Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mentally Dealing with Carbon Footprints

Confession: The notion of a "carbon footprint" has been troubling my thoughts for some time now. You've probably encountered a variety of carbon-footprint calculators like this one or that one.

But what does it mean to say that I'm responsible for emitting 15 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere? Does that inspire and motivate behavioral changes to reduce our negative impact on the environment?

I don't think so.

For starters, this information is way too abstract. I've tried but failed repeatedly to imagine what a ton of carbon would look like. There's simply no direct connection to my five senses (and really, using one sense could probably do the trick).

Second, many of these carbon-footprint calculators don't tailor their suggestions to consumers. It reminds me of the one-size-fits-all mentality, which I think overlooks the actual complexities of this issue.

My third complaint is that all of these eco-calculators are mentally taxing on the brain. They require that we all keep the following logic firmly held in place, when really, our attention spans are remarkably short. Here's the logic, which I've paraphrased below:

A. Climate change reflects average temperatures that are on the rise*, which negatively affects the planet.

B. We can measure how much you contribute to climate change by calculating a carbon footprint. The carbon footprint indicates how much CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) you personally emit into the atmosphere.

C. In turn, this computed carbon footprint shows your impact on climate change.

And this is where the real break-down in communication comes in, and that's what to do about your so-called carbon footprint. This is the one-size-fits-all strategy: Use less energy.

Isn't this issue a wee-bit more complicated? What are your thoughts about the carbon footprint?
* To pose a direction on climate change (i.e., average temperatures are on the rise), we neglect the alternate possibility of cooler temperatures occurring across various locations on the planet.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More Results - Yay!

Just two weeks ago, I boastfully said that the Green Michiana Sustainability Fair was a success. But I didn't have much evidence to suport this claim. Now I do - see below for a list of results that everyone accomplished at the fair. Hopefully, next year we'll be able to replicate these achievements.

Plastic bags: We collected over 156,000 plastic bags for recycling by Wal-Mart.

Styrofoam peanuts: We collected 2,000 gallons of styrofoam peanuts that will be reused in UPS packaging stores. Some of the peanuts will be used by the IU-South Bend Arts department in their sculpture art classes.

Expanded polystyrene #6: We collected approximately 5,000 gallons of expanded polystyrene (EPS) #6 (styrofoam used to pack electronic equipment and make coolers). This material will be used by Tegrant Corporation in Michigan City, Indiana (produce ThermoSafe Packaging). The white beads are broken apart, mixed with new styrofoam beads, and remolded into new styrofoam containers. The new styrofoam containers will contain about 10% of the “recycled” styrofoam. We collected 2.5 times more peanuts and “styrofoam” in 2008 compared to 2007. This amount of styrofoam filled a 24-foot moving truck about 75% full (floor to ceiling).

Egg Cartons: Over 300 egg cartons were collected. These egg cartons will be used by local farmers and a church group.

Computers: Free Geek Michiana collected 80 computers, 20 monitors, and associated keyboards, and mice.

Cell Phones: About ten cell phones were collected. Cell phones that can be reused will be reprogrammed for use by women groups. Very old cell phones or damaged cell phones will be recycled by Technotrash (an electronics recycling company).

49 businesses and organizations (government, non-profit groups, and citizen groups)participated in the fair. A rough estimate of 700+ people attended the fair. Coordinated efforts by the Recycling Committee, Sustainability Committee, Environmental Justice Club, Custodial staff, Support Services, Facilities, and the IUSB Events Office made this fair possible.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Trash Trooping Results: Part II

Heather and I went to Rum Village today to join the Trash Troopers. When we arrived at the park, however, we didn't see anyone. We asked the fellow who was working at the front desk if he had seen anyone picking up trash; he didn't. So we figured we might as well do it without them.

We walked just a bit past the Nature Center and quickly found a host of trash strewn in the woods. This time I had gloves on, so it was easier to deal with the trash and focus on not getting stuck by sticker bushes. Similar to my neighborhood trash-trooping experience, it didn't take us long to fill up our bags with discarded materials. In comparison to Heather, I did not find too many digusting items. She found a pantyliner, a bottle of beer (or urine! Who knows? We didn't open it to find out!), and part of a raccoon's tail. But I did find a used condom, which made me want to gag. Oh, for the love!

Not long after the condom encounter, we spotted the Trash Troopers. They were fairly conspicuous in their green attire. Heather and I apparently did not get that memo - I was wearing a pink shirt and she was wearing a yellow pullover. At any rate, we decided against joining the gang because we thought it would be best if everyone dispersed in their trash-collecting efforts. Plus, we were nearing our 1-hour commitment.

So as we wrapped things up, I brought up the question that Nate recently posed: By picking-up other people's trash, are we really enabling others to litter and pollute? Sheesh, this is a good and tough question to answer. It feels like a catch-22. No, it's not okay to litter and no, I don't really want to pick-up after strangers (especially that used condom; disgusting!). But it's also not okay to turn a blind eye to this problem. "This is what diffusion of responsibility looks like", I told Heather, as I carried a full trash bag. It's not pretty, but as you can tell from the picture, we did have a good time making Rum Village look more like a hospitable park, and less like a landfill.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Trash Trooping Results

I started with an empty Seventh Generation trash bag on yesterday's afternoon walk with the pups. It didn't take me long before I started picking up discarded candy wrappers. And it certainly took no time before that trash bag started to get full. A few of my neighbors were outside enjoying the warm weather. "Feeling environmental today?," one of my neighbors asked. I said it wasn't a big deal as I was just picking-up trash along my regular walking route. I noticed a piece of paper on their lawn. "I'd pick that up, but it's on the other side of the fence." "God bless you," was their reply. (I noticed that piece of paper was picked up this morning.)

Another one of my neighbors asked me if I was doing my civic duty. I guess so, I thought to myself. But I can't take sole ownership for this task. Hopefully, this is our civic duty, right? Who really wants to see strewn styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, cigarette packages, beer bottles*, or condom wrappers? (All of those items, by the way, were picked up on yesterday's walk.)

I did not, however, pick-up any cigarette butts, although I did see plenty of them on the grass. I wasn't wearing gloves and believe it or not, it wasn't long before my back started to complain from all that bending down. (Yes, I'm getting old!) Plus, as some of you know, those Seventh Generation trash bags can't really handle a lot of weight. I actually had to stop picking-up trash midpoint of my walk because the bag was starting to rip at the bottom. So if it doesn't rain today, I'll bring another bag and do a second round of trash trooping in my neighborhood.
* I took the beer bottles out of the trash bag; they're now in my recycling bin.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Resisting the Wind to Work

Oh my goodness, I exclaimed to myself as I biked into work this morning. The wind was really making me work hard. Sometimes it was pushing against my side, but most of the time, it was pushing directly against my intended destination. (If only I were biking home, then it would be easy to go with the flow!) But no, not this time. I figured if I had been driving, I probably wouldn't have noticed this blustery wind. But on a bike, it's another matter entirely - turns out, I was biking against 26 to 32 mph gusts of wind. Wowza!

I'll tell you this, though. After putting so much energy into my commute today, quenching my thirst with water tasted much more sweeter, and sitting in my office chair feels a little more softer. Now, time to get some work done!

Trash Trooping in my Neighborhood

As I was walking the pups this morning, I noticed more trash than usual strewn on the sidewalk and grass. It reminded me of the Trash Trooping I'll be doing on Sunday. But why leave my own neighborhood in neglect? Don't get me wrong - I'm happy to clean-up a public park, but the truth of the matter is that I walk in my neighborhood everyday. So why not make my daily walks more pleasant for me, my dogs, and neighbors?

When I take the pups for their afternoon walk today, I'm going to bring an extra bag to pick-up the neighborhood trash. It's probably no worse than picking up pet waste (I hope). I'll take a few pictures of this neighborhood Trash Trooping adventure and share them with you soon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Trash Troopers!

My friend Heather emailed me today about becoming a Trash Trooper with her this weekend. Trash Trooper? What the heck did I get myself into this time? ;0)

It's actually a simple plan to pick-up trash at Rum Village (by Ewing). We'll be cleaning up the park for an hour, and with 20 volunteers already on board to help, this should be a cinch (I was going to say a walk in the park, but that would be too cheesy!).

This clean-up adventure also reminds me of the St. Joseph River Clean-Up I did last year, which I thought was fun (and reflective).

So, we're going to get there at 3pm on Sunday - hey, anyone else interested in becoming a Trash Trooper? :0)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

GreenTV Captures Highlights from Green Michiana Fair

If you weren't able to come to the Green Michiana Fair, here's your chance to watch some of the action here:

I hope you enjoy this short video! :0)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Green Michiana Pictures!

Well, be careful of what you wish for, I reminded myself as I viewed photos taken by this joker. I was expecting to receive more "typical" photos from the fair, like this one:

But that would be too ordinary and predictable! So I hope you enjoy a more nuanced view of the Green Michiana Fair!

Blue Monster Recycled

A Soggy Sign

A Frugal Sign



And here's a fun demo comparing the amount of energy required to light an ordinary vs. CFL lightbulb!

Monday, April 14, 2008

IUSB's Green Michiana Fair a Success!

I'm happy to report that Saturday's Green Michiana Sustainability Fair was a huge success! By my rough estimate, I think ~1,000 folks stopped by throughout the day to recycle their plastic bags, styrofoam, cell phones and old computers. And many folks stayed to check out the myriad booths from local businesses. Wal-Mart and Home Depot passed out free reusable bags; other businesses sold their goods, including fair-trade coffee and clothing.

In addition, the South Bend Tribune ran a story about the fair in yesterday's paper. If you have any downtime, I encourage you to read the story. At the moment, I'm gathering some photos taken at the Fair. (If you have pictures you'd like for me to post on the blog, then please send them my way!) In the meantime, please enjoy these photos!

Ten Thousand Villages

Martin's Grocery Store

Shacklee Products & Chicory Cafe
(That's Chancellor Reck on the right!)

Uni-Solar Panels

Just Goods

Bicycle Safety!

Dessie & Michelle
(Dessie is my friend Jessica's baby!)

Live Music!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Paper or Plastic? Either Way, It'll Cost You $$$

Just last month, Judith Hizer from the SB Tribune asked the question, "Should we tax plastic bags?" As we continue to wrestle over the pros and cons of taxing plastic-bag consumption in South Bend, the folks in Seattle have already made their decision: If you want a plastic or paper bag, it'll cost .20 cents a bag.

Hmm...that's got me thinking: I wonder if those baggers will start to bag those groceries more efficiently? Maybe if people are paying for those plastic bags, baggers will finally chill-out with excessive bagging, lest they hear complaints from disgruntled shoppers.

Anyway, this "green fee" will be effective starting next year, which gives folks plenty of time to let go of their plastic (or paper) habit. Plus, some of these green taxes ($1 million) will be used to provide residents with free reusable bags.

In a perfect world, there would be no green taxes (and everyone would be eco-friendly). But in this imperfect world, how else can we motivate quick, sweeping changes that reduce our negative impact on the environment? Any suggestions?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Bring Your (Plastic) Bags!

It's time to do some spring cleaning and that means going to your kitchen cabinet to root out all those plastic bags! (I know you have a cabinet stocked full of those bags - admit it!) The buzz is already alive. I've received several questions regarding those plastic bags. Here's the deal:

You can bring grocery shopping bags, bags from Macy's, Target, CVS, and ______ (you fill in the blank) for recycling. Also, you can bring plastic bags from the dry cleaners as well as the bags from newspapers.

Basically, if you have a bag and it's made from plastic, you can bring it for recycling. So that means even those bread bags are acceptable.

We're having the plastic-bag and Styrofoam drive this week*, leading up to the big day on Saturday. Last year, we netted over 72,000 plastic-bags for recycling. I have a funny feeling we'll be breaking that record this year! :0)
* Campus drop-off locations include the Grille (Administration Building), Student Activities Center, Northside Hall, and Wiekamp Hall.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

You know you're getting old when...

I don't know how this happened. I remember in college rolling my eyes when a speaker lectured the audience on the importance of watching CSPAN. No way, I thought. Too boring. So I can't explain why in the world I'm hooked on CSPAN, other than taking this as a sign that I'm getting old!

At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed watching yesterday's hearing by the House Select Energy Committee. The top 5 oil companies (i.e., Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP) were invited to answer questions about increasing oil prices. Seeing those guys squirm under pressure strangely reminded me of the olden days when I witnessed poor graduate students defend their dissertation. Yeouch!

And I learned so much from watching this 2.5 hour hearing! Here's some highlights and quotes that were particulary memorable:

Two cute cliches from Chairman Markey: "American people shouldn't have to break the bank to fill the tank;" and, "Tax breaks for big oil, tough breaks for American families."

Exxon Mobile earned $40 billion in profit last year. Combined, the top 5 oil companies earned $123 billion in profit last year.

BP was the only company to admit they participated in a secret task force meeting with Dick Cheney in 2001. Now they have to submit documents regarding that clandestine meeting.

In response to reducing oil prices, all companies unanimously agreed they need open access to drilling oil in the US. In addition, BP wants to bridge stronger connections with Canada as they're the "Saudi Arabia of North America sitting there ready to provide us with energy."

Exxon has contributed less than one-half of 1% for renewable energy. Their singular contribution has been to donate $100 million to Stanford over 12 years for research purposes.

Meanwhile, the oil companies have received $18 billion in subsidies from tax payers, and they oppose legislation that would divert those monies for the Renewable Energy Package that was passed last month.

Clearly, there's a disconnect here - even Exxon admitted that. Why the disconnect? Three reasons: a weaker dollar, geopolitical risks, and speculation.

The bottom line from big oil: Give us access to American oil.

The bottom line from Congress: Quit nickel and diming Americans.