Eco Buzz

Four things you should know about Detroit’s water crisis

Gristmill - Thu, 2014-07-17 09:02

This May, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) sent out 46,000 shutoff notices to customers who were behind in their water bills. It was the latest calamity to befall a city that had seen its water rates rise 119 percent in the last decade.

As a city that has lost nearly two-thirds of its population in the last 60 years, Detroit has a lot of water infrastructure to maintain, and not much money to maintain it.

Since the shutoffs began (about 17,000 households and small businesses have lost service to date), residents have fought back hard. They’ve blocked trucks that are being sent out to shut off water accounts. They’ve called out DWSD for focusing on shutting off water to private homes that don’t even owe that much, while ignoring golf courses that owe amounts in the hundreds of thousands. (DWSD responded that it had focused on residential customers because shutting off water to a large-scale user was more technically complicated than most of its employees can handle.) They’ve accused DWSD of dropping low-income customers as a way of making the system more appealing to potential buyers. (Whether or not that’s true, Detroit emergency manager Kevin Orr has spoken openly about selling DWSD to a private company.) They’ve organized brigades of volunteers to bring water in to people who’ve had their accounts shut off. They even got the United Nations to condemn the way that DWSD is handing the situation.

But what’s happening in Detroit isn’t just Detroit’s problem. It has larger implications for the rest of us. Here’s what you need to know.

Water is getting more expensive everywhere.

This is true both internationally and in the U.S., where the cost of water has been rising faster than the rate of inflation.

There’s no federal policy to help people deal with the cost of water.

As Jan Beecher, with the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University, told the Los Angeles Times there are no federal programs to help people pay for the rising cost of water, the way that there are for fuel and electricity (or housing, for that matter).

“We’ve never really developed a clear public policy toward universal service and water,” Beecher said. “International organizations are concerned with a basic level of service, but with water, the tricky thing is that drinking water would fall into that, but watering the lawn would not be considered a basic human right.”

That said, until recently, Detroit actually had a program that helped low-income residents pay their water bills.

It was called the Water Affordability Plan. As Roger Colton, a utilities consultant, told the Los Angeles Times:

The last time Detroit began shutting off water for unpaid bills a decade ago, Colton worked with the Michigan Poverty Law Program to develop a program that would help the water department collect money while still keeping water affordable. He found that whereas the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewer service, some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent.

Colton argues that cities won’t get the money they want by simply shutting off services. Instead, he says, utilities should require residents to pay a percentage of their income to the water department for service.

“If you give someone a more affordable bill, you end up collecting more of the bills,” he said.

Taking Colton’s advice into account, Detroit’s water department implemented a program that allowed residents to start making payments on their bills even if they were thousands of dollars behind. But that program was cut during the city’s bankruptcy.

This year the DWSD says it has a $1 million fund for residents who need help paying their water bills — money raised by voluntary contributions from customers.

The infrastructure that was designed to keep us all hydrated is in trouble everywhere, not just Detroit.

Detroit did most of its growing in the 30 years between 1920 and 1950 – the population nearly doubled, from 994,000 to 1,850,000 (It’s now about 685,000). This is the same time window during which much of America’s water infrastructure was being laid out: people were moving from the country to the cities, and there were generous federal subsidies that helped put those pipes in the ground.

Other cities that put in a lot of water infrastructure during this time, like Los Angeles and Chicago, can expect to see the same problems, since everything built during that 20-year period is going to break more or less all at once. Writes the New York Times:

The oldest cast-iron pipes, dating to the late 1800s, have an average useful life of about 120 years. For cast-iron pipes installed in the 1920s, that drops to about 100 years. And pipes put in after World War II have an average life of only around 75 years. The upshot is that all three vintages of pipe will need replacement in a short stretch of time.

The EPA has been writing reports for years about how America’s water infrastructure is old, leaky, and generally unsafe, and how it’s going to take New Deal-style funding to get it back in shape. The bad news is that, as a country, we’re more excited about building new things than fixing old ones.

But then there’s the good news: With so much water infrastructure across the country in need of repair, there’s real opportunity to design and experiment with systems that are better adapted for drought, heavy rainfall, sea-level rise, and the extreme weather events that climate disruption is already laying on us. While Detroit is dealing with the worst of it, these questions are ones we should all be thinking about.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Cities, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Tragedy of the Commons: Once Upon a … Water

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-07-17 04:59

We have reached a tipping point where we need to monetize and assign a dollar value to a natural resource like water -- without which we cannot survive. We live on the water planet: 75 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water. Yet fresh water is scarce. Aristotle and other philosophers were right on the mark when they said, “What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it!"

The post Tragedy of the Commons: Once Upon a … Water appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Millennials and the State of Employee Engagement

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-07-17 04:37

In response to employee demand, particularly from millennials, a growing number of employers are adopting an official engagement policy on sustainability. "People are realizing that these are not 'nice-to-have' programs," Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of WeSpire, told Triple Pundit. "They drive the bottom line and the top line of business."

The post Millennials and the State of Employee Engagement appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Weighs In on Work/Life Balance

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-07-17 04:29

Recently PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave some frank answers to questions about work/life balance that coincide more with Anne-Marie Slaughter than Sheryl Sandberg. As in, work/life balance? At the c-suite level, there isn't any.

The post PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Weighs In on Work/Life Balance appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

GM Twitter Chat Recap: Transforming Transportation – #GMCSR

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-07-17 04:19

On July 16th, TriplePundit & Aman Singh held an hour long conversation via Twitter at #GMCSR to get to the heart of General Motor’s latest sustainability report and progress. We discussed how GM is helping transform transportation in the 21st century.

The post GM Twitter Chat Recap: Transforming Transportation – #GMCSR appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Now Google Street View is mapping gas pipeline leaks

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 23:32

Some of those Google cars that drive around photographing streetscapes and embarrassing moments have captured something extra — something that should embarrass major utilities. The cars were kitted out by University of Colorado scientists with sensors that sniff out natural gas leaking from underground pipelines. These methane-heavy leaks contribute to global warming, waste money, and can fuel explosions.

The sensor-equipped cars cruised the streets of Boston, New York’s Staten Island, and Indianapolis. They returned to sites where methane spikes were detected to confirm the presence of a leak. The results were released Wednesday by the Environmental Defense Fund, which coordinated the project, revealing just how leaky old and metallic pipelines can be, such as those used in the East Coast cities studied, particularly when compared with noncorrosive pipes like those beneath Indianapolis.

About one leak was discovered for each mile driven in Boston, Mass.:

EDF

The findings were similar in Staten Island, N.Y.:

EDF

In Indianapolis, Ind., by contrast, about one leak was found for every 200 miles that the cars covered:

EDF
Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Mother jailed for letting her daughter run free — at the playground

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 22:57

Remember Another Bad Creation’s song, “At the Playground”?

A more recent story that happened at the playground: A mother lets her child go to the playground by herself and goes to jail for it.

The young girl, just 9 years old, is used to spending hours and days on the internet in McDonald’s, not only because it has free wi-fi, but because it’s where her mother works. It’s summer, and Debra Harrell can’t afford to put her daughter in daycare, because it’s McDonald’s.

The restaurant is daycare, but on this particular day the girl wants to go to a playground, a little over a mile away. Harrell allows her, and is later charged with “unlawful conduct towards a child” for letting her go unsupervised. Her daughter goes to state custody.

I’m really glad Jonathan Chait stepped outside of his normal political coverage at New York Magazine to draw attention to this story, which happened earlier this month, in North Augusta, S.C., where apparently it’s a crime for parents to trust their kids and their surrounding environment.

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The additional facts on this story, as presented by Lenore Skenazy over at reason, make it even more heartbreaking. Harrell had saved up to buy her daughter a laptop only for it to be stolen when their house was robbed. It wasn’t the first time her mother let her go to the playground by herself, and she gave her daughter her cellphone before sending her along.

Chait sums it up well:

The story is a convergence of helicopter parenting with America’s primitive family policy. Our welfare policy is designed to make everybody, even single mothers, work full-time jobs. The social safety net makes it difficult for low-wage single mothers to obtain adequate child care. And society is seized by bizarre fears that children are routinely snatched up by strangers in public places. The phenomenon is, in fact, nearly as rare as in-person voting fraud.

I think our raged-but-false security senses and the rarity of child-snatching are worth pointing out, but there are other issues here that involve the criminalization of black women, and the ongoing, unresolved issues of public park space: Who belongs in it and under what terms.

For the Harrell family, going to the playground is a luxury. The adults who could afford to be there that day assumed that her mother’s choice was irresponsible. Given the girl is black, they may have assumed worse: Mom’s a crackhead? Prostitute? Whatever the case, the child’s answer, that her mother was at work, was not good enough.

The adult who snitched Harrell out made another assumption: that parenting means around-the-clock supervision of children, and anything less is uncivilized. It’s those kind of gentry values that the creators of city public park systems were trying to avoid. They wanted a safe space accessible to people of all classes and backgrounds to enjoy recreation. Instead, in too many places it’s become a place where black and brown youth are made to feel they don’t belong — and certainly not without supervision.

But unsupervised play might be exactly what children need. In a society where everyone has cameras on their phones, tablets and computers, no one is ever really unsupervised. But I think Sarah Goodyear hit the right note on this when she discussed unmonitored kid time in the Atlantic’s Citylab:

Traditional street play is good for kids, and fun for kids, precisely because it allows them to figure out how to use their environment in creative ways on their own, or maybe with the help of adults who are doing their own socializing on the street. Kids call the shots themselves, making a tree first base and a manhole cover second and the streetlamp third. They figure out how to make fair teams, learn which scoring systems work and which don’t. They learn which grown-ups they can count on to retrieve a lost ball, and how to knock an errant football down from the branches of a tree. They get to know each other by creating something together.

For urban kids, this kind of self-structuring play is vital. They can’t run around in the woods, the way that kids in rural areas can. But they can learn to navigate the environment that they live in, thereby gaining mastery over it and themselves. It’s very different from the league play that has taken over the lives of many urban families in the last 20 years.

That playground and that community make up the child’s environment, and Harrell has the right to allow her daughter to explore, discover, and make sense of that environment on her own. This is true even given that Harrell had little other option except to let her sit at a McDonald’s booth.

Now her daughter has a whole other environment to make sense of: South Carolina’s Department of Social Services, which her mother can hopefully help her with when she gets out of jail.


Filed under: Cities
Categories: Eco Buzz

Good riddance, ocean, you were terrifying and gross anyway

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 22:40

When I put a fishy face to the victims of ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution, my brain usually goes off into Christian Riese Lassen territory. Orcas leap through the ocean at sunset. Coral reefs teem with diversity, each fish more lovely than the next. Sea turtles circling the globe? Why the heck not.

You know what never made it into the ocean diversity art on my seventh-grade geography folder? This guy:

Mattes

Meet Bathynomus giganteus, a giant isopod who splits his time between scavenging the bottom of the ocean and waiting for you at the gates of hell. Lynne Elkins has an excellent essay on The Toast about monsters in the ocean and had this to say:

[Giant isopods] are not the worst isopods, which honor is reserved for the parasitic isopods. Those are the ones that attach themselves to the tongues of fish, causing the tongue to wither and fall off; they then take up permanent residence in their host fish’s mouth. Some live off whatever food the fish is eating, while others drink the fish’s own blood.

And that’s not all of the horror the ocean has to offer:

[T]he extreme deep-sea vampire squid (whose full latin name literally means “vampire squid of Hell”) is blood-red with “limpid, globular eyes,” can release a bioluminescent mucus into the water from its “writhing arms” which blinds opponents in a crazy light show that lasts up to 10 minutes, and can, you know, turn its own body inside out. …

[T]he spectacular misandrist anglerfish female [is] parasitized by tiny males whose bodies are absorbed onto her side, and who thereafter accesses their gonads as she sees fit. …

The deep-sea blobfish turns into the quite-famous gooey, creepy monster blob when surfaced. The sheepshead fish has horrible, human-like teeth in its horrible monster mouth.

Sayonara, sea. Don’t let the Great Pacific Garbage Patch hit you on the way out. What’s that you say? Discounting a critical part of our planet because of a few creepy apples is wrongheaded and silly? You’re right. But forgive me if I picture parasitic isopods instead of fun-lovin’ dolphins the next time we run a story on how bad we’re screwing up the ocean.


Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Five reasons why kelp could be the next kale

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 22:08

Eating kelp sounds gross. But even the mighty kale was once largely regarded as a leathery, bitter garnish. Look how far that leafy green has come now!

We’re bound to tire of smothering kale in peanut butter and baking it into cookies someday. When that happens, we might turn to the oceans to satisfy our next big veggie craze. In the video above, Bren Smith, the director of Greenwave, explains why he thinks seaweed is poised to invade our plates. Here’s a few reasons:

1. It requires no fresh water or land to grow. At the rate we’re going, we probably want to be more frugal with both these resources. Smith points out that kelp can be grown in dense sites off our coasts instead of space-hogging, water-sucking fields.

2. It cleans up the water. Nutrient runoff from farms leads to scary things. Kelp farms can help clean up our messes – especially if they’re integrated with shellfish like mussels or oysters that also slurp up some of that nasty pollution.

3. It sequesters carbon. Yes, all plants absorb CO2. But kelp grows so fast that scientists say seaweed farms could do a particularly good job of absorbing some of our fossil fuel emissions.

4. It’s good for you. Vitamins! Calcium! Iodine! Everybody will love kelp once you can call it a “superfood.”

5. It’s delicious. Or so chef David Santos wants you to believe. In any case, he’s figuring out how to noodle-it, pickle-it, and butter-it in ways that are guaranteed to make your mouth water. Penne con algae, anyone?


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Vermont’s dirty secret: Free-ranging cows are crapping in the water supply

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 21:40

Vermont – mention the state, and people picture the soft-focus Holsteins on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cartons and postcard pictures of cows grazing in a hilly, pastoral heaven. And for good reason: As New England’s leading milk producer, the Green Mountain State has a huge cultural and financial investment in dairies.

Amidst all the bovine iconography, however, here’s one image you’ll never see: Bessie pooping in the sparkling waters of Lake Champlain. But increasingly, waste from Vermont’s lightly regulated dairy farms is polluting the lake, the nation’s sixth-largest body of fresh water. It’s undermining Vermont’s tourist economy and jeopardizing drinking water supplies for a third of the state’s population.

The damage is obvious in the murky gray-brown stains spreading at river mouths, the slimy masses of weeds choking bays, the rotten stench wafting over the sluggish water in late summer when the blue-green algae blooms.

State officials say the biggest culprit is farm runoff, responsible for 40 percent of the phosphorus pollution in the lake as a whole and up to 70 percent in the worst-polluted sections. The phosphorus feeds out-of-control aquatic weeds and algae; at its worst, the rampant growth can strip the water of oxygen, suffocating all other life and generating toxic cyanobacteria.

As a result, some Vermonters now say that while the dairy industry is sacrosanct in Vermont, it’s time to corral this sacred cow.

“Here we are, the Green Mountain State, with this enormous environmental reputation that’s only partially deserved,” said Jon Erickson, interim Dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. “We haven’t really regulated our own water, one of the most critical resources we have.”

* * *

That Vermont would be in such a plight may come as a surprise, given its progressive reputation, from being the first of the United States to launch single-payer health care to its battle to defend the nation’s first GMO-labeling law.

But Erickson, who produced an award-winning 2010 documentary about Lake Champlain’s woes, says Vermont is on the cutting edge this time, too: It may well become the first state to forfeit its environmental authority to the federal government.

In 2002, the federal Environmental Protection Agency granted Vermont power to enforce the Clean Water Act within state borders in an agreement that included a pollution-management plan for Lake Champlain. That plan established a “Total Maximum Daily Load” for phosphorus. As the name suggests, a TMDL establishes legal limits on how much of a given pollutant a body of water can safely absorb. But in 2008, the public-interest Conservation Law Foundation sued the EPA, saying the TMDL was far too lenient. In response, in 2010, the EPA invalidated Vermont’s plan, essentially putting the state on probation while it comes up with new pollution-control proposals.

For now, as federal authorities evaluate whether they need to take over, the state retains its Clean Water Act powers. But Vermont has had a tough time proving it’s serious about a cleanup. In early May, the EPA rejected the state’s proposed strategies to meet minimum Clean Water Act standards.

Gov. Peter Shumlin tried again, promising in a May 29 letter to the EPA that his administration will make farms cleaner — especially small dairies, which until now have been largely unregulated. Still, Vermont has yet to even bar cows from creeks and rivers, or the lake itself.

Roger Rainville of the Farmers Watershed Alliance – a leading agricultural spokesman on environmental issues — resists such a ban. “There’s a lot of wildlife in this state, and there’s a lot of things that crap in that water, not just cows,” Rainville said. “The public perception is, ‘I see that cow there. She’s causing problems.’ Well, we have to put our money where it has the biggest impact, and livestock in the water is not the biggest impact.”

The revised lake cleanup plan accompanying Shumlin’s letter offers “strengthening of the

livestock exclusion requirements” by early 2016. That word “requirements” is slippery: The plan describes incentive programs, such as helping farmers pay for fencing, but it never mentions any universal ban on cattle in the water. It makes little mention of enforcement on other issues, either, beyond pointing out that there’s little money to pay for it. Small farms wouldn’t have to meet whatever stricter pollution-control rules that may be developed until 2020.

* * *

If Vermonters can’t even impose a no-crapping-in-the-water rule, how will they ever get to the rigorous response the crisis requires?

Chuck Ross, the state’s agriculture secretary, and David Mears, who heads the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said new farm rules aimed at reducing runoff could be modeled in part on proposals by the Conservation Law Foundation. One such recommendation calls for planting a cover crop, like rye, that would remain in the fields after the corn harvest, helping to hold the soil together and reducing erosion. Another would bar farmers from planting crops too close to riverbanks, leaving natural buffers of grass or brush to catch runoff.

James Maroney has another solution. A New York refugee, Maroney owned Vermont’s largest organic dairy from 1986 to 1995, when a fire leveled his barn. He believes that organic farming is the salvation for Vermont’s waterways and its farmers both. He preaches his message through innumerable appearances before the state legislature, letters, op-eds, YouTube videos, and a self-published book.

Maroney says only organic, pasture-based farming – which commands higher milk prices — offers an economically viable alternative to the dominant Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) model, which involves ever larger herds, kept in barns and fed on phosphorus-fertilized corn and grain planted on the state’s most highly erodible floodplains or imported from the Midwest.

James Ehlers, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Lake Champlain International, advocates buying out fields that are pollutant sources and turning them to other uses, possibly agriculture that doesn’t require as much fertilizer, or leave the soil as open to erosion, as corn. He admits it’s “not an easy political sell.”

Ehlers says there’s already technology to take advantage of the nutrients that are growing toxic algae in Lake Champlain. He cites one company that has developed a “floating island” system, using microfiber mats that can support water-borne meadows. Ehlers wants to find out whether they could be used to grow cattle feed while soaking up phosphorous from the grievously polluted Missisquoi Bay.

Such plans have no part in Vermont officials’ proposed solutions to the lake’s contamination, however. And as the EPA considers whether to accept the state’s newest proposals, environmentalists and farmers, both, are getting fed up with the bureaucratic back-and-forth.

Christopher Kilian, the Conservation Law Foundation’s Vermont director, says his group’s proposals for cover crops and stream buffers are only a start, and should have been required 20 years ago. He believes it’s time to impose harsher penalties on polluters.

“The main way we’ve regulated the dairy industry in this state has been the carrot approach, to give payments for planting trees or changing practices,” Kilian said. “We need a stick.”

Rainville, the environmentalist farmer, says some clear direction would be a better place tostart. For decades, he says, government advisors pushed nitrogen as the dairies’ best friend. Now, he and his neighbors are trying to comply with new directives like restrictions on spreading manure on fields in the winter when the frozen soil can’t absorb the waste. They’ve already tried CLF’s cover cropping suggestions, with mixed results. Vermont’s growing season is so short, it’s hard for the secondary plantings to take hold, Rainville said.

“We as farmers are saying, ‘What the hell do you want us to? We’re listening to what you’re telling us. You get it right and we’ll get it right,’” he said.

Federal regulators are reviewing the governor’s newest proposal. There’s no hard deadline for them to accept or reject it. Meanwhile, the lake’s nutrient counts just keep going up.


Filed under: Article, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 21:04

Almonds are a precious foodstuff: a crunchy jolt of complete protein, healthful fats, vitamins and minerals, and deliciousness. Given their rather intense ecological footprint – see here – we should probably consider them a delicacy, a special treat. That’s why I think it’s deeply weird to pulverize away their crunch, drown them in water, and send them out to the world in a gazillion little cartons. What’s the point of almond milk, exactly?

Evidently, I’m out of step with the times on this one. “Plant-based milk” behemoth White Wave reports that its first-quarter sales of almond milk were up 50 percent from the same period in 2013. In an earnings call with investors in May, reported by FoodNavigator, CEO Greg Engles revealed that almond milk now makes up about two-thirds of the plant-based milk market in the United States, easily trumping soy milk (30 percent) and rice and coconut milks (most of the rest).

Dairy is still king, of course, comprising 90 percent of the “milk” market. But as our consumption of it dwindles – down from 0.9 cups per person per day in 1970 to about 0.6 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – plant-based alternatives are gaining ground. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that sales of alternative milks hit $1.4 billion in 2013 and are expected to hit $1.7 billion by 2016, with almond milk leading that growth.

Now, I get why people are switching away from dairy milk. Industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business, and large swaths of adults can’t digest lactose, a sugar found in fresh dairy milk. Meanwhile, milk has become knit into our dietary culture, particularly at breakfast, where we cling to a generations-old tradition of drenching cereal in milk. Almond milk and other substitutes offer a way to maintain this practice while rejecting dairy. (Almond milk has been crushing once-ubiquitous soy milk, perhaps partly because of hotly contested fears that it creates hormonal imbalances.)

All that aside, almond milk strikes me as an abuse of a great foodstuff. Plain almonds are a nutritional powerhouse. Let’s compare a standard serving (one ounce, about a handful) to the 48-ounce bottle of Califia Farms almond milk that a house guest recently left behind in my fridge.

Tom Philpott

A single ounce (28 grams) of almonds – nutrition info here – contains six grams of protein (about an egg’s worth), along with three grams of fiber (a medium banana), and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (half an avocado). According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of Califia almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat. A bottle of Califia delivers six eight-ounce servings, meaning that a handful of almonds contains as much protein as the mighty jug of this hot-selling beverage.

What this tells you is that the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds. Which leads us to the question of price and profit. The almonds in the photo above are organic, and sold in bulk at my local HEB supermarket for $11.99 per pound; this one-ounce serving set me back about 66 cents. I could have bought nonorganic California almonds for $6.49 per pound, about 39 cents per ounce. That container of Califia, which contains roughly the same number of nonorganic almonds, retails for $3.99.

Mother JonesClick here for more comparisons.

The water-intensive nature of almond milk, of course, is no secret. By law, food manufacturers have to name ingredients in order of their prevalence in the product. For Califia and other almond milk brands, it starts like this: “filtered water, almonds.” Given that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond in California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced, drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.

Califia does make a couple of splashy nutritional claims: “50% more calcium than milk,” the bottle declares, and “50% RDI of Vitamin E.” Almonds are a great source of these vital nutrients, but not that great. Our ounce of whole almonds contains 74 mg of calcium vs. 290 mg for a cup of whole milk, and seven mg of vitamin E, about 37 percent of the recommended daily intake.

How does Califia’s beverage manage to outdo straight almonds on calcium and vitamin E when it lags so far behind on protein and fat? Again, the answer lies in the ingredients list, which reveals the addition of a “vitamin/mineral blend.” All fine and well, but if you’re interested in added nutrients, why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Moreover, almond milk isn’t just a few nuts packaged with lots of water. It often contains additives. For example, in addition to vitamins, the Califia product, like many of its rivals, contains small amounts of carrageenan, a seaweed derivative commonly used as a stabilizer in beverages. Academic scientists in Chicago have raised concerns that it might cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

I’m not saying your almond milk habit is destroying the planet or ruining your health, or that you should immediately go cold turkey. I just want people to know what they’re paying for when they shell our for it. As for me, when I want something delicious to moisten my granola or add substance to a smoothie, I go for organic kefir, a fermented milk product that’s packed with protein, calcium, and beneficial microbes. Added bonus: According to the label, it’s lactose-free – apparently, the kefir microbes transform the lactose during the fermentation process.

The industry, meanwhile, aims to take its lucrative almond milk model on the road. FoodNavigator reports that White Wave is setting up a joint venture to market its plant-based milks in almond-crazy China.

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Here’s how Obama is preparing the country for climate change

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 21:04

The good news is that President Barack Obama wants the nation to do a better job of bracing itself for the wild changes afoot in the weather. The better news it that he realizes that bolstering infrastructure and reimagining how we design our cities and electrical grids are among the best ways of doing that.

“Working together, we can take some common-sense steps to make sure that America’s infrastructure is safer, stronger and more resilient for future generations,” Obama said on Wednesday. Here are some of the steps his administration is taking:

  • A nearly $1 billion competition, announced last month, will provide funds to help communities recover and rebuild following disasters. Technical details of the competition were outlined on Wednesday, indicating that many of the 67 communities affected by recent disasters could receive funds to support risk assessment and planning efforts. A smaller number of those communities will be selected to receive additional money to design and implement novel ideas for minimizing future risks.
  • The Department of Interior will spend $10 million on a training program that will help tribes prepare for climate change.
  • The Department of Agriculture announced $236 million worth of funding to improve rural electric infrastructure using smart grid technology in eight states.
  • A 3-D mapping program will be developed to help identify and manage risks of flooding, storm surges, landslides, coastal erosion, and water supply shortfalls. The program will be funded with $13.1 million.
  • FEMA has established a task force to figure out ways of better protecting disaster-affected communities from future disasters.
  • FEMA will release guidelines that call on states to consider climate variability in planning efforts.
  • Houston, Colorado, NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory will work together on pilot projects geared toward preparing for climate change.
  • NOAA is making changes that will require greater consideration of climate change in the management of coastal areas.
  • At least 25 communities will receive EPA funding to help them use urban forests and rooftop gardens to better manage stormwater.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines that will help public health departments assess local health risks associated with climate change.

Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Washington Post that state and local officials are beginning to calculate how much it will cost to prepare for more intense and frequent storms, rising seas, and changing temperatures. “People are scared,” he said. “They’re just starting to put a price tag on how much it costs to adapt, and they’re going to need help from Washington.” At least that help is starting to come.


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

California farms are sucking up enough groundwater to put Rhode Island 17 feet under

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 20:30

California, the producer of nearly half of the nation’s fruits, veggies, and nuts, plus export crops – four-fifths of the world’s almonds, for example – is entering its third driest year on record. Nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. In addition to affecting agricultural production the drought will cost the state billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and a whole lot of groundwater, according to a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture by scientists at UC-Davis. The authors used current water data, agricultural models, satellite data, and other methods to predict the economic and environmental toll of the drought through 2016.

Here are four key takeaways:

  • The drought will cost the state $2.2 billion this year: Of these losses, $810 million will come from lower crop revenues, $203 million will come from livestock and dairy losses, and $454 million will come from the cost of pumping additional groundwater. Up to 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs will be lost.
  • California is experiencing the “greatest absolute reduction in water availability” ever seen: In a normal year, about one-third of California’s irrigation water is drawn from wells that tap into the groundwater supply. The rest is “surface water” from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This year, the state is losing about one-third of its surface water supply. The hardest hit area is the Central Valley, a normally fertile inland region. Because groundwater isn’t as easily pumped in the Valley as it is on the coasts, and the Colorado River supplies aren’t as accessible as they are in the south, the Valley has lost 410,000 acres to fallowing, an area about 10 times the size of Washington, D.C.
  • Farmers are pumping enough groundwater to immerse Rhode Island in 17 feet of it: To make up for the loss of surface water, farmers are pumping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. They are projected to pump 13 million acre-feet this year, enough to put Rhode Island 17 feet under.
  • “We’re acting like the super-rich”: California is technically in its third year of drought, and regardless of the effects of El Niño, 2015 is likely to be a dry year too. As the dry years accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to pump water from the ground, adding to the crop and revenue losses. California is the only western state without groundwater regulation or measurement of major groundwater use. If you can drill down to water, it’s all yours. (Journalist McKenzie Funk describes this arcane system in an excerpt from his fascinating recent book, Windfall.) “A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” said Richard Howitt, a UC-Davis water scientist and co-author of the report. “We’re acting like the super-rich, who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

A Tesla for the rest of us? Elon Musk dishes on the new, cheaper model

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 18:25

One of the knocks against Tesla (besides the slight chance of the automaker’s cars going up in flames) is that the sexy zero-emission rides are darn expensive. Case in point: The much ballyhooed Model S starts at $69,900.

But a more affordable Tesla is on the way. CEO Elon Musk recently announced that a new model, called the 3, will start at around $35,000. The 3 is set to be on sale by 2017.

Here are some additional details, via an exclusive with U.K. car mag Auto Express:

The new car is rumoured to be about 20% smaller than the Model S and our image shows how it could look. Key to the new model, which Musk said should retail for around $35,000 (likely to equate to around £30,000 in the UK), is cheaper battery technology made possible by Tesla’s forthcoming Gigafactory.

Yes, $35K is still steep, but a 50 percent price drop from the S to the 3 — in just three years — bodes well for even more cost-friendly iterations down the line.

Honk if you like that idea.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology
Categories: Eco Buzz

Houston’s one-bin-to-rule-them-all recycling plan smells a little like racism

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 18:03

Integration is a good thing, except when it comes to trash, says Melanie Scruggs, the Houston-based program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. Scruggs’ organization is part of the Zero Waste Houston Coalition, which is campaigning against the city government’s new “One Bin for All” proposal, which would have residents place their garbage and recyclables in the same trash can for collection, to be separated by workers later.

This idea, funded with a milli from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is different than your run-of-the-mill recycling separation factories. Those “materials recovery facilities,” as they’re called, separate recyclables from one another — your glass from your plastic, for example — as our columnist, Umbra Fisk, has explained. No, this plan would allow you to toss out the leftover scraps from the hotbar in the same container it came in, along with the snotty tissues, the jammed-up glass, and the nasty plastic altogether, to be unyoked later at facilities that the Zero Waste Coalition call “dirty materials recovery facilities” — or “Dirty MRFs” for short.

The “One Bin” plan sprang from the city’s Office of Sustainability. Despite declaring itself a green city, Houston’s recycling rates were running around 14 percent; compare that to San Francisco, which has managed to recycle 80 percent of its waste. The One Bin plan aims to bump Houston’s recycling rate up to 75 percent.

But the plan arises at the same time that Houston Mayor Annise Parker committed last October to expanding recycling bins distribution throughout the city. Before that, fewer than half of the city’s neighborhoods had the bins. That move was applauded by environmentalists around the city. But they’re now scratching their heads about how city-wide recycling bins will co-exist with a one bin fits all strategy, and are doubtful about the landfill diversion goals.

“No other facility like this has ever achieved anything close to what our recycling goals are in Houston — and most have been outright disasters,” Scruggs said in a press statement earlier this month. “City officials have set a 75 percent recycling goal for this proposal, but when we researched similar facilities, none have ever exceeded 30 percent. It’s been shown over and over that real, successful recycling will never be possible if the city tells residents to mix their garbage with recyclable materials in the same bin.”

You can read about the coalition’s research in the report “It’s Smarter to Separate” (not to be confused with a Stormfront post). The report not only takes aim at the “one bin” approach, but also another part of the plan, which would incinerate some of the garbage and convert it into fuel. It’s the same “waste-to-energy” experiment that’s been attempted and halted in Baltimore, and cancelled in New Orleans. The coalition also points to an Energy Information Administration report that figures this kind of energy production is more expensive than producing energy from nuclear sources, leading the coalition to the conclusion that “waste to energy is a waste of energy.”

The coalition also senses a whiff of environmental racism in this deal. The areas slated for Dirty MRFers fall mostly in black or Latino communities — which is a shame, as Houston is one of the most racially diverse cities — and now the city has an environmental justice issue on its hands.

This is why the Houston branch of the NAACP is involved, as is the pioneering environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard, whose first research study in 1979 was on the siting of waste incinerators and garbage transfer stations in Houston’s black neighborhoods. The study was ammunition for a lawsuit against the city for the permitting of a waste facility in a black community that the residents did not want, and it’s considered a major jump-off point for the environmental justice movement.

Here they are almost 40 years later still fighting the same battle — against using black and brown neighborhoods as garbage projects.

“Bad proposals like incinerators and landfills have a way of uniting communities against a known threat to their health and safety, not to mention the safety of the workers in the facility who would be sorting through Houston’s trash,” said Bryan Parras of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), a member of the Zero Waste Houston coalition.

The worker issue Parras references is a nasty proposition alone. The report provides a few anecdotes from workers who toil in similar facilities in other cities. This particular one comes from a worker in a Chicago trash separation plant … ugh:

“There are so many smells that you come across, they make your stomach queasy. Yet before we went to work, they showed us a safety film where all the stuff was really clean… They told us that it was going to be a clean environment. They said fresh air was going to be pumped through there every 15 minutes, so it wouldn’t smell, and stuff like that, but it wasn’t. It was a little different than they had described it. One time they had a dead dog… go through there. There was all garbage, you know (not just recyclables). At first we thought they were only talking about plastic bottles and cans going through there. But that was plain garbage, everything, you know? Dirty diapers, cleaning products, stuff like that.”

I can’t remind us enough that Martin Luther King’s last campaign was for improving the conditions of sanitation workers in Memphis — a campaign that Bullard says serves as the true genesis of the environmental justice movement.

Given Houston’s “One Bid” plan is a public-private partnership, it could displace a number of city employees, said Scruggs. Not to mention, the city is offering around $100 million of its own money in tax incentives if it passes (it’s still at the bidding phase and the city council would have to approve the contract). I can only think of the city I grew up in, Harrisburg, Pa., that went bankrupt for wheeling and dealing with a similar incinerator scheme. Detroit, meanwhile, owes much of its bankruptcy to an incinerator project also.

If that ain’t all bad enough, these plans can be ruinous for climate. The report cites an EPA study stating that “36.7 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced in the U.S. are produced by the materials production, consumption, and disposal cycle.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to our waste disposal. The most ideal is to find ways to consume less, and dispose of less waste, through composting, reuse, recycling, remixing and any other re-[x]-ing you can think of.

I can see how a one-bin-fits-all plan would appeal to the laziness in us — but Scruggs says she has 20,000 signatures from Houston residents that says otherwise. They want to keep their reusable trash apart from the disposable. I can see how incineration helps solve the landfill problem, but if it worsens the climate and environmental implications of waste management, then it seems like a wash. Justice is not disposable and need not be separated from the equation.


Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

New Trend: Climate Optimists Say Climate Change Won’t Be So Bad

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:11

Accepting that climate change is happening but putting a positive spin on the consequences is a growing view in the climate skeptic camp, Slate reports. And this new “climate optimism” was on full display at the last week’s 9th International Conference on Climate Change, billed as an “International Gathering of Scientists Skeptical of Man-Caused Global Warming.”

The post New Trend: Climate Optimists Say Climate Change Won’t Be So Bad appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Clean Tech Leadership Index Ranks States and Cities

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-07-16 17:07

This week Clean Edge released its 2014 Clean Tech Leadership Index, which tracks clean technology progress in all 50 states, as well as the top 50 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

The post Clean Tech Leadership Index Ranks States and Cities appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

In Iowa, solar is fighting back against utilities and winning

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-07-16 10:00

Last week, I wrote about the pushback that solar is getting from utility companies, who fear it will cut into their profits and break their monopolies. (The predictions in certain corners of the business world that solar is coming to “take their lunch” isn’t helping either.)

But there’s another story – which is that solar is fighting back and winning. The most recent evidence is a decision last week in Iowa’s Supreme Court, that has big implications for solar, both in the Midwest and elsewhere.

The case started this way: back in the summer of 2011, a company named Eagle Point began installing solar panels on the roof of a municipal services building in Dubuque, Iowa. The two had entered into a deal called a Purchase Power Agreement (PPA), under which Eagle Point would install and maintain the panels in exchange for use of the municipal building’s nice sunny roof and first dibs on the chance to sell any electricity generated by the panels to the building’s occupants.

As corn has noticed, Iowa is a place that gets a lot of sun, especially in the summertime. The Iowa Environmental Council estimates that the state could supply about 20 percent of its current energy needs through rooftop solar installations.

PPAs are popular lately because, like leasing solar panels, they require little or no down payment.  Since you’re buying the electricity, though, rather than access to the panels, the PPA installer is responsible for maintaining and fixing them. To a utility, that looks a lot like someone trying to be a utility, whether or not they are calling themselves that, which is where Interstate Power and Light Company (IPL) came in.

IPL, the local utility, noticed the solar panels going up, and promptly complained to the Dubuque City Council. The local utility board agreed with IPL in March 2012, but Eagle Point appealed, and in April of last year, the Polk County District Court overturned the utility board’s decision, partly because, as the ruling put it, “The customer will still be connected to the grid, will still be an IPL customer, and must continue to purchase energy and capacity from IPL. Eagle Point is neither attempting to replace or sever the link between IPL and the city. it is simply allowing the city to decrease its demand for electricity from the grid.” In other words, the solar panels weren’t any more illegal than an energy-efficient appliance would be.

This time, IPL appealed. The case went to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled on July 11 — 4-2, with one abstention — that Eagle Point, indeed, had the right to install solar panels anywhere it liked in Iowa.

“There is simply nothing in the record to suggest that Eagle Point is a 600-pound gorilla that has cornered defenseless city leaders in Dubuque,” the ruling read. “Eagle Point is not providing electricity to a grid that all may plug into to power their devices and associated ‘aps’ [sic], or, more prosaically, their ovens, refrigerators, and lights. Eagle Point is providing a customized service to individual customers.”

IPL was, understandably, bummed. It had, it reported,  lost nearly 600,000 kilowatt hours in sales to Dubuque since the solar panels were turned on in 2012. “We have a financing model that hasn’t changed,” said spokesman Justin Foss, a spokesman for IPC’s parent company, Alliant. “If nobody’s buying energy, in the middle of the night, there’s no one to pay for the power plant.”

Counting Iowa, that makes 23 states now where PPAs are legal, and the Iowa ruling is strong enough that it’s expected to have an effect on the status of PPAs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other sections of the Midwest where they currently operate in a legal gray area.

It is possible that PPAs will get to the point where they are directly competing with utilities. By their nature, they create an incentive for companies like Eagle Point to seek out anyone with a flat, sunny roof, and strike a deal with them to install panels there — not because it’s inherently noble, but because it’s going to bring them the cheddar.

But there’s no reason that they couldn’t strike a deal to sell to utilities some day either, the same way that coal, gas, and oil companies do now. The first utilities that figure out how to do business with solar providers, instead of suing them, could be doing pretty well for themselves in the future.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Sustainable Packaging: The New Product Differentiator?

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-07-16 03:27

Sustainable packaging has come a long way over a generation, and is now becoming a product differentiator and means for a company to enhance its brand and reputation.

The post Sustainable Packaging: The New Product Differentiator? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz

Fortune: Female-Led Businesses Beat the Stock Market, But Their Numbers Remain Low

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-07-16 03:16

Companies with female CEOs and/or women on their boards on average consistently outperform companies without women in the c-suite, yet the number of women in these positions remains very low.

The post Fortune: Female-Led Businesses Beat the Stock Market, But Their Numbers Remain Low appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.

Categories: Eco Buzz
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