Nonprofit Grows Important New Crop: Farmers

Gina Perez works with Fiddle Farms, one of five farms participating in Dirt Works. Photo: Lowcountry Local First

Gina Perez works with Fiddle Farms, one of five farms participating in Dirt Works. Photo: Lowcountry Local First

Written by Clint Williams, Mother Nature Network

Before you can grow food, you need to grow farmers. Growing farmers — like seedlings in a greenhouse — is the mission of Dirt Works Incubator Farm near Charleston, S.C. The 10-acre parcel on Walnut Hill Plantation on Johns Island is the keystone of the Growing New Farmers Program of Lowcountry Local First and is funded by USDA-Rural Development.

Farmers are something of an endangered breed. The average age of America’s farmers is 57, and one-quarter of American farmers are 65 or older. The trend is even grayer in South Carolina, says Nikki Seibert, the sustainable agriculture program director at Lowcountry Local First, a nonprofit dedicated to promotion and development of the local economy.

“We’re trying to lower the barriers to farming,” says Seibert.

An apprentice program started in 2010 has trained 80 people in farming practices — and business practices — specific to the climate of coastal Carolina. Some of those apprentices are now part of the first class at Dirt Works, a three-year program.

The 10 acres is divided into plots of one to two acres for up to six farmers and a one-acre community garden, or teaching plot, for apprentices, students and the public. All the produce grown on the teaching plot goes to local food banks.

The five farmers now part of the program pay $2,000 a year for the plot and access to a packing shed, walk-in cooler, tools and equipment such as a tractor.

“Access to the packing shed, cooler, irrigation, inexpensive land, and tractor are all huge costs to have covered,” says John Warren (right), one of the partners in Spade and Clover Gardens. Warren is a graduate of Lowcountry Local First's Growing New Farmers Program and current member of Dirt Works.

“Also, the ability to bounce ideas around with a bunch of young farmers with a lot of energy with an experimental edge is huge,” Warren says.

The farmers also get help with developing a business plan and marketing plan, says Seibert. The incubator gives each farmer three years to develop the skills in the field and in the marketplace to make it on their own.

Dirt Works farmers are growing 39 different fruits and vegetables, as well as cut flowers. Many of the crops are heirloom vegetables and “high dollar crops that consumers can’t find at the grocery store,” says Seibert.

At Spade and Clover, “We also harvest vegetable crops in all stages of their development such as flowering kale or green tomatoes so as to extend the potential for each crop and disturb the land less,” says Warren.

Farmers work together to sell their produce and flowers at local restaurants and farmers markets.

The project also hopes to nudge a shift in the culture toward small-scale sustainable farming and local food production, Seibert says.

“We already seeing local food become an expectation in restaurants,” she says.

Check out the farm in this fly-over video below:

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The Best Place for Solar Power is… New Jersey?

Solar panels hang over a New Jersey Parking Lot. Photo: Flickr/Armando Jimenez, U.S. Army Environmental Command

Solar panels hang over a New Jersey Parking Lot. Photo: Flickr/Armando Jimenez, U.S. Army Environmental Command

Written by John Platt, Mother Nature Network

The Arizona desert may enjoy nearly endless sun, but is it the really best place for solar panels? Maybe not.

A new study suggests that cloudier New Jersey is actually the state that will get the most value from switching to photovoltaics, not because of the amount of sunlight in the Garden State but because adding solar power capacity there would result in the greatest reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and dangerous pollutants.

The same might hold true for wind turbines: the most value could come not from the places with most wind but the areas that have the dirtiest air. "A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide and seven times as much health damage as the same turbine in California," explains Siler Evans, a Ph.D. researcher in Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy and the lead author of the new study, published earlier this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A wind turbine in W Virginia displaces 2x the CO2 as the same one in CA.

The difference in West Virginia's case comes from reliance on coal as its current source of energy. Transitioning from coal to wind in West Virginia would generate electricity while also improving residents' health and help to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

wind, farm, turbine, turbines, altamont, pass, california

The Altamont Pass wind farm. Photo: California Energy Commission

In addition to health and climate concerns, the paper also addresses the economic factor. The researchers argue that the federal Production Tax Credit, which subsidizes wind energy, would have a greater social impact if it varied by location, instead of being implemented in the same manner across the country. "It is time to think about a subsidy program that encourages operators to build plants in places where they will yield the most health and climate benefits," co-author Ines Lima Azevedo, executive director of the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making, said in a press release about the new study.

Outside of federal subsidies, state subsidies have resulted in the rapid growth of solar and wind power in the Southwest and Midwest. The authors argue that these might not be the best places. Using their criteria of providing the most social value, they say the best sites for future wind and solar would be Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, all of which rely heavily on coal.

The Carnegie Mellon study is accompanied by a related commentary by authors from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and other organizations who say the "co-benefits" of using solar and wind to reduce CO2 and sulfur dioxide emissions present "a compelling narrative" for policy makers. The authors argue that there are "synergies between renewable energy policy and health and climate protection" that governments could put to good use both in the U.S. and the European Union.

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Atlanta Airport Gets Water Bottle Filling Stations


Photo: Oasis International

Written by Laura Moss, Mother Nature Network

The world’s busiest airport will install 52 free water bottle filling stations this month.

The filling stations will be located throughout the concourses and terminals at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which averages more than 250,000 passengers a day.

It’s a way to address two issues: security bans on liquids and the waste created by disposable plastic water bottles. Bottled water produces more than 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year, according to Food and Water Watch.

The new filling stations will dispense tap water and will be installed at existing water fountain locations as part of a $7,350 retrofit that includes antimicrobial copper surfaces. Emory University researchers will regularly test the fountains for bacteria.

Hartsfield-Jackson isn’t the first airport to install such stations. Airports like San Francisco International Airport, Chicago O’Hare O'Hare International Airport and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport already have bottle-filling devices.

Although travelers could always fill bottles at water fountains or at bathroom sinks, Oasis International’s design is both easier to use and more sanitary. In addition to antimicrobial surfaces, the stations will also have a touchless design.

The Atlanta airport has pilot tested two water bottle filling stations at Concourses A and T for about a year now.

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Old Wine Bottles Become New Art

recycled wine glass, glasses

Photo: Refresh Glass

Written by Clint Williams, Mother Nature Network

Ray DelMuro is turning trash into cash — and utilitarian works of art.

DelMuro, a former manufacturing engineer for a Southern California aerospace company, is the founder of Refresh Glass LLC, a Phoenix-based company that gives empty wine bottles new lives as drinking glasses, carafes and planters.

The notion for the business sprouted in 2008 when DelMuro started playing around with a mail-order bottle-cutting kit. The kit included a small scoring jig and a candle to separate the bottle, along with sandpaper to smooth the sharp edges.

“The first glass took me hours,” DelMuro says. “It became an engineering challenge.”

A somewhat difficult challenge.

“Glass wants to not melt at all or melt completely,” DelMuro says. The trick is to melt just the rim of the repurposed wine bottle without altering the shape or having it sag into a blob. That trick — a closely guarded secret — “is part of our juju,” DelMuro says.

Drinking glasses with a melted rim are smoother than those with sanded rims, he says. And more durable. It is what sets Refresh Glass apart from competitors.

Refresh Glass collects more than 15,000 wine bottles a month from more than a dozen Phoenix-area hotels and bars. Recycling empty wine bottles saves the restaurants and hotels money in garbage hauling fees. It also adds to their green street cred with customers.

“We add to their brand,” DelMuro says. “We have a waiting list of people wanting to help,” he adds.

DelMuro says his company’s goal is to divert 10 million bottles from landfills. The company website keeps an updated tally of “bottles rescued.” The total is now more than 348,000.

Glass bottles can be recycled endlessly with no decline in quality, and an estimated 80 percent of recovered glass containers are made into new glass bottles. Recycling just one glass bottle saves enough energy to light a 100-watt light bulb for four hours, power a computer for 30 minutes, or a television for 20 minutes, according to the Glass Packaging Institute.

Recycling wine bottles into something you use every day, DelMuro says, “makes life a little less vanilla.”

“Every bottle has a story.”

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Pavement Technology Makes Streets Eat Air Pollution

Photo: Flickr/(matt)

Photo: Flickr/(matt)

Written by Melissa Breyer, Mother Nature Network

Imagine a city that could devour the very pollution that it creates. Such was the scenario envisioned by scientists in the Netherlands, who have found that using specially treated pavement on city streets can cut air pollution nearly in half.

The researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology installed concrete paving which included titanium dioxide ­– called photocatalytic pavement – on a block in the city of Hengelo, Netherlands. Titanium oxide has the ability to remove pollutants from the air and reduce them into less harmful components. Another part of the street was outfitted with normal paving blocks as a control.

The study looked at reductions in nitrogen oxides (NOx), a group of poisonous gases produced by cars and power plants that react with other compounds in the atmosphere to form smog.

After analyzing measurements gathered over the course of a year, the researchers found that the treated street reduced NOx air pollution by 19 percent on average; the figure bumped up to 28 percent during the afternoon and a remarkable 45 percent under ideal weather conditions (high radiation and low relative humidity).

The findings were published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials; it is hoped the research may lead to ways in which cities might be designed to intrinsically deal with the air pollution they create.

Although the application of photocatalytic surfaces has been studied for several years, David Brown, Chief Executive of Institution of Chemical Engineers, noted in a press release, “this latest research shows the potential of chemically engineered surfaces to further improve our quality of life, especially in major urban areas where traffic emissions are high.”

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Dunkin Donuts to Phase Out Foam Cups

paper cup, expanded polystyrene

Photo: Flickr/stevegarfield

Written by Melissa Hincha-Ownby, Mother Nature Network

Over the course of the next few years, fans of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee won’t have to feel guilty about having their morning cup of Joe in an environmentally damaging foam cup. In its annual corporate social responsibility report, Dunkin’ Donuts announced that it plans to move to recyclable paper cups within the next few years.

In his executive statement, Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Nigel Travis said, "We continue to search for a long-term alternative to our Dunkin' Donuts foam cup and hope to roll out a cup that meets our cost, performance and environmental criteria within two to three years. In the interim, we launched an in-store foam cup recycling pilot in our company-operated stores and will work with our franchisees to expand that program into as many stores as possible. We also plan to introduce an improved reusable cup program in the next six to 12 months."

While this isn’t a solid timeline, environmental advocates consider this as a step in the right direction. As You Sow, an organization that promotes environmental and social responsibility, has been focused on pushing Dunkin’ Donuts to change its foam packaging for the last year.

"We are pleased that Dunkin' Donuts is beginning to take responsibility for reducing the health and environmental impacts of its foam cups," said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president at As You Sow. "Promoting on-site recycling and improved recyclability are steps in the right direction."

In addition to making the move to recyclable paper cups, Dunkin’ Donuts is also going to bring a gluten-free donut and a gluten-free muffin to market by the end of 2013.

Other highlights from the Dunkin’ Donuts’ 2012 CSR report include:

  • The company will be switching to a recyclable pink spoon to its Baskin-Robbins’ brand in 2014; the pink spoon is an iconic representation of the decades-old ice cream brand.
  • Franchise owners now have access to a Power Down, Profit Up toolkit, which includes low and no-cost ideas that help franchisees save water and energy.
  • The company also announced its continued to commitment to develop a plan to source 100 percent sustainable palm oil by 2020.

For more information, download the Dunkin’ Donuts 2012 CSR report.

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Scientists Look to Plants as Source of Clean Energy

Photo: Flickr/adamsofen

Photo: Flickr/adamsofen

Written by Russell McLendon, Mother Nature Network

As humans scour the Earth for energy, venturing farther offshore and deeper underground, a new study suggests the answer has been under our noses all along. Rather than chasing finite fossils like oil and coal, it focuses on Earth's original power plants: plants.

Thanks to eons of evolution, most plants operate at 100 percent quantum efficiency, meaning they produce an equal number of electrons for every photon of sunlight they capture in photosynthesis. An average coal-fired power plant, meanwhile, only operates at about 28 percent efficiency, and it carries extra baggage like mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. Even our best large-scale imitations of photosynthesis — photovoltaic solar panels — typically operate at efficiency levels of just 12 to 17 percent.

But writing in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science, researchers from the University of Georgia say they've found a way to make solar power more effective by mimicking the process nature invented billions of years ago. In photosynthesis, plants use the energy from sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This yields electrons, which then help the plant make sugars that fuel its growth and reproduction.

"We have developed a way to interrupt photosynthesis so that we can capture the electrons before the plant uses them to make these sugars," study co-author and UGA engineering professor Ramaraja Ramasamy says in a press release. "Clean energy is the need of the century. This approach may one day transform our ability to generate cleaner power from sunlight using plant-based systems."

The secret lies in thylakoids, the membrane-bound sacs inside a plant's chloroplasts (pictured at right) that capture and store energy from sunlight. By manipulating the proteins inside thylakoids, Ramasamy and his colleagues can interrupt the flow of electrons produced during photosynthesis. They can then restrain the modified thylakoids in a specially designed backing of carbon nanotubes, which captures the plant's electrons and serves as an electrical conductor, sending them along a wire to be used elsewhere.

Similar systems have been developed before, but Ramasamy's has so far generated significantly stronger electrical currents, measuring two orders of magnitude larger than previous methods. It's still far too little power for most commercial uses, he points out, but his team is already working to boost its output and stability.

"In the near term, this technology might best be used for remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment that requires less power to run," Ramasamy says in a statement. "If we are able to leverage technologies like genetic engineering to enhance stability of the plant photosynthetic machineries, I'm very hopeful that this technology will be competitive to traditional solar panels in the future."

Although carbon nanotubes are key to this method of harnessing sunlight, they can also have a dark side. The tiny cylinders, which are nearly 50,000 times finer than a human hair, have been implicated as potential health risks for anyone who inhales them, since they can become lodged in the lungs much like asbestos, a known carcinogen. But recent redesigns have reduced their harmful effects on lungs, based on research that shows shorter nanotubes produce less lung irritation than longer fibers do.

"We have discovered something very promising here, and it is certainly worth exploring further," Ramasamy says of his study. "The electrical output we see now is modest, but only about 30 years ago, hydrogen fuel cells were in their infancy, and now they can power cars, buses and even buildings."

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Corn Silos Reimagined as Bed and Breakfast in Oregon

Abbey Road Farm Bed & Breakfast, Oregon,

Photo: Clint Williams/MNN

Written by Clint Williams, Mother Nature Network

Famers are known for making do with what they have. Turning a bit of inner tube into a tractor fan belt, for example. Or, say, converting idle grain silos into luxury suites for a bed-and-breakfast in Oregon wine country.

The Abbey Road Farm Bed & Breakfast near Carlton, Ore., gives new meaning to the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Case in point: a pair of grain silos standing on the property when John and Judy Stuart bought the place 10 years ago.

The Stuarts bought the 82-acre farm in the heart of wine country — an area world renowned for growing pinot noir, the fragile, finicky grape made mainstream by the movie “Sideways” — after 30 years in Las Vegas. And Vegas, John notes, is a place where castles and Roman palaces and pirate ships rise from the desert. It’s a place that expands the imagination.

John would often see silos in the farm country he visited during frequent hunting and fishing trips. “It lingered in the back of my mind for a long time — what would a guy do with one of those things?”

Then he found himself with two. So they added a third — symmetry and all that — to create five circular suites with a lobby and parlor, perfect for gathering with other guests.

The conversion was done with efficiency in mind. The concrete floors feature a radiant heating system — one gas-fired 50-gallon hot water tank warms the building. Expanding foam insulation was sprayed between the metal silo exterior and the interior walls, creating what Judi calls “the world’s largest Thermos.” The inn’s utility bills, John says, “are very, very, very much lower than they would have been with conventional construction.”

grain silo bed & breakfast, Arlton, Oregon

The 'La Mancha Suite' inside a repurposed grain silo. Photo: Clint Williams/MNN

Each suite features a different decorative touch and a different view, but similar amenities. Most rooms have king beds with a comfortable memory-foam top, luxurious linens and more pillows than two people could possible need. Each suite boasts a spacious bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, separate shower and heated towel racks.

There are comfortable chairs for sitting and reading. A compact stereo fills the room with music. (Though you may want to pack a couple of CDs if your tastes go beyond mellow New Age music.)

The rooms in the silo to the right as you face the inn — the La Mancha (shown above) and the Alpine — offer the best views, with big windows looking over a wetlands habitat and pasture filled with sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas.

Abbey Road Farm Bed & Breakfast, grain silo

Photo: Clint Williams/MNN


The Stuarts bought a working farm, in part, to live a farm-to-table lifestyle in which eggs and cheese, fruits and vegetables are shipped no more than 80 to 100 feet. And they are eager to share that experience with guests.

The breakfast in the bed and breakfast is locally sourced as much as possible. The eggs are from the three dozen or so free-range chickens that cluck and scratch in a predator-proof enclosure not far from the dining room. The flock includes Polish, Sultans, Australorps, Araucanas and sex links that lay eggs ranging in color from pale green to blue to brown. Oh, and white.

Photo: Clint Williams/MNN

Photo: Clint Williams/MNN


The morning meal is sure to include goat cheese. The small herd is also fun to watch as the kids frolic about, some trying to climb trees. Zucchini from the garden is used to make zucchini bread. Pumpkins from the garden are used to make awesome pumpkin waffles. Blueberries, raspberries, cherries grown on the grounds…well, you get the idea.

The B&B also allows the Stuarts to share their passion for birds and wildlife. John, a longtime member of Ducks Unlimited, has developed a wetland that provides refuge for breeding waterfowl and other birds. A deck overlooking the area is a great place to watch ducks, red-winged blackbirds, geese and other birds — not to mention the roaming llamas and alpacas — as you enjoy a bottle of wine discovered during your rambling that day.

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Electric-Assist Tricycle Ready to Hit the Streets

electric vehicle, ELF

Photo: Organic Transit

Written by Sami Grover, Mother Nature Network

Walking into the headquarters of Organic Transit, a North Carolina-based developer of what it calls “the most efficient vehicles on the planet,” I was struck by a decidedly disorienting feeling.

At first glance it was hard to put my finger on where that feeling was coming from. And then it hit me.

People were actually making things.

electric vehicle, factory

Photo: Organic Transit

In a world where manufacturing is so often automated or outsourced to the other side of the world, it’s quite remarkable to see a team welding, assembling and tinkering with a fleet of futuristic-looking pedal electric hybrid vehicles.

Early success

Based out of a former furniture showroom in the heart of downtown Durham, it’s early days yet for Organic Transit, which closed out a highly successful Kickstarter funding drive in January 2013. Orders are coming in, distribution deals are being struck, and there is talk of opening additional manufacturing facilities, both on the West Coast and in Europe.

The brainchild of Rob Cotter, a refugee from the automotive industry, Organic Transit’s inaugural offering is the tear-shaped ELF: a tricycle built with a 45 percent recycled aluminum frame and equipped with a weatherproof 80 percent recycled composite shell, an electric-assist drivetrain, a solar panel for charging the battery, LED headlights, tail lights, turn signals, and even an impressively loud horn to warn people you are coming. (Yeah, I had to try it out.) There’s even a smart phone/tablet app in development that will provide data on battery use, calories burned, route optimization and allow owners to connect with other ELF users in their area.

A product of the times

While the ELF itself may only just be making its way onto the market, the idea has been forming for quite some time, as Cotter explains:

“I was working for Porsche, BMW and Mercedes back in the '80s and was getting disillusioned with the industry. Meanwhile, projects like the Gossamer Condor — the world’s first human-powered aircraft capable of sustained and controlled flight — were being developed just down the road from me. I realized there were opportunities to rethink transportation.”

Cotter began designing human-powered vehicles, including a 62 mph tricycle, and eventually became VP of the Human Powered Vehicle Association. The success of vehicles like Cotter’s trike and the Gossamer Condor may have served as proof of concept in terms of performance, but Cotter says that market demand and potential for adoption were quite another matter:

“We could have built a vehicle like the ELF decades ago, for the most part. Advances in battery technology, LEDs and solar have certainly helped us, but we solved the primary challenge of building really light, durable and functional vehicles decades ago. The trouble was that people had no interest in efficiency throughout the ‘90s. They wanted SUVs, they wanted minivans, and they wanted luxury. Mpgs were irrelevant.”

Farm Uses Manure to Power its Dairy Trucks

methane, compressed natural gas, farming, manure

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Written by John Platt, Mother Nature Network

Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana loves its manure. The farm has about 30,000 milk cows which produce more than a fair amount of manure every day.

Several years ago the farm started putting that manure to good use, using it to power its barns and other structures. Now, according to a report in The New York Times, it is taking the manure one step further. Fair Oaks now converts some of its manure into enough compressed natural gas (CNG) to keep its fleet of 42 tractor-trailers on the road every day.

"As long as we keep milking cows, we never run out of gas," CEO Gary Corbett told the Times. He said the switch to cow power saves the farm from using 2 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. The U.S. Department of Energy said this is the largest fleet powered by agricultural waste that is currently in operation in this country. Although Fair Oaks did not disclose how much money it is saving by using natural gas, the Times points out that CNG is currently about half the cost of diesel fuel.

Fair Oaks installed a $12 million digester on its property that converts manure from its cows and pigs into natural gas. The gas intended for the trucks is piped to fueling stations, where it is compressed and distributed to trucks. Whatever is left over after the manure has been digested is used as a fertilizer.

The project to convert Fair Oaks' fleet to CNG got its start in June 2011, when the company contracted with a company called Clean Energy to build two fueling stations. The project was at least partially funded by grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Indiana Office of Energy Development. Fair Oaks then received the first four trucks in August of that year. At the time, Fair Oaks project manager Mark Stoermann said, "We believe we are part of the answer to using renewable energy to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil. We're employing proven technology to solve one of the United States' biggest economic problems. In addition, we're combining time-tested fleet management practices to achieve the highest possible productivity."

A case study (pdf) published by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy says the Fair Oaks system captures 98 percent of the methane that would normally be released by the farm's manure, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The case study points out that the trucks Fair Oaks is using are quite innovative and required a lot of refinement in order to ensure they would be safe and effective:

"The relatively new technology had never been tested as hard as this 250,000 miles per year per truck plan, and there were several unexpected obstacles that had to be overcome. The modification of the fuel system guards for use on the gravel roads of the farms, the proper rear-end ratio for running a 9.0 liter truck at freeway speeds and the heavy-duty cycles of hauling 80,000-pound loads day after day resulted in adjustments not only to the trucks but also the operation of the entire fleet."

AMP Americas, which partnered with Fair Oaks to build the new fueling stations — which are open to the public for any other CNG-powered vehicles — told the Times it plans to build 14 more fueling stations this year.

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Study: Recyclers Actually Consume More

recycling, waste, study, bin

Photo: Earth911

Written by John Platt, Mother Nature Network

A lot of eco-minded people will avoid purchasing items that they know will end up in the garbage. But do they also react in the opposite way by consuming more when they know that something will be recycled? That seems to be the indication from a study published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The research was conducted by Jesse Catlin, an assistant professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities, and Yitong Wang, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. They conducted two experiments to find out how much paper people used if they had the option to recycle their waste. The studies were partially funded by the project was funded in part by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, which focuses on issues such as health and the environment as they related to community and quality of life.

In the first experiment, two groups of graduate students — who did not know the nature of the study — were given the task of evaluating a pair of scissors by cutting up as much paper as they could, then disposing of the paper. One group had a waste basket for that part of the task, while the second group had both a wastebasket and a recycling bucket. The group that had an option to throw their waste out in a recycling bucket chopped up nearly three times as much paper.

In the second experiment the researchers staked out a men's room for 30 days and monitored how many paper towels were used. For the first 15 days of the experiment the restroom only has a waste basket. For the second 15 days, they added a recycling bin. They amount of paper used per person during the second 15 days was 14 percent more.

The researchers calculated that the restroom would use 12,500 more paper towels per year in the second scenario.

The researchers also asked their undergrads who conducted the scissor experiment to fill out a questionnaire about their "green" behaviors. They linked the answers with previous studies that showed how people who try to behave in an eco-friendly manner often trade off and rationalize their behavior, such as saying it is okay to do a non-green thing because something else they do balances it out. In this case, they concluded that the people in the experiment used the recycling option as a way to allow themselves to use more waste because it was going to be recycled.

As the authors write, "we propose that the ability to recycle may lead to increased resource usage compared to when a recycling option is not available." They say their paper has potential implications for further research and for policy-making, such as whether or not recycling should be available in certain situations.

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Study: Traffic Congestion is a Waste; D.C. is the Worst

rush hour, fuel waste, fuel efficiency, gridlock

Photo: Flickr/CountyLemonade

Written by Melissa Hincha-Ownby, Mother Nature Network

Washington, D.C. residents that drive to work have a valid reason to complain about the commute; the District of Columbia was recently named the most congested city in the nation by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). The Institute’s 2012 Urban Mobility Report examines congestion and traffic issues in 489 urban areas.

Top 10 most congested cities:

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Los Angeles
  3. San Francisco
  4. New York
  5. Boston
  6. Houston
  7. Atlanta
  8. Chicago
  9. Philadelphia
  10. Seattle

Dealing with rush hour traffic is a frustrating, albeit necessary, waste of time; time that could be better spent working, spending time with family or running errands. The TTI 2012 Urban Mobility Report reveals that U.S. commuters wasted 5.5 billion hours of extra time due to traffic congestion in 2011. This is equal to the amount of time that businesses and individual taxpayers spend filing their taxes.

In addition to being a waste of time, congestion is also costly:

  • Commuters wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel due to congestion
  • $121 billion worth of congestion-related delay and fuel costs are realized annually
  • Per commuter average cost of $818 per year, up from $342 in 1982 (adjusted for inflation)

Traffic congestion also increases air pollution. In 2011, traffic congestion was responsible for an additional 56 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, which is about 380 pounds of CO2 emissions per auto commuter. This figure is limited to the 489 urban areas used in the study and is only the congestion-related emissions, this does not include the tailpipe emissions from automotive use on non-congested roadways.

Public transportation can alleviate urban congestion and reduce excessive carbon dioxide emissions but it isn’t the only congestion relief approach recommended by the TTI. Other measures that municipalities should research include adding capacity in critical travel corridors, change usage patterns by encouraging flex hours or telecommuting opportunities and providing a variety of travel options to commuters.

Learn more about current traffic congestion concerns as well as historical trends by downloading the report: 2012 Urban Mobility Report (PDF).

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Portland Christmas Tree Recycling Helps Non-Profits

rented Christmas tree, green tree option

Photo: Shutterstock

Written by Matt Hickman, Mother Nature Network

Over the past couple of years, I’ve made it a tradition to take a quick look at how various cities across the globe — New York, Paris, San Francisco — handle a certain type of organic waste that becomes super-ubiquitous during the first few chilly and grey days of the new year: discarded and de-flocked Christmas trees.

In the recycle-happy metropolis of Portland, Ore., Christmas tree recycling efforts are pretty typical in that, like many major cities, standard curbside collection for yard waste is largely available to city residents looking to properly dispose of retired Tannenbaums, wreaths, and swag (curbside treecycling particulars do vary, however, across various communities in the Portland metro area). And although the City of Portland’s Christmas Tree recycling homepage doesn’t specify what exactly happens to the trees after they’re picked up via curbside collection, it’s safe to assume that they’re sent through a massive chipper and the resulting mulch is used for various landscaping and waste-to-fuel projects across the city.

But Portland, as we all know, is a special place and given that Oregon is the nation’s top producer and recycler of Christmas trees according to The Oregonian, there are a host of other treecycling options in and around the City of Roses aside from the standard municipal pick-up.

Most of these options include handing over dehydrated firs to various nonprofit community groups that view Christmas tree recycling as a primo opportunity to raise funds while preventing once-festooned greenery from being landfilled. Given the nature of these efforts, there’s generally a small suggested donation involve but that’s a moot point given that the city itself often tacks on a small surcharge for post-holiday curbside Christmas tree pickup anyways.

In a recent article published on OregonLive, a few of the over 70 treecycling organizations across the Portland Metro area are highlighted. Not surprisingly, more than half of them are local Boy and Girl Scout troops. Boy Scout Troop 707, for example, has been collecting old Christmas trees for nearly 23 years, using the funds raised to pay for summer camp excursions. But as OregonLive points out, the troop's tree collection efforts have been in decline since the city began offering curbside pickup. Once upon a time, in the pre-curbside glory days, $2,500 in donations was a typical figure for Troop 707. Now that figure is in the $700 to $900 range.

Once the trees are collected, the troop delivers them, free of charge, to McFarlane’s Bark, a landscaping company with locations in nearby Milwaukie and just across the Columbia in Vancouver, Wash. McFarlane’s, a Christmas tree recycler that's popular with fundraising groups, then mulches the trees and delivers the resulting wood waste to local paper mills where the mulch is used as fuel. According to the McFarlane’s website, “ground up Christmas trees are an excellent source of electricity at a paper mill.”

In addition to Boy and Girl Scout troops, a notable nonprofit Christmas Tree recycler in Portland is Tualatin Valley Trout Unlimited. In lieu of mulching or composting, the group uses donated trees to provide habitats for coho salmon in the Necanicum Watershed. Also profiled by OregonLive is a newcomer on Portland’s Christmas tree recycling/fundraising scene this season: Portland Organic Productions. The nonprofit uses Christmas tree mulch for various planting projects around North Portland and the money raised (a $5 donation is suggested) through the first annual St. Johns MulchFest is used in a local clean-up initiative spearheaded by the group.

Live in Portland? Click here to find a nonprofit tree recycling group near you. Everyone else: Is there a notable nonprofit — a church group, Boy Scout troop, or environmental org — doing good things with discarded Christmas Trees in your neck of the woods? Do you support them? Or do you simply haul your tree to the curb and let the city handle it?

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More from Mother Nature Network:
Snake in the grass ... and on the sofa: Chinese New Year decor
Ultimate guide to Christmas tree recycling
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