Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Grocery Stores Vs Bees

What Could Happen To Grocery Stores IF There Where No Bees

Hoping to pick up some chocolate, apples, lemons or watermelon during your next outing to the supermarket? What about an iced coffee with a splash of cream? Bees, beetles, butterflies and their pollinating brethren are essential in the production of nearly 75 percent of our crops, and without them, you could count out all those foods -- and many, many others. Pollinators are dying off in record numbers, and scientists are still struggling to figure out what's causing the problem (pesticides? food availability? mites?).

Today, a quarter of Europe's bumblebees face extinction, and the beautiful and beloved migration of the Monarch butterfly -- another pollinator -- is in danger of disappearing.
Last year, Whole Foods Market removed all of the fruits and vegetables dependent on pollinators from its produce section to create a striking visual of what our supermarkets would look like without these important creatures as part of its Share The Buzz campaign. The store ditched a shocking 237 items, or 52 percent of the normal product mix. This year, the grocery chain has extended the pollinator's reach to the dairy counter, where milk, yogurt, butter and cheese could disappear.

The grocery chain wrote "with bees" and "without bees" on the photos because they're the most well-known pollinator, but it removed any food that would be impacted by a loss of pollinators more broadly. (Surprise: chocolate is pollinated by flies.) "We wouldn't really have much of a business or a livelihood on one level without pollinators," Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods executive global grocery coordinator, told The Huffington Post. "We'd see a 70 percent reduction of foods, and really, without pollinators we wouldn't have a food system. "What can consumers do? Schweizer suggested buying organic. I don't think the solutions are too complex," he said. "Organic farms provide natural forage [for pollinators]. Bees need to eat, pollinators need to eat ... and the honest truth is a lot of solutions are on the shelf."

Scott Black, executive director of the invertebrate conservation nonprofit Xerces Society, has been working with Whole Foods for years to educate consumers and address the root cause of pollinator decline. He calls his work "advocating for the bottom of the food chain" that often goes overlooked.
"One-third of every bite we eat is due to a pollinator," Black told HuffPost. "These pollinators are vital for us as humans, but they're also vital for the planet -- we require animal pollination for 85 percent of flowering plants. These bees are producing the fruits and the seeds from pollination that feed everything from songbirds to grizzly bears." Want to learn more? On Saturday, June 21, Whole Foods is holding a "Human Bee-In" in its stores to teach customers about the issue.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How To Grow Food In A Small Garden Of Your Apartment Complex

How To Grow Food In A Small Garden Of Your Apartment Complex

Pretty much everyone can have a garden, and everyone who can, should. Gardens are great! You save money and eat better and it's a nice tactile thing to do. Also there's the startling effect when you actually grow something like a tomato for the first time: I did this? This is because of me?A yard is a luxury on par with a Batmobile.But many of us live in cities, and some of us are unfortunate enough to live in ludicrous cities like New York where a yard is a luxury on par with a Batmobile in most other cities. That doesn't mean that you can't grow things, though, which is why I called Love & Carrots, an urban agriculture firm in Washington, D.C. Love & Carrots designs gardens in such disparate urban locations as a yard, on a roof, in a back alley, and on a fire escape, as well as troubleshooting existing gardens. The company's founder, Meredith Sheperd, has a background in landscaping design and environmental science, and has run organic farms before. She was nice enough to chat with me for a little while and give some advice to urban gardeners both new and experienced.

1. Don't Try To Do More Than You Can. "A lot of people are just growing the wrong things in the wrong place," says Sheperd. A large part of designing your garden involves making sure that your space matches what you pick. If you'v'e got shade, don't try tomatoes, says Sheperd--they need full sun. If you've got limited space--basically, if youre even asking this question--don't try pumpkins or okra or corn.

2. Don't Waste What You Have. If you've got a raised bed garden--one of those sandbox-looking tiny plots of land--you're set up to grow some heavy-duty stuff, like tomatoes or summer squash. "Sometimes people have perennial herbs growing in their raised beds, and that's not really necessary," Sheperd says. Many herbs, like basil, thyme, and dill, grow very well in pots, which can be placed anywhere.

3. Don't Be Too Cute. Gardens can be an aesthetic as well as a functional pleasure, but what's best for the plants should always come first. "I see a lot of people who put strawberries in little pots, and it's cute, it looks nice, but it doesn't really produce much."

4. Build Vertically. Small gardens aren't different from small apartments in a lot of ways. If you have limited square footage, go three-dimensional and build upward. "Sometimes if people are interested in, like, summer squash, I'll encourage them to grow a vining type so they can grow it up a wall. There are a lot of interesting squash varieties that climb. Cucumbers climb. I love climbers," Sheperd says. She also recommends Malabar spinach (which is not actually spinach at all), one of the rare greens that thrives during the heat of the summer and also climbs.

Every single plant grown has to give bang for your buck.

5. Think About Your Harvest.  Urban gardeners don't have the luxury of growing low-yield plants; every single plant grown has to give bang for your buck. "I know my company is called Love & Carrots, but I don't actually encourage people to grow carrots unless they have a huge garden," says Sheperd. "One seed equals one carrot, and it takes three months to mature, so I don't really like people to grow carrots." Instead she recommends plants like tomatoes and herbs, which offer continual yields throughout the summer.

6. Not All Varieties. Are The Same. Throughout our conversation Sheperd mentioned a whole boatload of plant varietals, most of which I'd never heard of. Not all tomatoes or all summer squash or all peppers are the same; some do better with more sun, some with more shade, some with more space, some with less. Even in part shade, where tomatoes are typically hard to grow, there might be hope in an unusual variety: "I stick to cherry tomatoes," she says. "There's this one variety called Matt's wild cherry that I found works really well and I don't think it needs the same amount of energy that say a beefsteak tomato does." She also recommends Asian cucumbers, which tend to be smaller and thinner (and also, arguably, tastier) than the giant English type.

7. Be Careful About Roofs. The roof of your apartment building may seem like a perfect place for a garden. Unlimited sun! But an improperly designed garden on the roof could lead to disaster--like, say, the roof collapsing under the weight of water-soaked sod. Sheperd has done rooftop gardens before, and finds that with older buildings, they're often built sturdily enough to handle a garden (though in at least one project she's relied on architectural plans to inform which part of the roof is sturdy enough to build on). "I think if you're doing a potted garden, I wouldn't worry about it, if your roof is sturdy enough for you to stand on," she says. "But if you're doing large troughs then I would definitely [get it checked out]. Better safe than sorry."

8. Pots Are Not The Same As Beds. Potted plants can grow very healthily, so don't worry if your space won't allow for a big bed of sod. But they aren't quite like beds, either, and you should plan accordingly. You need much more space than you think, especially for any kind of fruit (like a tomato)--get just about the biggest pot you can find. And then some stuff just isn't possible. "No carrots. No beets. No root crops," Sheperd says. "Problems with efficiency and space apply tenfold with potted plants." Sheperd recommends only the highest-yield plants for pots: herbs, tomatoes, peppers, maybe a high-yield leafy green like chard. She also recommends sweet potatoes, since the entire plant is edible: not just the potato, but the leaves and shoots, too (the sweet potato is not closely related to the potato. Potato leaves are toxic, so don't eat those).

9. Irrigation Is Worth It. An improperly designed garden on the roof could lead to disaster.
If you can get a DIY kit and set up an irrigation system, you can go away for a week in the summer [without worrying]." Having a plant is like having a pet; pretty much all of these plants will die quicker than you'd ever imagine without regular watering. And you shouldn't have to panic over a long-weekend beach trip about whether your three-month-old tomatoes will be shriveled after a mere two days away.

10. Start Earlier Than You Think And End Later Than You Think. "There are plants that survive the winter, even in Vermont," says Sheperd. "We start seeding in our greenhouse in January, but as soon as the ground isn't completely frozen, in late February or March, you can start seeding and transplanting things. Certain crops even taste better if they've gone through a freeze."

11. Seeds Aren't Always Better. It can be a cool project to start growing a plant from seed (and of course it's very cheap). But, Sheperd says, "I think starting from seed just isn't worth the time or effort in a lot of cases." She says tomatoes, peppers, and many herbs should start with a seedling, "but there are some things you should never start from a seedling, like squash or cilantro. They just don't transplant well, they get stressed out and might bolt, or start flowering too early." (Bolting means that the plant, freaked out and concerned it won't survive the year, devotes all its energy to producing seeds. It typically becomes inedible at that point.) If you do want to try from seed, she recommends lettuce, beans, peas, and Swiss chard, all of which she says has a high success rate. We realize it's maybe a little too late this year to start a new garden with these helpful hints--but they might help steer you back on track if something isn't working out. Or you could just read this again come early 2015.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

First Time Buying A Home: Read This

Buying your first home together can be an exciting opportunity to make your dreams come true, or a stress-filled journey into the unknown. Here are some tips to keep your relationship on steady ground while avoiding costly mistakes.

Make sure you’re on the same page. Chances are that you and your partner have different ideas about the home you should buy. One of you might want a home in the suburbs, while the other is picturing a swank urban retreat. He is up for the challenge of a fixer, while you are wary of his handyman skills. You want a large yard for the dog but he dreads the upkeep. There are many decisions to be made regarding location, style and condition so before you begin your search have a frank discussion about what each of you wants and understand where you are both willing to compromise.

Get your ducks in a row. Start by ordering your credit reports and checking for any inaccuracies or negative items. However, before you start paying-off that 5 year old collection account, check with a mortgage professional about what you should and should not pay-off or challenge. Often any activity on an account, even if paying-off a debt, may have a negative impact on your credit score. Sharing credit information is often a sensitive matter for couples. Lenders place more weight on the lower scoring partner, so now is the time to work together to improve your joint credit profile.

Take a hard look into your wallet. Pre-qualification for your mortgage is a must. Most professional agents won’t even show you a property unless they know exactly what you can afford and that you have a pre-qualification letter to submit with an offer. Work with a mortgage professional and learn about the various types of loans available and exactly how much you can borrow. It’s also important to discuss with one another how much of your monthly income you’re comfortable allocating to housing costs. Remember, there is no landlord to call if the plumbing backs-up or the refrigerator dies. Things happen when you own a home, and you need to be prepared to pay for all items not covered by insurance or a home warranty.

Find a local real estate agent to trust. Just because your cousin is a part-time agent, doesn’t mean he or she is the best choice to represent you as a buyer. Instead, look for an experienced agent who knows the area you are targeting for your home search; someone who has first-hand knowledge of the various neighborhoods, shopping, schools and other amenities. Ask your friends for referrals and check online references. Don’t hesitate to interview several people to find the real estate professional you feel will be there to answer your questions and patiently guide you through the home-buying process. Working with an agent whose advice you trust and respect will help keep the peace if negotiations get tough or you encounter unforeseen obstacles.

Be prepared for a reality check. Many first-time buyers have an inflated view of what their money should buy. It is unlikely that you will find everything on your wish list. Market price is driven by comparative sales. Just because you think a home is worth $300K means nothing if a comparable property just sold for $400K.

Go big or you won’t be going home. Be ready to act. You have to get in the game. Sure, writing an offer is scary and often first-time buyers want to “think on it” for a few days, or wait to bring their parents or friends to see the property and get a second opinion. Unfortunately, depending on your market, your dream home might be under contract by the time you decide to act. Couples frequently have one member of the relationship who is reticent to take action. Take a deep breath and trust your gut, your partner, and your agent. Under most real estate contracts you also have a contingency period to investigate the property and pull-out if dissatisfied without losing your deposit.

Get ready for some tough talk from the inspector. Your offer has beenaccepted; you’ve mentally decorated every room and can’t wait to move in. And then, the inspector arrives. You have hired him or her to uncover any problems, but you dread the results. Please be reassured that EVERY home has issues, even a new build. A thorough inspection is the best thing you can do for your long-term peace of mind. Talk with your agent about the inspection results and based on a non-emotional evaluation you can a) cancel the contract; b) request the seller to make certain reasonable repairs or credits based on the price you have offered; or c) have a good list of minor things that should probably be attended to in the next year or so. Never assume that because everything was remodeled there are no problems. Always pay for a thorough inspection. It is worth every dollar you spend.

Bring your best game. Once you are in escrow there will be forms and many requests for information from title companies, lenders and possibly attorneys, depending on where you live. Be timely in providing any requested information or documentation so as to not delay closing. If either of you are unclear about any step along the way, don’t hesitate to ask questions. This is likely the biggest purchase you will ever make and you are both entitled to understand the transaction.
Ultimately, first-time home buying harmony is as simple as following these few tips, clearly communicating with one another, and keeping things in perspective. Oh, and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Modern Life Without Use Of Plastic

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, global plastic consumption has gone from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009.  Where does all this plastic go when we’re done with it?
Today Americans discard about 33.6 million tons of plastic each year, but only 6.5 percent of it is recycled and 7.7 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities, which create electricity or heat from garbage.
Photo credit: Samuel Mann

The rest ends up in landfills where it may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and potentially leak pollutants into the soil and water. It’s estimated that there are also 100 millions tons of plastic debris floating around in the oceans threatening the health and safety of marine life.

Relatively little plastic is recycled because there are various types of plastic with different chemical compositions, and recycled plastics can be contaminated by the mixing of types. Plastic waste is also contaminated by materials such as paper and ink. Separating plastics from non-plastics in the recycling process, and different types of plastic from each other is labor-intensive and so far, there has been no easy solution.

Although the Society of Plastic Industries developed seven codes to distinguish types of plastic for recycling, in reality, only two—polyethylene terephthalate (PET, used for synthetic fibers and water bottles) and high density polyethylene (HDPE, used for jugs, bottle caps, water pipes)—are routinely recycled. In more and more cities like New York and Chicago, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic bags are now being recycled too. And increasingly the recycling industry’s use of near‐infrared spectroscopy, which can identify the chemical composition of plastics, is improving the efficiency and speed of plastic recycling.

Plastics that can be recycled are first sorted, shredded and rid of impurities like paper. The shreds are then melted and formed into pellets, which can be made into other products.
Plastic pellets, called nurdles. Photo credit: gentlemanrook
AERT in Arkansas, and Virginia-based Trex recycle polyethylene into outdoor decking material, fencing, and doors and windows. Coca Cola is recycling its PET bottles and opened the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, SC to produce 100 million pounds of recycled plastic each year.

Plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas in a chemical process that combines smaller molecules into a large chainlike molecule, often with other substances added to give it particular qualities. Some, like phthalates and bisphenol A, can have harmful health effects. Plastic production is estimated to use 8 percent of yearly global oil production—both as the raw material and for energy in the manufacturing process. Because plastics embody energy from fossil fuels (and actually have a higher energy value than coal), leaving so much of it in landfills is not only an environmental hazard, it is a huge waste of a valuable resource that could be used to produce electricity, heat, or fuel.

The Plastics Division of the American Chemical Council asked the Earth Institute’s Earth Engineering Center to explore ways of recovering the energy inherent in non-recycled plastics. The resulting report, released in August 2011, determined that the amount of energy contained in the millions of tons of plastic in U.S. landfills is equivalent to 36.7 million tons of coal, 139 million barrels of oil, or 783 billion cubic feet of natural gas. If all this plastic were converted into liquid fuel, it could power all the cars in Los Angeles for a year. And the fact is, there are now technologies that can put all this waste plastic to good use.

The report examined three ways of utilizing non-recycled plastic for energy production: converting plastics directly into liquid fuel, using separated plastics as fuel in special types of power plants, and increasing the amount of garbage burned (currently only 10 percent) in waste-to-energy facilities.
Plastics can be converted into crude oil or other types of liquid fuel through pyrolysis, a high heat process. Agilyx, an Oregon-based company, produces processing systems that convert ground unsorted plastic of all types into synthetic crude oil (which can be refined into ultra-low sulfur diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel), as well as synthetic lubricants and greases, some of which can be made back into plastic. The units are designed to go where the plastic is: municipal waste facilities, waste management companies, and recyclers. The base system can convert 10 tons of plastic into 60 barrels of oil each day for about $60 a barrel; so with oil currently selling at around $99 a barrel, it’s definitely cost-effective.

Kevin DeWhitt, chief technology officer for Agilyx, explained that the byproducts of the process include ground-up solids—carbon, small amounts of metal and silicon—that can be sold to the steel, asphalt and cement industries; light gasses that Agilyx can burn and use as heat in its own process; and small amounts of chlorine from PVC (polyvinyl chloride plastic) that are scrubbed out in water and become nontoxic salt. The technology produces a tiny fraction of the emissions (carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides) allowed by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. A number of other companies in the U.S., Asia and Europe are also producing liquid fuel from plastic wastes.

Power plants specially designed to use plastics as fuel could theoretically produce 1.8 MWh of electricity per ton of waste plastic. Pennsylvania-based EcoClean Burners, Inc. burns plastic pellets (made from unrecycled waste plastic) to create energy for industrial boilers and companies that use steam during the manufacturing process. Based on technology developed in South Korea, the process produces no harmful emissions and uses fuel that is 30 percent cheaper than oil or natural gas.
A waste-to-energy facility in Baltimore. Photo credit: spike55151

Burning more garbage in waste-to-energy facilities would recover the energy inherent in plastics and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions since landfills emit methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide) as garbage decomposes. Unlike incinerators of the past, modern waste-to-energy facilities produce electricity and heat in boilers designed for complete combustion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said they produce electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” Burning the garbage now sitting in U.S. landfills in waste-to-energy facilities could theoretically yield 162 million MWh of electricity—enough to power 16.2 million households and reduce coal use by 108 million tons.

A 2009 United Nations Environmental Programme report on converting plastic waste into a resource also described the production of gaseous fuels, using high heat to decompose plastic waste, and solid fuel derived from a mixture of waste plastic, paper, and wood. The materials are first shredded, sorted then made into pellets. A number of companies in Japan are producing both solid and gaseous fuels. Currently, the United Nations Environmental Programme – International Environmental Technology Centre is conducting a pilot project in Cebu, Philippines, to convert waste polyethylene (packaging), polypropylene (plastic bags and packaging) and polystyrene (styrofoam, disposable cups,) mixed with waste paper and wood into solid fuel briquettes for use as a coal substitute and fuel to power cement kilns, power plants, industrial heat/steam boilers and stoves.

Also in the Philippines, another ingenious and simple, albeit small-scale, use for discarded plastic involves converting discarded plastic soda bottles into solar bottle bulbs to help light the dark homes of thousands of the poor. Developed by MIT students and inspired by the Appropriate Technology Collaborative, the “bulb” is made from a one-liter soda bottle that is filled with purified water and bleach, then inserted tightly into the roof of a home. The clear water disperses the sunlight and functions like an electric light bulb at a cost of 2 to 3 dollars.

The best solutions for our plastic problem are still to reduce our use of plastics, and to reuse and recycle whenever possible. More policies that ban plastic bag use, require bottle deposits and expand recycling would help. But millions of tons of plastic waste still sit in landfills around the country. What is needed to enable businesses like Agilyx to grow?

“What helps,” said DeWhitt, ”is to streamline the regulatory requirements so that it’s easier for innovative businesses to get off the ground, establish stable government policies to encourage long-term investment, and I’d like to see a production tax credit for this industry.” Technologies that can tap waste plastic as a resource provide multiple benefits: They help clean up the environment, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, decrease our use of non-renewable virgin resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and generate energy.