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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is there a way to get local communities involved in cleaning up waterways, like rivers, lakes, streams and creeks? -- Rebecca, via e-mail

Indeed, many of our local waterways have seen better days, thanks to decades of pollution. And cleaning them up and preventing further damage can be challenging, since much of the contamination has accumulated over time and results from what is known as “non-point source” pollution, which accounts for as much as 60 percent of the water pollution in the U.S.

“When it rains, fertilizer from lawns, oil from driveways, paint and solvent residues from walls and decks and even pet waste are all washed into storm sewers or nearby lakes, rivers and streams—the same lakes, rivers and streams we rely on for drinking water supply, boating, swimming and fishing,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Also, improper handling of materials around the house can lead to pollution.”

According to NRDC, each of us can do our part to reduce this run-off pollution and thus help protect local waterways. For one, we can replace concrete and other hard surfaces around our homes with porous materials, so that rainwater drains naturally into the ground and not into pathways that lead it into waterways. We can landscape with native plants and natural fertilizers, and refrain from over-watering our lawns and gardens. And we can properly dispose of hazardous products (that is, not right down the drain), wash our cars at professional carwashes (where there are proper wastewater treatment procedures), recycle used motor oil, and use non-toxic alternatives for household chemicals whenever possible.

Of course, there is only so much that individuals can do on their own. While preventing pollution at the source is important, many waterways have so much legacy pollution in them already that they need to be cleaned up directly—no small job and typically way beyond the scope of a few individuals. Some municipal, county or state governments might be inclined to help, but getting friends and neighbors involved first is a good way to demonstrate community support. Also, local businesses, non-profit groups, youth centers and schools are often looking for ways to get people involved in community service projects, so asking around town might be the best way to enlist dozens or more volunteers.

Another way to get the ball rolling is to sign up with American Rivers’ National River Cleanup program. Individuals, organizations and anyone interested in conducting a cleanup on their local river can register with the program and get free trash bags as well as assistance with media coverage, volunteer promotion and technical support. The program has helped more than a million volunteers participate in thousands of cleanups covering more than 244,500 miles of waterways across the U.S. since it began in 1991.

“These cleanups have removed more than 16.5 million pounds of litter and debris from America’s rivers and streams,” reports American Rivers. 2012 was the most successful year to date in the history of the program, with 400+ registered cleanups, 92,500 volunteers nationwide, 3.5 million pounds of trash removed from American waterways, and 39,000 miles of waterway cleaned. The group is hoping 2013 will turn out to be another record year for the program.

CONTACTS: NRDC’s “How to Clean Up Our Water,” www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/gsteps.asp; American Rivers’ National River Cleanup, www.americanrivers.org/take-action/cleanup.

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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ideas for being greener this holiday season?

-- Beth Livingston, Camden, NJ

While the holidays are festive and fun, they can take a toll on the environment. All that shopping, decoration, food preparation and travel adds up to more carbon emissions and more waste. But there are ways to minimize our impact and still celebrate the season in grand style.

For starters, buy fewer gifts. Homemade, personal gifts are always appreciated as much or more than something store-bought. Paint a painting, bake a cake, or make a playlist of favorite songs. EarthEasy.com recommends giving services instead of goods to cut down on the materialism of the holidays: “A great gift could be an hour's massage at a local spa, or music lessons for a budding musician.” Other service gift ideas include childcare or tutoring, dog walking, cooking, window-washing, a car wash and vacuum or even Internet/computer lessons. Another way to cut down on the amount of stuff passing under your tree is by having a Secret Santa exchange among grown-ups so that every adult doesn’t have to get gifts for several others.

Another way to save energy and waste is to tone down the holiday decorating, especially with regard to lighting. A 2008 report commissioned by the Department of Energy found that holiday lighting across the U.S. uses up some six terawatt-hours of electricity per year, which is equivalent to the total electricity consumption of half a million homes in a month. If you do still decide to indulge in holiday lights, try to go LED. The smaller “light emitting diode” bulbs don’t get hot to the touch (and are less likely to start a fire) and consume a fraction of the electricity of their incandescent predecessors while lasting 10 times longer. HolidayLEDs.com gives customers who recycle their old holiday lights with them a voucher for 15 percent off a new order of LED lights.

Believe it or not, your choice of a Christmas tree affects your environmental footprint as well. The Epoch Times reports that artificial trees are not necessarily the answer, as most are made out of petrochemicals, PVC, metals or sometimes even lead, and can't usually be recycled so end up in landfills after a few years of useful life. Furthermore, some 80 percent of artificial trees are made in China, meaning shipping them on trucks, railways and container ships uses a lot of fuel and emits a lot of carbon dioxide accordingly.

Getting a real tree, preferably one that is organic and sustainably harvested by a local tree farmer, is a better choice. After all, real trees provide habitat for wildlife while they are growing, and they filter dust and pollen out of the air while producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. The Epoch Times adds that typically one to three tree seeds are planted for every Christmas tree harvested in the U.S. And if you get a potted (living) Christmas tree, you can keep it for years after the holidays pass, either in its pot (or a bigger one as it grows) or in the ground outside.

Of course, another way to keep your carbon footprint down over the holidays is by just staying home. A third of the carbon emissions we generate in our daily lives come from driving our cars, so why not stay off the roads over the holidays? And air travel is one of the biggest carbon splurges any of us indulge in, so not jetting across the country to visit in-laws might be the best environmental action you take all year.

CONTACTS: EarthEasy.com, www.eartheasy.com; The Epoch Times, www.theepochtimes.com; HolidayLEDs.com, www.holidayleds.com/holidayledscom_christmas_light_recycling_program.

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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How can it be that carbon dioxide emissions are the lowest they have been in the United States in 20 years despite the fact that we have no binding federal legislation limiting them?

-- Jason Johnson, Port Chester, NY

Carbon dioxide emissions are indeed lower than at any time since 1994, according to data recently released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). But if you think that the rise of the hybrid car, our embrace of public transit, walking, biking and those new windows on the house are behind the trend, think again. According to the EIA, increased energy efficiency has played a role, as have recent warmer winters and the recession, but the key driver has been the swapping out of coal at power plants and industrial facilities across the country for cleaner-burning and now more abundant natural gas.

The reason so much natural gas is around is the rise of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), a technique whereby drillers inject water and chemicals into underground shale rock deposits to free up otherwise trapped natural gas. Fracking has allowed U.S. oil companies to access huge natural gas deposits from the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast and elsewhere. The increased supply has brought natural gas prices down so that it has been cheaper than coal during the last few years. Our carbon footprint benefits because burning natural gas to generate electricity generates about half the carbon emissions of coal for every megawatt hour of power generated.

But Americans might not want to pat themselves on the back for too long, as the positive trend won’t continue indefinitely. “Replacing coal with natural gas reduces smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, but natural gas production and distribution comes with a host of problems, including methane leaks, contaminated water supplies, destroyed streams and devastated landscapes,” says Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “And while gas-fired power plants have lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal-fired ones, their emissions are still far too high to be considered a global warming solution.”

Furthermore, EIA says our energy-related carbon emissions are already rising again given recent increases in natural gas prices that have steered some utilities back to coal. The EIA anticipates U.S. energy-related carbon emissions rising 1.7 percent in 2013 and another 0.9 percent in 2014. The most important remaining question, says Lashof, is whether or not the U.S. will continue to reduce its CO2 emissions to achieve the president’s 2020 goal of a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels—and eventually the 80 percent or more reductions needed to prevent the most dangerous risks of climate disruption. The target is within reach, he says, but power plant carbon pollution standards, among other changes, will be needed.

Lashof adds that the only way to keep the ball rolling is via a coordinated effort including stricter federal carbon and energy efficiency standards, new state renewable energy and energy efficiency incentives and reworked zoning and transportation policies that discourage the use of private automobiles. “We can build the clean energy future we need, but we aren’t there yet and it’s not going to happen by itself.”

Also, even if Americans can mobilize to get their emissions in check, will it matter? During 2012, energy-related carbon emissions fell by some 3.7 percent in the U.S., but rose 1.4 percent overall around the world. Indeed, global carbon emissions are on an unrelenting upward march as developing nations acquire the taste for the extravagant fossil-fuel-driven lifestyle perfected in the U.S.

CONTACTS: U.S. Energy Information Administration, www.eia.gov; NRDC, www.nrdc.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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Do you have any tips for explaining global warming and other complex environmental problems to my kids? -- Peter Buckley, Pittsburgh, PA

Kids today may be more eco-savvy than we were at their age, but complex topics like global warming may still mystify them. Luckily there are many resources available to help parents teach their kids how to understand the issues and become better stewards for the planet.

A great place to start is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change” website. The site is divided into sections (Learn the Basics, See the Impacts, Think like a Scientist and Be Part of the Solution) so kids can get just the right amount of detail without feeling overwhelmed. One feature of the site is a virtual trip around the world to see the effects of climate change in different regions. An emissions calculator—with questions tailored to kids’ lifestyles—helps connect everyday actions (like running the water while brushing teeth) and climate change. And a FAQ page answers some of the most common questions about climate change in easy-to-read short paragraphs.

Another great online resource is NASA’s Climate Kids website, which engages kids with games, videos and craft activities and offers digestible info on what’s causing climate change and how kids can make a difference. A guided tour of the “Big Questions” (What does climate change mean? What is the greenhouse effect? How do we know the climate is changing? What is happening in the oceans? and others) uses cartoon characters and brightly colored designs to help kids come to grips with the basics.

Perhaps even more engaging for those eight and older is Cool It!, a card game from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The game, designed in collaboration with science educators, requires players to collect “solution” cards in the categories of energy, transportation and forests, while slowing opponents down by playing “problem” cards along the way. “The game enables teachers and parents to talk about global warming in a fun and hopeful way,” reports UCS. “Kids, meanwhile, will learn that all of us make choices that determine whether the world warms a little or a lot, and which of those choices reduce global warming emissions.” The game is available for purchase ($7.95) directly from the UCS website.

Younger kids curious about climate change can consult the Professor Sneeze website, which features online illustrated children’s stories that present global warming in a familiar context. The stories for five- to eight-year-olds follow a cartoon bunny on various warming related adventures. A few of the story titles include “The Earth Has a Fever,” “Where Are the Igloos of Iglooville?” and “Tears on the Other Side of the World.” The site also features stories geared toward 8- to 10-year-olds and 10- to 12-year-olds.

Of course, teachers can play a key role in making sure kids are well versed in the science of climate change. A recently launched initiative from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE)—long respected for its work in defending and supporting the teaching of evolution in the public schools—aims to help teachers do a better job of teaching climate change in the classroom. The group’s Climate Change Education website points teachers to a treasure trove of resources they can use to demystify the science behind global warming, combat “climate change denial” and support “climate literacy.”

CONTACTS: EPA’s “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” www.epa.gov/climatestudents; NASA Climate Kids, http://climatekids.nasa.gov; NCSE’s Climate Change Education Initiative, http://ncse.com/climate; Professor Sneeze, www.contespedagogiques.be/pages/accueil_angl.html.

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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are “dark factories” and are they good for the environment?

-- Mitchell Pearson, Erie, PA

So-called dark factories—otherwise known as “lights out” or “automatic” factories—are manufacturing facilities that do not depend on human labor to get work done. While they may have some benefits for the environment they are certainly not beneficial overall considering the impact widespread adoption would have on needed jobs.

Without human line workers, such factories can operate without lights, heating and cooling and other “amenities” required by human workers. Of course, very few such facilities are completely automated, as human workers are usually required to set up equipment or remove completed parts. And some run “lights-out” between human labor shifts or as separate shifts to meet increasing demand or save money.

And while the up-front costs of setting up automated work routines manned by robots and other machines may be higher than setting up a traditional factory, on-going expenses can be significantly less given the lack of human payroll and other human-centric outlays.

The first dark factories started appearing in Japan in the 1980s as companies there started to take advantage of improvements in the technology of robotics and automation to get around the high costs of human labor. At that time, business analysts predicted then that as technology improved and qualified workers became harder to find and more expensive to support, dark factories would become more prevalent around the world. But in the interim the spread of manufacturing to developing nations with cheap human labor may have temporarily forestalled the rise of dark factories. Also, General Motors’ unsuccessful implementation of automated manufacturing in the 1980s—quality declined and sales fell accordingly—soured many big companies on the concept back then.

That said, there are many thriving examples of dark factories around the world. Many machine shops in the U.S. run “unattended” all or part of the time. Robots are commonplace now in the auto industry despite GM’s faltering early on. Amazon.com makes extensive use of robotic systems in its distribution centers and last year even acquired the company behind the technology, Kiva Systems, for $775 million in cash. In Japan, FANUC Robotics operates a lights-out factory employing robots to make other robots. Japanese camera giant Canon recently announced that it is phasing out human workers at several camera factories by 2015. And in the Netherlands, Philips produces electric razors in a facility with 128 robots and nine human quality assurance workers.

While widespread adoption, lights-out manufacturing could deliver substantial energy savings and thus be environmentally beneficial, but analysts wonder whether replacing human laborers with computers, machines and robots is a good thing for humanity overall. According to NaturalNews.com editor Mike Adams, the rise of automation is more likely to sharply divide the economic classes and cause widespread strife. “Those who are replaced by robots will become jobless and homeless,” he explains. “Those whose lives are enriched by the benefit of the robots will become abundantly wealthy in the material quality of their lives.”

CONTACTS: FANUC Robotics, www.fanucrobotics.com; Kiva Systems, www.kivasystems.com; SingularityHub, www.singularityhub.com, NaturalNews.com, www.naturalnews.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.


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