Water Wise Gardening – tips for low impact gardening

Saving water and conserving energy are in vogue, but our culture has forgotten an amazing amount about how to get results while using fewer resources. There are hundreds of archaic methods that are worth revisiting to cut your utility bills. In the centuries before electric pumps, dams, and water towers, our ancestors employed a variety of low impact techniques to irrigate crops and nurture their yards. Some of these techniques are making a comeback.

For example, gardeners in the Southwest are rediscovering how to use the olla. Olla’s are unglazed pots that are partially buried in the ground. When filled with water, these pots allow moisture to seep into the surrounding soil. Ollas prevent water loss from run-off and evaporation, plus they prevent nutrients from washing away. They are also a cost effective alternative to expensive drip irrigation equipment, and installing Ollas is easy to do with simple hand tools:

Here are a few other time-tested ways to save water and electricity:

Slow down the flow of water: Match the flow of water to the speed that your landscape absorbs moisture. While an Olla is one of the most water efficient methods, other technologies include Multi-stream rotor sprinkler heads and soaker hoses. Low volume watering avoids runoff, preventing erosion and keeping nutrients from washing away.

Use shade to prevent evaporation: Sun visors, pipes, and sun screens are seeing renewed interest as water saving technologies. To prevent evaporation of standing water, it’s important to reduce sun exposure. Replacing open irrigation ditches with underground pipes can reduce evaporation by up to 50%. Uncovered swimming pools consume 35-50% more water than covered pools. Uncovered pools also consume more energy to heat, because evaporation cools the remaining water down:

It only takes 1 Btu (British thermal unit) to raise 1 pound of water 1 degree, but each pound of 80ºF water that evaporates takes a whopping 1,048 Btu of heat out of the pool.

Use mulch and compost: Natural fertilizers not only feed the soil, they also help the yard absorb moisture. Mulching with porous materials such as wood chips, grass clippings, and vermiculite can help turn the soil into a sponge.

Finished compost holds up to 200 times it’s weight in water, and its not necessary to go with fully decomposed compost to get the mulching effects. 100 pounds of horse manure holds approximately 195 pounds of water (just watch out – horses eat lots of wildflowers without digesting the seeds). Using layers of different types of mulch and compost can get even better results.

Irrigate with water spikes: Water spikes, like this one, help water penetrate deep into the soil and soak directly into the roots of trees or other targeted plants. They are an ideal way to help a new plant get established, or to ensure that a needy plant gets enough water.

Use native plants: If your lawn has plants that are growing outside of their usual habitat, instead of finding ways to water more, it’s also a good idea to replant with local species. These native plants are well adapted to local rainfall, and will only need additional water in drought conditions. As a bonus, native plants also require less pruning!

Re-use waste water: Water that is unfit for people to drink may be just right for plants. This so-called “gray water” can come from the dish washer, the shower, and the kitchen sink. When rinsing off fruit or washing dishes, grey water can even pick up nutrients.

Capture rain water: Rain is free source of water, and surprising amounts of rainwater can be collected even in the driest climate.

Speakman Showerheads: A Water Saving, Low Flow Version

If you’ve ever stayed at a nice hotel, chances are you’ve used a Speakman showerhead. They’re the ones with multiple jets, and a little lever so that you can adjust the way that the showerhead sprays. They give you a nice, quality shower, and they look pretty fancy too.

But what about us environmentalists who want to save a little bit of water when we shower? The standard Speakman showerhead uses 2.5 gallons per minute. That’s much lower than showerheads manufactured in the 1980s and before, but it is the maximum amount of water allowed for a showerhead these days. Sort of eco-neutral in my book.

But Speakman now makes a 2 gallon per minute showerhead, in six different varieties.

That means that you can get the luxury of a real Speakman, and still meet LEED green building standards.

When you buy a showerhead that uses less water, you’re saving in two different ways.

First, you’re saving water, because the showerhead uses less of it. Duh, right?

Second, you’re also saving on your energy bill! It takes energy to make hot water, and I’m betting that you usually take a hot shower. Whether or not you have a gas or electric water heater, you’ll be using less hot water when you use a water saving showerhead, and that will help with your gas or electric bill.

And there’s the added benefit that your hot water lasts longer, which is important for homes with teenagers, or just several family members who all need to take a shower at the same time in the morning.

Anyone used one of these yet? I use a different brand of efficient showerhead, which I like.

World Habitat Day – 10/5/2009

PE - World Habitat Day - Oxfam International
Photo courtesy of oxfam international at Flickr.com

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.

PE - World Habitat Day - andreasnilsson1976
Photo courtesy of andreasnilsson1976 at Flickr.com

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.

PE - World Habitat Day - The Advocacy Project
Photo courtesy of the Advocacy Project at Flickr.com

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.

PE - World Habitat Day - Enzinho83
Photo courtesy of Enzinho83 at Flickr.com

Save the planet with motor oil

Photo courtesy of kendrak at Flickr.com

Eco-conscious drivers pay a lot of attention to how much gasoline their cars use, but what about the motor oil? When cars are properly maintained, they use far more gasoline than they do oil, and driving a car requires more trips to the gas station than the service station. An unfortunate side effect is that our attention is focused on gasoline and oil isn’t something that the average driver thinks about unless there’s a problem.

Let’s say that you’ve got your ducks in a row. You’re driving a fuel efficient car and getting the best mileage possible. Even if you’re a fuel frugal hypermiler, there are still a few things you can do with your oil to reduce your car’s impact on the planet.

Oil is not a generic product – there are oils with different viscosity, oils made from different sources, and oils with more endurance than others. Here’s a good primer on the different types of oil out there. Of note:

Group IV oils… flow more freely at extreme low temperatures and don’t break down at very high temperatures. As a side benefit, they generally can be specified one or two grades lighter than a mineral oil, which consumes less energy as friction inside the engine and saves fuel.

When was the last time you changed the oil in your car? 6 months ago? 5,000 miles ago? The frequency of oil changes can have a huge impact on the environment.

On the one hand, excessive oil changes are wasteful and use up a limited natural resource. On the other hand, changing oil infrequently can cause damage to a cars engine, increasing pollution from your engine and causing additional pollution from the factory that makes replacement parts. Finding that sweet spot is important.

The majority of drivers play it safe and change their oil more than necessary. Roughly 70% of drivers surveyed changed their oil too often. This results in excessive consumption of oil, magnifies disposal problems, and hurts the pocketbooks of drivers nationwide.

A major cause of this overconsumption is the idea that cars should have their oil changed every 3,000 miles. At the service station, mechanics often put a sticker on the windshield reminding drivers to return for their next oil change in 3,000 miles. When you see that sticker, bear in mind that it was put there by someone who will make money every time you buy more oil. Consumer Reports studied taxi cabs in New York City and found that extending the interval did not affect performance or wear on the engines. They also found that oil additives had no noticeable effect on engine wear or oil endurance.

There is no catch-all rule for drivers to follow – every car has different needs and requires oil changes at different intervals. Read the owners manual for the best information about your specific car, and follow its guidelines. If the manual suggests changing the oil every 7,500 miles, changing the oil every 3,000 miles will only drain your pocket book. Many cars now have an oil change sensor that will notify you when the oil needs to be swapped out.

About half of the oil changes in America are performed by do-it-yourself mechanics. Many drivers change their own oil, or rely on a friend who knows how to change oil. There’s a problem though – few people know about the harms caused by dumping their oil down the drain or bagging it up in the garbage.

Every year, more than 300 million gallons of used motor oil are disposed of improperly. Oil that ends up in the sewer or landfill often seeps out into the water table. Just one gallon of oil can contaminate 600,000 to one million gallons of fresh water. That’s enough drinking water to supply 50 people for a year! The amount of oil in an average car can contaminate 4 acres of farmland and make it useless for a century.

This is a big problem. Less than 5% of used oil is currently recycled. The majority of used oil is burned for fuel or dumped. That’s an easily preventable waste, because there are more than 30,000 oil recycling centers nationwide!

The best way to dispose of used motor oil is to take it to a chemical disposal facility. It’s easy to find a disposal location – find an oil recycling site near you at Earth911.com. By recycling the oil, you’ll reduce the need for drilling for oil and help protect local waterways from pollution.

Photo courtesy of Spiritwood images at Flickr.com

Earth Friendly ways to mow the grass

lawn mower at the gas pump
Photo courtesy of AbracaDebra at Flickr.com

Everyone loves a well manicured yard, and there are a multitude of power tools that make short work of trimming, mowing, and edging. A surprising number of green options also exist, and more people are setting aside diesel powered leaf blowers in favor of lawn friendly tools.

At this minute, the majority of people use gas powered lawnmowers. It may not be a coincidence that sales of riding lawn mowers are rising along with our obesity rate. Gas powered riding mowers are the tricked-out SUVs of lawncare. The average lawnmower uses only 0.5 gallons of gasoline per hour, but self propelled mowers can use 200-300% as much fuel while delivering only a fraction of the exercise.

Even gas mowers that have to be pushed produce a lot of pollution. They emit approximately 11 times as much pollution per hour as a car. Most of this pollution is in the form of volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Lawnmowers emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful hydrocarbon compounds. After they settle on the yard or filter into local rivers and streams, these toxins work their way into our food and drinking water.

Most of this pollution could be avoided if the lawnmowers had catalytic converters, but very few lawn mowers include even rudimentary pollution controls. Some of the worst lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines. This older technology relies on lubricant mixed with gasoline in the fuel tank. This mixture of fuel and oil eliminates the need for a dedicated lubricating system, which makes 2 stroke engines weigh less. Since 2 stroke engines have fewer components, they are also cheaper to build. Unfortunately, these costs savings have an environmental cost. 2 stroke engines burn oil along with their fuel supply and put out far worse fumes than 4 stroke engines or electric drive trains.

Do you want to breathe diesel fumes or poison your yard with partially burned gasoline? There are much better, greener options out there. Some alternatives to gasoline powered mowers include natural gas mowers, electric mowers, push reel mowers, livestock, and even using native plants for landscaping.

Cat staring at a lawn mower and jerry can
Photo courtesy of cheryl at Flickr.com

Fuel alternatives for gas lawnmowers
Unleaded gasoline is one of the most popular fuels for lawnmowers, but mowers also exist that are designed to burn other compounds. Some mowers can be converted to use cleaner fuels. Check with the manufacturer – not all leaf blowers, edgers, and lawn mowers can burn ethanol or bio diesel. Other models are made specifically to burn methanol, propane, or methane. These alternative fuels still produce pollution, but they produce far less (especially if you have a local fuel source with a lower associated carbon footprint).

A propane riding mower - with large tanks on either side of the driver
Photo courtesy of jgoverly at Flickr.com

Electrical mowers

Electric mowers come in two varieties – battery powered mowers and plug-in mowers. If you want freedom from cords, battery mowers are the way to go. They have some drawbacks though, including limited endurance, reduced torque, and increased weight. Mowers with batteries are also less eco-friendly than plug in mowers. Manufacturing batteries is a dirty business, and batteries also waste a lot of power while charging up (20-80% depending on the type and age of the battery).

If you’re using an electric lawn mower, the source of electricity at your home determines the footprint of the mower. More than 80% of the power on the US power grid comes from coal, and that power is only slightly cleaner than gasoline. If your home is supplied with green electricity from solar arrays, wind turbines, a hydroelectric dam, or similar sources, then a plug-in lawnmower is much cleaner. You can get even more green out of an electric mower by converting it to run on solar power.

An array of solar panels, charging the 36 volt battery of a lawnmower
Photo courtesy of M.Barkley at Flickr.com

Push reel mowers
People powered lawnmowers are even more environmentally friendly than electric mowers, because they’re powered by human muscle power. Rather than burn calories on an endless climb on the stairmaster, why not use your muscles to accomplish something? Manual mowers have several advantages – they produce no exhaust fumes, they don’t ever need to be plugged in, and they are far less dangerous than other mowers. Even if you run the mower over pebbles, the slow moving blades aren’t going to throw rocks.

Push reel lawnmowers are pleasant to operate. Since they have no engine, they are almost completely silent. You can listen to birds in the trees while mowing, or bring your phone along and talk to friends while doing lawncare. If you’re an early riser, you can mow at 7am without waking up your neighbors.

A push reel mower - spinning scythe blades mounted to an axle with a long metal handle for pushing
Photo courtesy of Beaker’s Glassworks, Jewelery & Things at Flickr.com

Lawn mowing animals
If pushing a mower (of any kind) isn’t your idea of fun, you could always outsource the work. Livestock is nature’s own solution to overgrown grass. If you’ve always wanted your own full-time gardener, don’t forget that ruminants make a really cheap labor force.

Sheep and geese are happy to trim the yard, and they produce wool and down feathers as well as meat. Sheep ranchers are having a tough time with falling prices, and some are making ends meet by leasing out their sheep herds as expert mowers. If you have a larger area, cows are four legged mowing machines. In Australia, wallabies are becoming increasingly popular for their lawnmowing skills.

Some towns and HOAs have started keeping herds of farm animals instead of sheds full of gardening equipment. On the Google campus, a trial is underway using goats to keep the lawn trimmed. Several urban homesteaders have reported problems with goats though, because they’re escape artists and they can be unpredictable eaters. That means that they’ll eat some weeds while ignoring the grass, or that they’ll chew one area down to the roots while ignoring thigh high blades of grass on the other side of the yard.

sheep and geese on a lawn
Photo courtesy of albatrail at Flickr.com

Slow growing / native plants
Another way to control your landscape is to use alternative plants. Some species of grass grow at a much slower rate than the popular St. Augustine and Bermuda. These slow growing grasses require less maintenance, and they often require less fertilizer (further reducing their environmental impact). Clover and bluebonnets are popular alternatives because they naturally fertilizes the soil.

When choosing plants, think about using native species. Native plants are very well suited to the climate and wont run out of control like invasive plants. Xeriscaping your yard will also reduce the amount of water needed to keep the landscape lush and green in the middle of summer. Cactus and wildflowers aren’t the only native plants to consider – moss works surprisingly well and prairie grass also has great eye appeal.

Native grass growing in Lurie garden with skyscrapers in the background
Photo courtesy of one2c900d at Flickr.com

Mulching with recycled rubber tires

Photo courtesy of Vagawi

Every year, approximately 1 Billion tires are replaced due to wear and tear. Many of these tires end up in landfills, but the majority are burned or converted into Tire Derived Fuel. A growing number of tires are being recycled after they have reached the end of their useful lifespan.

Recycling tires is a tricky process, because tires are a hodgepodge of many different things:

A typical passenger tire contains 30 types of synthetic rubber, eight types of natural rubber, eight types of carbon black, steel cord, polyester, nylon, steel bead wire, silica and 40 different kinds of chemicals, waxes, oils and pigments. They typically contain 85% hydrocarbon, 10-15% iron (in the bead wire and steel belts) and a variety of chemical components.

Discarded tires are mostly inert, but their effects on the environment are largely unknown. When discarded in landfills, they pose a significant fire risk and they take up a lot of space. Even before they reach the landfill, a lot of tire rubber flakes off into the environment from normal wear and tear. The effects of this worn tire rubber haven’t been widely studied.

Old tires are a cheap and plentiful resource, so many different ideas have been proposed to put old tyres to practical use. In the 1970’s, several attempts were made to build artificial reefs out of discarded tyres. Those plans didn’t work out very well, because chemicals in the tires repelled marine life. Now, millions of tires are rolling around on the ocean floor and even causing damage to natural coral reefs.

More recently, tire recycling companies stepped in and found commercial uses for tire scraps. More than 80% of dead tires end up getting turned into Tyre Derived Fuel. When tires are burned along with coal and wood scraps, they can actually reduce emissions of some pollutants.

There are other uses for recycled tires – they’re used as an ingredient in road construction, as a replacement for pavement, to make rubber flooring, and as artificial mulch. A blend of liquid asphalt and “Fine Grind” tire rubber lasts about 25% longer than other road surfaces, which cuts down on maintenance costs for highways nationwide. Crumb rubber is also widely used on running tracks and playgrounds for children. It provides excellent cushioning and prevents injuries for children and adults alike. Rubber chips are also offered as mulch.

Rubber mulch is a controversial product. Some gardeners swear by it as a long lasting weed suppressant and low maintenance landscape surface. Other gardeners steer clear of rubber mulch, due to concerns about chemical leaching, fire hazards, and smell.

Here are some of the benefits of using rubber mulch instead of wood mulch:

  • More durable (rubber lasts 5+ years vs 1-2 years for wood mulch)
  • Uniform look and color
  • Does not attract termites or other insects
  • No risk of mold or fungus infestation
  • No effect on wood allergies
  • Resistant to flooding and high winds
  • Cushy and comfortable to walk on
  • Helps dispose of used tires
  • Here are some of the problems with rubber mulch:

  • Some brands contain metal wire or nylon scraps
  • Smells like rubber, especially on hot or humid days
  • Potentially flammable (but so is wood mulch)
  • Risk of chemical contamination
  • Breaks down into inorganic components
  • Heats unevenly in the sun, killing sensitive roots
  • May contain carcinogens
  • The jury’s still out, but recycled rubber mulch seems safe to use in certain applications. What do you think? Do you have any experience using rubber mulch in your garden or greenhouse?

    Here’s another way you might want to consider to recycle old tires – they make great insulation for earth friendly homes. Crumb rubber also shows promise as a water filtering medium. In Arizona, state law makers are exploring another way to dispose of old tires: filling abandoned mine shafts to eliminate dangerous pitfalls. A few million years from now, who knows – those mine shafts might fill up with black gold!

    Photo courtesy of Road Dog

    What the heck is aquaponics?

    Photo courtesy of AIDG

    If you hang out with gardening hippies, you may hear the term “aquaponics” thrown around. So, what the heck does it mean?

    Aquaponics is a gardening technique designed to maximize water efficiency and minimize the need for fertilizers. The technique involves farming and raising fish in an integrated system, where fish produce natural fertilizer while plants filter and oxygenate the water. A well designed aquaponic system requires minimal supervision and creates two desirable crops – fresh herbs and fish. The components of the system produce synergy: fish and plants grow more efficiently together than they would in separate tanks.

    …when the aquaponic system is fully operational after six months, it leaps ahead of inorganic hydroponics. This leads to earlier maturity of greenhouse crops under aquaponics and much heavier cropping.

    Aquaponics is a portmanteau of the words Aquaculture and Hydroponics. It gets improved results due to the symbiotic behavior of several living organisms. The plants and fish complement each other, but a lot of the productivity depends on integrating bacteria and microorganisms in the system. Bacteria convert fish waste into useful nutrients for the plants, and phytoplankton produce food for the fish.

    Aquaponics is an old concept – the ancient Aztecs and Egyptians used the technique with various plant and fish species. In China and Thailand, it’s traditional to raise fish in flooded rice paddies. Since the 1970’s, several universities have been developing modern techniques and applying scientific method to get the greatest performance.

    Compared to conventional agriculture, aquaponics is a huge water saver. On a farm in Oklahoma, it takes 6 gallons of water to grow a head of lettuce. At 24 heads per case, that means raising 1,250 cases of lettuce using conventional methods would require 180,000 gallons of water. A DeepWater aquaponic system uses about 16.1% as much water to create the same results (and it generates more than 3,600 pounds of fish fillets and 7,400 pounds of fish scraps for use as fish feed or fertilizer).

    Here’s some more information on aquaponic water efficiency, comparing aquaponics to hydroponics and conventional farming techniques:

    Estimated total value of output is then A$405,000 ($305,491 USD) — which represents water use efficiency of around 173 liters/A$100 of production.

    This compares very favorably with the Australian commercial hydroponics figure of 600 liters of water used per A$100 of production.

    There are many different aquaponic systems, but two major schools have emerged. These two approaches look very different, and each is best for certain crops or locations. These competing systems are Deep Water Aquaponics and Reciprocating Aquaponics. The primary difference is where the plants are positioned. In Deep Water Aquaponics, plants float on top of a pond of water (usually inside styrofoam rafts with holes for their roots). In Reciprocating Aquaponic systems, the plants are outside the pond and water is carried to their roots along irrigation tubes.

    Photo courtesy of Aria Fotografia at Flickr.com

  • Deep Water Aquaponics
  • Deep Water Aquaponics is also known as Raft Culture Hydroponics or “the UVI system”. One of the main proponents of this type of hydroponics is Dr. James Rakocy of the University of the Virgin Islands. He offers training courses and maintains an aquaponic demonstration facility with 15 full scale systems that have been in continuous operation for several years. The system is very productive and water efficient:

    UVI’s aquaponics system, which occupies an eighth of an acre and uses 29,000 gallons of water, can produce annually 11,000 pounds of tilapia and 11,000 pounds of basil or 1,250 cases of lettuce.

    Here’s a cool photo-tour of the UVI system. Note – the fish are grown in separate tanks to prevent them from eating the roots of crop plants.

  • Reciprocating Aquaponics
  • Reciprocating Aquaponics is also known as “Flood and Drain” or “Ebb and Flow”. This system uses gravel or sand beds to filter water from fish tanks, and then irrigates plant beds using irrigation pipes (or positions plant roots inside the irrigation pipes). The result is a system with more control over temperature and humidity. Some plants that don’t do well in hydroponic systems thrive in these conditions, because their roots are protected against rotting. Biofiltration beds also allow more microbial activity in a smaller area, which is important when space is limited. On the flip side, the filtering media will get clogged over time, and cleaning it is hard work.

    This type of aquaponic system was developed by Mark McMurtry and many other pioneers. Several different ebb and flow systems have been built since the mid 1980’s.

    If you’re looking for a cool way to renovate the pool in your back yard, or if you want to do more with the rain water in your rainbarrels, there’s no time like the present to check out an aquaponic system.

    Photo courtesy of ideonexus at Flickr.com

    How to plant a victory garden

    Photo courtesy of Sunfell at Flickr.com.

    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.

    Photo courtesy of mental.masala at Flickr.com.

    Green news you can use

    Photo courtesy of From A Second Story 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 on your screen. A lot of exciting things are going on right now.

    First off is an uplifting story about how a species was brought back from the brink of extinction. The Aleutian Cackling Goose is one of the few animals that has been successfully taken off of the Endangered Species list, and it was saved, in large part, by the efforts of a single guy. How cool is that? Imagine if every person adopted one of the species on the list!

    Often, when environmental activists work to preserve the environment, they face resistance from developers, local businesses, and sometimes even their own neighbors. Some people fear environmentalism as a force that closes doors and blocks possibilities, others simply oppose change in any form. Yet, new studies are showing that untamed spaces can be a positive force.

    Environmental activism can achieve personal health goals, and benefit public health at the same time. Just like wild animals, human beings are hardwired to appreciate nature. People who spend more time outdoors have been found to recover from stress faster and have stronger immune systems; they also have and lower rates of disease associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Children who spend more time outdoors have lower risks of obesity and they even develop better vision.

    It’s easy to see how land conservation and sustainable agriculture is changing the world, but the spread of composting, non-chemical fertilizers, and free range ranching doesn’t always make the news. For example, did you know that roughly a quarter of the world’s organic farms are in Africa? Growing demand for organic produce is having a huge impact on some of the poorest farmers in the world, and there are still millions of acres of African farmland that use organic techniques which can be improved to be even more productive. Organic crops have the potential to transform Fair Trade and increase food stability in many African countries.

    One last thing – if you have a few moments to kill, Comedy Central has created a really addictive environmental flash puzzle. It challenges you to step into the President’s shoes and prevent global warming with an array of different technologies. After you lay down each puzzle piece, they will morph and interact with other pieces already on the board. For instance, recycling technology will cause disaster if you don’t build up an industrial outlet for the recycled goods. There’s a moral lesson worth taking to heart.

    What do you think the biggest story is right now? Feel free to post comments below and share your green news with the world.

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

    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.

    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.

    Photo courtesy of HckySo at Flickr.com.

    Shrimp, shrimp farming, and the environment. Is your meal safe?

    Photo courtesy of adactio at Flickr.com.

    Shrimp are delicious, and the average American eats about 4 lbs of these crustaceans each year. Even though shrimp account for a huge portion of our diet, very few people think about where the shrimp on their dinner table came from. That’s changing as disturbing news about some overseas shrimp farms comes to light.

    The majority of shrimp consumed in America come from east Asia. The same countries that gave us milk tainted with chemicals and toys painted with lead are raising the shrimp we eat. A surprising number of these shrimp have traces of harmful chemicals, pesticides, and bacteria. Shrimp that are raised in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia and other associated areas are generally raised in conditions that would not pass inspection in the United States.

    One of the scarier chemicals found in shrimp farms is chloramphenicol. This is an ultra-strong antibacterial agent that shrimp farmers use to control disease in overcrowded conditions. It has been banned in the west for decades because it causes blood disorders and has no safe level of exposure. Chloramphenicol isn’t the only dangerous antibiotic used on shrimp farms. Other antibiotics have been tied to liver failure, cancer, and toxic shock.

    Shrimp farming can also have a devastating effect on the environment. Coastal areas that are suited for shrimp farms are very sensitive. They often have species that are threatened by other forms of development, and the fish farms produce a lot of pollution. Some shrimp farms have been caught using abusive labor practices and even slave workers.

    Since 2005, seafood has been required to carry a “country of origin” sticker. This simple label makes it a lot easier to spot potentially dangerous shrimp.

    Shrimp is the No. 1 seafood choice in the United States, and nearly 90 percent of it is imported. About 80 percent of the shrimp imported from foreign markets is farm-raised…

    So, how can we protect ourselves from tainted shrimp? In the grocery store, US raised and wild caught shrimp are good places to start. At the restaurant, ask owners the origin of shrimp they serve. Encourage suppliers to certify the sustainability of their shrimp with the Marine Stewardship Council. Or, you could try raising your own shrimp!

    Video courtesy of Camera Slayer at Flickr.com.

    Can water hogs be shamed into changing their ways?

    Photo courtesy of Pixel&Fork27 at Flickr.com.

    A man in Georgia was recently called out on news shows around the country for being the biggest water hog in his county. News vans parked in his driveway, his behavior caused the city to introduce new rates for excessive use, and Chris G. Carlos was too embarrassed to even step outside. Many of his neighbors were interviewed for their opinion about watering a palatial lawn and running fountains during the worst drought Atlanta has seen in recent memory:

    “I think it’s absurd, I really do,” said Ken Scott. Scott lives across the street from 4151 Thunderbird Drive. It’s a single home that uses as much water as a 60 home subdivision. “With all the pressure on everybody not to use water and to conserve…I think it’s ridiculous,” said Scott.

    The good news? Public shaming apparently works! The water hog hired a PR company to tell the world that he’s changing his ways. That’s what you do when you’re rich and really make a mess – you hire a professional to apologize for you.

    This begs the question – can public shaming be used to change other people’s wasteful habits? Many cities cite businesses and homeowners for wasting water (Las Vegas even has a dedicated water police force). What if the database of offenders was published online, for everyone to see?

    Many celebrities are also guilty. Would fans still buy merchandise if they knew the extent of water wasted by Celine Dion and Tiger Woods?

    The Palm Beach Post did a study of local water usage and found Celine Dion’s 5.7 acres in Jupiter, Florida, used about 6.5 million gallons of water in a year. That’s more than 250 times the amount of water the average resident uses, or equivalent to filling a 50-gallon bathtub every four minutes.

    The reputation of public figures is essential for selling their “product”. Even a hint of scandal can undermine sponsorship deals or delay financing for tours. So, it doesn’t require a country club membership or private audience to gain leverage over most celebrities. We ask performers to be our role models, and many of them may not even know that they’re wasting water on a flood-like scale.

    When Kathie Lee Gifford was interviewed about sweatshop conditions among the workers who made her branded clothes, she probably had no idea about the true situation. But, the scandalous news coverage quickly changed her business habits and also made Americans more aware of worldwide labor conditions. Perhaps a frank discussion about the bad habits of water hogs can encourage all of our neighbors to adopt water saving devices and get runoff out of the streets.

    And don’t forget Lance Armstrong, who used the most water of any individual home in Austin, Texas! Five gallons a minute, anyone?

    “I need to fix this,” Armstrong said. “To use that much more water (than most residents) is unacceptable. I have no interest in being the top water user in Austin, Texas.”

    Photo courtesy of 89AKurt at Flickr.com.

    Make eco friendly choices at the cafeteria

    Photo courtesy of Drunken Monkey at Flickr.com.

    When you visit the buffet line, how often do you think of the planet? If you visit the cafeteria on a regular basis, the choices you make can really add up.

    At the soda fountain, are styrofoam cups the only option? Each cup weighs about 10 grams – that means a cup a day adds up to about 5 and a half pounds of styrofoam per year. You can keep that styrofoam out of landfills by bringing in your own cup, or suggesting that your cafeteria offer re-usable cups (you might even be able to get a promotion – just point out how much the company can save on materials and waste disposal costs).

    The way that you fill your plate can also make a difference. If you fill your plate halfway and then go back for seconds on a fresh plate, that doubles the amount of water needed to wash your dishes. It’s best to make just a single trip and give your stomach time to settle. That way, you wont be in the middle of eating a second plate when your hunger runs out. Wasting food can have a huge impact on the environment too – for example, a quarter pound burger can take 100-1,300 gallons of water to produce.

    Some college cafeterias are even getting rid of lunch trays. By eliminating trays, they expect to save megawatts of power and millions of gallons of water that are normally used to wash the trays. There’s also a hope that diners will be encouraged to take smaller servings from the cafeteria line, reducing waste, overall food costs, and health issues related to weight gain.

    Photo courtesy of Tkrecu 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.

    Cut back on fertilizer and help save the Gulf of Mexico

    Photo courtesy of Ken-ichi at Flickr.com.
    Fertilizer doesn’t belong in the ocean.

    Every time it rains, excess fertilizer washes off into rivers that eventually feed into the sea. Unnatural levels of phosphorous encourage algae to grow, and algal blooms suffocate fish or poison them with neurotoxins. The effect happens so fast that animals don’t have time to run away – they die in huge piles just like the people caught in Pompeii.

    Many people who overuse fertilizer don’t realize that they’re causing an environmental disaster. Also, fertilizer abuse runs up huge, unnecessary bills. Money spent on excess fertilizer is literally poured down the drain. Homeowners and amateur gardeners are the worst when it comes to overusing fertilizer. According to the National Academy of Sciences, homeowners use 10 times more fertilizer than farmers do per acre.

    The Gulf of Mexico is one area where runoff is particularly bad (since the Mississippi river manages to catch a lot of fertilizer). This year, research suggests that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be larger than it has ever been before:

    The zone off Louisiana reached a record 7,900 square miles in 2002. A recent estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University shows the zone, which has been monitored for about 25 years, could exceed 8,800 square miles this year, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

    And excess fertilizer isn’t the only problem facing the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has a large oil drilling and refining infrastructure, and accidents happen far too often. For example, the Mississippi was closed today due to a messy collision between an oil tanker and a barge. That’ll leave a mark.

    Unless people raise awareness about water pollution and fertilizer abuse, 2010 will see an even larger dead zone. Now is a good time to start reversing the trend – 8,800 square miles of dead water is already far too much. Be part of the solution – talk with your neighbors about how much fertilizer you use, and suggest natural alternatives that are low in phosphorous and nitrogen. Instead of high NPK values, try using compost tea and promoting helpful lawn bacteria. With the help of microbes, plants are able to get more benefits from the soil in a process called nutrient cycling.

    Photo courtesy of
    mrjoro at Flickr.com.

    Farming the oceans

    Photo courtesy of hugoahlenius at Flickr.com.

    The oceans are in trouble. Fish catches are starting to fall despite an increase in the number of people fishing and despite advances in fishing technology. Many fish that were once plentiful, such as cod and Chilean Sea Bass, are almost unobtainable. Due to overfishing, new diseases, climate change, and pollution, we are reaching a tipping point where many species are no longer able to replace their losses.

    “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”

    If fish disappear from the ocean, the effects will be massive. Roughly 2 billion people rely on fish for the majority of their protein intake. Without this food source, starvation is a very real possibility for many fishing villages. Luckily, some people are looking for an alternative before widespread extinction sets in. Kona Blue is one such company – they’re spearheading a program of deep ocean aquaculture. In the words of Neil Sims (Kona Blue’s founder):

    “We would have never been able to sustain our population if we had remained a hunter-gatherer society on land. And I’m not sure what makes people think we can remain that way in the ocean,”

    The response from chefs is encouraging – imagine sustainable fish that tastes even better than fish from the ocean!

    Photo courtesy of swee at Flickr.com.

    Rooftop gardens offer hope in India

    Photo courtesy of fastfoodforthought at Flickr.com.

    Rooftop gardens, which are also sometimes called “Green Roofs”, have been encouraged in the developed world as a way of moderating urban temperature and rain water flood surges. In India, a new program is developing rooftop gardens with different goals in mind.

    Rooftop gardens offer urban farmers a chance to turn squalor into nutrition. Equally important, they offer diversity to the household income. In a country where many women and low-caste men are often shut out from job opportunities, green roofs can do more than minimize the impact of weather.

    Photo courtesy of /\ltus at Flickr.com.

    The human impact on the world’s oceans is rising

    Photo courtesy of coolskipper at Flickr.com.
    A new study shows that 40% of the world’s oceans are “heavily affected” by human activity. But what does that mean?

    Human efforts are turning mangrove forests into beachfront resorts, and creating dead zones off the coast of estuaries. There are even sections of the ocean where plastic debris blocks out sunlight. It’s time for a change.

    Photo courtesy of milford cubicle at Flickr.com.

    Direct link between severe weather and air pollution?

    Photo courtesy of Forkie at Flickr.com.

    As I write this, a large swath of China has been devastated by winter storms. Some news services are referring to this unprecedented weather as China’s Katrina.

    Millions of people are without power, and essential supplies are running low due to blocked roads and collapsed bridges. There’s some worry about civil unrest throughout the country, and inflation is escaping the control of government agencies as people buy food and coal on the black market. I’d guess that a few companies who rely on Chinese factories are going to feel the pinch in coming weeks. You can see the extent of the problem on these satellite photos.

    The question that comes to mind is what’s causing this crazy weather? Paradoxically, severe ice storms are one of the side effects predicted by global warming models. Other side effects include more powerful hurricanes, increased wildfires from lighting strikes, and more devastating tornadoes. One of the other paradoxes of climate change is that while some areas along the coast experience flooding, other areas my be plunged into drought.

    Photo courtesy of oybay at Flickr.com.

    The United States is also experiencing some of these problems. Fierce winters have dropped unprecedented amounts of snow in the American Northeast. A new study hints at direct links between rainfall in the Southwest US and air pollution. This has some interesting implications on the drought that’s gripping the region.

    These ongoing events will add some fuel to the fire of the global warming debate. Considering the amount of CO2 that the US and China are responsible for, it seems almost like justice that we’re experiencing the effects. Unfortunately, climate change doesn’t affect just the people who are responsible for it. Many island nations that produce virtually no pollution are being swamped by rising sea levels. Conservationists are just as likely to lose their homes to wildfires as anyone else. Tornadoes can hit wind turbines and do more damage than they would to coal power plants.

    Severe weather affects us all.

    Swimming pools and the environment. Is your pool eco-friendly?

    Photo courtesy of Miguel Mc Conell at Flickr.com.

    A resort in Chile just finished building the biggest swimming pool in the world– it’s a kilometer long and big enough for sailboats! The crazy thing is that it’s only about 100 feet away from the ocean. If somebody wants to go sailing, why not walk down to the beach and do the real thing?

    Photo courtesy of Naked [ø] at Flickr.com.

    The environmental impact of swimming pools is stunning, and mega-pools are only the tip of the iceberg. Sure, they’re not as easy to see from orbit, but the volume of water in backyard pools adds up too. More and more people are moving into homes with pools our adding pools to their existing homes. “In 1950, Americans owned only 2,500 private residential swimming pools; by 1970 they owned 713,000.” There are more than 7 million private swimming pools in America today.

    Photo courtesy of nina_theevilone at Flickr.com.

    As you may know, pools use a lot of water to fill and maintain. For example, the typical uncovered pool in Arizona loses 4 to 6 feet of water a year to evaporation. Since water supplies are running low throughout the country, it would help if more people used pool covers to reduce evaporation and conserve water. Chemicals also evaporate away and pool covers reduce the need for additional chemicals too.

    Pool covers reduce the amount of make-up water needed by 30 to 50 percent and reduce chemical consumption by 35 to 60 percent. Reflective pool covers can also be used to reduce the amount of light reflected by the average pool (a significant factor in urban heat islands). In cold areas of the country, dark pool covers are useful in reducing heating costs (because they warm up in sunlight). Oh, and properly designed pool covers can even prevent children and small animals from drowning in the pool!

    If you have a pool, here are 8 ways to conserve water and electricity:

    1.) Install a pool cover. As much as 70 percent of a pool’s heat loss is caused by evaporation. It also will keep your pool or spa cleaner and reduce the need to add chemicals.

    2.) Reduce your pool’s water temperature and the number of months you heat your pool. This lower energy use will reduce your carbon footprint and cut your bill down to size.

    3.) Keep your pool’s cleaning and heating equipment clean and lubricated . Well maintained equipment is more efficient and will last longer before it needs to be replaced.

    4.) Switch your pool filter and sweeper operations to off-peak hours. When it’s hot outside, air conditioners suck a lot of power out of the grid. During these peak times, many electric companies have to run dirty backup generators and they also charge higher prices. If you have a time-of-use meter, running your pool equipment only during off-peak hours can save you money. Off-peak times are generally between 6 p.m. and noon weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday.

    5.) Install a new water-saving pool filter. A single backflushing with a traditional filter uses 180 to 250 gallons of water. You can see the different types of pool filters that are available online.

    6.) Shorten the operating time for your swimming pool filter and use the automatic cleaning sweep. In the winter, two hours a day of filtering could cut your filter’s energy use by 40 percent to 50 percent, without any noticeable difference in clarity or sanitation.

    7.) Create a windbreak around your pool with native plants and shrubs. This wind break will prevent breezes from reaching your pool and keep hot, dry air from sucking away moisture. It also makes the pool a more attractive and enjoyabe place to relax.

    8.) Use a “green” pool cleaning service. The traditional way to clean a pool is to drain all the water, acid wash the lining, and then refill the pool with thousands of gallons of additional water. In drought stricken Phoenix, a company came up with a way to save water during the cleaning process! Calsaway Pool Service pioneered a cleaning method that filters the pools contents and then pours the water back in! Their process also takes less time, and because it conserves 10,000-30,000 gallons of water per pool, it offers massive cost savings too.

    There are even bigger changes you can make to you pool to save water, reduce chemicals, and minimize electric costs. Salt water pools are one option – they have slightly lower evaporation rates and use fewer chemicals than other pools. Whenever I use a pool with heavy chlorine, I always have to go take a shower to keep my hair from turning green. So, salt water pools reduce water use in that way too!

    Photo courtesy of milksss ×Þ at Flickr.com.

    You can even do away with your pool altogether! Drain that pool, and you’ve got a half-pipe for skateboarding…

    Photo courtesy of db_cooper at Flickr.com.

    …or an oversized planter for gardening! If your yard doesn’t have room for a vegetable garden, think about streamlining by filling your pool with soil. You don’t even have to tear out the concrete lining, just add dirt and – viola! – you’ve suddenly got the biggest planter on the block (although you may want to layer the bottom with crushed rock to ensure proper drainage)!

    Photo courtesy of larry st at Flickr.com.