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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are some cool apps that work with a mobile phone that can help me get in better touch with the environment? -- Mitchell Brown, Troy, MI

Not surprisingly, there are thousands of “green” apps out there that make it easier for people to find and share information to help us all become better stewards of the natural environment.

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air app shows live color-coded air quality maps for any U.S. location and includes both ozone and particulate pollution counts. The app also provides air quality alerts, short-term forecasts and opportunities to learn more about air quality risks and to contact lawmakers to push for more stringent pollution regulations. Another way to find out who’s emitting what nearby is via aMobileFuture’s Pollution, a free app that compiles information from various pollution databases around the world and then shows users which big polluters are emitting what near them. Coverage includes 1,380 cities, mostly in Europe and the U.S.

Ethical shoppers will appreciate the GoodGuide, a free app that shows how any of 120,000 food, personal care and household products stack up in terms of sustainability, fair wages and even health risks. Users just snap a picture of an item’s bar code to get the low-down on whether or not it’s a “good” buy. And the free JouleBug app turns living greener into a game, taking specific sustainability-oriented steps such as reducing energy use, recycling more or buying local and translating these small acts into positive “units of impact.” Embedded videos demonstrate ways once can green up daily life.

Adair Systems’ 99 cents GasHog app makes it easy to track a car’s fuel efficiency. Enter the odometer reading and amount of fuel added each time you refill the tank and the app calculates the fuel economy of the previous tank and compares it to historical averages. The app also offers tips for improving fuel economy. And Avego’s free CarmaCarpooling app matches nearby drivers with riders to share the commute and the expense. At the end of the trip, the rider can send a payment through the system to the driver to cover a share of gas and wear-and-tear.

PaperKarma is a free app to help reduce junk mail. Users input their address information once and then snap a picture through the app of any unwanted junk mail. Behind the scenes, PaperKarma’s automated system notifies the publisher to take the user’s name and address off their list.

Another popular app is Light Bulb Finder, a free app designed to help ease the transition from older incandescent bulbs to more energy efficient replacements. Users enter in their zip code—the app automatically inputs average regional electricity rates accordingly—and then choose which type of fixture, size/shape and wattage bulb(s) they are looking to replace. The app then suggests options that use less energy and shows how much money the user can expect to save with the newer bulb(s).

It’s nice to know that the little screens we’ve become increasingly dependent upon—and which otherwise tend to distract us from nature and the outdoors—can also be used for the betterment of the environment.

CONTACTS: State of the Air App, www.lung.org/healthy-air/outdoor/state-of-the-air/app.html;

JouleBug, www.joulebug.com; GasHog, www.adairsystems.com/gashog; CarmaCarpooling, www.carmacarpool.com; Light Bulb Finder, www.lightbulbfinder.net; GoodGuide, www.goodguide.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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s going on with Earth Day this year and how can I get involved?

-- Christine B., Boston, MA

This coming April 22 will mark the 44th annual celebration of Earth Day, and the focus this year will be green cities. “As the world’s population migrates to cities, and as the bleak reality of climate change becomes increasingly clear, the need to create sustainable communities is more important than ever,” reports Earth Day Network, the Seattle-based non-profit that helps coordinate Earth Day celebrations and serves as a clearinghouse for related information and resources. The group hopes to galvanize the support of more than a billion people across 192 countries this Earth Day for increasing the sustainability and reducing the carbon footprints of urban areas everywhere.

By focusing on buildings, energy and transportation issues in cities this year, Earth Day Network hopes to raise awareness about the importance of making improvements in efficiency, investments in renewable technology and regulation reform in the urban areas where half the world’s population lives today. By 2050, three quarters of us will live in cities, making it more important than ever to adapt and adopt policies that take into account how to support larger numbers of people with less environmental impact.

Earth Day Network has already mobilized a network of partners on the ground in strategically placed cities and towns around the world to organize grassroots efforts to improve local codes, ordinances and policies that will help cities become models for sustainability, but participation of the wider public is crucial to making the Green Cities campaign a success. The Green Cities section of Earth Day Network’s website features a series of in-depth tool kits designed to educate the public about key elements of the campaign and serves as the locus of organizing around Earth Day 2014. By making such resources freely available, Earth Day Network hopes to spur individuals to take civic action by signing petitions, sending letters to policymakers and organizing more events.

Some of the ways to get involved and raise awareness in your local community about Earth Day itself and the need to green our cities include: hosting a talk for co-workers or community members on the topic of local sustainability initiatives; starting a farmers’ market; organizing a day of tree planting, park or beach clean-up, or an eco-fair; and leading a recycling drive to collect as much metal, plastic and glass as possible. Schools can register with Earth Day Network and get access to many student-friendly resources, including an interactive Ecological Footprint Quiz and environmentally-themed lesson plans tailored to the needs of different grade levels from kindergarten through high school. College students can work with dining services to start a composting program or switch over to reusable plates and flatware or start a competition between classes or residence halls to reduce waste and electricity use.

Those looking to initiate just participate in an Earth Day event need look no further than Earth Day Network’s website, where a comprehensive database of Earth Day events around the world is updated daily. Even better, keep in mind that every day is Earth Day and the planet—and generations to come—will benefit from every positive action you take.

CONTACT: Earth Day Network, www.earthday.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: What’s behind the rise in public transit in the U.S. in the last few years, and how does our transit use compare with that of other developed countries? -- Angie Whitby, New Bern, NC

Transit ridership is indeed at its highest level in the U.S. in 57 years. According to data collected by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2013—the highest number since the 1950s when many fewer of us owned our own cars.

And this increase “isn’t just a one-year blip,” says APTA. Since 1995—when Congress passed the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills that greatly increased funding for public transit—U.S. ridership has risen 37.2 percent, topping both population growth (up 20.3 percent) and vehicle miles traveled (up 22.7 percent). “There's a fundamental shift going on,” says APTA’s president Michael Melaniphy. “More and more people are deciding that public transportation is a good option."

A number of factors are contributing to Americans’ embrace of transit in recent years. For one, the flow of federal dollars to transportation alternatives since 1995 has meant more options than ever are available to those leaving their cars behind: Melaniphy reports that in the last two years, upwards of 70 percent of transit tax initiatives have passed, providing lots more funding for beefing up transit projects coast-to-coast. Another factor is the economic recovery. “When more people are employed, public transportation ridership increases, since nearly 60 percent of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes,” says Melaniphy. “People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth.”

Despite these gains, the U.S. still lags way behind other developed nations. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Ralph Buehler cites 2010 statistics showing that, while Americans drive for 85 percent of their daily trips, Europeans opt for cars only 50-65 percent of the time. “Longer trip distances only partially explain the difference,” reports Buehler, adding that 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on both continents. “But of those under-one-mile trips, Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot or public transportation.”

The U.S. ranked last in the National Geographic Society’s Greendex survey of transit use across 17 developed nations. Only five percent of Americans surveyed reported using public transit on a daily basis and only seven percent reported using it at least once a week. Internationally, 25 percent of respondents reported daily public transportation use, with 41 percent using it at least once a week. According to Greendex, Canadians are more than twice as likely to report weekly or more transit usage than Americans, while Germans are almost five times more likely to use transit at least weekly. Russia topped the list with 52 percent of respondents using public transit daily and 23 percent using it at least once a week.

Given America’s suburban sprawl—and the car-based infrastructure that has built up to support it—it’s hard to believe the U.S. will ever catch up with other developed countries in transit usage. But that won’t stop millions of forward-thinking Americans from trying.

CONTACTS: APTA, www.apta.org; The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com; National Geographic Greendex, environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/greendex.

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: Apple just put out a big PR campaign about its sustainability initiatives. Has the company made real progress in this regard or is this just more corporate “greenwashing?” And how are the other big tech companies addressing their carbon footprints? -- Billy A., Oakland, CA

Long criticized for its lack of commitment to sustainability—from supporting the dangerous mining of precious resources and exploiting factory workers to powering its data centers with energy derived from coal and not taking back products for recycling—Apple has really worked on turning things around over the past couple of years. Indeed, just this past month the company announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers now operate on power from renewable sources.

Environmentalists first took notice that serious change was afoot at Apple in May 2013 when the company brought in former Obama Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson to head its corporate environmental initiative. Since then, the company has unveiled plans showing how its new corporate headquarters—currently under construction in Cupertino, California—will use 30 percent less energy than an equivalent conventional building while playing host to some 7,000 carbon-sequestering trees. Apple also reports that it has decreased the material required to produce its iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs. A new iPad Air, for instance, uses a third less material overall by weight than the original iPad. And all of the company’s retail stores will now take back any Apple products for free recycling—U.S. and U.K. consumers can even earn gift cards for turning in old iPhones, iPads and computers.

Of course, Apple still has work to do. The nonprofit Friends of the Earth has been on the company’s case to agree to a plan that will reign in the human and environmental toll of destructive tin mining in Indonesia and elsewhere. Tin is a major component of the solder in smart phones and other electronics and the popularity of such items has pushed miners to extremes and is linked to the destruction of tropical rainforests, coral reefs and commercial fisheries. Apple sent a team of investigators to the Indonesian islands responsible for producing some 30 percent of the world’s commercially available tin, but the company has yet to commit to any changes in the way it sources this increasingly valuable raw material.

As for other tech/Internet companies, Greenpeace has been assessing and tracking environmental performance of the big players for more than a decade. “The Internet we love, and the companies that run it are at a crossroads in terms of where their energy comes from,” reports the group. “Many of these companies have already chosen the road to a green internet and a sustainable future.” Some of the best performers besides Apple include Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Rackspace and Box, each of which has committed to 100 percent renewable energy.

Greenpeace isn’t as bullish on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Amazon, each of which relies heavily on coal-fired power sources for their data centers and other operations, but still says. “If Amazon and others want to stay innovative and relevant, it's high time they made the switch to the abundant, sustainable, renewable energy of today.” Concerned consumers can sign Greenpeace’s online #ClickClean petition asking these big players to step up and commit to renewable energy and environmentally responsible operations.

CONTACTS: Apple Environmental Responsibility, www.apple.com/environment; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.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.


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