ARCHIVE: Great Lakes Update: Midsummer Status Report

This post is originally from July 2014. 

There’s nothing better than spending on summer day on the water. In the Midwest that means a kayak trip in Lake Superior, day sailing on Lake Michigan, fishing on Lake Huron, canoeing on Lake Erie and scuba diving in Lake Ontario. So what’s being done to care for the Great Lakes?

Earlier this summer President Obama proposed a five-year plan that improves protection of the Great Lakes. This plan will continue to research and solve problems such as, invasive species, loss of habitat, runoff that causes blue green algae and will consider how climate change plays a role in these issues. Accepting that climate change is playing a factor shows lots of growth, while we think about how to solve these complex problems. In addition to this plan, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to fund over 2,000 programs at non-profits and universities that address these same issues.

Just a few weeks ago the Illinois legislation voted on the issue of micro beads in cosmetics such as shampoos and body washes. Legislation, environmentalist and the manufacturers agree that the plastic beads need to be phased out. These plastic beads get washed down our drains and end up in our lakes and water systems and in the bellies of fish, birds and other wildlife. These beads are just the tip of the iceberg, after discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the amount of waste in the oceans; research teams took a closer look in the Great Lakes and found that the plastic found in Lake Erie was twice as much as the average amount of plastic found in the oceans, per square mile. Phasing out cosmetics that use plastic micro beads will help reduce this pollution.

Using a penny to scale, this is the size of the plastic micro beads found in the Great Lakes. 

Back in February, Beacon readers learned about the Great Lakes Water Compactand it’s dedication to conserving the water and resources of the Great Lakes. Counties and cities within the Great Lakes water basin, areas where the water naturally drains into, are permitted to use, drink and draw water from the Great Lakes. The city of Waukesha lies outside this basin and last summer requested permission to draw water from Lake Michigan for their residents. Their current supply is not only running low but also becoming contaminated.

Right now the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is going over the application. All eight states and both Canadian providences also need to approve of the application. One major reason why many governors and states are not in favor of this application because Waukesha does not only intend for this water to supply current residents, but also for residents as the city expands, about 45% more water than they use now.

For the last few decades, the biggest issue around the Great Lakes is water levels. The last decade or so has seen the lowest levels in years, but this year Midwesterners are seeing a rise in water levels. Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are all up about a foot higher than they were last summer and Lakes Ontario and Erie are up a half a foot from last summer. Reasons for this include the large amount of snow and ice cover this last winter and heavy rains this summer. This rise in water levels not only gives lake lovers more to appreciate, but it’s also good for the cargo ships, fishermen, tourism among other industries.

Environmental problems are complex, there is not one simple answer and none of these issues are solved over night, but taking victories like the ones mentioned in this article show that solutions do exist. It’s great news that the government is working on plans to protect our natural resources and it’s even better news that organizations and nonprofits are working on it too. Many of these programs have volunteer opportunities allowing anyone to get involved. Plastic pollution in our lakes is an issue you can tackle the next time you go shopping. When you purchase shampoo, body wash or lotions read the label carefully to make sure they’re using salts or organic materials such as fruit seeds or pits. As the summer continues to get hotter, hopefully anyway, we’ll need to be mindful of our water usage to help conserve the water in the Great Lakes. We’re getting closer with each victory, stay positive folks!

ARCHIVE: Henry Ford and Thomas Edison discussing the possibility of collaborating on an electric vehicle.Are Electric Vehicles Finally Getting the Attention They Deserve?

This post is originally from June 2014

Earlier in June, Tesla Motors, electric car company, released all their patents on designs and technology to the public. All the business folks out there were probably shocked at this decision; CEO Elon Musk must be crazy for giving up his greatest competitive advantage. I think the move is brilliant! It’s not like everyone is going to stop what they’re doing and start creating and developing the latest and greatest electric car. Maybe a lawnmower company uses it and creates an electric emissions free lawnmower or a boating company uses it to make a powerful and clean speedboat that leaves a great wake but no pollution in the lakes. Electric cars, it sounds futuristic, but electric cars have been around for a long time and at this point should just be thought of as another type of car on the road instead of a completely new breed.

In 1835 Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith out of Vermont, created what is known and considered to be the first electric motor with the capability of being mass-produced. Later in 1895, A. L. Ryker developed an electric tricycle and in 1891 William Morrison built an electric vehicle that could carry six people. As roadways developed in the early 1900s there was more demand for vehicles that could travel the longer distances from city to city. Charles Kettering invented an electric starter in 1912. Prior to this invention, electric vehicles required a hand crank to start them. Around the same time, Henry Ford designed and created an internal combustion engine vehicle for mass-production. Due to recently discovered oil reserves electric vehicles cost three times the amount as gasoline cars. The Great Depression followed making it difficult for electric vehicles to gain any kind of ground.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison discussing the possibility of collaborating on an electric vehicle.

The 1960s saw one of the largest political actions toward environmentalism and sustainability. A company called Battronic Truck Company built an electric truck that could reach 25 mph for 62 miles carrying 2,500 pounds. In 1975 the United States Postal Service bought over 350 electric vehicles to use for delivery. These vehicles could go between 40 and 50 miles per hour with a range of 40 miles, probably a good distance for vehicles that are usually used around one or two towns. This support from the government helped encourage motor companies and entrepreneurs to create better and more efficient vehicles.

General Motors attempted an electric car and succeeded in the early 1990s with the EV1. They tried to include all the latest luxuries cars had to offer, while have the car hold a charge for enough miles to make the car still practical. They did not sell the car but instead leased so that GM would still own the car. From accounts shared in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car”, people loved the car. There were more than 1000 EV1s around the west coast during the 1990s and early 2000s. It seemed like GM created a car that was not only socially responsible but one that people also loved to drive. So why didn’t the EV1 take off? GM decided that the cost to produce the EV1 was too high to mass-produce and actually sell the car. GM collected all of the EV1s taking them to Arizona to crush them. The popularity of the EV1 shows that electric cars are not a trend but are cars that appeal to all types of people.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in climate change or what role humans have in contributing, the price of oil will continue to rise, while the quantity of oil will continue to decline. Electric cars are not only a way to give the United States energy independence, but also save the country billions of dollars on importing oil or drilling and searching for new reserves. Tesla Motors developed incredible technology and instead of using it to better one company, it can be used to better the world. Electric cars are not a new idea, but the idea of sharing technologies and innovations so that society can benefit, I would say that’s revolutionary and it’s a bandwagon we should all climb aboard.

Nature’s Bread and Butter

Thinking back to my time at school in Madison, I always talk about the Saturday morning farmers market. It’s tradition to stop at the Stella’s Bakery stand, and start the tour of the farmers market with a round loaf of spicy cheesy bread. It’s impossible to miss and almost everyone is digging into their bag of steamy hot bread as they make their way around the Capital Square. Although the cheesy bread is almost everyone’s favorite, some also enjoy a warm and fresh baguette from Stella’s. While some people want big houses and fancy cars all he would like when he’s made it big is to have a fresh baguette delivered to his house each morning. I thought about it – that sounds lovely. Who doesn’t love to walk slowly past a bakery or sandwich shop just to smell the fresh bread?

My family will often stop a local bakery for a loaf of multigrain, potato bread, or cinnamon swirl bread- best French toast you’ll ever have. The biggest part of eating sustainably is eating locally and supporting bakers and small businesses in your area. Since I am a lover of both food and specifically fresh bread, I decided to check out what some bakers are doing across the country to bring us these delicious tastes and smells while also thinking about the environment.

In New York City there are over 2,000 bakeries but not all of them dedicate themselves to sustainable practices. The Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery opened in 2005 by owner Maury Rubin, also owner of City Bakery, with the premise of being openly environmentally conscious. Both of Rubin’s bakeries use only local, seasonal and organic ingredients in their foods. At City Bakery and Birdbath all deliveries are made by bike and there are absolutely no plastic water bottles allowed. More and more businesses are working sustainability into their business plans with the idea that they may initially lose money in the process, but Birdbath proves that you can commit to sustainability without losing a dollar and gaining a whole lot of respect.

Across the country in Portland Oregon, Pearl Bakery recycles everything from the toner cartridge in their printer to glass bottles to the bottle caps. Their pastries and breads are made with flour from small farms and mills in the region that practice sustainable agriculture. Not only are their homemade baked goods local, but also the organic coffee that they serve is roasted weekly from Batdorf and Bronson just next door in Washington. The Pearl shows great commitment to recycling, as their employees collect recyclable materials outside the shop to bring to the recycling center in the community. They also ‘recycle’ their food waste through the Cloudburst Recycling program, a composting program in Portland. Composting at an individual restaurant or in a home can be difficult especially in an urban area because of raccoons and other pests. Contributing to a city composting center is a relatively easy way to get rid of food waste because they will often pickup your food scraps- seems easier then discreetly getting the dog to come over to your lap.

Located in downtown Chicago, the West Town Bakery and Diner creates everything from freshly crafted breads to professionally done wedding cakes to personalized cupcakes. They’re doing it with all natural and organic products. From within the Chicagoland area, West Town gets their ingredients, fruits, veggies, chocolates, nuts and flour from local vendors and farmers. They also care a lot about their customers by offering options such as gluten, nut, sugar or soy free. Deliveries are made using hybrid vehicles and when it’s time to clean up they use natural products without chemicals in their kitchen and diner.

You can smell it now: The bread rising, the sugar browning and fruits caramelizing. Oh how we love a good bakery we can depend on for our favorites and new treats. Everything tastes better when you know it was homemade and especially when it’s made with ingredients and integrity you can trust.

GMo’ or GM less?

Grocery shopping when you’re hungry is dangerous. You grab your cart and wheel down the aisles, grabbing anything that looks like something you could want or crave later. You get home and the best feeling, a full fridge with options, yes options for dinner. After eating a dinner full of fresh produce, abundant cheese and seconds (maybe thirds) the rest of the week you might get lazy with meals and make what’s easy.

A week or so later you notice that the produce you got on your shopping spree doesn’t look as fresh as before and might even have gone bad. Without wanting to risk the health of you or your family you toss it. Whether you feel guilty about tossing food, it’s a crime that most of us commit. In fact, according to a new study more than 30% to 50% of food is tossed and wasted. This is part of the food shortage problem.

There are 7.2 BILLION people that we share the world with. That’s a lot of people to send through the buffet that is the world food production line. Shockingly enough, in a short 35 years we’re going to need twice as much food to feed our growing population. What can we do you ask? I am so glad you did. One solution is to rely on GMOs.

GMOs, genetically modified organisms, are organisms that have been genetically altered to be more resistant to things such as diseases, undesirable growing conditions and spoiling. This sounds like “Franken-food” and it has been called that but the reality is that more than 80% of the foods you bought on your hungry shopping trip are genetically modified. Increasing the amount of foods that are genetically modified could increase the amount of food produced by as much as 20%.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke in a video featured on his YouTube channel explaining how surprised he is that the public is having such a hard time embracing GMOs. He explains that people modifying food for the benefit of their consumption is not a new concept and most of us probably take for granted our favorite foods when they are in fact, genetically modified. For instance he reminds us that there are no wild seedless watermelon growing in a patch anywhere, those were genetically modified because we don’t like to deal with seeds. He says that we shouldn’t reject this technology because we are unsure of the consequences because it is solving some of the world’s biggest problems, like mal-nutrient and starvation.

Tyson is right, when we find foods that we enjoy eating we’ve used something called “selective agriculture” to make them more to our liking. One big pro for GMOs is that it makes food tastier and can be said to improve the quality of food. Along with adjusting the taste, GMOs can also be adjusted for nutritional value. Adding vitamins and minerals to make the food more nutritionally beneficial. This is a huge plus for people in developing countries.

All right so what’s the problem, this sounds great! Genetically modified food definitely has its benefits as a short term solution to global problems like how to feed the rising population and bring better nutrition to developing countries, but what about the next few generations?

Ecosystems and populations work better with diversity. With more options, societies are more stable and are more likely survive. As more foods are created in a lab and not grown in the ground, the fewer natural plants will be there to support civilization. I know what you’re thinking; we can just create those plants in a lab. The problem with this is that people are not the only ones who need the plant diversity. Wild animals, insects and even other plants need the wide variety of biodiversity that exist now but is rapidly dwindling. In some cases we don’t even know what we’d need to create because we don’t know what we’re taking away.

Not only do we suffer from less biodiversity, but also raising modified plants and animals could have a negative effect on the environment. For instance, wanting bigger and juicier meat requires more feed and more space to raise the animals. Now we’re back to the original problem of growing more food without using more land. Genetically modified plants also cause damage to the environment. When they’re developed to be resistant to drought or weeds, this causes them to require more herbicides and more genetic modification. Chemicals such as fertilizers and herbicides used to deal with GMOs that didn’t respond as predicted have consequences for soil composition and ground water quality.

The other problem with GMOs is that their solution is to be an efficient way to improve the quality of food, but at what cost. Several food associations and scientists estimate that it costs millions of dollars to develop new varieties of GMOs and more millions of dollars to maintain production. What’s the point? We’re spending billions of dollars to develop food that we already know how to grow and produce in the open air instead of a lab.

For those that have food allergies, read the labels carefully. The United States and Canada are two of the only developed countries that do not require a food label for genetically modified foods. When the foods are modified, they often take components from other foods to enhance them. For instance, if you want to improve the quality of beef, they might add soy. If you have a soy allergy, there is no label regulation for this ingredient.

This is a big part of the debate about GMOs, should genetically modified foods and organisms be labeled? Should people know exactly what they’re buying or is it understood at this point since genetically modified components are all over our stores? There are organizations and groups that have chosen to label their foods as not genetically modified and that they are dedicated to “honest food”. Of course not all “honest food” is labeled as such.

Just one of many anti-GMO organizations working for the benefit of the consumer. 

As you can see this debate is sticky and both sides have viable arguments. I am of the opinion that creating modified foods in a lab is not the solution. Mentioned earlier, as much as 50% of the food we purchase is thrown in the trash and not consumed. What if that food wasn’t purchased in the first place? What if the amount of food the average family bought and consumed decreased? Americans, as a group, consume 815 billion calories each day- 200 billion more than we need. If these calories were redistributed to developing countries or just not consumed by us at all, that would be enough to feed 80 million people.

We know this. We eat a lot! And we pay for it every time we go to the doctors and hear about diabetes and risk for heart conditions. If we eat less and healthier not only will our waistlines get smaller, but the amount of our unnecessary waste will reduce as well. We have enough food to feed everyone in the world; it’s just all either being used for second and third helpings or its being thrown out.

This is definitely a longer-term solution, but that’s one step in this system of problems. Another powerful step would be to globally reduce the amount of red meat that we consume. To beef up, if you will, the cattle that we love to dig into, we unnaturally feed them corn and other grains that could be put towards feeding us. The less meat we eat, the more grain there is for people all over the world to eat and overall the healthier we will become.

Let’s recap. We throw out a lot of food. GMOs dominate our grocery stores and can help to feed the growing population and people in developing countries. We don’t know the consequences of GMOs including environmental damages and less transparent options for consumers. There is enough food being produced now to feed the world population if we eat a little less and throw out way less.

It’s not the opinion you have; it’s just that you have an opinion. Our decisions matter and what we eat doesn’t just impact our energy level or weight but it has a global impact. So now I have to ask, what’s going to be on your next grocery list?

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?