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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are some steps we can all take to prevent beach erosion?

-- Kyle Phillips, via e-mail

Beach erosion is a huge issue for coastal areas in the U.S. and elsewhere. According to the non-profit American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA), all beaches endure storms and other natural disturbances that cause them to lose sand, but the causes of beach erosion are not always the same. “On the West Coast, beaches are sand-starved when river dams block the flow of sand,” the group reports. That contrasts with Eastern beaches, they say, which often lack sand because inlets or navigation projects interrupt the movement of sand along the shore. “Things as disparate as storm-driven waves or a simple change in an offshore sandbar may cause one coastal area to lose sand while another gains.”

“Ultimately, a beach erodes because the supply of sand to the beach can not keep up with the loss of sand to the sea,” says Ken Rubin, Assistant Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Hawaii. “Most sand is transported from inland via rivers and streams. The damming of most waterways in the U.S. has thus prevented a major supply of sand from getting to our beaches.”

He adds that beach erosion can be exaggerated during periods of rapid sea level rise, such as that which we are expected to experience soon as a result of global warming melting the polar ice caps. “When the encroaching sea comes against people’s property, the tendency is for people to try and stop the encroaching sea,” Rubin reports. “They armor the shoreline with seawalls, revetments, jetties, etc. [which] have a negative effect on beaches because once sea water reaches them, it ‘bounces’ off them with more energy than a wave washing back off a normal sand beach.” The result is that more sand is carried off shore, promoting additional beach loss. And the increased severity and frequency of storms due to climate change only serves to further stir up the remaining sand at many beaches.

Unfortunately, beyond keeping our carbon footprints in check, there isn’t much that individuals can do to prevent beach erosion. Building bulkheads in front of individual homes, or along entire beachfronts, may provide some short-term relief from beach erosion, but as often as not these actions can cause worse problems in the long run. And land use regulations that require homes and buildings to be built with a big buffer zone to the beach can go a long way toward protecting personal property and home values in coastal areas, but they won’t help prevent beach erosion.

According to ASBPA, physically adding sand to beaches to replace losses is really the best fix: “Coastal scientists have years of experience with beach restoration projects and have learned that adding sand in the right quantities, properly engineered and maintained, can make a beach last forever.”

Of course the best solution to any problem, including beach erosion, is to address the causes, not the symptoms. Concerted global efforts to curb the emissions that are driving climate change and the elimination of dams along inland waterways are both urgently needed lest we want to keep spending millions of dollars on remediation projects that just have to be repeated over and over again in what is essentially a losing battle.

CONTACTS: ASBPA, www.asbpa.org; Ken Rubin, www.soest.hawaii.edu/krubin.

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’s the skinny on essential oils? I love them, but a friend told me they are no good for the environment. -- Mary M., via e-mail

Essential oils are more popular than ever for medicinal and therapeutic purposes as well as in fragrances and flavorings for food and drinks. Typically produced by harvesting and distilling large amounts of various types of plant matter, essential oils are in many cases all-natural and can take the place of synthetic chemicals in many consumer applications. But some wonder whether our fascination with essential oils is so good for the planet, now that their popularity has turned them into big business.

“It often takes hundreds of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil,” reports aromatherapist and author Mindy Green of GreenScentsations.com. She adds that it takes 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus to produce one pound of eucalyptus oil, 200-250 pounds of lavender for one pound of lavender oil, 2,000 pounds of cypress for a pound of cypress oil and as many as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms for one pound of rose oil. Production of these source crops takes place all over the world and is often organized by large multinational corporations with little regard for local economies or ecosystems.

“Growing the substantial quantities of plant material needed to produce essential oils results in a monoculture style of farming, with large swaths of land dedicated to a single species,” says Green. “These systems are most efficiently managed by intense mechanization, and irrigation is frequently used for optimal oil production of the plants.”

“As global citizens we have not learned how to equitably distribute vital resources like food, and water resources are trending toward a crisis of the future,” adds Green, “so there are deep ethical concerns about devoting croplands to essential oils destined for use in candles, bath oils, perfumes, or lavish massage and spa purposes.” Green also warns that many essential oils are not produced from sustainable sources. “Some species are at risk, particularly those occupying marginal habitats such as dwindling tropical forests,” she reports, adding that the poverty-stricken in developing countries will harvest and sell whatever they can, in order to put food on their own tables.

Cropwatch, a non-profit that keeps tabs on the natural aromatics industry, maintains a list of wild species threatened by the fast-growing essential oil trade. Of particular concern are essential oils derived from rosewood, sandalwood, amyris, thyme, cedarwood, jatamansi, gentian, wormwood and cinnamon, among others, as they may well be derived from threatened and illegally harvested wild plant stocks.

Also, some essential oils must be treated as hazardous if spilled and should be kept out of sewers and local waterways. Mountain Rose Herbs, a leading retailer of essential oils, reports that if its tea tree oil spills, it should be absorbed with inert material and sealed it in a container before disposal at a hazardous waste collection site. Such information is included on the company’s Material Safety Data Sheet for every essential oil and includes information about flammability and chemical composition. Consumers would be well served to check the MSDS for any essential oils they might like—Mountain Rose will supply them to customers by request—to make sure they are using (and disposing of) them correctly.

CONTACTS: Green Scentsations, www.greenscentsations.com, Cropwatch, www.cropwatch.org, Mountain Rose Herbs, www.mountainroseherbs.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: What are the environmental risks associated with beach resorts?

-- Shine Shoukkathali, via e-mail

While they may put up with a lot of stress from wind, waves and weather, beaches and the coastal environments surrounding them are surprisingly fragile. The ecosystems which make up coastal areas have evolved over eons to their current natural states as to their geologic features and the types and distribution of native plants and animals that live there. When large numbers of humans move in, whether as full-time residents or vacationers, the dynamics of local ecosystems begin to change. If the growth is not managed well, this inundation with people can contribute to a wide range of environmental problems.

For starters, development of any kind can scar ecosystems and seriously reduce or eliminate wildlife habitat. As houses, condos, shops, restaurants and other buildings begin to replace sand, grasses, trees and other natural features, the birds, fish and other wildlife that frequent such areas are forced to look elsewhere for suitable habitat if they can find any at all. An oft-repeated side effect of all this building is the removal of mangrove forests and sea grass meadows—important natural buffers against destructive waves from storms as well as important wildlife habitat. Other examples of coastal development gone awry include boardwalks or marinas built near or on top of coral reefs; beach-front houses, condos, hotels or golf courses replacing sand dunes and meadows; massive amounts of freshwater getting diverted from coastal rivers and streams for the benefit of tourists; and sea turtles scared off from nest sites.

According to the Climate Institute, the impact of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was much greater in more developed sections of coastal Thailand where mangrove and coral reef loss preceded the natural disaster. “In the absence of these natural protective barriers, the giant wave carried its energy all the way to shore, killing over 250,000 people and causing billions of dollars of damage,” reports the group. “In areas where natural buffer zones remained, such as the Phang Nga province, inland territories were protected by large mangrove forest that dulled the wave’s impact and dissipated its energy.”

“The indiscriminate conversion of natural shorelines and mangrove forest ecosystems for shrimp farming, urban settlements, tourism development and other often unregulated and unplanned human activities over the past several decades often make the coastal areas and its inhabitants much more vulnerable to the immense destructive force of the tsunamis,” reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Likewise, the hurricanes that have battered the U.S. in recent years have been far more destructive than those previous, and many blame unrestrained coastal development. “A significant chunk of the $200-billion-plus bill from the Katrina-Rita hurricanes might have been avoided if there’d been tough, realistic plans to deter development in exposed coastal areas through buffer zones, wetlands protection, tough building codes and relocating settlements to higher land,” reports the news service Common Dreams.

The key to minimizing property damage and the loss of lives from such natural disasters may well be in what we allow to be developed. By now, most North American coastal regions have learned their lesson the hard way about the perils of unrestrained development, and new building codes now tend to be much tougher. But with coast-battering storms getting more frequent and intense, all bets are off as to whether our newer rules will be enough to protect beaches and surrounding coastal areas in decades to come.

CONTACTS: Climate Institute, www.climate.org; WWF, www.panda.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 work for the Gap and know firsthand the amount of waste that’s produced at my store. Can you suggest ways retail stores can reduce waste? And how can I get a conversation started with the people upstairs about recycling and being less wasteful? -- Name withheld, via e-mail

Waste is an issue for all retail operations, given the need to take in and unpack large numbers of individual items and then display and package them up in a way that customers will appreciate.

CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) suggests that retailers consider the three R’s—reduce, reuse and recycle—when setting up their sourcing, packaging and related procedures. As for reducing, CalRecycle encourages retailers to ask their suppliers to provide items without excess packaging and to reuse whatever packaging they can. Also, stores can give customers the choice of having their purchases bagged—or give a discount to those who bring their own or go without.

For reusing, CalRecycle recommends donating old merchandise to charities rather than throwing it in the trash, and looking for schools or institutions that would take display racks and other decor elements from the previous sales season. Posting such items to a materials exchange is a quick way to find takers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a state list of material exchanges on its website.

Retailers can maximize the amount of recycled packaging in their stores by demanding their suppliers use it. And if a store has enough recyclables it may be able to sell it to an industrial recycler periodically.

If a store is in a mall, there may be other opportunities for greening. “Mall property managers and anchor stores can provide leadership by coordinating waste prevention, recycling and purchasing programs at multitenant complexes,” says CalRecycle. “Mall managers can consolidate efforts among businesses to generate large amounts of recyclable material, thereby making recycling more cost effective.”

All big retail chains have sustainability challenges, but the Gap has made great strides in the last decade in reducing waste and its overall environmental footprint. They recently completed a green makeover of their corporate offices in San Francisco, diverting as much as 75 percent of the waste stream there.

While the Gap has limited control over what goes on at its retail stores given local rules and systems for waste management, it is partnering with other retailers through industry groups to facilitate recycling in mall store environments and establish lease templates that support waste reduction and other environmental goals. The company is also part of the Clean by Design program, an initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to marshal the buying power of multinational corporations (including Wal-Mart, Levi’s, Nike and others) to reduce waste and emissions among suppliers abroad.

But just because the company is on the case doesn’t mean new suggestions aren’t welcome. Corporate leaders at companies like the Gap often encourage feedback from workers, especially when it could benefit the company’s bottom line or image. Offering some concrete, succinct examples of ways the company could reduce waste would most likely be the best approach.

CONTACTS: CalRecycle, www.calrecycle.ca.gov; Gap Social & Environmental Responsibility Report, www.gapinc.com/content/csr/html.html; Clean by Design, www.nrdc.org/international/cleanbydesign; EPA Materials Exchange, www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/tools/exchstat.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.


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