/owow_keep/msbasin.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I am a retailer and have had customers ask whether the plastic bags in wine boxes are BPA free or not. What can I tell them? -- Chris Tod, via e-mail

The short answer is: “It depends.” A fairly recent innovation in wine packaging, the so-called Bag-in-Box (BIB) dispenser makes use of a plastic bag with a nozzle surrounded by a corrugated cardboard box. The whole package sits easily on a shelf and usually features a built-in spout for easy pouring and resealing. The main benefit is that each box can hold about four bottles-worth of wine, and the BIB technology prevents oxidation, keeping the wine fresh for up to six weeks after the seal has been broken initially.

Besides costing less to manufacture than glass bottles, the Bag-in-Box apparatus, invented by Scholle packaging a half century ago, weighs significantly less, stacks more efficiently (meaning more wine can go with each container load) and will not shatter if dropped. As such, they are easier to transport, which keeps costs down and reduces the carbon footprint of the entire distribution process. While U.S. wine buyers traditionally have viewed wine in a box as cheap and unsavory, several American and European wineries are working to turn that view around by putting out award-winning vintages by the box. Eco-conscious yet no less discriminating wine consumers are helping to drive the growing demand for boxed wines in the
U.S., which currently command about 10 percent of U.S. supermarket wine sales.

But boxed wine may have an environmental dark side: Some of the plastic bags inside the boxes contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that has been in use for four decades to strengthen plastic food containers and other items but recently has been linked to a range of human health problems. “A growing amount of scientific research has linked BPA exposure to altered development of the brain and behavioral changes, a predisposition to prostate and breast cancer, reproductive harm, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The bags are made out of #7 plastic, a catchall category typically containing mixed types of plastic (“polycarbonate”), combined for various practical reasons. As more and more research comes to light, many environmentalists and public health advocates are warning consumers to avoid storing any food or drinks in containers made out of #7 plastic, as there is likelihood that BPA could be part of the mix.

Most wineries offering boxed wines make it clear if their plastic bags do not contain BPA. For one, Scholle Packaging, inventors of the BIB system and one of the largest wine box manufacturers, uses only BPA-free #7 plastic in their bags. Perini, Campo Largo, Bota Box and many other box wines come in BPA-free packaging. The simple way to know is to read the labels when you’re wine shopping.

Also, don’t think that by avoiding boxed wine you are necessarily avoiding BPA. Researchers have found that the plastic stoppers so many of us use to cap an unfinished bottle, not to mention the lining of concrete vats used to store wine at many wineries, contain and can leach BPA into your glass. That’s not to say that all wine contains BPA; quite the contrary, in fact, as most bottled wine still never comes into contact with plastic and as such does not carry any BPA-stigma. Regardless, the more you know, the safer you can be—so that the worst thing you get from your wine is a hangover.

CONTACTS: Scholle, www.scholle.com; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; Bota Box, www.botabox.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its authority over state water quality. Why did they do this, what are the ramifications and what do leading green groups have to say about it? -- Joseph Emory, York, PA

The legislation in question, the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (H.R. 2018), passed the House of Representatives this past July with strong support from Republicans and will likely be voted on by the Senate in the Fall. It aims to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (also known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) in order to give authority over water quality standards back to the states.

The bill’s backers—including most House Republicans and lobbyists for the mountaintop coal mining industry and factory animal farms—claim it will bring jobs to Appalachia and other distressed regions of the country where they say economic growth has been crippled by stringent environmental regulations. The bill would prevent the EPA from overruling decisions made by state regulatory agencies.

“By second-guessing and inserting itself into the states’…standards and permitting decisions, EPA has upset the long-standing balance between federal and state partners in regulating the nation’s waters, and undermined the system of cooperative federalism established under the CWA in which the primary responsibilities for water pollution control are allocated to the states,” says GOP.gov, the website of the Republican majority in Congress. “EPA’s actions have created an atmosphere of regulatory uncertainty for the regulated community, and have had a chilling effect on the nation’s economy and job creation.”

But those opposed to the bill, including the White House and many Congressional Democrats, say that its provisions would undermine stringent federal water quality protections some four decades in the making.

“H.R. 2018 could limit efforts to safeguard communities by removing the Federal Government’s
authority to take action when State water quality standards are not protective of public health,” said the White House after the bill passed in the House by a count of 239-184. Such changes, they added, could adversely impact public health and the environment through increased pollution and degradation of water bodies that provide drinking water, recreation and tourism opportunities, and habitat for fish and wildlife.


For their part, environmental groups couldn’t agree more. “Make no mistake: This bill would take the environmental cop off the beat and put at risk drinking water for millions of people, the habitat for scores of wildlife, and the jobs and economic growth that depends on a safer, cleaner environment,” said Larry Schweiger of the non-profit National Wildlife Federation, adding that, if enacted, the bill would take us “back to a time when rivers caught fire because of rampant pollution.”

Environmentalists are optimistic that backers won’t have enough Senate votes to pass the bill. Meanwhile, President Obama has pledged to veto any such legislation that does make its way across his desk. But political winds shift quickly inside the Beltway, and only time will tell if the bill will gain enough support to withstand a veto. The quality of the nation’s water supply hangs in the balance.

CONTACTS: H.R. 2018, www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-2018; U.S. EPA, www.epa.gov; GOP.gov, www.gop.gov; National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I love to cook and when I have the time I make soups, stews and pasta meals in large batches and freeze them. I use leftover plastic containers, but I know this is not good. What kinds of containers are safe for freezer food storage? -- Kathy Roberto, via e-mail

Reusing leftover plastic food containers to store items in the freezer may be noble environmentally, but it might not be wise from the perspective of keeping food safely frozen and tasting its best when later heated up and served. Many such containers are designed for one-time use and then recycling, so it’s not worth risking using them over and over. Likewise, wax paper, bread wrappers and cardboard cartons should not be used to store frozen foods; these types of containers don’t provide enough of a barrier to moisture and odors and also may not keep food fresh when frozen.

Luckily though, many other materials are suitable for use as freezer-safe storage containers, at least according to the
National Center for Home Food Preparation. To qualify as “freezer-safe,” the Georgia-based non-profit maintains, food storage containers must resist moisture-vapor, oil, grease and water as well as brittleness and cracking at low temperatures, while being durable, leak-proof and easy-to seal. They must also protect foods from absorption of off-flavors or odors. “Good freezing materials include rigid containers made of aluminum, glass, plastic, tin or heavily waxed cardboard; bags and sheets of moisture-vapor resistant wraps; and laminated papers made specially for freezing,” reports the group.

As to the leaking of unsafe constituent chemicals (BPA, phthalates, etc.) from certain plastics into foods, freezing is generally less of a threat than heating, but it is better to avoid plastics known to be problematic anyway just to be safe. Polycarbonate plastic, marked with #7, contains BPA while polyvinyl chloride, marked with #3, contains potentially harmful phthalates. If a plastic item does not bear a recycling number on its bottom, steer clear as it may well be a mix, which classifies it as a #7 polycarbonate.

Of course, the majority of plastic containers designed for freezer use are safe and, since they can be washed and reused, are a better choice than disposable freezer bags and wraps. For those still leery of using plastic at all, glass containers designed to withstand large temperature extremes, such as Ball Freezing Jars (Mason jars) or anything made by Pyrex—regular glass containers could break when frozen or if thawed too quickly—can be a sensible alternative. Also, beware of loading up glass containers to the brim before freezing; some foods expand when frozen so leaving a little extra room between the top of the food and the bottom of the (airtight) lid is always a good idea.

However you store your frozen delicacies, keep in mind that freezing food may inactivate microbes like bacteria and mold but may not destroy them. According to dietician and author Elaine Magee on the MedicineNet website, just thawing out frozen foods doesn’t necessarily mean they are automatically safe to eat. Foods that require cooking still require cooking for health’s sake after thawing. Also, Magee recommends quickly labeling and dating any foods you are freezing to facilitate purging of potentially spoiled or tasteless food down the line.

CONTACTS:
National Center for Home Food Preparation, www.uga.edu/nchfp/; Pyrex, www.pyrex.com; Ball, www.freshpreserving.com; MedicineNet, www.medicinenet.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I remember that medical waste, washing up in
New Jersey, I believe, was a big issue in the late 1980s. Is it still today? -- Walter Maliszewski, Camden, NJ

Medical waste washing up on New Jersey beaches was a big problem in the late 1980s, closing beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the New Jersey shore. Officials scrambled for months to figure out where the waste was coming from, and eventually zeroed in on New York City’s Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Sub-optimal systems there were not successfully containing medical waste and other garbage on site, and New Jersey beaches—and vacationers and business owners—were paying the price. Although no one was injured or exposed to disease by the washed up waste, the public was especially alarmed given the HIV/AIDS crisis gripping the nation at that time. New York City was required to pay $1 million for past pollution damages and had to shoulder the cost of clean-up at Jersey Shore beaches as well.

The resulting loss of tourism cost business owners throughout the affected region as much as 40 percent of their revenue, with total losses estimated at well over $1 billion. Some New Jersey business owners remain upset that New York wasn’t forced to pay them reparations for lost revenue as well.

In the wake of the scare, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act in 1988, requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a program to better track medical waste from cradle-to-grave so that it didn’t end up fouling beaches or any other environments. While the program was not renewed when it expired in 1991, it served as a model for how states and municipalities could better track potentially dangerous medical waste while also helping medical facilities institute systems and processes for making sure they knew where their waste was going and that it would be disposed of responsibly.

Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey have coordinated on setting up and maintaining their own systems to stem the so-called “syringe tides.” The cornerstone is a multi-agency program designed to intercept debris within New Jersey Harbor before it can get to tourist-crowded Jersey Shore beaches. Thanks to the plan—which relies on surveillance by environmental groups as well as routine and special clean-up sweeps by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the implementation of a communications network to facilitate the reporting of incidents and quick responses—beach closures declined from more than 70 miles in 1988 to less than four miles in 1989, with closures remaining at similarly low levels ever since.

Of course, medical waste is hardly the only problem facing America's beaches and coastal waters. According to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), bacterial contamination from sewage treatment outflows, contaminated storm water and other sources caused more than 24,000 beach closures or advisories across the country in 2010 alone. NRDC reports on water quality at U.S. beaches every year in its series of “Testing the Waters” reports. Pressure from the group has helped spur the EPA to agree to overhaul Clean Water Act regulations pertaining to urban and suburban storm water runoff and update decades-old beach water quality standards by 2012. These improvements should help to keep beaches from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to California, and points in between, clear of debris and safe for swimmers and sunbathers of every stripe.

CONTACTS: NRDC Testing the Waters, www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw;

Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988, www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/industrial/medical/tracking.htm.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: What is “nonpoint source pollution?” How much of a problem is it and how can it be controlled? -- Devon Corey, New York, NY

Unlike pollution that comes from specific industrial factories, sewage treatment plants and other easily discernible ‘points’, nonpoint source pollution comes from many diffuse sources, but in the aggregate creates a formidable challenge for municipal, state and federal environmental and water control authorities.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nonpoint source pollution is “caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground [where it...] picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters.” Some of the most common pollutants in nonpoint source pollution include excess fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from agricultural lands and residential areas and oil, grease and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production. Sediment from construction, mining and agricultural sites as well as salts, acids, bacteria and atmospheric deposition from myriad sources also play a role.

While its effects vary region to region, nonpoint source pollution is likely the largest threat to our water quality. The
U.S. has made “tremendous advances in the past 25 years to clean up the aquatic environment by controlling pollution from industries and sewage treatment plants,” says the EPA. “Unfortunately, we did not do enough to control pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint, sources.” The EPA also calls nonpoint source pollution the U.S.’s “largest source of water quality problems” and the main reason 40 percent of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries “are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming.”

Because it comes from so many sources, regulating nonpoint source pollution is almost impossible, so it really comes down to individuals taking steps to minimize the pollution generated by their actions. The EPA reports that we can all do our part by: keeping litter, pet waste, leaves and debris out of street gutters and storm drains, which usually drain right into nearby water bodies; applying lawn and garden chemicals sparingly; disposing of used oil, antifreeze, paints and other household chemicals properly, that is, at your nearest hazardous household waste drop-off, not in storm drains; cleaning up spilled brake fluid, oil, grease and antifreeze, not hosing them into the street where they will eventually reach local waterways; and controlling soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.

Beyond what we can do individually, local, regional and state governments can also help reduce nonpoint source pollution by enacting and enforcing building codes and other rules that can reduce outflows. The voluntary reduction in phosphates in dishwashing detergents in the U.S. last year, for example, was a big step in reducing the nutrient load into our streams and lakes. Some municipalities have gone so far as to mandate erosion and sediment control ordinances requiring the construction of natural buffers in building and landscaping projects to filter out pollutants before they reach local watersheds. If your community doesn’t have similar rules in place, encourage your local officials to enact them.

CONTACT: EPA’s Nonpoint Source Pollution Page, www.epa.gov/owow_keep/NPS.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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