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Category: Alternative Fuel

What’s the environmental commitment of visitors to this site?

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

I’m always running a poll on this site, in hopes of gathering some information about attitudes and concerns about the environment from visitors to the site. Usually, these polls have a start date and an end date.

Of course, those end dates frequently sit for a long time before the poll actually stops running. This last poll ran over a year past it’s so-called expiration date. I was looking for information about the specific attitude towards the environment for visitors to the site, and due to the exceptionally long run time of the poll, I had more than 30 or 40 responses. Joy!

The results don’t demonstrate a lot of surprises, however. 39.2 percent of visitors are highly concerned but not active outside their own homes and 31.25 percent are concerned but now they could be doing better in their daily lives. Bang – that’s 70% of the visitors to the site. On the peripheries, the rest of the poll takers were pretty evenly split between active environmentalists and people who either intend to do better later or who apparently ended up on the site completely by accident.

See the results.

I was glad to see that the smallest voting category was actually those who intend to do better later, in fact. As the adage goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The next poll is on bicycle commuting. I’m giving up on posting an end date. I’ll close the poll eventually, but what’s the point of listing a date if I’m just going to ignore it?

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Sprint’s Reclaim: The green cellphone.

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

It’s not the first time that cell phones have come up on this site, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. With somewhere upwards of 100 million mobile phones being replaced every year, they’re a huge contributor to waste in the world.

Not only do cell phones waste resources, but they incorporate toxic heavy metals and large quantities of plastics to do it. A double whammy! Cadmium, lead, mercury, fire retardant chemicals, and, of course, PVC plastic. Our good friend, toxic enemy #3.

With all of these threats against the environment, it’s certainly good to see a phone popping up with an explicitly green message. The Samsung Reclaim, available from Sprint, isa significant improvement on the norm.

The phone claims to be 80% recyclable materials, with a casing which is 40% bioplastics — and which has eliminated all PVC. According to Sprint, the charger is 12 times as efficient as Energy Star requirements. (Of course, we all know that Energy Star requirements are far from the strictest guidelines.)

On the plus side, in addition to the environmental features already mentioned, the phone is pretty reasonably priced and comes with a $2.00 donation to the Nature Conservancy. On the negative side, the phone has very small number buttons which serve double-purpose as party of the tiny QWERTY keyboard. With no dedicated number pad, this particular device’s usefulness as a phone is a bit compromised.

As an environmental statement, it’s a great first step. As a phone…well, we’ll see. If you’ve got good eyes and small fingers, it’s probably going to work for you.

Categories: Alternative Fuel

What if Wal-Mart goes green?

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

According to a wide variety of recent articles, Wal-Mart is jumping onto the environmentalism bandwagon. These articles, based on an interview by Amanda Little with Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, suggest a huge new commitment to the principles of sustainability for this mega-villain corporation. I’ve read stories at the New York Times, at Grist Magazine, at BuyBlue.org and in several other publications now, and it seems like Wal-Mart has committed to spending $500 million a year on environmental programs. These programs will include greenhouse gas reduction, energy-efficient stores, and reducing packaging waste.

This is, for the environmentally concerned, a big deal. It is also a very complicated problem. I enthusiastically support any commitment to environmentalism, big or small. I want Wal-Mart’s environmental programs to be wildly successful. I also can’t possibly condone shopping at their stores.

Awkward situation, to say the least.

One of the reasons I can’t ever like or shop at Wal-Mart (or other large chains, for that matter) is the way they can drive small, independent stores out of business because of the economy of scale. This very same reason, however, is why their environmental program has such a great chance of success – the commitment of an organization this large to environmentalism makes these environmental practices affordable. The ripple effect could be phenomenal.

Imagine, for example, that you’re a company manufacturing widgets. You supply Wal-Mart with your widgets, as well as supplying several other chains and a whole host of small retailers. You package your teeny little widgets in great big packages. When Joe TitchyRetailer enquires about reduced packaging, you snicker and go on with your life. When massive Wal-Mart makes the same request – you immediately start a major redesign campaign and reduce your packaging. Does this reduced packaging only go to Wal-Mart? Probably not – why would you maintain multiple packaging programs?

All in all, I can only hope that Wal-Mart is sincere and that they carry out this promise:

In October, Scott announced a preposterously ambitious goal to transform Wal-Mart into a company that runs on 100 percent renewable energy and produces zero waste. Since then, he has impressed greens with specific commitments to cut the corporation’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent over the next seven years, double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet within 10 years, reduce solid waste from U.S. stores by 25 percent in the next three years, and double offerings of organic foods this spring, selling them at prices more affordable to the masses.

Walmart CEO H. Lee Scott

It’s an incredible commitment, with potential for incredible results. If Wal-Mart can have the same impact on environmentalism that they did on consumer prices the world will change dramatically.

Wal-Mart is still on my shit-list. They’re going to stay there because of their labor practices, monopolistic behaviors, and the fear that this promise is merely another deception. And there is still a potential for destructive side-effects – will Wal-Mart now put organic cooperatives out of business? Will small producers of organic crops need to consolidate into mega-farms in order to meet Wal-Mart’s price demands? Will organic farmers have to "fudge" on their principles in order to increase supply?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Sustainability in the News: On Science and the Environment

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

On April 20th, 2006, the National Geographic published an article urging Eco-Experts to blog. This
call to arms is based on the generally low quality of existing weblog content on environmental
and conservation related issues.

I fervently support this need – and hope to avoid adding to the sea of inaccurate information.
This website isn’t exactly a blog, although it does have many similar features. To date, however,
it does have the blog-like characteristic that it contains exclusively my own writing, my own
thoughts, and my own mistakes. Although I may reference others mistakes; any mistakes contained
within this website are my own.

I’m not an environmental expert by any estimation. I am concerned about the environment and I’m
want to try and make information and resources more easily accessible. Anybody who reads these
articles and notes an error in judgement, fact, or even opinion is encouraged to contact me and
enlighten me to their viewpoint! Furthermore, anybody who has stronger knowledge than I do in
this area is encouraged to write their own articles and allow me to publish them on this site.

But I hope to avoid over-generalized scientific assumptions on this site. Scientific
explanations for environmental issues are complex, requiring a full understanding of many
interlinking ecosystems and the consequences of your actions. This level of understanding is
difficult to reach. I don’t have the concrete knowledge to make those explanations, myself.
However, I will attempt, to the best of my ability, to give an honest and thoughtful look at
the social issues surrounding local commerce and community environmentalism.

If you can find your nearby ecologically friendly businesses using this site, visit those
independent businesses instead of global corporations then this site is successful.

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Antiobiotics: Building a Better Bacteria

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

It may be fair to say that the United States is compulsive about trying to improve their food supplies. Genetic modification, antibiotics, forced feeding, you name it. Is improvement of food really what’s accomplished by any of these activities, however?

This article was spawned when I read Food Bacteria More Drug-Resistant in U.S., in the National Geographic. This study has found that strains of the Campylobacter jejuni bacteria demonstrated a 2 percent resistance to antibiotics in Australia, whereas 18 percent of samples were drug resistant in United States patients. What’s the difference? Australia bans a wide variety of antibiotics in poultry and other livestock – which are commonly used in the U.S. and Europe.

So, there’s the question – do these antibiotics improve the poultry, or are they really improving the bacteria?

The essential problem is that these antibiotics, when used on poultry, will kill off most of the bacteria infecting the birds. However, those who survive will spread and breed – and these bacteria are resistant to treatment.

One of the reasons commonly cited as a cause of drug-resistant bacteria development is the overuse of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics is definitely a strong characteristic of modern livestock. From the Pesticide Action Network:

As a means of solving this problem, intensive farming methods use high doses of antibiotics in chicken feed, and growth hormones are used to increase the speed of the chickens’ growth. As noted by the World Watch 2003 report, chickens often cannot walk properly because they have been pumped full of growth-promoting antibiotics. Farmers often do not use these drugs due to illness in the animals but because drug companies and extension agencies have convinced them that the antibiotics will ensure the health of their birds and increase their weight.

Pesticide Action Network / Asia and the Pacific

Modern methods of livestock and poultry farming are based almost entirely on a mass-treatment basis. Don’t wait until a bird is ill; treat them all constantly, just in case. This attitude creates a system which seems almost designed to breed better bacteria.

What can change these attitudes? Farmers have found that they get better profit out of larger birds. They’ve learned that the birds grow faster when pumped with growth hormones. They’re plumper; juicier; and younger when they arrive at the table. Farmers have little motivation to switch to free-range, natural methods given the general preference of the modern market. I don’t immediately see a tipping point for change. A disastrous event, such as an epidemic, could have the desired effect – otherwise, it’s up to people to boycott the market for hormone and antibiotic fed animals.

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Wal-Mart Poll Results

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

Well, just a quick update – but the results for the Wal-Mart poll were, though based on only 8 votes, resoundingly cynical. It is clearly the opinion of those who have visited this site, at any rate, that Wal-Mart has no commitment whatsoever to serious environmentalism.

I think there’s little doubt that this is true, given the many issues concerning the consequences of mass production of organic foods and Wal-Mart’s well-known atrocious track record.

Categories: Alternative Fuel

A Live Gorilla: Cell phones can have a devastating cost.

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

On January 20th, 2006, the National Geographic published an interesting article concerning the relationship
between cell phones and the African gorilla. This was certainly not a connection which I had previously been
aware of – but it is easy to imagine. The relationships between industry and nature have always been tumultous
and change constantly as new products become popular.

In this situation, the key element is a mineral called coltan, which is primarily mined in Australia and Africa. This
mineral is used most frequently in the construction of capacitors – which are heavily used in modern
technology. Although the metallic ore is commonly used in many products, the National Geographic article
focuses on its use in cell phones, since this is a particular market which has experienced a huge international
growth spurt over the last decade. And now, as the cell phone market furthers its development, huge
numbers of older models are being discarded.

According to the National Geographic article, "
Can Cell-Phone Recycling Help African Gorillas?
", the average life span of a cell phone is only
14 months – at this rate, the accumulation of unused cell phones approaches 100 million per year.

A concerted recycling program for cell phones is necessary to sustain this usage – without it, the mining
practices in the deep Congo which are so damaging to the already endangered lowland gorilla will continue
unabated. And as need for coltan, or Columbite-tantalite in full, continues to grow, who knows what populations
may also suffer?

Cell phones are certainly a valuable means of communication – but not at the cost of whole species and important
habitats. Recycling programs do exist – one extensive program, which is discussed extensively in the
National Geographic article, is Eco-Cell,
an organization which has established partnerships with 46 zoos (at this writing) to manage the recycling
of cell phones. The organization has established recycling centers in many states in the US, as well as
in Australia and Canada. Even if there is no center near you, they accept phones directly at:

ECO-CELL
531 North Hite Avenue
Louisville, KY 40206

As an added bonus, part of their program is to donate funds to the recycling partners – currently, they
donate up to $15 per phone (minimum payment $0.45). If you send them the phone directly, you may choose
the recipient of the donation from a list on their site.

ECO-CELL is, naturally, not the only way to recycle your old phone. Many charities accept cell phones,
and there are several other organizations specifically dedicated to cell phone recycling.

Links:

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Ethanol Efficiency

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

The news has recently contained a large number of articles discussing the energy efficiency of ethanol
based fuels. There have previously been many critics of ethanol fuel, claiming that the process of
creating ethanol consumed more energy than was gained by the alternative fuel itself.

This is a very tricky question. At the most direct and simplistic level, it’s true. The production of
ethanol as fuel, using traditional methods, uses more energy than the use of ethanol as fuel can create. I had to phrase that statement
very carefully to ensure that it would be true, however! If the fuel is created – from sowing to processing
using traditional equipment, operating using standard fuels, and no other products are created in the
process, then the overall energy quotient is wasteful.

But that’s not the case. Alex Farrell, an assistant professor at the Energy and Resources Group at the
University of California at Berkeley, was the lead author for a paper recently published in "Science"
which combed through the numerous studies of ethanol efficiency and attempted to reconcile their disparate
findings.

Professor Farrell was interviewed by Andrew Leonard, of Salon.com. In his
resulting article, "Bring on the biofuels", he discusses the biggest issue at stake in this
reconciliation – setting the system boundaries. To quote:

Which means, basically, figuring out what’s inside the system, and what’s outside. "For example," says
Farrell, "when examining the system of ethanol production, most people think that the fossil fuels
consumed in the tractors on the farm are inside the system. But what about the factory that made the
farm machinery?"

What Farrell and his team determined was that most studies which reached the conclusion that ethanol
production lost energy had neglected to take into consideration the production of corn gluten feed, corn oil,
and other related products which are also created during the overal cycle of fuel production. When these
products are included, the net energy efficiency is positive!

What does this tell us about the potential of ethanol as an alternative fuel? First, that it can only
be an effective solution with careful regulation. The life cycle of the product needs to be controlled
from the ground up. If the source vegetables are grown organically, and transported using vehicles
running on alternative fuel, and all byproducts are used, then the fuel can be highly energy efficient.

What’s next for ethanol? New methods are being investigated involving cellulosic technology to allow
the use of the woody parts of plants, but is currently too expensive a process to be economically viable.

Relevant Links:

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Public Transit: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Part 1: Bad Transit

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

I lived in Rochester, New York for two years – during that entire time, I traveled to and from work either on foot or by bus – and it was a MISERABLE experience. Why? Because public transit in Rochester was awful. (They have made some improvements since I left, which I’ll mention – to be fair!) There are three essential problems with public transit in Rochester:

  • Route design.

    Most routes only travel on the major spoke streets – which is great when you’re inside the central area of the city proper, but begins to cause some major problems in the suburbs. The city of Rochester is designed in a circle format, with the major streets forming spokes out from the center. By the end of the streets, the bus lines may be half a mile or more apart. This is fine for somebody like me, who is perfectly willing and able to walk half a mile to transfer buses – but is seriously problematic for anybody with physical disabilities or for the elderly.

  • Route frequency.

    The primary route that I rode ran straight up and down one of the four or five most major routes in the city. At peak travel times, this bus ran all of once every forty minutes. This does NOT make anybody’s life easy! The buses also frequently ended their schedules quite early – one route I need to ride regularly gave me only two options – if I finished teaching at 6:00, I could catch a bus at 6:28 – but if I had to teach longer? 7:47pm. This is not really acceptable! This was two separate routes, BOTH on major city arteries.

  • Schedule design.

    The schedules for this bus system are simply not designed very well. The times provided on an average 6 mile route would give you the times for only 5 stops along the way – making it difficult to estimate when a bus would actually be likely to arrive. The routes were frequently changed after 6:00 or so in the evening or on weekends – and the schedules did tell you this, if you knew how! For example, the schedule for the 17, which I rode, stated the following text for buses operating after 7:40pm:

    Bus arrives at/leaves from Main & Clinton, operating via Park Avenue route to East & Winton and continuing to Nazareth College. No service to East Ave. between Alexander St. and Colby St., or to Midtown Plaza.

    This was quite true, and accurate to a point. What the schedule DOES NOT say, and which is really quite important, is that the bus which you will in fact see if you are at one of these stops is the 1. The 1, of course, is the bus which routinely operates on Park Avenue – it simply changes it’s route for the later evening.

    Most routes have this problem in some way or another – such as the bus which runs to the airport. On weekends, this bus is a different line – but this is not mentioned in the schedule, which simply states that the bus will take a different route.

To give the RGRTA it’s due credit, they are improving. They have added a trip planner to their website which is a vast improvement on the former ability to figure out routes from their schedules. One can only hope they’re able to add routes and schedules!

Why is a transit system this bad? I don’t really blame it on the management, although I don’t think they’re entirely blameless – it’s the responsibility of a public which simply doesn’t make enough use of the bus to convince the city to invest in it. It’s a vicious circle – people won’t use the system because it’s not very user friendly, and the system won’t improve because nobody uses it.

Next up: my best transit experiences – Vienna, Austria.

Categories: Alternative Fuel

Environmentally Sustainable Computers: The Green Office

January 5, 2017 • joedolson

I’ve written about this before, and will probably write about it again. As a heavy computer user and also an environmentalist, keeping my home office green is a challenge very close to my heart. A computer is inherently not very environmentally friendly. Computers a power hungry, they contain toxic chemicals, and they have zero resale value.

Yet, computers are an unavoidable presence in modern life. There are now non-profit programs designed to deliver cheap computers to third world countries. It is unlikely that computers will disappear from our society. So our burden is to find the best way to use, reuse, and conserve while using our computers.

The following suggestions are heavily adapted from a source by Dell computers.

Purchasing a computer system

  • Buy a computer which will be easily upgradeable when you need something more. Most computers today can easily be upgraded – adding a new processor, new RAM, or replacing everything in the case. When it comes time for a new computer, don’t jump into looking for a whole PC – think about what parts you might want to upgrade individually! Warning: if your computer is suffering from problems caused by malware (viruses, spyware, or adware) or other malfunctions, an upgrade may not solve your problem.
  • Buy refurbished products. Still want to buy a new computer? Well, it doesn’t have to be completely new. Many factory-refurbished computers are indistinguishable from an otherwise brand-new machine.
  • Look for Energy Star compliant labels when selecting new monitors or other computer equipment. These devices have been certified to use energy more efficiently than other comparable equipment.

Get the Most out of your Computer

  • Turn your computer off. Have you heard those rumors that turning a computer on and off can damage the computer? Myth. How about the myth that computers use more energy starting up than left running? Also a myth.
  • Use power management. Most computers available today come with power management features which will automatically reduce power use when you’re not actively using your computer. It is understood that being gone for 30 minutes does not need to require a full shut down!
  • NO SCREEN SAVERS. Once upon a time, screen savers served the purpose of saving the life span of early monitors. However, the monitors which required this are almost non-existent today. Screen savers merely waste energy by keeping your monitor and video card active.
  • Print carefully. Think through whether you REALLY need to print that document. Can you do your editing on the computer? Print your drafts on the clean side of your last draft? You can purchase recycled toner cartridges, recycled paper, and other environmentally friendly supplies for printing.

Take Responsibility for your Computer

  • Donate your old computers. It may be too old for you, but many non-profits have very limited budgets – they can put it to use for years to come.
  • Reuse components. If you can reuse your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other accessories – do it!
  • Recycle the computer. Many computer manufacturers now offer recycling programs for old computers. NEVER throw your old computer into the garbage!

Hopefully, these tips will make it a little easier for people to manage their computers in an environmentally friendly fashion, planning for the future.

Categories: Alternative Fuel