World Habitat Day – 10/5/2009

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Poverty has drastic effects on the natural world. People living without access to treated water, sustainable fuel supplies, or adequate food can have a huge impact on their surroundings. Slums and destructive farming techniques can do as much damage as SUVs and chemical spills.

To highlight this issue, the UN has an annual event that focuses attention on living conditions. World Habitat Day falls on the first Monday in October. The theme of this year’s celebration is Planning our Urban Future.

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Why should we focus on the urban environment? People are moving into cities at a staggering rate, and the way that these cities grow is going to have a huge impact on surrounding areas. At the dawn of the twentieth century, only 14% of humanity lived in cities. Now, more than half of all people call a city their home. Some of the largest cities have more than 10,000,000 inhabitants.

People who are starving are more interested in survival than in wildlife conservation. When your stomach is empty, conserving natural resources is an abstract concern. Without working sewage systems, trash services, or reliable electricity, people are unable to minimize their impact on the natural world.

Many endangered birds have beautiful plumage or produce enchanting birdsong, but starving people are unlikely to be interested in watching or listening to Blyth’s Tragopan Pheasants or Mandarin Ducks. They’re more likely to eat them.

Poverty is tightly associated with a host of environmental problems, including sewage contamination of wetlands, deforestation, and poaching ( for food as well as profit). When drought or poor management cause crops to fail, baboons, gazelles, elephants, and other endangered animals often show up on the dinner table. Native plants and animals are often featured in local medical and spiritual practices; when these species are harvested with modern technology, they are often unable to reproduce fast enough to replace their losses.

Poverty and cultural attachment were cited as the main reasons for bushmeat exploitation. Bushmeat-eating households regard bushmeat as more tasty and medicinal than livestock meat and fish

Looking down the road, there is major concern that climate change and over exploitation of resources by developed countries are going to make the problem worse. As new land is cleared for human use, wildlife habitat disappears. As the number of people living in an area grows, so do appetites for food and timber.

While a lot of attention has been focused on how McMansions waste resources, poor urban development is a problem that affects both the affluent and the indigent. For example, growing slums are also destroying forests to supply building materials and charcoal (for cooking and staying warm in the winter). Disease and illiteracy are major problems in these shanty towns that can easily affect the wealthier neighborhoods of town.

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Even though poachers earn very little money from killing endangered species, wealth is relative. Small sums of money are often a kings ransom in third world countries. People who have no other job prospects are often tempted to break the law, especially when enforcement is weak or when the animals are seen as a nuisance.

“A villager can earn as much in one night from poisoning and skinning a tiger as he could earn from farming in five years. Eventually, that skin can sell for up to US$6,000 [HK$46,800] in Lhasa.”

To address these environmental issues, it’s important to tackle the root causes of deforestation, resource depletion, and poverty. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is encouraging leaders to engage their citizens in urban planning and to avoid letting inertia determine how we deal with these problems. If you have an idea or a novel solution to fighting urban blight or dependency, now is the time to speak up and act out.

According to the United Nations, more than 100 million people in the world today are homeless. Millions more face a severe housing problem living without adequate sanitation, with irregular or no electricity supply and without adequate security.

Even if those millions of people are squatting in alleyways, hiding under tin sheets, and digging through garbage today, tomorrow they will move mountains and uproot forests in their search for food and shelter. The question of our generation is how to enlist their help in building a healthier, safer, and greener future.

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In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Be green, and bank some green with these contests

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Earth Day has come and gone, but there are still a lot of contests going on that focus on environmentally friendly ideas. If you have green skills or an innovative idea, here are some fun contests that offer a chance to keep changing the world:

Show Us Your Green Contest from Threadless T-Shirts:
Prize: $3813.74 (and growing as more people participate)
Method of entry: Digital Picture on Flickr or Tweetpic along with a typed description on Tweet
Deadline: April 27, 2009

Spring Dream Challenge from Lowes
Prize: $301-2672 (different prize packs based on the entry category)
Method of entry: YouTube video
Deadline: May 3, 2009

Escape to Alaska or Bust Contest from Alaska Wildland Adventures
Prize: 8 Day / 7 Night Lodge stay with a wildlife expedition
Method of entry: Up to 33,000 characters in essay format
Deadline: May 22, 2009

The Green Effect Contest by Frito Lay’s SunChips & National Geographic
Prize: $20,000 to spend on a green cause
Method of entry: 100-250 word proposal for improve the environment, with up to 4 pictures in support and up to 3 minutes of video explanation
Deadline: June 8, 2009

How are you spending Earth Hour on March 28th?

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Once a year, environmentalists around the world turn out the lights for an hour. This year, Earth Hour falls on Saturday, March 28th, and many different homes, offices, and government buildings are taking part. The organizers of Earth Hour hope to raise awareness of how much energy we waste with inefficient lighting systems. For one hour a year, everyone can take part and see the beauty of the natural sky that’s lost due to light pollution.

The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations are hard at work planning activities for Earth Hour 2009, ranging from star watching and recycling events to tree plantings and slumber parties. Find an Earth Hour event nearby, or if there aren’t any, you can plan one yourself with help from the Earth Hour Facebook group!

Now’s the time to raise your voice and take part. Are businesses and government offices in your town participating in Earth Hour? Check the latest Earth Hour news, and if City Hall isn’t taking part, now is a good time to ask pointed questions of your elected officials. While they’re on the line, why not ask about steps that the city is taking to retrofit energy efficient devices into public buildings and legislation that improves local air quality?

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how we destroy the night sky for the other 8,765 hours of the year…
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How to plant a victory garden

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Everything old is new again. This is doubly true for trends that never went completely out of fashion, like vinyl records and Victory Gardens. Originally conceived during World War I as a way to ensure food supplies for troops, these community gardens took off in a big way during the second World War. By 1944, up to 40% of the vegetables on American tables came from a Victory Garden.

Now, with the rising price of staple foods, increasing awareness of the environmental cost of industrial farming, and increased interest in self sufficiency and independence, Victory Gardens are making a serious comeback. The Smithsonian Institute has a new exhibit on Victory Gardens, and vegetable rows are replacing ornamental bushes nationwide.

Modern-day Victory Gardens look a little different – gardeners are now blogging about their successes and even using Twitter to send gardening updates!

Success with Victory Gardens is snowballing into more awareness of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Urban food pantries are stocking up with fresh fruit gleaned from “ornamental” trees. Believe it or not, some HOA’s are embracing community gardens. There’s even a campaign to start a Victory Garden on the White House lawn:

Benefits of a victory garden:

  • Cut grocery bills
  • Gain access to fresher food
  • Boost vitamins in your diet
  • Increase the health of your soil
  • Insure against food shortages
  • Reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
  • Avoid disease (or ensure access to your favorite veggies if an outbreak occurs)
  • Preserve oil supplies / reduce dependence on foreign oil
  • Grow produce for sale or gifts

So, let’s say that you’ve been bitten by the Victory Gardening bug. Where to begin?

It can be a bit daunting to start your first Victory Garden. There’s a lot to learn about soil, planting seasons, and local weather conditions. Hit the books! The library is a good place to start – a little bit of research can go a long way in getting the best results. As the old saying goes, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of perspiration. Your state’s Extension Office can also be a good source of information and expert advice.

Try looking for help from your neighbors – local gardening clubs often know the best times to plant and which species do best in your area. Find a local Gardening MeetUp, and you’ll find a pool of knowledge and maybe even people willing to lend you seeds or cuttings from their favorite plants. No matter which plants you choose, PBS is a great resource for beginner gardeners.

In the past, Victory Gardens were all laid out from a universal template. That didn’t work out very well for people who tried to grow the same plants in California as they did in Maine and Florida. Instead of a cookie cutter layout, you should tailor your garden to local conditions. Work with your climate to choose the best plants. For example, even if you love rice, it may not make sense to grow rice if you live in the middle of the desert.

We’ve learned a lot in the last 50 years, and it’s easier to start a vegetable garden in your yard than ever before. Incorporate this knowledge in the layout and composition of your victory garden, and you can achieve amazing results. Our grandparents didn’t have much practical experience on designing to minimize erosion or using cover crops that naturally fertilize the soil, but there’s a wealth of useful information on these techniques. Here are some other research topics that you might want to consider:

Even if you have limited space or no yard, Victory Gardens can be grown in containers and indoor planters. Hanging planters can turn any patio or balcony into a vertical garden.

If you don’t have a patio, many plants will thrive in window planters or grow boxes. There are also light boxes and grow lights that can turn the deepest, darkest basement into an oasis of life. Indoor plants not only make rooms beautiful – they also can help reduce sick building syndrome by providing fresh air and absorbing indoor pollutants.

Not a gardener? No problem. There are entrepreneurs eager to turn other people’s yards into gardens. Also, there are other steps you can take to promote food safety and sustainability.

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

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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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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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Links, links, green links. Get them while they’re hot!

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Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

Discarded fishing gear is a major problem in the ocean. Lost nets and traps can get tangled with animals, catch boat propellers, and damage fragile coral reefs. Covanta Energy is doing something interesting – they’re offering a free waste disposal service that converts marine waste into electricity by incinerating it and filtering the emissions. The Fishing for Energy program is about to get a windfall too – thousands of yards of fishing line are about to become obsolete due to new laws about floating rigs. Instead of paying disposal fees, many fisherman were expected to dump the line overboard. Now, that rope can be used to reduce the amount of coal and natural gas burned in 2009:

Derelict fishing equipment can threaten marine life, impair navigational safety, and have serious economic repercussions on shipping and coastal communities. Since the program was launched in February, more than 80,000 pounds of fishing nets, trawl gear, crab pots, and fishing line have been collected and converted into energy.

Speaking of the ocean, new studies have shown that methane gas trapped under the ice caps is escaping. As glaciers recede, this greenhouse gas is accelerating the melting process. Since methane has more than 20 times the heat trapping powers of carbon dioxide and the amount of methane involved is enormous, this could have serious climate effects.

Since the news lately has been a bit dark and scary, it’s important to focus on some of the amazing things that are also going on. For instance, have you seen what kids these days are up to? What were you doing when you were 12? This kid won a prize for designing next generation solar cells. That certainly trumps the tree house I built back in the 90’s.

There are also some exciting things happening in our neighbors yards. Believe it or not – it’s possible to grow more than 10,000 tomatoes in a typical yard. Wouldn’t you get tired of eating tomatoes after about the 5,000th one? And, the next time you’re mowing grass or digging holes for new landscaping – keep an eye out for Paleo-Indian artifacts. That, and buried pirate treasure.

Ever hear the adage “Everything that’s old is new again”? Companies catering to green tourists are using this truth to their advantage, with a rise in carbon neutral activities such as geothermal steam cog railroad trips, sky trams powered by water pressure, bookings on river steamboats, and even horse riding tours! Although, if you’ve ever been on the south bound end of a north bound horse, you know that carbon emissions aren’t the only thing there is to worry about.

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Queen of England plans array of offshore wind turbines, including biggest turbine ever built

Her Majesty -FLA
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The Queen of England once enjoyed direct rule over 2/3 of the earth’s surface. Her personal authority is a bit less these days, but she still has control over the territorial waters of Great Britain. And, with the backing of the Crown Estate, Queen Elizabeth II can afford to do some really impressive things in her domain. Like building an array of offshore windmills, including the biggest individual windmill in the world.

Her Majesty’s windmill will produce 7.5 megawatts, which is more than twice as much as the previous record holder (GE’s 3.6 MW Offshore Turbine). The company that’s producing the turbine is Clipper Windpower, based in California. They have a proven history building monster wind turbines – including the largest turbine built in the US: the 2.5 MW Liberty Turbine. Details are still being worked out about where the giant wind turbine will be produced, and how it will be shipped to England.

The average British person uses 10-15 kilowatts per day (half of the average American energy consumption), which means that on a windy day this monster turbine will meet the needs of roughly 500-750 people. And the British Crown plans to build multiple turbines, all far out to sea. Many will be invisible to people on land, but the biggest windmill in the world will be nearly 600 feet tall and should be visible for about 18-19 miles.

Windmill array -FL
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Eco news of the week

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Brooklyn Bridge Baby at

Here are five big environmental stories that you might have missed this week:

1) Saudi Arabia is planning for a future without gasoline. The Kingdom is investing in education and hopes to develop new industries and exports that will supplement oil in the near term and replace it in the long term.

2) Small is big. Due to rising energy costs and environmental awareness, architects are finding a surprising demand for smaller homes.

3) Have you heard of It’s a carbon calculator site that’s different from the hundreds of other calculators out there. Instead of focusing on environment harms, the site reinforces good behavior with instant feedback about the progress you’ve made. After all, even minimal impact can be discouraging to focus on.

4) Speaking of carbon – Al Gore and T Boone Pickens are both pushing aggressive energy plans. These gentlemen, who come from very opposite sides of the political spectrum, are stressing that carbon free electricity is more than an environmental issue. They opine that moving away from coal and oil will make a huge difference in the US trade deficit, bolster national security by increasing energy independence, and position American companies to prosper against global competition.

5) Did you know that the Prius fails Georgia’s Vehicle Emissions Test?

Give “hypermiling” a try for improving your gas mileage

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With minor changes to their driving habits, some drivers have achieved hybrid-like performance from fuel guzzling vehicles. These drivers, known as “hypermilers”, are pushing the limits of existing technology without using any aftermarket devices. Since gas prices are heading towards the stratosphere, more and more drivers are looking to hypermilers for driving tips and fuel saving ideas. On the website, a group of hypermilers claim to have saved more than 185,000 gallons of gas.

So, how do they do it?

The biggest improvements result from modifications to the driver. Initial changes are simply abiding by the speed limit, keeping right, maintaining safe spacing between vehicles, and paying full attention to driving, including no cell phone use while driving.

Remember that safety on the highway is an important part of achieving fuel efficiency. Don’t try driving 55 mph in the far left lane of the tollway! Unless you want to become a road rage statistic, you might want to check out this guide to hypermiling etiquette.

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snowdeal at

Is your zoo an amphibean refuge?

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Despite what the Chinese zodiac says, 2008 is officially the year of the frog. Nearly 6,000 frog species are threatened with extinction, and there’s no time like the present to take action.

Frogs are under intensive pressure – they face massive habitat loss, pesticide poisoning and even human predation. As if those dangers weren’t enough, a previously unknown fungus recently began attacking frogs. This fungus has an extremely high mortality rate – after Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is introduced, 50% of amphibian species and 80% of individuals generally die within 1 year. Think of it as Kermit Ebola.

It’s likely that the spread of Chytrid Fungus is caused by human activity. Chytrid Fungus is moving along with global trade, and the problem is developing at a much faster rate than previous infections. Dutch Elm Disease took nearly 30 years to cross from Europe to the United States, while Chytrid Fungus took roughly 20 years to cross from the US to Europe. The pathogen wasn’t even identified in the lab until after it had spread to virtually every country in the world. Globalization has something to do with this, but the deadly fungus is also getting a boost from global warming..

“Climate change is making for cooler days and warmer nights due to changes in cloud cover on the tropical mountains,” [says Alan Pounds, an ecologist at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica]. This shifts temperatures to those more agreeable to the fungus, which thrives between 17°C and 25°C. “Global warming is loading the dice in favour of this disease-causing fungus,” he says.

There is good news, though. An effective treatment has been found using over-the-counter antibiotic cream. This means that wherever frogs can be reached, they can be treated to cure infection. Several zoos and botanical preserves are working with the group Amphibean Ark to create refuges for wild frog populations. The idea is to treat incoming frogs and create a biosecure area in case the frogs go extinct in the wild.

Is your zoo taking part? You can petition them to get with the program, and raise awareness about the issue. Several zoos, such as the Denver Zoo, have found big money in frog preservation. These programs are extremely effective at raising donations and improving visitor turnout. Kids love cute frogs – and this is a way to make sure that frogs are around for our grandchildren!

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Zoo programs are already having unexpected results. The Memphis Zoo has found a new way to preserve the endangered Mississippi gopher frog. They’ve introduced a program to save the species using in-vitro fertilization. With only about 100 adults left in the wild, the zoo has spawned a batch of 94 viable tadpoles. That’s an amazing result!

Religious Leaders are going Green



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An increasing number of religious leaders are promoting environmental causes at the pulpit. From using organic bread during mass to promoting water conservation as a path to peace in the Middle East, these leaders are connecting the dots between conservative faith and conservation. Here are 20 very different leaders who stand out for their environmental activism.

Additional newsworthy developments include:


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Religion gets tough on pollution. Thou shalt not pollute?

Just looking over the new 7 deadly sins version 2.0 in this article in the AP and it would appear that the Vatican has now added pollution to the list.

According to Pope Gregory the Great, the seven deadly sins are Lust, Gluttony, Greed, sloth, Wrath, envy and pride. These are capital sins that could lead to eternal damnation without confession or “perfect contrition.

The new deadly sins include Pollution, mind altering drugs, genetic experiments, and the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor.

“If yesterday sin had a rather individualistic dimension, today it has a weight, a resonance, that’s especially social, rather than individual,” said Girotti, whose office deals with matters of conscience and grants absolution.

Not to be outdone, the Baptist church has come out stating that we have a biblical duty to stop global warming, according to this article in the Washington Post. “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change” states that there is substantial evidence for global warming.

“We believe our current denominational resolutions and engagement with these issues have often been too timid,” the statement said. “Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better.”

In the Baptist church, things like this are considered by the individual churches as more of a strong suggestion rather than a commandment. Local churches have a greater deal of autonomy when it comes to these kind of declarations.

We can only hope that our elected leaders who make such a show of their faith are listening.

Follow up on Green Credit Cards

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A week after contacting the three companies that are offering Green Credit Cards, only one of the companies has replied to my questions:

Emily, at Brighter Planet, wrote:

Hi George – The market rate for our offsets are $12 a ton, and we measure in short tons (2000 lbs.) And as far as biodegradable plastic goes, we wish! The truth is that only giftcards can be made out of biodegradable material right now because they hold up for 3-5 swipes, not enough for a credit card. As soon as a good enough, durable plastic comes out we’ll switch! Thanks for your interest and let me know if there are other questions I can answer for you.


I asked these same questions to the other green card providers and I’m still waiting on a reply from Earth Rewards and Green Pay. But I’m not holding my breath – have you ever tried getting straight talk from a credit card company?

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Green credit cards. Reward cards that help the environment?

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There are credit cards that offer just about every incentive under the sun. For those who want to earn cash back, airline miles, or even strange things like hours in jetfighter training, there are cards that reward cardholders with a percentage of every dollar spent. Now, several companies have rolled out credit cards with an environmental affinity. For every purchase on these cards, a portion of the fees are invested into carbon offsets and financing projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

General Electric launched the Earth Rewards MasterCard. It offers two green options – users can donate 1% of their purchases to fighting global warming, or they can keep half a percent for themselves and donate the other half percent to saving the planet.

Bank of America is behind the Brighter Planet Visa. They use a point system where every dollar spent earns a point and 1,000 points equals a ton of carbon dioxide offsets. That makes it a bit hard to compare apples to oranges, but a ton of carbon costs anywhere from $5 to $40 with an average value around $10 per ton. So, that equals about the same reward rate as the Earth Rewards Card (1% or 1:100).

MetaBank offers the GreenPay MasterCard. It rewards cardholders with 5 lbs of CO2 reduction for every dollar spent and 10 lbs for every dollar spent on gasoline or utilities. The first thing to do in comparing these is to convert carbon pounds to carbon tons. Carbon credits are measured using metric tons and 1 metric ton is approximately 2205 lbs. So, at the lower rate, every $441 spent on the card earns 1 ton of carbon credits. Assuming $10 per ton of carbon credit, that works out to about a 2.2% reward rate or 1:45.

From the information on their websites and responses to my inquiries, it appears that all of these cards are printed on standard plastic blanks. That’s a real shame, considering that many stores now offer gift cards printed on biodegradable plastics.

In summary:
Earth Rewards MasterCard: 1:100 (1 cent earned per dollar spent)
Brighter Planet Visa: approximately 1:100 (1 cent per dollar )
GreenPay MasterCard: approximately 1:45 (2.2 cents per dollar )
Greenpay MasterCard for gas and electricity purchases: 1:22 (4.5 cents per dollar)

The cards also have critics:

Some advocates question whether the green cards will actually lead to fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. “What I am more concerned about is that it gives people an easy pass: ‘OK, I’ve got my green credit card, so I can do things that are carbon-ridiculous,'” says Leslie Lowe, director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility on Energy and Environment, a nonprofit based in New York.

For now, your best bet may be to keep a high reward card and use the rewards to purchase carbon credits on your own. Whether you join one of these programs or not, you can always sign up for paperless statements and cut your footprint that way!

Stop E-wasting, Recycle your Computer or other Electronic Devices at Work

According to Mark Buckley, the VP of Environmental Affairs at Staples, an estimated 133,000 computers are discarded every day in the U.S. That’s nearly 49 million computers a year! And that doesn’t even include cell phones and other office related electronics.Old electronic junk, or “e-waste” is increasingly becoming a larger problem in today’s electronic age, making the need for recycling more and more important. A lot of people think that paying to recycle their stuff is not worth it, and they just throw it into the garbage to get rid of it. But a few major computer companies like HP, Dell, Sony and Apple are making it easier for people to recycle their old computers when they upgrade.According to Earth’s website,

Reusing and recycling prevents electronic items from reaching landfills, creating less waste, providing usable items to organizations that need them and recapturing valuable resources.” 

If you work for a company that seems to upgrade to new computers on a regular basis, start asking what your company is doing with those old computers. If the computers are broken beyond repair, search around for local take back programs or retailers that recycle any electronic product. Look online for the manufacturer of your old computer to see if they have a recycling or take back program. Staples, for example, will recycle electronics from any manufacturer for 10 dollars or less, nationwide. It might not be free to recycle that dusty old computer, but at least they will make sure it is recycled properly.Here at my workplace, I just upgraded to a new Apple computer. Don’t be jealous! After the purchase, Apple emailed me a Fed-Ex shipping label to print out. All I have to do is box up this old PC, stick on the shipping label and drop it off at a FedEx Kinko’s. They’ll take it back and see that it is recycled. Seems like hassle free e-cycling to me!If your computer or other electronics are still in working order, but you have newer models you are using, try selling, donating or free-cycling your electronic goods. There are lots of people who still can not afford to buy brand new computers, so selling or donating yours locally can help others in your community. Ebay and are two good resources for selling electronics, or giving them away.Just remember, it’s all about doing your part. Become proactive at work by asking what they are doing with old computers there. It may cost your boss a little extra to do some good, but doing good will pay off when your consumers and other companies begin to take notice.

Can you bicycle 55 MPH?

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell the people who are ultra-dedicated to a cause apart from people who are a little bit insane. Chuck Thomas is one of those people who blurs the line.

Every day, he commutes 14 miles to work on his bicycle. That’s pretty impressive in itself, since a 14 mile bike ride burns around 1,000 calories and saves around half a gallon of gas each way. But the really amazing thing about Mr. Thomas’ commute is that he bikes to work on a Tollway. That reminds me of a certain arcade game…
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Environmentalists in Georgia lose fight to stop coal plant construction

Environmentalists fought a valiant fight to block the construction of the first new coal plant built in the state of Georgia in over 20 years.  The Sierra Club, Greenlaw, and Friends of the Chattahoochee argued that the state should not have granted permits to the plant that, while using more modern pollution controls, did not use the best available. 

The plant uses a dry scrubber instead of a more effective wet scrubber in order to remove the sulfur dioxide from the smoke, and no carbon dioxide limits would be in place.  Surprisingly, many of the local residents welcome the plant for the economic benefits it would bring to the area, without taking into consideration the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases that would come along with that. 

With the price of solar now very close to the price of coal plants, why are we still building these things?  It will take another five years to build in which time given the present rate of advancement in solar technology the plant will be hopelessly outdated and expensive to operate before it is completed. 

The environmentalists in Georgia lost this round; Judge Stephanie Howells issued an order affirming the states decision to allow the plant to be built.  Howells’ opinion is being appealed and the project manager for the new plant states he will not break ground until appeals are resolved. 

Microwaving old, discarded tires into diesel fuel?

A great article in today’s Dallas paper covers a man in Pennsylvania who has discovered how to microwave old car tires back into completely usable, separate materials. For 50 cents worth of electricity, he can microwave an old 14 inch tire down to 1.2 gallons of diesel fuel, 7.5 pounds of carbon black, 50 cubic feet of combustible gas and 2 pounds of high-strength steel.

Even better, he has discovered that you can use the same system on sludge dredged from the bottom of a river to create usable fuel!

Car tires, of course, have steel belts, and metal – as many home microwave oven users have accidentally discovered – reacts poorly to microwaves. “The microwave door hit me in the head a few times before I figured out how to deal with that,” Mr. Pringle said.

Oxygen causes that bad reaction. So he microwaved tires in a vacuum. After many trials and errors, he, chief engineer Hawk Hogan, researcher George Birch and others found a frequency that turned tires into useful material. With 50 cents’ worth of electricity for the large microwave he has fabricated, he demonstrates. He turns a single 14-inch car tire, one small piece at a time, into 1.2 gallons of diesel fuel, 7.5 pounds of carbon black, 50 cubic feet of combustible gas and 2 pounds of high-strength steel.

Through tubes from the vacuum chamber inside the microwave, the diesel fuel goes into a glass container and the combustible gas is captured in a tank. The solids remain in a container inside the oven.

Each demonstration finishes with a flourish, when he flicks a cigar lighter to a torch and burns off the gas he just produced.

“I’ve tested the diesel fuel in my pickup,” Mr. Pringle said. “The truck ran fine, but the exhaust smelled like burning rubber. At stoplights, people around me kept checking to see if they’d left their parking brake engaged.”

He later dialed the right frequency to harvest usable fuels from material dredged from river bottoms.

“What was left was aggregate material that was completely clean and safe.” Mr. Preski reviewed articles in engineering journals and decided there was potential in what Mr. Pringle developed.

Recycle or Re-use. Fort Worth’s Environmental Collection center

crushed paint cans

During the 1960’s there was a street theater group, known as the Diggers, in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.  They regularly held free concerts, fed the public for free in golden gate park, and perhaps the most famous of their altruistic activities; the free store. 

The free store was basically a second hand store that people would bring unwanted items to and anyone could walk in off the street and pick up anything they wanted off the shelves for free; no money ever changed hands.   The Diggers aren’t around anymore (at least not in Haight-Ashbury) but the concept of the free store has been carried to a lot of unexpected Venues.  A friend of mine who was a student at Fort Worth’s Baptist Seminary told me that they had a free store of sorts in the dorm, and free stores have gained in popularity all across Europe.

What has all this got to do with Chemicals and waste disposal?  Well, everything; especially if you live in Fort Worth, Texas.  This week I had the pleasure of visiting Fort Worth’s Environmental Collection Center.  If you live in Fort Worth or one of the participating municipalities (go to their website to see if your community is one of them) you can show up at the center with acids, aerosol cans, antifreeze, batteries (all kinds, including car batteries), brake fluid, cooking oil, craft chemicals, degreasers, drain cleaner, fertilizer, fluorescent light bulbs, compact flourescent light bulbs (CFLs), herbicides, household chemicals, motor oil, paints & stains, paint thinners, pest strips, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, photo chemicals, pool chemicals, oil filters, solvents, transmission fluid and varnish…And they will take them off your hands. 

Paint Cans

Now, many years ago I played in a band with the primary purpose in life to promote environmental issues.  We played free concerts at several drop off recycling centers like this in order to promote recycling and proper waste disposal so that people wouldn’t be dumping motor oil down storm drains;  It’s not new.  But what I found unique and how we tie this all together is that not only is this a drop off and recycling center; it’s a free store for household chemicals and paint.  I first heard about this service from Ken Otoole, the gallery director of The Second Floor Gallery in Fort Worth.  He painted the entire art gallery using paint obtained for free from the ECC.  I admit, the first thing I thought of was the old Steven Wright joke “I just bought some used paint; it came in the shape of a house”  but as he explained you simply walk in and take whatever paint other citizens have dropped off.  You get free paint and the paint winds up on your walls instead of in a landfill somewhere.  You may have to mix a few to get the color you want, but the price is right.

And we’re not talking just paint. When I was there I found carpet cleaner, motor oil, bio-degradable degreaser (that one went home with me; I drive a diesel after all), sterno, bicycle chain lube and all kinds of things that I personally have paid good money for in the past.  Nothing beats saving the environment and saving money all at the same time. 

And what happens to the stuff that nobody wants or they can’t give out?  Well, cooking oil is used to make bio-fuels, batteries are stripped and recycled, used motor oil is recycled, and pesticides are shipped to appropriate centers to be incinerated and rendered harmless.  Paint cans are crushed, allowed to dry, and then shelfcrushed some more  before being safely disposed of.  In short; everything that can be recycled is recycled, and everything that can’t is safely converted.  Much better than dumping it down a storm drain I think.

Like I said before, there are a limited number of communities that can participate in Fort Worth’s program and if your  community doesn’t have such a program you have some campaigning to do with your city government.  To find out what is available to you visit and punch in what you have and where you need to get rid of it and it will tell you whats available locally; and while you’re there see if they have a free store.  If not, talk to them about the free frame of reference. 

oil tanks