Accounts from a Vegas Virgin

I had never been to Las Vegas before my first business trip. I expected bright lights and never ending rooms filled with slots and poker tables. I expected giant hotels and over the top, well everything. I did not expect to be so taken with the recycling habits of the casinos, hotels and convention centers. Who knew that the Sin City was actually a “Sin-staintable” city.

I spent the majority of my five days inside the Las Vegas Convention Center for work with Crane USA. Our booth was right next to the wine station- lucky us I know. I noticed they had two waste bins, one with a recycling logo facing outward. I walked over to recycle our left over flyers and asked the woman serving wine which one I should put recycling in. She smiled and said, “either”. I was confused. “Either? But doesn’t this convention center recycle?”

The Las Vegas Convention Center is huge. Huge might be an understatement. It literally has millions of square feet of entertaining and meeting space and takes hours to walk the whole building. I would have been shocked and frustrated if this enormous building had not even attempted recycling. The server at the wine booth explained to me that all Las Vegas hotels, casinos and the Las Vegas Convention Center have single stream waste and recycling. Visitors throw their trash or recycling in any bin and it is be sorted later. I had never heard of this before.

When we went out to dinner that night I took notice of the waste bins. Sure enough I found signs that said “Green Code” and “Items will be sorted for recycling and trash”. I was thrilled. Who would have guessed that a city like Las Vegas so known for careless nights and no responsibility, because you know, “what happens here stays here”, would actually take eco-responsibility. Then I thought about it a little more, a three-hour plane ride back to Chicago gives you plenty of time to think.

Does this system really work long-term? Does it actually promote carelessness because people didn’t have to pay attention to recycling or garbage? Is Las Vegas really trying to be sustainable or is this just an easy way out so they don’t have to waste slot space with another bin for waste? Upon arrival back in Chicago I decided to further investigate the recycling and sustainability in Las Vegas.

I decided to look into the places where I was able to go while in Vegas. If I missed your favorite hotel/casino look into it and get back to me:

Of course I had to go check-out Caesar’s Palace, Flamingo and Paris (all part of Caesar’s Entertainment), it was there that I noticed all trash bins were marked with a sign saying “Green Code: All Trash is Recycled”. The Caesar’s Palace Conference Center is LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certified. The building itself and how it operates are both dedicated to conserving energy and water- this from a building with enormous and glamorous ballrooms and meeting spaces. Golf resorts owned by the entertainment company managed to save 200 million gallons of water through infrastructure designs focused on conservation. They truly are forward thinking if they can save water in the middle of the DESERT! That’s awesome!

Two of my favorite hotel and casinos were The Venetian and The Palazzo. They are also doing great things for sustainability. The Venetian Resort, along with the Sands, are Gold LEED certified. In 2008 the Palazzo earned Silver LEED certification making these three connected buildings the largest LEED structure in the world- the whole world! The Sands Corporation, which includes all three of these hotel casinos, saves enough energy each year to power more than 6,500 American homes. They also use the largest solar thermal system in the U.S. This solar thermal system, heats water for their pools, spas and all domestic uses within the buildings. Ahh I feel more relaxed already.

View of  New York New York from The Excalibur. Yes that is a roller coaster. 

Last but certainly not least, I explored a few hotels within the MGM Resorts International, which includes the famous Aria, Bellagio, Excalibur, Luxor and New York New York. These hotels introduced the very first electric car charging stations on the strips. They improved their recycling initiatives after 2007 and in five short years they were able to improve their recycling percentage to 45%. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center is the fifth largest convention center in the country and they manage to recycle 75% of all waste from their events. Another fun fact to know and tell, The Excalibur recycles a full ton of glass and two tons of cardboard each day! The building might look medieval but their sustainability practices are certainly modern.

I spent most of my time in the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s WasteWise Program. The main goal of this group is to divert recyclable materials away from the landfill. Currently, the LVCC averages 65% of materials recycled after all shows. And of course when you visit the Sin-City you must use the Monorail. It gets you everywhere you need to be with zero-emissions, what a way to be part of the solution.

The great news about all these venues is that they have made great process in such a short amount of time and they continue to improve. Everyone from the bartender I spoke to, to waste management professionals speak proudly of their sustainability efforts. In Las Vegas I expected to be inspired and awed by decorations, food and of course the people, but I did not expect to find inspiration for sustainability. The next time you head to a new city, or one that you’ve been to several times, take a look around. If Las Vegas, a city of such splendor and awe, can be impressive in sustainability, what’s stopping the rest of us?

Paper Nor Plastic: Remember Your Reusable Bag

As of August 2015, Chicago banned ‘single use’ plastic bags from grocery stores within the city. The city defines ‘singe use’ bags as the thin plastic bags that most grocery and drug stores provide for us at checkout. The ones that easily rip if you try to carry two gallons of milk in the same bag, naturally these items are usually double bagged. Chicago’s ban replaced these ‘single use’ bags with a thicker plastic bag that is considered ‘reusable’.

Despite several stores posted signage alerting shoppers that plastic bags would no longer be available for them after July, many were still surprised when checking out at the store. As someone who noticed the signs and was at first thrilled about the end to plastic bags in a city where it’s not uncommon to see plastic bags stuck in trees and fences, I was disappointed and even angry to find out plastic bags were still available. This makes it a fake ban to me. Why claim to ban plastic bags when the ban is to replace them with thicker ‘reusable’ plastic bags?

Like Chicago, cities like Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and several others across the country implemented similar bans on plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores. These bans include completely banning plastic bags from stores to offering a thicker plastic bag that is considered reusable. California was the first to ban plastic bags and water bottles in several cities, but others are just at the beginning of their efforts. What makes a successful plastic bag ban? How can cities improve the programs they’ve already put in place? And how can consumers make a difference just by remembering to bring reusable bags to the store?

Research from CNS News in Austin, Texas found that a year after their plastic ban was introduced, with the same intentions to ban ‘single use’ bags and replace them with ‘reusable’ plastic bags, the ban was actually less sustainable. The research goes on to explain that producing the ‘reusable’ plastic bags means using more resources to produce a plastic bag and ultimately people are not reusing it. Well, that was research money well spent- not. Why are you offering a thicker plastic bag instead of just doing away with plastic all together? This seems like the only logical solution to actually reduce the number of plastic bags in use and encourage people to use true reusable canvas bags.

As with most polarizing decisions, there needs to be incentive for people to get onboard. In Maryland and DC, they found success charging just five cents for a plastic bag. While that doesn’t seem like much, in both cities they found that it was enough to make consumers think about whether what they were buying was worth the extra five cents for a bag. 90% of shoppers in the area now remember their reusable bags when shopping.

Why does this even matter? What harm do plastic bags pose to the environment as a whole and how can cities improve the programs they’ve already put in place? The Plastic Pollution Coalition released data that shows in America, we use 30 million tons of plastic each year and only 8% of that gets recycled. Plastic is a strong durable and petroleum based material, it does not biodegrade. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and it’s getting into our waterways and oceans. Eliminating plastic bags is an easy way for us to maintain the health of ecosystems and of our most precious resource, water.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow. Plastic bags drift into the oceans carrying pesticides and other harmful chemicals directly into our waterways. Animals can get caught in the plastic or confuse it for food. Populations of fish, birds and other wildlife are washing up on shore dead with large amounts of plastic material to blame. Wildlife in the ocean may not matter to you on a regular basis, but it seems ironic that consumers bring a salmon filet or pound of shrimp home from the store in a plastic bag and then claim that they don’t care about ocean wildlife. If you want to continue to enjoy the selection of food at the store, you need to think about how your actions influence it.

Chris Jordan photography shows an albatross decomposing with plastic of every kind in its stomach.

How can cities improve their plastic bag bans? Actually follow through on that, ban plastic bags. Force people to use a true reusable bag, even if it means starting by imposing a five-cent tax. Institutions and government don’t like to force the public to do anything. The thing is plastic bags have not been around for that long, 1962 to be exact. It’s only been since 1968 that the government required all vehicles to have seat belts. In 2004, the government made it illegal to smoke in public places. These were changes the government enforced and that the public had to adjust to and today they just seem like common sense.

Plastic bags have a direct impact on our health as well. They contaminate our water supply, the air we breathe and use resources that can be put to better use. Why is it so hard to adjust to using the same, at most, half a dozen bags each shopping trip to improve our health and the health of our environment?

You may be thinking, my city doesn’t ban plastic bags, maybe they don’t but you can. Change doesn’t start at the government level; it starts with an individual and the decisions that they choose to make. Reusable bags, reusable water bottles, these are solutions we already have and need to continue to use while addressing other pollution issues. The next time you go grocery shopping, remember your bags and remember that you’re part of the solution.

(Bags shown far left) My latest shopping trip and I am pleased to say that the people checking out in front of me and behind me all had their own bags. I hope this is an easy change that becomes habit for most people.

ARCHIVE: Happy 100th Birthday National Parks Service

Originally posted August 2016

Today we celebrate 100 years of the National Park Service. Many of us have heard and have even been to one or a few national parks. Personally, I’ve explored Yellowstone (our very first National Park), the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons and most recently Yosemite National Park. We all probably have our stories of connecting to nature and the incredible sites that we saw, but what’s the significance of national parks? Why is it important that we continue to support the National Park Service?

Let’s all get on the same page here: what is a national park?

As the Office of Environment and Heritage puts it, “National Parks are large areas of public land set aside for native plants, animals and the places in which they live.” National Parks exist to protect the land and animals as they already are, as in humans are not supposed to interfere as much as possible. National Forests on the other hand (the Black Hills in South Dakota for instance), are set aside for preservation but also recreation, sustainable timber and grazing among other things.

Who is the National Park Service?

The National Park Service is responsible for maintaining our national parks. Did you know that you could volunteer and help the National Park Service? When my cousin and I were hiking around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, he told me about how he volunteered to help with trail maintenance. This is everything from clearly away any debris, rocks, tree limbs, that may have fallen and obstructed the trail to actually creating new trails. There are opportunities that are a little less intensive too like helping to organize events or help promote activities at the parks. After all, they are OUR national parks; we should feel pride and ownership over how they look when we visit them.

100 years is significant. When you think about it, our country is only 240 years old. We decided early on that we’re going to be a nation that thinks ahead. I think during this centennial celebration we should try to remember that. We’re becoming a society that thinks mostly about the short term and what we need immediately. We come up with solutions that are the easiest fix, often for the least expensive. True it’s more difficult to think beyond our day to day, but I think that’s what this centennial celebration should be about.

We’ve protected and preserved these lands for 100 years. We should be proud. Now, what do the next 100 years hold? Are there other sites that should be protected, preserved? Are our national parks accessible to everyone; is this something that should be accessible to everyone? Staying connected to nature is something not everyone values, but I hope everyone at least sees the importance of why not every piece of America needs to be a strip mall.

I challenge you today to think beyond what you need right now and think about what someone in your position in 100 years would need. Do you want them to have the same access to our history and our heritage? What can you do to make that possible? Here’s to the next 100 years of preserving our great country and all the plants and animals that call it home.

ARCHIVE: Why Busy Bees Need Us to Lend a Hand

This is originally from May 2014, but still relevant in regards to bee populations. 

Woo we made it, it’s finally summer! The season of abundant sunshine, laid back days, evenings of possibilities and of course picnics and barbecues! With the opportunity to eat outside come a few obstacles that not many of us like to deal with, bees. These uninvited guests always seem to crash the meal and leave us batting them always instead of enjoying our company and food. Wouldn’t it be great if they just disappeared? This way we could enjoy our time outside without fear of being stung or the needing to protect our food. Here’s the thing though, without bees we wouldn’t be able to enjoy most of the food we eat or the parts of summer that we all look forward to the most.

Bees act in a niche role in ecosystems around the world. According to an Ecowatch article written in 2013, they found that Honey Bees, both wild and those live on bee farms, conduct over 80% of the pollination worldwide. To put that in perspective, about 50,000 bees, the size of a typical colony, pollinate over 300 million flowers in one day. Along with flowers, bees pollinate many of the foods we like to eat in the summer. The nuts in your trail mix you eat on your hike, pollinated by bees. The fruits found in your smoothie for breakfast, also pollinated by bees. The vegetables you eat in your salad or put on your burger, the lettuce, tomatoes and onions, all pollinated by bees. Bees are also responsible for bringing us the beauty of chocolate and coffee — all hale bees right!?

The Honey Bee is one of many species of Bees. Some of the delicious foods that they pollinate and we enjoy are apples, melons, cranberries and broccoli. 

Just for a quick refresher, pollination occurs when the bee lands on the flowers of plants and transfers pollen from the male part of the plant, called the anther, to the female part of another plant, the stigma (anyone else having middle school lesson flashbacks?). This process works best when done naturally, not by humans, and allows for fertilization and reproduction of those plants. So why does this matter? The fertilization of all these plants keeps ecosystems healthy by keeping diversity in the plants and animals that live there. When bees pollinate a plant it allows that plant to reproduce which means that animals and people alike can eat and enjoy it. The more plants in an area the more stable and better off the ecosystem.

Nature’s system works well when all the wheels and cogs and turning properly, but since World War II bee populations are declining. On a Ted Talk about “Why bees are disappearing” by Marla Spivak, her research found that due to an abundance of pesticide use, mostly fertilizers, the health of bees have drastically declined. When the bees go to pollinate the flower, they absorb not only the pollen but also the chemicals, which infects and disorients them. This results in an inability for them to find their way back to the colony and usually die soon after. Spivak’s findings about pesticides are echoed by the rest of the science community as the use of pesticides as well as climate change, droughts, habitat loss and air pollution are also contributing to the loss in bee populations.

Numbers show that in the United States between 1947 and 2008, bee populations declined by 60%. While this is significant, bees have the ability to rebound and gain their abundance again. Simply by using fewer pesticides and fertilizers, or none at all – the majority of yards do not need added fertilizer – existing bees will not become infected and colonies will be able to grow. Also, by planting flowers that are native to your area, bees will come back and pollinate more plants. If you’re a gardener this will benefit your harvest because bee pollination studies in gardens done by Spivak show that with bees tomatoes and other vegetables turn out bigger and better than without. If you’re interested, there are beekeepers that live all across America and are always passionate people interested in the protection of bees. They would be great resources to talk to about the issue as well.

The next time a bee stations itself at your picnic, remember that they’re just checking in. Making sure that their pollination job did the trick and want to make sure it’s up to their standards while you enjoy it. Happy grilling and have a great holiday weekend!

Hetch Hetchy Valley, As Amazing As Muir Said It Would Be

Hetch Hetchy Valley, As Amazing As Muir Said It Would Be

Have you ever heard about a place and just needed to go experience it for yourself? With the help of my cousin, I crossed one of those places off my list: Hetch Hetchy at Yosemite National Park. Ever since learning about it at college, I’ve wanted to go and experience what it was that made that area such a wonderful place. Let me back up- what is Hetch Hetchy you’re wondering.

Photo from the Restore Hetch Hetchy Project. Taken 1908 by Isaiah West Tabor.
Photo from the Restore Hetch Hetchy Project. Taken 1908 by Isaiah West Tabor.
Standing on the dam at the beginning of the hike. Use Kolana Peak to compare the two photos, 108 years apart.
Standing on the dam at the beginning of the hike. Use Kolana Peak to compare the two photos, 108 years apart.

During the fall of 1871, John Muir visited Hetch Hetchy Valley for the first time. He was a conservationist in every sense of the word, meaning he felt that nature needed to be protected and not saved simply for human benefits later. About 180 miles west of Hetch Hetchy Valley was the growing city of San Francisco. Officials were concerned with the growing city’s need for water and began looking at areas to build a reservoir. The years of 1908 through 1913 saw this great debate about whether or not to build a dam in the valley and use Hetch Hetchy for the reservoir.

Looking at the dam from the Wapama Falls over looking the reservoir.
Looking at the dam from the Wapama Falls over looking the reservoir.

Muir argued against this construction. He and his supporters appreciated the beauty of Hetch Hetchy and the marvel of true wilderness simply for what it was and not as a human resource. President Wilson saw its value too, but for its benefit to San Francisco and approved the project. Michael O’Shaughnessy, the project director, and his team completed the dam in 1938. Yosemite became a National Park in 1890, thanks to the lobbying by Muir himself. The controversy over the construction of the dam continues to this day since the dam was built on National Park land, protected land- it is the only project that destroyed protected land in the history of the National Parks.

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Flash-forward a little more than 80 years, I am at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Muir spent many years, and I am learning about environmental issues and both sides of this debate. I learned about Muir and Gifford Pinchot, Wilson’s Natural Resource Advisor, and their backgrounds and ideas about Hetch Hetchy. We talked about it at some point in every one of my environmental classes so I became knowledgeable and passionate about how to see both sides of an environmental issue. I got to the point where I wanted to see Hetch Hetchy for myself and see what was so special about Yosemite in every sense.

My cousin and I had the meadow to ourselves the night we camped in Yosemite. We ate our breakfast with Mule Deer who came down to the valley to graze- these were the only large wild animals we came across.
My cousin and I had the meadow to ourselves the night we camped in Yosemite. We ate our breakfast with Mule Deer who came down to the valley to graze- these were the only large wild animals we came across.

Sight: This trip I have two answers for my favorite site. One was when we were driving to the trailhead and Hetch Hetchy just came into view. I was star struck. I kept sitting up further in my seat to see more of it and when my cousin and I were hiking around it, I kept wanting to stop to keep taking it all in. We hiked 10 miles each day. We ended the first day with a 5-mile hike up the side of a mountain before reaching the meadow where we spent the night. That was my second favorite site: seeing the meadow. My thighs, my butt and back were killing me- I’ve never been so happy to see a meadow or an awkward log to sit on.




One step in front of the other, dont forget to look up at the trees and smell the fresh air.
One step in front of the other, dont forget to look up at the trees and smell the fresh air.

Smell: This is an easy one, and I noticed it right away. Fresh pine. As soon as we got onto the trail and away from the parking lot, you could smell how fresh the air was. Even when I was out of breathe from all the switchbacks at the end of the first day, I would breathe in deeply and feel clear and calm. And no it’s nothing like a pine scented candle or having the Christmas tree in your living room for a month, this smell surrounds you and gives you a hug saying, ‘welcome back to nature.’

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Sound: Throughout Yosemite National Park there are several waterfalls- who knew! During our hike around Hetch Hetchy we passed several smaller falls before coming to Wapama Falls. This gorgeous curtain of water cascades down from the side of a cliff before spraying off several rocks and flowing into the reservoir. You can hear it and feel the spray from it hitting the rocks before seeing it. We ate lunch next to the Falls both days. It was soothing to watch each section of water make its way over the edge of the cliff before rushing down. Water is just so cool🙂

Taste: If you hike, camp or workout often you know there are certain snacks that just taste better when you’re burning hundreds of calories at a time. For me, it was Teriyaki and Sweet Chipotle Jerky. My cousin hikes and camps often and knew all the good stuff to bring. We paired these jerky flavors with, what seems like a staple camping food for my cousin, hard Parmesan cheese. I hesitate to try this without having hiked 10 miles, but our breaks for jerky and cheese were delicious and appreciated.

This is where we decided to break from the trail and get down to this river.
This is where we decided to break from the trail and get down to this river.

Touch: At one point during the first day we diverted from the trail to get to a river to fill our water bottles (do not leave the trails or head into an area you can’t get out of- this PSA brought to you for the National Parks). To get back to where the trail was, we climbed up over these large rocks. Given that my pack was 20 pounds and that I am not used to rock climbing I had trouble getting over the last rock. My cousin came down and took my pack from me so I could just pull my body over the edge of the rock. We weren’t up very high, but I needed to use all my arm strength (not much) to pull myself up and over the rock. I was concerned about my grip and where I would put my leg when I swung it over the rock. I could feel my heart beat pick up and my adrenaline kick in. I was a little scared- what if I fell backward. I looked backward- bad idea. I got the best grip I could on this rock and pulled myself up. My cousin and I both agreed maybe we didn’t do anymore rock climbing.

A little more abstract, but I feel like this trip I really got more in touch with myself. I did things like climbing up those rocks and peeing in the middle of the night in woods where we knew there were mountain lions and bears (oh my) that I have never done before. I put myself out of my comfort zone and I feel much stronger. We’re encouraged to get outside our comfort zone and do things that make us a little uncomfortable and I think that’s why we must continue to do this. It forces us to rely on ourselves exclusively and see what we’re really capable of because if we don’t get in touch with this part of us, we’ll never know.

Here's to more family hiking trips!
Here’s to more family hiking trips!

Shout out to my cousin Kevin! I could have never done this without him. I am not a very experienced outdoorslady and I needed his expertise to help make this dream of mine a reality. That being said, if you have a dream or something you want to go do or try- find someone who can help you or find a way to make it happen on your own. These are the experiences that you’ll never forget and the ones that help you reach your full potential.