Thursday, May 31, 2007

Girl Scouts Voice Suggestions to Bag Problem

Girl Scout Troop 49 recently submitted a letter voicing their concern about the consumption of plastic bags, which was featured in last week's South Bend Tribune. I like this letter because it directly encourages us to work together to make a positive difference in our community. And it's written by Girl Scouts--very cool! Before you read the article (just click on SBT link above, click here to see a picture of Troop 49 playing in the BagFest pile!)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Google Video on Environmental Education

Yeah, I'm back from APS! I had SO much fun at the conference. As you can imagine, I met a bunch of incredible people from all over the country. I even met a reviewer who endorsed my Indiana Campus Compact grant proposal, so it was a real treat to meet (and thank!) this person for her support.

Anyway, I'll blog more details about my APS adventure in the near future. In the meantime, here's a video that my friend Dave edited from the Environmental Education Event, which we hosted at the Farmer's Market:

Enjoy! :0) M

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Geeks Unite at APS!

Tomorrow I leave for Washington, DC to attend the 19th annual APS conference. I'm so excited; this is my favorite conference! (Yes, I know I'm a geek. I've accepted this as fact many years ago!) Anyway, I'm going to present a poster about the service-learning project (i.e., BagFest) and speak on a panel concerning professional-development issues. Should be fun!

In the meantime, please feel free to peruse the blog archives while I'm away. I'll see you next week! :0)

Monday, May 21, 2007

The American Home: May 1959

On a recent adventure to North Carolina, my friend Hugo made a pit-stop on the side of a road to read a historical marker. Before he knew it, the marker lead him to Cromer's Covered Bridge, and then to a rundown family store.

Curious, Hugo entered the abandoned store:

"Inside there were remnants of what they once sold, awkwardly distributed as if the store had been abandoned in a rush and a tornado had passed over. Half the roof was missing, so it was quite exposed to the elements. Hence my surprise to find an issue of American Home in perfect condition dating from May 1959!"

Inside American Home, Hugo saw an ad for a paper bag clip, so that folks could keep their grocery bags nicely organized in their kitchen cabinets:

Wow, so there was a time before plastic bags!!!

Hugo sent me a couple more photos of ads in the magazine:

"Keep in mind this is 1959. A time when plastic bags had not made a significant appearance. A time when the milk carton was just being introduced. A time when cars were huge. A time when cellphones were not even in science fiction but there were phonebooths on the road. A time when people were actually concerned with water purification, long before the scares of the environmental movement of the late 60's. A time when people, woman in particular, were actually concerned about their waistlines. Like big cars, it seems big people had always been a part of the American way of life. So I hope you find these ads as illuminating and entertaining as I did."

To see more photos from Hugo's recent adventure, click here.

The Best Book

On Saturday I met with a local photographer who is the photographer for the phone book "The Best Book". He had recently moved from Colorado and we were discussing some of the major differences between South Bend and there. On of the topics that came up was recycling. He hadn't went into any great detail about how their recycling system worked but the main idea was it was efficient & everyone did it. We later began talking about how how many phone books people accumulate. I was astonished to learn that The Best Book is 99% NON-RECYCABLE. I would be interested in knowing if these other phone books that I have laying around are recycable? If not, I wonder what procedures we could go through to help make that change?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Churchill the Polar Bear

While surfing the internet, I found this story about Churchill the Polar Bear, who lived at the St. Louis Zoo. Churchill apparently ingested a plastic bag and a bit of cloth. Sadly, the veterinarians couldn't save him on time; he died on the operating table. Gosh, I feel quite morbid as I blog about this polar bear. It just doesn't seem right for an animal to die because he inadvertently ate a plastic bag.

Quick Update: After conducting an online investigation, fellow blogger Kathy Schrenk discovered the date of Churchill's untimely death; he died on May 26, 2005. To read more about this story (and the death of another polar bear at the St. Louis Zoo), click here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fashonistas Beware!

Apparently, recycled fashion is not only hip at Gordonstoun College, but also at the University of Idaho! Hey, wouldn't it be fun to host a student-sponsored fashion show at IU South Bend next year? For inspiration (and to see these Idaho students strut their stuff), click here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chris Johnson: Running the Numbers

In his current work, Chris Johnson illustrates the connection between mass consumerism and statistics through art.

To paraphrase Johnson, his hope is that the images will elicit a "different effect" than relying on statistics alone. And as many folks would agree, statistics often feel "abstract and anesthetizing," making it difficult to comprehend and produce meaning out of those raw numbers.

Here's Johnson's visualization of 60,000 plastic bags, the number of bags used in the US every 5 seconds:

Partial zoom:

Up close & personal:

Wowza! This also puts our 72,571 bags gathered at BagFest in a different light.

To see more examples (i.e., cell phones) of Chris Johnson's work, click here. And to read an interview with this artist for Orion magazine, click here.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bike to Work Week

Today kicks off National Bike-to-Work Week. So this morning, I dusted my bike and rode to work. Not bad! In fact, biking to work was fun. :0)

Now that it's Spring, I figured I'd bike to work on a regular basis--that is, until it gets too cold for me. (You have to remember I'm from Georgia; my idea of the "cold" differs from most folks around here!)

So, why bother biking?

Well, the reasons why I should bike seem rather transparent: I'm getting in shape while on my way to work, I get to say hello to passerbys, and I save money on gas and parking.

And there's another reason (this one is more psychological): After not driving my VW Jetta for a couple of weeks, I really appreciate driving it again! Cognitive psychologists call this effect "dishabituation," which basically means that taking a break from a routine behavior (i.e., driving) elicits the same response (i.e., joy) I experienced the first time I drove my car. Sweet!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Devil's Got a Pitchfork

Devil's Got a Pitchfork
Originally uploaded by mverges.

That's right, I've officially joined the Compost Revolution. Woo Hoo! I'm very excited about this new adventure. So far, so good. Of course, the jury's still out on whether I can actually produce soil from my food scraps.

Hey, I'm willing to give this a try. Wish me luck! :0)

(To see more goofy pictures, click the flickr photo.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Two Gifts for Lake Michigan: Ammonia & Sludge

In case you missed the news, BP oil wants to expand their oil refinery in Whiting, IN in order to handle Canadian crude oil. Consequently, they're seeking permits to increase the amount of waste they dump into Lake Michigan.

BP oil currently dumps 21.4 million gallons of treated wastewater each day.

Now BP wants to add 50% more ammonia and 35% more sludge (i.e., solid waste) into their wastewater each day.

Is there anything we can do about this proposal? There's not much time, but we can act now. (Actually, we have until Friday to voice our concern.) IDEM will consider all written comments before making a final decision about BP's draft wastewater permit. You can send your comment by mailing, e-mailing or faxing them to:

Indiana Department of Environmental Management
Office of Water Quality
MC 65-42SR IGCN-1255
100 N. Senate Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46204-2251

Fax: (317) 232-8637

Wonderful World Of Compost

This video reviews some key points made at the free composting seminar. And it's funny! :0) M

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Another Bag Dilemma: Plastic Bags and Trash

Since this project began, many folks have told me how they deal with their leftover grocery bags. What's the #1 household use of these plastic bags? Using them for trash. Recently, an elderly woman asked me the following question, which I've paraphrased here:

I use grocery bags for trash, thus avoiding the purchase of larger plastic bags. But if I use reusable bags, I'll have to buy larger plastic bags for my trash. Which is worse?

Brilliant question. Of course, the answer is not immediately obvious. It also reminds me of a chapter in the Cradle to Cradle book entitled, "Why being less bad is no good."

The problem with using plastic bags is that they're made with polyethelyne (i.e., crude oil and natural gas), which are non-renewable resources. Put in a different way, it takes just 14 plastic bags to fuel a car for 1 mile. So when plastic bags are used for trash, we're also throwing away valuable resources into landfills. Worse yet, as these bags photodegrade for the next 1000 years, they're releasing toxins and other hazardous materials into the environment.

The good news is that we can sidestep this bag dilemma by purchasing biodegradable trash bags, which are made from cornstarch and other renewable resouces. This is advantageous because it reduces our dependency on natural gas and crude oil. The single downside is that biodegradable bags will not biodegrade in the absence of oxygen; this is an issue because landfill covers reduce oxygen levels dramatically.

But let's curtail this downward spiral: If we used biodegradable bags, we can compost our food scraps and those bags. And in conjunction with the 3R's (reduce, reuse, and recycle), we could significantly reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills. Taken together, we can feel good knowing we're preserving earth's non-renewable resources by using biodegradable trash bags.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Paper or Plastic: What's the Greener Choice?

Jennifer, thanks for letting me know about the Dateline report, which addressed the classic grocery store question: Paper or plastic?

Apparently, this question elicits a lot of guilt among shoppers. Some folks think paper is better than plastic, and vice versa. According to Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the decision to use paper or plastic bags depends on where you live. If you live near a coastline, use paper. If you live in the Midwest, use plastic, he advised.

Is this sound advice? Unfortunately, the story did not provide any compelling evidence to support this claim. Given that a vast quantity of recyclables are shipped to far-away places for processing, does it really matter where I live?

In fairness, this report did make a good point: When it comes to selecting the right bag, the decision isn't always easy. I agree because shoppers aren't presented with a third option: reusable bags.

We could all sidestep this bag dilemma by bringing our own bags (or purchasing cloth bags at the checkout). That way, we wouldn't have to weigh the pros and cons of this "paper vs. plastic" decision, nor would we feel guilty about our bag selection. And maybe, just maybe, we could enjoy the rest of the day, perhaps even focusing on other issues that merit greater attention.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Dateline tonight

Channel 16 tonight on Dateline, paper or plastic.

Yes, It's True: Students Make the World a Better Place

A few days ago, I was contacted by Michael Doolan, a 14-year-old student who lives in Taihape, New Zealand.

Michael and his classmates are taking initiative to clean the Hautapu River. Lucky for us, they're also blogging about their 10-week class project. If you have a moment, I encourage you to read how these students are making New Zealand a better place:

Elsewhere on this planet, Roman Jaster, a student at the California Institute of the Arts, has taken initiative to create reusable bags in order to encourage folks to stop using paper or plastic grocery bags.

He also has an online pledge for people to sign. Of course, yours truly has signed the pledge. And you can, too!

Here's a link to Roman's site:

I must say, these students inspire me. Adults seem rather cynical when it comes to the environment. You know what's funny? It's as though there's been a shift in who's setting the better example. I think students are on the right track when it comes to taking initiative on making the world a better place.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Environmental Education at the Farmers' Market

Originally uploaded by mverges.
My friend, Dave Kreller, organized an environmental education event at the Farmers' Market the last two Saturdays. I was there to support him and to tell folks about the plastic-bag project (of course!).

As you can imagine, it was fun sharing practical information on what we can do to reduce waste and improve the environment. Plus, the market was buzzing with entertainment: kids, games, ponies, and a brass band helped us celebrate this event.

And GEM the Electric Car was in attendance! Some of you may already know that Gabrielle and Mike Keen own South Bend's first electric car. Anyway, feel free to peruse the pictures taken from this event by clicking on this flickr photo.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Prepping for the Compost Revolution

On Wednesday, Mary and I went to the free composting seminar hosted by Rick Glassman, Environmental Education Coordinator of St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation.

The first item on the agenda was called "Landfills and the Law." Rick informed us that technically speaking, compostable items can't be thrown into landfills. Well, that's news to me!

I also learned there's a delicate chemical balance that must occur for optimal decomposition. To achieve a stink-free and happy compost, carbon and nitrogen levels must be in harmony. (It's a 30:1 carbon-nitrogen ratio.)

I like how Rick characterized this ratio: Think browns for carbon, and greens for nitrogen**.

He gave us some examples, too:

  • Greens: food wastes, grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, chicken/horse/cow poo
  • Browns: leaves, straw, bark, paper (newspaper, too), fruit wastes

And here are a couple of no-no's:

  • No dog or cat poo*, meat or oils

This carbon-nitrogen balance is important because we need as many critters as possible to eat the compost pile. And those critters like to eat carbon (for energy) and nitrogen (for protein)!

Ok, I think I'm mentally prepared for this new lifestyle change. A friend of mine is giving me his old composting bin tomorrow, so that's when I'll officially join the compost revolution! :0)

*In case you're wondering why horse poo is ok, but dog poo is not, Rick informed us that dogs & cats lack a pathogen system, which is a compost problem because the temperature of the pile (90-140F) isn't hot enough to kill those pathogens. (Pathogens are killed at 160F.)

**This post was edited on 5-14-07 for accuracy. (Thanks P~)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Large Plastic Bag Wreath

This is that large wreath that I was talking about at the workshops. I had my 3 year old in the picture so you can get a idea of how big it is. All handles and bottoms of bags. it is two clothes hangers and maybe a couple thousand ties all together.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bag Confusions

Since San Francisco's plastic-bag ban, grocery stores have been distributing biodegradable plastic bags to consumers. Is this a solution? The answer is more complicated than a simple "yes/no" response.

To recap, the plastic-bag ban revoked the usage of plastic bags made from polyethelyne (i.e., crude oil and natural gas). That's good news because it lowers our dependency on non-renewable resources. Plus, shoppers in California have another bagging option (i.e., biodegradable bags).

So, what's the bad news?

Everyone's confused about which plastic bag is which. And for good reason: Those biodegradable bags look just like the old plastic bags.

This emerging confusion is problematic because mixing these "biobags" with ordinary plastic bags may cause havoc for the recycling industry. (There's another concern: some folks believe that using biodegradable bags may subsequently endorse littering.)

To alleviate mass confusion, the American Society for Testing and Materials Standards (ASTM) has created a logo for these new bags:

To be clear, this logo can only be placed on bags that have been certified by ASTM. (To see a current list of approved vendors, click here.)

But before you breathe a sigh of relief, consider this: A plastic bag may be degradable, but it's not necessarily biodegradable nor compostable.

In plain English, this is what it means:

  • A biodegradable bag must be able to naturally degrade on a chemical level; this process may (or may not) result in toxic residues.
  • A compostable bag must be able to naturally degrade on a chemical AND physical level; this process cannot result in toxic residues.

Whew...that's a lot of information, but I certainly hope this post will help clear-up those bag confusions!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Texans Protest Against Indiana Wastewater

What does VX nerve gas, Port Arthur, TX, and Indiana wastewater have in common? Puzzled?!? So am I.

I just read a disturbing article in today's South Bend Tribune.

Turns out, residents in Port Arthur, TX are protesting against receiving Indiana's wastewater, which contain a nerve gas called VX. Ok, before I divulge anymore details, here are some basic facts:

* Port Arthur, TX is 90 miles east of Houston, TX (so it's located along the gulf coast).

* According to the 2000 U.S. census, the Port Arthur population is 57,755 (it's a small town).

To get a better perspective on these stats, I googled the distance between South Bend, IN and Port Arthur, TX. It's about an 18-hour journey (1,154 miles away).

But as I just discovered, the chemical plant is located in Newport, IN, approximately 70 miles west of Indianapolis:

To get a better visual of this Port Arthur, TX, I googled the city's name and found this picture:

Here's a photo of one of the shipments:

Ok, now that you have a bit of background information, I encourage you to read the article (click here). And of course, please feel free to post your comment about this story on the blog.