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!

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

Photo courtesy of A. Kotula at Flickr.com.

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.


Photo courtesy of yourpicturesarejon at Flickr.com.

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

Her Majesty -FLA
Photo courtesy of ceebee23 at Flickr.com.

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
Photo courtesy of yakkerDK at Flickr.com.

The Sahara desert is reaching north into Spain



Photo courtesy of DanielKHC at Flickr.com.

Droughts are a worldwide problem, with water in short supply in many different countries. Australia and Spain are both suffering through record breaking droughts right now. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the US, but rainfall in Spain is at its lowest level in 40 years. This comes at a time when population is booming and per capita water use is rising.

Water use is a very emotional issue in Spain, and tensions are running high between neighboring cities and regions. Opinions are divided largely along geographic lines; many people living in the southern provinces favor redirecting water from the north (where the drought is less severe). No one in the North wants to sacrifice their water rights to support wasteful behavior though, and water redirection projects face strong opposition. To break this logjam,

…the government is building more desalination plants, adding to the more than 900 already in Spain – the largest number in any one country outside the Middle East.

There is some concern that these energy intensive desalination plants will drive up the price of water while also creating even more climate change. It’s a no-win situation, like trying to prevent an avalanche by running a snow maker.

Leaders in Spain are looking for a better solution. The country is currently hosting the 2008 World’s Fair in Zaragosa, and the theme of Expo 2008 is “Water and Sustainable Development”. New technologies are on display, including water saving fixtures for the home and agricultural techniques that conserve water. Government programs are encouraging people to adopt these innovations with tax rebates and grants, and if the Spanish are successful in conserving their water, they may be able to stop the desertification of their country. Otherwise, climate change will devastate the environment, with lasting effects on the economy.

If you get a chance to visit Zaragosa, you’ll see an alternative vision of the future, with clean technology offering jobs and climate security. The best vantage point to view the fairgrounds is atop the 250 foot tall Water Tower building.



Photo courtesy of Paulo Brandão at Flickr.com.

The best and latest green news


Photo courtesy of
sterkworks at Flickr.com.

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.

Not everyone who wants to eat local food has time to garden. That’s why a new breed of entrepreneurs are ready to help you out by managing your garden. They’re like executive chefs, but more hardcore.

An unusual new power plant is going up in Indiana. With an output of only 1.6 megawatts, the first phase of this electrical turbine isn’t going to power the entire eastern seaboard, but it is one of several new power plants that generate power using methane from garbage.
That’s equivalent to:

— Removal of emissions equivalent to over 22,000 cars per year, or
— Planting about 27,000 acres of forest annually, or
— Creating enough energy to power more than 2,000 homes per year

Computers contain some pretty toxic chemicals, and e-waste is a major problem we’ve blogged about before. Many companies are working from the other side of the issue and trying to produce greener computer components.

Climate change and invasive species threaten to destroy some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Here’s a list of endangered places to visit before they’re gone. If you do have the means to visit these places, please consider donating to local conservation groups.

Due to high oil prices, reduced gas consumption is resulting in shortfalls in the Federal Highway Fund at the same time that Congress is focused on rising road maintenance costs. What does that mean?

Well, for starters, we can expect more toll roads. And here’s a cruel irony: the increased use of mass transit may cause a cut in funding for mass transit.