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Deaths of Baby Dolphins and the Health of the Gulf

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011
By Christa

Since the start of 2011, twenty-four dolphin calves have been found dead on shores of Alabama and Mississippi – about ten times what’s normal. Scientists, as you might imagine, aren’t happy about what that number says about the health of the Gulf of Mexico. No one’s shouting BP! BP!, but the folks investigating the circumstances behind the dolphin deaths aren’t ruling out after-effects of the oil spill as a potential cause. Make of that what you will, since the jury is still out.

The IMMS said it has been able to perform full necropsies on a third of the 24 calves. The majority of the calves were too decomposed for a full examination, but the institute has taken tissue samples for analysis.

“In a world when we wouldn’t be dealing with oil-spill protocols, we’d typically get results in about three weeks to a month,” [Blair Mase of NOAA] said. “We aren’t going to see results as quickly as we’d like to. We will be making sure these samples are collected, taken back and analyzed, but it could take several months.”

While none of the 30 dolphins were found with any oil on them, Mase said the agency is not ruling anything in or out on the cause of death.

There are plenty of possibilities. Six of the bodies were found intact enough for dissection, and were found to be a mix of stillborn, premature, and full-term calves that died shortly after birth. Marine mammals like dolphins are particularly sensitive to algae blooms, diseases that spread through pods, temperature and environmental changes, and of course, human impact. Which means that it could be anything.

But when we’re seeing 10 times the normal number of dead dolphins washing up on shore over in an area large enough to indicate multiple pods may be involved and scientists are calling the numbers “unprecedented,” something weird is probably going on. Right?

What Are YOU Breathing: Indoor Air Quality In the Winter

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
By Christa

How bad is indoor air pollution in the winter, really? According to some people, it can be pretty bad – as in worse than the pollution in the air outdoors. Think of outdoor air as the baseline, and imagine that everything that’s offgassing or putting out emissions in your home is adding to that. Then add to that the fact that in the battle of the wintertime drafts, we’re blocking out incoming fresh air, aka drafts.

So where’s all this indoor air pollution coming from? Cigarettes, if you’re a smoker. And incense, candles, and cooking. Consumer products releasing formaldehyde fumes and other aldehydes into the air. And sometimes even mold, if you like to keep things moist. Among other things.

None of us in cold weather climates is exempt, so it’s pretty important that we look into ways of cleaning our indoor air when we’re spending so much time breathing it in! Here are five ways to improve indoor air quality in your home for the remainder of this long, chilly winter:

1. When you have a choice, stick to VOC-free paint and organic mattresses and air-friendly, natural versions of things that tend to release nasty gasses in synthetic form. That means rugs and couches and plastic products.

2. Make sure your exhaust fans actually vent out of doors – the air in kitchens and bathrooms can get pretty moist, and that can lead to a buildup of mold. If your fans don’t vent to the outside, consider buying a small dehumidifier if your home tends to retain moisture.

3. Quit smoking! It’s not just bad for the air, it’s also bad for you. Can’t fathom quitting? Then brave the cold and light up outside where the secondhand smoke can dissipate instead of lingering in the air.

4. Make sure combustion appliances, like gas stoves, fireplaces, boilers, and furnaces are working at peak efficiency. That means changing filters, getting regular maintenance done, and keeping appliances clean.

5. Speaking of cleaning, damp dusting and vacuuming – especially with a specialized HEPA filters can go a long way toward clearing the air of allergens and particulates that settle and are disturbed, settle and are disturbed. For keeping air clean, stick to homemade cleansers like these.

Hang some houseplants!

In 1984, NASA senior research scientist Dr. Bill Wolverton tested houseplants for their ability to maintain clean air for future habitable lunar bases. Testing in sealed chambers, Wolverton found that philodendrons and golden pothos were excellent formaldehyde controllers; gerbera daisy and chrysanthemums were impressive benzene purgers; pot mums and peace lilies were highly rated for TCE removal. His initial findings suggested that one to three mature plants were enough to improve the air in a 100-cubic-foot area. He also found that it wasn’t just plants doing the clean-up work, but the microbes that were specific to the plants’ roots. Another 1989 NASA study concluded that tested houseplants removed up to 87 percent of toxic indoor air within 24 hours.

P.S. – Yours truly recently posted over at Manolo for the Brides about sustainable wedding trends! If you’re engaged or weddings are just one of your favorite things, check it out.

Can Greener, Smaller Cars Make a Dent In the U.S. Auto Market?

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011
By Christa

Right now, from my window, I can see SUVs, van/wagon hybrids, full-size vans, and I kid you not, a Hummer. There are a lot of smaller cars, too, but I wouldn’t exactly call them small cars. At least not by the rest of the world’s standards. I remember being surprised when I lived in Germany and then in Costa Rica at how little the cars were. Even families with three kids were driving diesel hatchbacks – squeezing everyone in using wee carseats like the Coccoro.

It seems like in a lot of places, if you’re not contractor or hauling something, your car probably has just enough room to transport you, yours, and some travel gear. Not nearly enough space to haul a dog sledding team and a secondhand piano.

smaller green cars

But do we ever love our big cars here in the U.S.! Even though most of the time, a smaller car with a smaller engine means a more fuel-efficient car, which means a car that uses less gasoline and emits fewer emissions.

As it turns out, people shopping for cars talk a green game – there’s a growing interest in greener cars and smaller cars among buyers – but when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, shoppers in the U.S. are still more likely to go large. And that’s made it really hard for greener cars – including smaller cars – to gain a foothold in the market.

A clear example is shown in the seesawing fortunes of the Smart fortwo, which sold 24,000 in 2008 ($4.50 a gallon) and just 14,000 in 2009 ($2.50 a gallon). “People had their hands in their pockets in 2009,” said Jill Lajdziak, president of Smart USA, who undoubtedly had her hands full supplying dealers with the right number of cars.

In 2010, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. was the Ford F-150 pickup truck. And in 2010, sales of gas-electric hybrids declined quite a bit. But in just a few months, GM is all set to get the ball rolling on the Chevy Sonic – the smallest car currently mass-produced in the United States. And people do seem pretty excited about the Nissan Leaf, the first mass-produced electric car for sale from a major manufacturer. It’s almost as if, as a nation, we have no idea what we want. Ideally, the U.S. would like a a ginormous electric pick-up that can haul sixteen racehorses up a mountain face and is made in China for a dollar.

Do you think smaller, greener cars will make a dent in or even take over the U.S. market? In the long-term, I think they’ll have to. But in the short term? Like I said before, we sure do love our big cars…

Do You Feel Like You Have to Sneak Dead Batteries Into the Trash?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011
By Christa

Well if they’re rechargeable, stop sneaking around and get them to the recycling center. But if they’re not, there’s not all that much you can do with them other than toss them – as this video full of very silly actors explains.

UNLESS you’re in some states, like California, where it’s against the law to dispose of batteries in your everyday trash. If you’re in one of those states, you need to check out to find out what you ought to be doing with all those batteries.

Just don’t feed them to a duck or a cat, which is what a lot of YouTube commenters claim to be doing with them.

Winter Cycling Tips – Bike Green All Year Long

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011
By Christa

Walking aside, biking is the ultimate form of green transportation!. There are no emissions associated with people power – none that we’ll mention, anyway. While owning a car can cost $8,000 per year (think new parts, insurance, etc.) owning a bike costs around $400 – and that’s only if, unlike me, you’re getting your bike crazy tuneups and buying stuff for it. If you take all of the resources that make up a car, you could make at least 100 totally sweet bikes with all that stuff. And pumping those pedals is seriously healthy, especially if you go the extra mile and can commute via bike instead of car.

But hold up, let’s say you’re trying to live a wicked green life and you love riding your bike to work in the springtime, the summertime, and the fall. Wintertime biking, though? The idea sounds pretty crazy to those of us who would rather spend all day sitting under a heat lamp than go snowshoeing. Turns out, it’s not so crazy and plenty of people don’t stop biking to work – or anywhere else – when the weather gets icy. And for those who are inspired to give winter cycling a go, here are a few tips from Dave from Bicycle Habitat on handling your bike on winter streets.

For Those Not In the Know: Riparian Zone Defined

Friday, January 14th, 2011
By Christa

In last week’s post about whether going green should be a moral duty, commenter Carla brought up “zoning regulations limiting Riparian development” as it pertains to how far one should go when it comes to dictating green behavior. Now I do sometimes like to pretend I know everything about everything, but that’s just not true, and the word riparian gave me pause. It’s just not a word I’d heard before, so of course I had to go and look it up. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say:

A riparian zone or riparian area is the interface between land and a river or stream. Riparian is also the proper nomenclature for one of the fifteen terrestrial biomes of the earth. Plant habitats and communities along the river margins and banks are called riparian vegetation, characterized by hydrophilic plants. Riparian zones are significant in ecology, environmental management, and civil engineering because of their role in soil conservation, their habitat biodiversity, and the influence they have on fauna and aquatic ecosystems, including grassland, woodland, wetland or even non-vegetative. In some regions the terms riparian woodland, riparian forest, riparian buffer zone, or riparian strip are used to characterize a riparian zone.

Well, huh. It never really struck me before, but now that I think about it, it’s pretty obvious that the strip of land on either side of a body of running water will always be important and often a bit different from the surrounding landscape for a variety of reasons. Riparian, riparian, riparian! It’s one of those words I think I’ll be glad to have picked up in the future, and I hope you’ll keep it in the back of your mind, as well.

Some Good News for a Change? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch May Not Be So Great

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
By Christa

You may have heard tell of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which floats lazily in the center of the North Pacific Gyre, and how it is roughly twice the size of Texas or even larger than the continental U.S. But like a lot of tales, the story of the Great Garbage Patch may turn out to be a tall one. At least according to one Oregon State University scientist. I certainly won’t debate that there is plenty of pollution in the Earth’s oceans, both close to the shore and far from human habitation, and that it’s bad for the environment and ought to be cleaned up. But I think it’s easier to inspire people to take on stewardship of the oceans when everyone is honest about just how much there is to clean up.

Angelicque White, Professor of Oceanography also has no interest in trying to convince anyone that Earth’s oceans are clean, but she did take part in a scientific expedition to examine the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and found that it may just be that genuine scientific concerns are being undermined by scare tactics.

“There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists,” says Professor White. “We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic. The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial, but the patch … is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.”

Assuming Professor White and the team’s findings are correct, I’m glad to hear that there’s not as much garbage floating out there as was initially predicted. That much plastic and human debris bobbing around in the Pacific (not to mention the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, which also have their garbage patches) was really a scary thought. But I also agree with Professor White when she says that plastic and garbage do not belong in the ocean and that what’s needed now are initiatives to keep it from getting dumped in there in the first place since even a Great Garbage Patch that isn’t so great would still cost a ton of money to clean up.

Yet Another Thing to Bum About: Ghost Nets

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
By Christa

Ghost nets? Ghost fishing? Sure it sounds cool, but it’s actually pretty gross. What I didn’t know and what you may not know is that all over the sea going world, fishermen and women regularly discard old, worn out nets in the ocean. You might think, oh, how bad could it be, since they must sink to the bottom and settle there. Wrong. Those discarded nets actually float and, worse yet, just keep on fishing.

Ghost nets as long as 60 miles have been spotted floating around fishing areas and the open ocean, trapping hundreds of thousands of fish, aquatic mammals, turtles, and other living things as they move. They can also collect garbage, growing larger and more dangerous as they do, or even choke coral reefs to death.

Luckily, there are groups out there who’s sole focus is finding and collecting ghost nets and taking care of animals who find themselves wearing pieces of old fishing nets. The Ocean Defenders Alliance, for example, has made it their mission to take dangerous man-made objects like ghost nets out of underwater habitats and liberate animals stuck in those nets. And then there’s Hawaii-based Nets to Energy and New England’s Fishing for Energy, both of which are committed to collecting ghost nets and recycling them for fuel.

RI Wind Farms Set to Do More Than Expected

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010
By Christa

Deepwater Wind, the company behind Rhode Island’s first offshore wind farm, has apparently increased the size of its project and it is now projected that the wind farm will generate 1000 MW of green electrical power. How do you generate that much power? How about 200 wind turbines that will be placed at least 18 miles off the Rhode Island coast, where according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, things can get pretty windy. Increasing the size of the project means that Deepwater Wind can sell the wind energy produced for somewhere between 15-18 cents/kWh, which is high for the U.S. but fairly close to the New England average. Sounds good to me!

Background: Those in favor of wind farms will tell you that a single utility-scale wind farm (350 mw) can generate enough clean energy to power 125,000 homes every year without users ever seeing a fuel adjustment charge. As for the offshore wind farms that had everyone in such a tizzy around my locale – hello, Cape Wind -they’re apparently set in deep waters, where they are virtually invisible from shore. The anti-wind farm crowd counters that wind power is intermittent and thus cannot generate enough energy to ensure a steady output, which means back-up coal or gas power plants will always be a necessity. I’m not going to bother with the argument that they ruin views of the natural landscape – I personally think big ugly factories and electric wires do the same, but I understand the necessity of both.

What do you think about wind farms and wind power in general? Are they a viable green energy option? Or just a stepping stone on the way to something more reliable?

7 Things You Can’t Recycle (But Maybe Thought You Could)

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010
By Christa

What does and does not go into the recycling truck can sometimes be a little confusing. Some people err on the side of overdoing, throwing everything that seems remotely recyclable into the bin. But I hate to tell them, that’s can sometimes win the entire contents of the bin a one-way trip to the dump. Other people err on the side of under doing, and don’t bother to recycle at all. I’m assuming, if you’re reading this, that you probably recycle, but do you know what can and can’t be recycled? It pays to check your city or town’s web site to see if there’s anything they specifically do and do not take, but until you do, here’s a quick list of seven things most curbside recycling programs won’t take:

Paper Food Containers
It doesn’t matter if that pizza box hardly has a drop of cheese on it or if the Chinese food container held nothing more insidious than white rice, putting them in the recycling bin is a no-no. Oil from food can contaminate an entire batch of cardboard, making it impossible to process into new clean paper. The same goes for paper plates and napkins, and any other paper with food yuck on it.

Foiled, Glossy, Glazed, Waxed, Glassine, and Lacquer Coated Containers
Some items look recyclable because they’re cardboard or paper on the outside, but lurking inside you have foil, wax, plastic, and other stuff that can’t be separated from the paper. Think juice boxes, waxed paper bags, chips bags, and candy wrappers. Basically, anything made from blended material needs to stay out of the bin. Even sorting it out at the center is difficult because lightweight stuff like fruit snacks wrappers will stick to actual recyclables.

Plastic Bottle Caps
Surprised? I was. Bottle caps – soda and water bottle caps, peanut butter jar lids, detergent caps, etc. – are frequently made of polypropylene, i.e., plastic #5, which most recycling centers will not take. When in doubt, though, look for the recycling number on the inside of the cap because some will be recyclable. The good news is that if your street pick-up doesn’t take caps, there might be a recycling center nearby you can bring them to.

Polystyrene and Packing Peanuts
The only time I’ve ever gotten a note from the recycling guys was when I put a whole bag of styrofoam in with the recyclables because The Beard was convinced that they’d take it. Turns out, they don’t. While polystyrene plastics are, like all plastics, recyclable, it’s pretty unusual to live in town that will collect it for recycling because recycling polystyrene is time consuming and expensive so no one wants to do it.

Plastic Bags
Again, surprise! A lot of people put their plastic and glass recyclables in plastic bags before putting them in the bins, but apparently this is a one-way ticket to getting your carefully washed recyclables tossed in the trash. So don’t put your plastic and glass in plastic bags before putting them in the bin, and bring your plastic bags to the supermarket if yours happens to accept plastic bag turn-ins (which is getting more common).

Wire Hangers and Metal Wire
Turns out that a lot of recycling centers aren’t set up to deal with wire, even if they have not problems processing other metals. Instead of placing wire hangers in the recycle bin or tossing them, stop by the closest dry cleaners and see if they have a return program. Those that accept wire hangers will usually sell them for scrap, but at least you know they’ll get recycled.

Shredded Paper and Heavily-Dyed Paper
Weird, no? But true! Shredded paper is usually accepted at drop-off recycling centers, but not for curbside pick-up because it takes up a lot of space, it’s more difficult to sort and recycle, and it can end up producing a lower quality of recycled paper. Heavily-dyed paper can bleed into batches of recycled paper, making it impossible to get a nice clean pile of new paper.

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