10 Steps to a Healthy Ocean: Protecting our Oceans from Pollution

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Photo courtesy of Webzer at Flickr.com.

The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and it’s a major part of the ecosystem that we rely on. Phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the oxygen produced worldwide. More than 1 billion people rely on fish for a significant part of their diet. The ocean provides food, recreation, clean air, carbon mitigation, inexpensive transport, and many other things that we take for granted. Yet, we’ve been treating the ocean like a dump for centuries. That may have been fine when society produced trash on a very small scale and all of things we threw away were biodegradable, but technology has changed that.

There are thousands of phantom fishing nets that keep killing fish after being abandoned. Sunken ships leak millions of gallons of oil and billions of styrofoam cups end up in the water every year. Even when these events happen thousands of miles away, they have a ripple effect that’s felt worldwide.

The ocean is one continuous body of water. Each sea and bay is connected by strong currents and migrating animals. That means damage done to one part of the ocean will eventually affect all the connected bodies of water. After oil spills happen in the Arctic Ocean, traces of petroleum spread to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans too.

The oceans are one of many areas around the world where the environment has a direct effect on human health and industry. For example, the rain forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and affect climate. Coral reefs nurture schools of fish and they offer passive protection to ports. The organisms that make these areas work are resilient – they’ve survived centuries of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Yet some of these areas are under constant stress caused by humans.

Stress factors that threaten wildlife include contamination of water supplies, climate change, human development, and invasive species. Abandoned mines are leaching hazardous chemicals into rivers and lakes. Mangrove forests are being cut down to build beach resorts. River deltas are clogging up with invasive species like zebra mussels and Wakame kelp.

In the face of all these threats, what can we do? Here are a few steps that anyone can take to help protect the health of our oceans.

1) Restore damaged ocean habitat

In areas that have been fished out or poisoned by industry, native species have often been wiped out. But, that doesn’t mean that Cod have been permanently wiped out in the Atlantic, or that scallops will never return to the Virginia fisheries. Jennifer Rich is planting sea grass in an effort to restore the scallop breeding grounds of her home state. She led a volunteer effort off the coast of Virginia to replant eel grass in environmentally damaged areas. Her effort is ongoing, and similar replanting projects could use your help. Wetlands and mangrove forests are especially valuable because they filter sediment, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff before they get to the ocean.

If you’d like to get your hands dirty in another way, plan a beach vacation off of the beaten path. Once a year, the Ocean Conservancy does a worldwide project to remove trash from the shore. Last year, volunteers cleaned up more than 30,000 miles of shoreline. In a single day, more than 7 million pieces of trash were collected for proper disposal. Check with your City Hall – many towns are happy to supply trash bins, rubber gloves, and even boats to anyone who wants to clean up local waterways.

2) Protect natural buffer systems.

Biosystems are nature’s utilities – they desalinate water, absorb carbon, liberate nutrients from the ground, and provide other services free of charge. The plants and animals that make up these systems are often treated as commodities, but killing the goose that lays golden eggs will only put food on the table for a day. Protecting biosystems can pay dividends for years to come.

Forests are an essential buffer for the oceans. Old growth trees neutralize the pH of rain and absorb harmful chemicals before they reach the ocean. Trees that grow in estuaries and along riverways are especially important, but those areas also face increased development pressure and they are easy for loggers to access. Shoreline habitat is being destroyed to build giant shrimp farms and resort hotels. Luckily, there are now sustainable forestry and aquaculture options available. Sustainable logging allows limited harvesting of resources without destroying the natural processes that we benefit from. The next time you buy lumber or land, do some research and check for certifications of sustainability.

3) Substitute organic fertilizer in the place of chemical fertilizers.

When a lawn is overfertilized, the excess fertilizer will usually wash off into the surrounding environment. Fertilizer pollution causes eutrophication in waterways – it saturates the water and promotes algal blooms in nearby lakes. A significant amount of fertilizer runoff will eventually make it out to sea, where it can cause red tides and elevated amounts of harmful bacteria. Surprisingly, residential property has higher levels of fertilizer runoff per acre than agricultural land – possibly because farmers are smarter about how they use fertilizers.

“12-50% of all surface water pollution originates with urban runoff. Additionally, whereas agricultural runoff tends to be limited to nutrients, runoff from roads and parking lots contains a wide variety of additional pollutants including oils, road salts, nutrients, and sediments, as well as hazardous and solid wastes.”

Using organic fertilizers, mulch, and compost can reduce these problems. Not only are these fertilizers slower releasing, but they also contain nutrients in forms that are more easily absorbed by plants. Chemical fertilizers have other problems too. They can form a crust on the top of soil that repels water (blocking soil absorption, increasing runoff, and promoting erosion). Some chemical fertilizers will also kill soil fungus, soil bacteria, earthworms and insects, all of which play a vital role in aerating the soil and helping anchor it to the ground.

4) Landscape with native plants

Plants have evolved to live in just about every area of the country. These native plants are adapted to local soil and weather conditions, so there’s very little need to fertilize or water them. Many beautiful native plants are available. A yard landscaped with unusual plants can really stand out, especially during a drought when all of the neighbors yards turn to dust.

Using native plants to conserve water is known as Xeriscaping. It can be a very effective way to cut your yard’s pollution footprint, and xeriscaped lawns also offer natural habitat to native animals and migrating species. Since native plants are heat and drought tolerant, they also work year round to trap dust, block wind, and prevent erosion.

5) Replace impermeable groundcover

When rain falls on bare ground, about 90% of the water is normally absorbed in the first 30 minutes. On developed land, the surface is usually covered with impervious materials such as asphalt, concrete, and cement. For every 20% of the ground that’s covered with impermeable surfaces, the amount of runoff will increase by roughly 100%. These impervious materials block water from soaking into the ground, but the water has to go somewhere. As a result, residential areas are prone to flash floods and rapid erosion which harm the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes.

You can use this information to make smart landscaping decisions. Instead of putting a sidewalk in your garden, consider using flagstones or building a gravel pathway. If your driveway needs to be resurfaced, check into using permeable cement. There are even companies that build living rooftops – these green roofs not only help insulate your house, but they also protect your roof from heat damage, hail, UV degradation, and animal damage. Permeable areas act as natural buffers to pollution because they help contain runoff.

6) Improve landscaping

Runoff is often caused by poor landscaping. Many older homes have design flaws that cause water to flow much faster than necessary. Not only are these flaws easy to fix, but reducing the speed of runoff will also protect your home from flood damage and erosion. On sharp slopes, you can grow plants with deep roots like prairie grass. Other solutions include placing bales of hay on the slopes to soak up the water or installing terraces. If your building has rain gutters, installing silt fences on the gutters will slow the speed of drainage and reduce the energy of flowing water before it reaches your foundation. If you want to make an even big difference, consider putting a rain barrel or rainwater garden under your downspouts.

When planning these projects, make sure to check local building codes. It’s also important to schedule construction projects for months with low rainfall. While the projects are underway, there will be a lot of exposed soil that can be carried away. Tarps can be used protect bare ground, and sewing quick growing plants will quickly cover up any worrisome spots.

7) Clean up after pets

Housepets are another major source of pollution – pet waste has concentrated forms of some toxic chemicals as well as harmful bacteria that can do serious damage to the ocean. Even the nutrients found in sewage can cause problems because they promote the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria create an Anoxic zone of seawater, where all of the oxygen has been depleted and many organisms are unable to breathe.

Dog droppings and cat poo contain many of the same pathogens that human waste does, such as e coli and salmonella. While human waste is at least partially treated in sewage processing plants, dog waste is often left to decompose wherever the dogs leave it. When it rains or the sprinklers turn on, harmful bacteria in pet waste is spread over the surface of your whole lawn. Runoff will carry this bacteria down the storm drains and eventually out to sea.

One way to reduce the impact of pet waste is to bag up the poop and flush it down the toilet. Septic tanks and sewage systems use good bacteria to breakdown waste into harmless material. It doesn’t matter if the waste comes from a person or a pet – the treatment processes they use can handle almost everything. One thing that you shouldn’t put down the toilet is soiled cat litter. Cat litter is not biodegradable and can also cause damage to pipes.

If you have a cat, you might want to go a step further and change your cat litter. The most common types of pet litter is made from bentonite clay and silica. Not only is do these materials prevent decomposition, but they are also produced by strip mining (and strip mining causes water pollution in its own right):

“Clay-based cat litters are not a by-product of the manufacture of something else, but produced by strip mining. The clay, known as bentonite, is found under several layers of soil, which are removed in the mining process. The first few inches of clay are discarded, and the final clay is removed and processed into cat litter.”

There are natural alternatives to conventional cat litter. Check with your local pet store, or consider making your own cat litter with shredded paper, sawdust or wheat bran. Also, some cats prefer not to use kitty litter. Cat droppings on the ground can be scooped up just like dog poop.

If you use biodegradable pet litter or scoop up pet poo, then you may also want to try composting the pet droppings. There are tumbling composters and vermicomposters (worm composters) made especially for pet waste. It’s important to keep pet poop separate from food scraps and grass clippings. That’s because the harmful bacteria in pet waste are largely inactive and they will only multiply if there’s an available food source. A Pet Waste Composter is effective at quickly reducing pet droppings into useful fertilizer.

8 ) Take endangered species off the menu

It’s not easy being tasty. Our search for exotic flavors has pushed many different species to the edge of extinction, and fish are in serious trouble. Fishing trawlers are catching fish faster than they breed, which means that the fish available at the supermarket are getting younger and thinner. Some species, such as Swordfish and Orange Roughy are frighteningly rare in the wild. As certain species of fish disappear from the ocean, they leave a gap in the foodchain. The things that they feed on will multiply because nothing is controlling their numbers, and the fish that feed on the missing species will be stressed as well. The biodiversity of the ocean is in jeopardy, and people who rely on fish for a major portion of their diet face starvation due to overfishing.

What can you do? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great pocket guide to bring with you to the supermarket. This guide lists many fish that are abundant, and offers alternatives to endangered species that you can eat with a clear conscience. Greenpeace publishes a Red List of fish which should not be eaten under any circumstances. These are fish that are critically threatened by overfishing, disease, or habitat loss. There are many other fish that are in the gray area – hundreds of species are at risk but not necessarily endangered. Memorizing these lists is a bit tricky. If you have a less than photographic memory and your wallet doesn’t have room for a cheat sheet, another way you can shop for fish that are plentiful is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label.

Some species that are at risk in the wild are being raised in fish farms to supplement wild stocks. Farmed fish account for an increasing percentage of total fish caught. There’s some controversy over whether farmed fish or wild seafood are more sustainable though. The footprint and operating procedures of fish farms vary considerably between different locations. Some aquaculture operations are very earth friendly, while others turn pristine shoreline into industrial farmland and introduce devastating diseases that affect nearby wild populations. It’s important to research where your food comes from and choose responsible suppliers.

9) Reduce CO2 Emissions.

When most people think of pollutants, they picture ooze pouring out of factory pipes. Due to environmental regulations and pressure from consumers, almost all of these pipes have been cleaned up. Yet we still affect the environment by releasing chemicals with less immediate effects. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are changing the way that our planet heats up and cools down. If the greenhouse effect is left unchecked, we could see drastic changes in the temperature of ocean water, reductions in ocean salinity as the polar ice caps melt, and shifts in the paths of major ocean currents (which would cause further temperature changes).

In addition to climate effects, CO2 emissions can have a huge direct impact on the health of ocean life. New research suggests that salt water is becoming more acidic as it absorbs increased amounts of carbon from the air. Changing temperatures and increases acidity are some of the many factors bleaching coral reefs. Elevated temperatures increase the effect of acidity by boosting the rate at which carbonic acid dissolves calcium. Changes in the pH balance of the ocean are also affecting the metabolic rates of various animals, making it harder for many fish to breathe. That’s bad news on top of overfishing and other forms of water pollution. Even highly adaptable species like the Humboldt squid are showing changes in their behavior.

10) Reduce Noise and Light Pollution

Loud noises and bright lights cause major disruptions in the natural world. Animals rely on their sensitive ears and sight to evade predators and find food, yet the oceans are becoming a deafening, blinding place. All creatures have natural rhythms based on the sun and moon, day and night. These rhythms control sleep, breeding, migration, and hibernation, yet the natural rhythms are being disrupted by constant mixed signals due to human activity. The homes of many nocturnal animals are lit up 24 hours a day by beach floodlights and fishing lure lights, and the ocean is filled with the noise of motors, sonar, and mining activity. All this noise and wasted light is a serious form of pollution.

Every year, we waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity on light that goes in unintended directions. Globe and acorn shaped streetlights are a prime example – they send light out in all directions, yet only 15-25% of that light reaches ground level. The efficiency of these spherical streetlights can be vastly increased by putting a simple reflector dish on the top, and replacing the light with a lower wattage bulb. Redirecting the light can save 75% on electricity costs, and it will also protect animals that are already endangered by human development.

Skyglow and light trespass are also nuisances to human beings. These effects of errant light were first noticed by astronomers and other night owls, but an increasing number of people are finding that they can’t turn off the lights at night. Light pollution has a direct effect on human health, it drags down property values, and it destroys the natural beauty of the night sky.

Some cities, states, and countries have started passing laws to protect wildlife from luminous pollution. These laws will likely become more stringent over time. Unfortunately, there are many sources of light pollution in the ocean, and very few of them are regulated.

Here are some things you can do to reduce light pollution:

  • Upgrade exterior lights to full cut-off fixtures and other dark-sky friendly products
  • Install bulbs with lower wattage lamps
  • Turn-off lights when you’re not in the area
  • Replace automatic timers with motion detectors
  • Discuss the issue with your family, friends, and neighbors
  • Use curtains on all of your windows (this can also pay dividends in insulation)
  • Campaign for regulations that protect against photopollution in your town
  • Demand strict enforcement of light control ordinances

Every year, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings and young seabirds are killed by lights on the beach. These lights cause reflections on sand that look just like moonlight on water, disorienting the young animals and causing them to wander away from the ocean. Instead of going for a swim, baby turtles and birds are hit by cars, eaten by predators, and die of exhaustion. Reducing light pollution can save many species from extinction.

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Photo courtesy of Luca5 at Flickr.com.

Sound pollution also kills many wild animals every year. The scale of the problem is unknown, and scientists are just beginning to study the effects of man-made noise on wildlife. Early results show that loud motor sounds can deafen animals who rely on their sensitive hearing to find food and evade predators. These noises can also drown out mating calls and distress signals. There is suspicion that navigation systems such as sonar are responsible for an increasing number of whale and dolphin beachings. High intensity sound waves can cause internal ruptures and induce symptoms similar to the bends.

Water conducts sound waves much better than air does, so loud noises can travel much further in the ocean than they would on land. This is worrisome, because the noise level in the ocean is increasing rapidly. Between 1948 and 1998, the average volume of sound in the ocean increased about 15 decibels. 15 decibels may not sound like much, but that’s the difference between the amount of noise in a regular office and a busy street.

So, how can we reduce noise pollution in the oceans?

  • Move shipping paths away from marine sanctuaries
  • Install noise baffles on boats and ships
  • Reduce the use of high intensity sonar
  • Protect sensitive habitat from oil and mineral exploration

So, that wraps up a ‘quick’ ten-list. But, there’s one other thing you can do to save the oceans.

Buy from environmentally responsible companies

The policies that companies follow can make a huge difference on the health of our oceans. Since the United States put pollution controls in place, we’ve seen remarkable recovery in many of the worst affected waterways:

“Oxygen levels in New York Harbor, for instance, are now 50 percent higher than they were 30 years ago. In the Southern California Bight, off Los Angeles and San Diego, inputs of many pollutants have been reduced 90 percent or more over a 25-year period, and the ecosystem there—including kelp, fish, and seabird populations—has greatly recovered. “

A lot has been accomplished, but we can still do better. Comparing modern emissions to emissions from the 1970’s, is sort of like comparing a Boeing 777 to the Wright Flier – we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and we should expect major improvements. Unfortunately, many companies are still stuck in the seventies and see nothing wrong with dumping wastewater directly into rivers that feed into the ocean. Not all of our factories and processing plants are using best practices, but it’s easy to find companies that devote resources to improving their environmental record.

When you make purchase decisions at work or for your home, are you buying from companies that publish an independently reviewed environmental report card? If you can convince even one of the companies you do business with to adopt these guidelines, that will multiply the effects of your choices. Here’s a list of the a top polluters in the United States: these are companies that might reconsider their record if large numbers of customers demanded that they act responsibly to protect the oceans.

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Photo courtesy of HckySo at Flickr.com.

US states are moving towards a cap and trade system for CO2 emissions

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Photo courtesy of AtomicShark at Flickr.com.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative held its second auction for carbon credits in December. This was the first auction where all 10 states in the initiative took part, and the sale price rose about 10 percent from the previous auction in September, 2008.

These carbon credits have some bite to them; the auction wasn’t just a public relations affair for the local utilities. The northeast is attempting to achieve a major shift in carbon dioxide emissions. Greenhouse gasses from power plants in these 10 Northeastern states are capped at current levels from January 1, 2009 until 2014. Then, the cap will drop 2.5% a year until 10% reductions are hit in 2018.

Now that the carbon cap is in effect, utilities that use coal or natural gas to generate electricity will have to buy carbon credits to offset their pollution. They are likely to pass along the cost to consumers, which will drive up the price of dirty electricity and help make alternative energy sources more competitive. Regional cap and trade systems have already proven effective at reducing Nitrogen Oxide emissions, and policy makers hope to have similar success with reducing carbon. Funds raised from the carbon auction are earmarked for efficiency improvements, building alternative power sources on government buildings, and eliminating emissions from non-powerplant sources.

The RGGI isn’t the only regional group working on a cap and trade system. In the middle of the country, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord is developing a system that will cover Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, and the Canadian Province of Manitoba. Other western states and Canadian Provinces formed their own group, the Western Climate Initiative. WCI membership includes Arizona, British Columbia, California, Manitoba, Montana, New Mexico, Ontario, Oregon, Quebec, Utah, and Washington State.

Some states are tackling emissions on their own. California passed laws in 2006 to reduce CO2 emissions by 20%, and is considering ways to extend the reach of those laws into neighboring states. California plans to roll out a Cap and Trade system by 2012, and the state budget crisis may accelerate the process. A carbon credit auction would raise desperately needed revenue for California, but there’s concern that the money would be squandered instead of spent on reducing emissions.

Federal action is also expected in the near future. The President-Elect, Speaker of the House, and other national leaders have publicly spoken in favor of a cap and trade system. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency is facing pressure to treat CO2 as a pollutant. The EPA recently published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to regulate agricultural emissions of greenhouse gas.

Some surprising voices have also spoken out against cap and trade carbon systems. A small number of utilities and businesses who use large volumes of electricity have raised concerns about the costs, but some environmentalists are also skeptical of the concept. There’s a concern that carbon credits don’t actually reduce total emissions, and that flaws in the systems can allow polluters to play a shell game with their emissions. Another concern is that the system wont achieve it’s goals of reducing emissions. The cap and trade system in Europe has been plagued by politics and lobbying, and emissions have risen since it was introduced.

Even with these concerns, the US looks likely to move ahead on efforts to reduce carbon production. Many changes are on their way, and some will arrive sooner than others.

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Photo courtesy of bytepusher at Flickr.com.

Green news is good news (mostly)


Photo courtesy of Ted Abbott at Flickr.com.

A lot of news about the environment lately has been good news – there are huge solar arrays being built, energy efficiency is improving by leaps and bounds, and more people are recycling today than even knew what recycling was 20 years ago. But, there’s some bad news on the environmental desk too.

For starters, the ailing economy is threatening to undermine recycling programs nationwide. Demand for commodities has fallen so quickly that we have a surplus of many raw materials, and those surplus materials are exerting negative price pressure on recycled ingredients. Don’t worry though – runaway inflation in the first quarter of 2009 should “solve” those problems.

A controversy is brewing in the world of organic food. Several large organic suppliers have been caught using unapproved farming techniques in their overseas operations, and the FDA is reviewing their certification. This is a little bit of a good news / bad news situation, because the problem was caught before harm was inflicted and it’s a sign that the internal reviews are working to catch abuse.

A lot of politicians are burning the midnight oil before their terms in office expire, and this means that some poorly crafted laws, rules, and regulations are on the way. One of the most worrisome developments is that the Endangered Species Act is being undermined by rule changes within the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department has assigned only 15 people to review more than 200,000 unique comments… that means a lot of comments are going to be brushed off and ignored, and that the rule changes will likely face a legal challenge.

Okay, now on to the good news.

With automakers begging Congress for a bailout, there’s a lot of attention focused on their business plans. Last year, they were offered a $25 Billion line of credit to develop fuel efficient cars, and these green strings have been cut from the older loan. Just to confuse things, the Big 3 are asking for another $34 Billion dollars to fund their operations, which really makes you wonder if they forgot about the treat they were already given. Now that the funds have been released for GM, Ford, and Chrysler to use at their discretion, there’s still a good chance that some of the money will be used to make fuel efficiency improvements. Consumer preferences have shifted towards improved mileage, but there’s no consensus about how green the cars of the future will be.

There are a lot of competing standards for determining the “greenest car” on the road. Some carmakers stress miles driven per gallon of fuel, while others focus on the grams of CO2 emitted per mile driven, or the amount of smog causing particulates that are released. These competing claims can be very confusing, and the confusion allows some car makers to greenwash their dirtier vehicles with misleading claims. Until recently, there hasn’t been a clear mechanism to weigh the eco-credentials of competing cars. Now though, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a new standard that combines air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The new SmartWay Certification Program, is designed to highlight best in class vehicles just as the EnergyStar rating system highlights efficient appliances. Honda was able to secure the first top rating for a vehicle – they earned Smartway Elite certification with their Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda GX (a natural gas powered car). Hopefully, American car manufacturers are following close behind.

Cars are raising environmental awareness in other ways too. Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow are driving cross country to gather signatures for the White House Organic Farm petition. The bus was donated by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s fame) and has a very unusual container garden built into the roof. If you see a strange bus that looks like it had a collision with another bus and kept driving, ask for Daniel or Casey.

To bring this post full circle, here’s some good news about recycling. If you still have any McCain, Obama, or other political signs sitting around from election 2008, don’t throw them out. Waste management experts have found a way to recycle corrugated plastic campaign signs!

Can lighting a match help the environment?

Photo courtesy of green lit at Flickr.com. Even if you have a high-tech, earth friendly toilet, how many times have you heard someone say “Light a candle” after you use the bathroom? Not only does lighting a candle reduce the unpleasant smell, but it also burns up a lot of stinky hydrogen sulfide as well as odorless methane gas. Methane is the second worst gas causing climate change, responsible for climate change, and it has a much stronger heat trapping effect than CO2:

Molecule for molecule, methane gas is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a warming agent. However, since methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long – around 12 years, on average, compared to a hundred years for CO2 – and human activities do not produce all that much of it, concerns about climate change have mostly been focused on carbon dioxide. The one big worry was that warmer temperatures might cause massive releases of methane from natural sources.

Burning up the stink not only reduces the greenhouse effect but it can also reduce some friction in your household. That said, be careful with matches. Don’t burn a candle if your bathroom always smells funky – that could be a sign that explosive sewer gas is leaking into your house from the pipes. Also, don’t spray any deodorant before lighting that match. No one wants to find out the hard way that fire and aerosol cans are an explosive mix. Photo courtesy of Poet for Life at Flickr.com.

News that has nothing to do with Election 2008


Photo courtesy of ecupaintingguild at Flickr.com.

With all the news coverage focused on the election, there are a lot of important and/or awesome things that have escaped attention. Here’s a quick overview of environmental news that’s worth following:

First off, it’s common to get a craving for pumpkin pie around this time every year. But it would take hundreds of people to eat a pie made from this enormous 1,900 lb pumpkin. This behemoth is expected to set a new record for giant pumpkins (a record that has grown bigger every year in recent memory). Maybe this is the monster that Charlie Brown’s been waiting for.

I’m sure that pumpkin wasn’t grown naturally, but no one tried to stick an organic label on it at the store. On the other hand, some businesses have been caught making false environmental claims to sell their products. It can be challenging to tell greenwashed products apart from their legitimate green competitors, but one way to make informed choices is to research the companies involved. Many large companies now publish yearly ‘Corporate Sustainability Reports’ that describe their environmental track record. Corporations are also assigning a dedicated board member to oversee environmental performance. Many of the pro-environment changes that companies are adopting also contribute to the bottom line, and make great economic sense while money is in short supply.

On a related note, the credit crunch is slowing down plans to build new wind farms. Even though wind power accounted for about a third of all new power capacity built last year, the credit climate is making it really hard to line up investors. Wind energy is also running into some problems of scale. Windy days in Washington state are causing salmon deaths in a weird series of unintended consequences. As the wind picks up, wind turbines generate more and more electricity. The excess electricity floods the transmission lines, and automatic controls kick in to shutdown other sources of power. In some cases, this causes hydroelectric dams to idle their turbines and dump water over spillways. If only there was an efficient interstate transmission system, or a better way to store electricity, this whole chain of events could be avoided.

But what if we lived in a world without any need for a power grid? Bloom Technologies is trying to create a lower pollution future based on efficiencies of micro-scale. With small fuel cells, the company hopes to eliminate power loss from transmission lines and bring electricity to the third world. As a bonus, they are designing fuel cells that produce hydrogen as a byproduct – that waste gas could be used to warm homes and fuel vehicles.

Whether cars burn hydrogen or gasoline, tailpipe emissions are pretty much inevitable. This waste product has something that is surprisingly useful though – untapped energy in the form of heat. Researchers are developing new thermoelectric systems that can harvest electricity from tailpipe emissions. If they can keep cost and weight to a minimum, these devices will likely be incorporated into a wide range of hybrid vehicles to boost mileage. The energy recovery isn’t 100 percent, but it can really add up to a serious boost in efficiency:

GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.


Photo courtesy of fensterbme at Flickr.com.