Category Archives: Wildlife

Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”

plastic trash

No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.

l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—

— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…

garbology book— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.

— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).

— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is 5gyres.org; there is a lot of material on their website.)

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.

Plastic-free---possible but difficult?

Plastic-free—possible but difficult?

I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…

 

 

 

 

Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.

 

…And Now the Monarchs.

monarch

As with the honeybees, monarch butterflies are suffering catastrophic declines, for many of the same reasons—loss of habitat and pesticide use among them.

“Where are all the monarchs, Dad?” This, from my 10-year-old son, while out for a walk this past summer. I had been somewhat wondering that same thing myself, because I hadn’t seen any monarchs lately, either, but I didn’t think too much more about it at the time. But I’ve recently read articles that spelled it out—monarch butterflies have declined 90% in the last twenty years. There are a number of culprits here. The most important, perhaps, is a drastic reduction in the number of milkweed plants in the United States, which are the monarchs’ sole food for portions of their lives. The decline of the milkweed, in turn, has been caused by an increase in the amount of land under cultivation, and the all-too-common use of Roundup and other herbicides on GMO crops. These are some of the same problems that are affecting honeybees (post: “Bees: Our Problems in Miniature“). Monarch butterflies are also losing habitat in central Mexico, where they over-winter, due to illegal logging. I won’t try to recount it all here, but here are a few good articles, in Newsweek, and National Geographic, and there are plenty of others online.

monarch catapillar

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant, their sole food source at this stage of their lives.

The bigger question, beyond what has caused this, is what we can do about it? A few things come to mind right away—

— Don’t put pesticides or herbicides on your lawn. Ever. This one is a no-brainer. (See posts “Leave it a Lawn” and “Leave it a Lawn Part Deux“). And if you happen to own other land or rural property, consider not mowing it every year. We humans might think that a short green lawn or freshly mown field looks good, but nature doesn’t necessarily agree.

— Buy some organic food. Or buy lots of organic food. (Post: “Not with Your Mouth Full“). The dollars we spend as consumers are often our most powerful tools, and if you don’t like the effects of industrial-scale agri-business and the pesticides and herbicides they use, then don’t support those companies with your food dollars. On the flip side, do support those farmers and growers who are farming in ways that are far gentler on the planet, or even restorative (post: “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“).

Plant some milkweed. I just went out in the fields and gathered a whole bunch of milkweed seeds, and I’ll be planting them this spring, along with other wildflowers for the honeybees (and honeybees just happen to love milkweed nectar, too…). Seeds are available online, as well (and many are free). If you order seeds, though, make sure to get milkweed varieties that are native to your area and climate; there are about fifteen different types. And in the fall when the seeds pop out, give seeds to your friends and get them to plant them, too. When butterflies are adults, they eat nectar from flowers just like bees do, so flowers and flowering trees and bushes are also good choices.

Milkweed seeds...

Milkweed seeds…

— Lastly, consider donating to (or volunteering with) a group that is working to protect the monarchs. There are numerous conservation groups dedicated to this cause, such as Save Our Monarchs, the Monarch Butterfly Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund. These groups work to raise awareness, to plant milkweed plants, and to preserve other butterfly habitat, including the forests where they over-winter.

A nice little clip from PBS about the annual monarch migration–

So, I try to act, but I don’t often directly exhort others to. But, I’m going to make an exception today— DO SOMETHING. Be a part of slowing down our ongoing environmental destruction, in some way, in some fashion. Please. If not the monarch, pick some other area to get involved with, there’s no shortage. The world is changing quickly—if my 10-year-old is noticing change, then that should be a warning in and of itself.

Beautiful pictures in this post—my thanks to:
Top image credit: “Monarch Butterfly”, by Peter Miller, Flickr Creative Commons.
Caterpillar: “Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed”, by Seney Natural History Association, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seeds: “Milkweed Retching”, by Keith Carver, Flickr Creative Commons.

Up Another Notch, Florida

“…man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” —Rachel Carson,  Silent Spring, 1962.

Florida panther

A Florida panther. Only about 120 still live in the wild. Their biggest threat is unrelenting development, which pushes them into smaller and smaller areas.

I just got back from Florida. I grew up there, running barefoot through the palmettos and live oaks with my siblings, and learning about Ponce de Leon and the Suwanee River in grade school. I’ve only been back a few times as an adult, and the last time was over twenty years ago. And this time, though on vacation and truly enjoying the weather,  I couldn’t help but view southern Florida through the lens of sustainability and this blog. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. While huge numbers of Floridians are trying desperately to protect and restore natural systems there, I don’t think it’s enough, and I think they’re slowly being overwhelmed and are losing the battle. Because of this, I think that the people of Florida need to step it up yet another notch. All of the people of Florida.

My unscientific impressions of the place—profligate water use, pesticides being applied right next to waterways filled with birds, endless rows of strip-malls and gated developments and sprawl, near-zero use of electric vehicles, an emphasis on consumption, no solar energy production to speak of, no clearly marked sustainable choices in the seafood sections of the grocery stores, hundreds of thousands of people, and congestion. And perhaps the most troubling—bulldozers and excavators on all fronts, carving up nature as if a gold rush were on. Huge numbers of people seem to be completely oblivious to all of this as they drive their shiny new SUVs and high-dollar sports cars between jewelry stores and clothing outlets, and others seem to be actively cheerleading—several articles in the first local paper I picked up were praising the local politicians that enabled this year’s deals for yet more golf courses and upscale developments.

This was all in southwest Florida, but I have no illusions that the Miami side of the state is any different. And in between the two—the Everglades, one and half million acres of (partially) protected land. We went down partly to see it again, and partly to escape the cities. A display at the entrance to the Park Headquarters was foreboding, however, describing the park as an “ecosystem on life support”. The visitors’ center and rangers spelled much of it out; how the water used to flow down all the way from the Orlando area, into Lake Okeechobee, and from there to the southern coast in huge, slow-moving sheets of pristine water, sixty miles or more wide and filled with sawgrass, but had now been channeled and diverted and drained and polluted, leaving the park continually at the mercy of politicians and water management boards, who often seemed to give preferential treatment to big corporate interests.

swamp covercroppedIntrigued, that evening I picked up a book on the subject, Michael Grunwald’s “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise”. The book is fantastic—Grunwald is a phenomenal writer, and captures the essence of the story in a wide-ranging scope that extends from prehistoric times all the way to today, in a story as fast-paced as an action thriller. And the book contained some surprises. The biggest surprise, to me, was how for a hundred years or more, everyone wanted the Everglades drained. Politicians, settlers, conservationists, everyone. It was seen as a “liquid wasteland”, virtually impassable, unproductive for human purposes, nearly limitless, and filled with nothing but snakes and mosquitos and alligators.

Draining it was no easy task, but millions were spent, and after decades of near-heroic efforts, the water was channelized and directed and dammed and diverted and shunted out to sea, so that ranchers and growers could graze and plant. But then came the unending stream of unintended consequences—areas so dry that the very soil burned, land subsidence, runoff that came in unmoderated bursts and flushed vast loads of agricultural chemicals into Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchi and the St. Lucie. The Everglades, cut off from its lifeblood of fresh water, dried and permitted human access, where people shot wading birds and alligators and panthers and carried off the orchids, and invasive species took hold and began to permanently alter the ecology. Aquifers statewide saw saltwater encroachment as the weight of fresh groundwater diminished. Florida Bay and the other estuaries suffered in kind, with the former denied the fresh water it needed, and the latter overwhelmed by too much of the same. Mangroves, manatees, and shellfish suffered there, along with the coral reefs and all the fishes that depended on them. Algae blooms and red tides became common, Lake Okeechobee was imprisoned in huge circular dike, and the entire ecosystem, from Orlando to  Key West, was drastically diminished by human intervention.

test

The Everglades. In its original form, a “river of grass” that extended for hundreds of miles.

And then they tried to fix it. They’re still trying to fix it. Billions have been allocated, to undam and unchannelize the water, and to make filter areas to suck up and trap agriculture chemicals. But, these efforts have been hamstrung by political gridlock, and by conflicting goals of corporations and growers and burgeoning urban areas.

The environmentalists have worked, and still work, feverishly to protect it all, but every day thousands more people move to southern Florida, and governments at all levels give lip service to slowing the human tide, and yet approve 99% of all development applications. Almost every new arrival needs a house, and a job, and water, and schools, and electricity, and a place to put their garbage and sewage. The power companies, burning fossil fuels, emit mercury and other pollutants that add to nature’s woes, and CO2 that accelerates the warming of the planet and the rising of the seas, itself a huge threat to an area only a few feet above sea level.

Roseate

Roseate spoonbills. The number of wading birds like these in the Everglades is down 90% since the 1940s.

So what to do? I can read and learn, and pledge my support to the groups fighting tirelessly on the front, but there’s something I can’t do– I can’t vote in Florida. But the people in Florida can, and they need to, and they need to vote with nature in mind, because ultimately, as Rachel Carson said, nature is them, and it underpins their economy and their very existence as Floridians. What needs to be done is no great mystery, politicians just need the political will to do it. And voters can give them that will, if they want to, by making their desires known, en masse. Florida needs a dramatic change of course. Even more than other parts of the country, they need energy efficiency and net-zero houses and electric cars and solar panels on every roof. They need to progressively tax those jewelry-store-shopping wealthy people and millionaire owners of second homes, they need to curb the influence of money in their politics, and they need to virtually stop development. They need to buy out farmers and ranchers and restore the natural flow of the rivers, as they’ve begun to do on the Kissimmee, and they need to build state-of-the-art sewage and stormwater treatment plants that release water that’s clean enough to drink, because there’s no place to put polluted water in Florida. They need to quit watering the grass on every highway median and every lawn, and embrace restorative and organic agriculture instead of vast expanses of petrochemical monocultures. They need to end subsidies to the sugar industry, they need to enforce their own pollution laws, and they need to create even more wildlife refuges, including marine ones. Florida, threatened more than most places by global warming and sea-level rise, needs to lead the way, to set the example, to be on the cutting edge of a new, sustainable path, instead of continually being dragged reluctantly along by the concerned few.

And, everybody else, and I mean everybody, needs to do the same in their own neck of the woods, because we are all connected. Nature is a great, huge, interconnected web, and if we don’t do better, then the problems in Florida are going to eventually land on our very own doorsteps. Floridians need to step it up a notch, but the rest of the world needs to as well. It isn’t impossible. As the restoration of the Kissimmee River shows, it is possible to undo our mistakes. The time is now, and the place is wherever you are, and there’s work enough for us all.

Kissimmee_River_Restoration

A portion of the restored Kissimmee River. Long portions of the C-38 Canal, visible here as a straight line, have been filled in and the river is free once again to find its own course, and to moderate flows, cleanse the water, provide recreational opportunities, and nourish wildlife along the way.

 Note- 3 Jan 2015— I just learned today that Florida voters recently approved a state constitutional amendment that will direct billions of excise tax money into conservation programs. Wonderful news, and an example of the power of voting. Keep that pressure up, Florida…

Top image credit: US Army Corps of Engineers.
 Everglades image: “Sawgrass”, by George, Flickr Creative Commons.
Kissimmee River: Wikimedia Commons.
Roseate spoonbills: “She Said What?”, by vladeb, Flickr Creative Commons.