Saturday, March 31, 2018

Simple micro-hydro doesn’t hurt fish

When the dams were built on the Columbia River, the experts knew they would be hard on salmon runs. A single dam can kill a significant percentage of the fry (baby fish) going through the turbines. What they didn’t apparently think about is when you up put many dams, each taking 10-15% of what’s left, the cumulative effect is horrific on fish.

Juvenile fish that are drawn into the turbine pits by the current can be killed or injured. Usually these mortalities or injuries are caused when the fish strike the spinning blades or the concrete walls. The intense water pressure also can kill the fish. Biologists estimate that if turbine passage is the only way past a dam, 10 to 15 percent of the fish that are drawn through the turbines will die. With that much mortality at least possible at each dam, fish that pass multiple dams, such as fish from central Washington or the Snake River, have a statistically high probability of dying before they pass the last dam, Bonneville. (source)

There are around 400 dams in the Columbia basin, some large like Bonneville and some much smaller. To mitigate the impact, it’s led to heroic efforts, building fish ladders, screens, fish hatcheries. They even truck fish around some dams and stop the turbines (or overflow them) during fish runs.

Here’s a simple hydroelectric system that creates an artificial whirlpool that powers a turbine, creating enough energy for 300 homes. Fish pass through unhurt.

Friday, March 30, 2018

National Hockey League concerned about ice and climate change

NHL obviously needs ice rinks which use energy but symbolically, losing iced-over ponds is even more of a concern. That's where the game started. 

“It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that the report is coming out when the world is facing the most challenging political climate in the United States as it relates to climate-change policies,” says Hershkowitz, whose non-governmental organization has members in more than 50 countries.
So in a carefully worded release, they are measuring their climate impact in as non-political way as possible and are committing to being part of the solution.
“What I would say is when we do this work, we try to do it as apolitically as possible,” says Omar Mitchell, NHL vice president for corporate social responsibility, “because at the end of the day, as our commissioner would say, this is the right thing to do.”

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Don't miss the Native Plant Workshop

Keep Sedona Beautiful was on the County Wide TV station, talking about KSB, the Native Plant Workshop and the Earth Day Extravaganza map. Check it out!

Why we should embed sustainability into STEM/STEAM education

Sustainability + STEAM, they just make sense together. STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, art and math) are popular educational priorities these days. And no wonder. Technology and engineering are major drivers of our economy and social change. We believe that these topics in isolation miss an important element. They are not an end in themselves; they could be directed toward good or evil. What’s needed is a vision of what they are intended to solve or contribute to. That’s where sustainability comes in.  Here are three reasons why S+STEAM is better than STEAM alone.

Solve world problems

Lots of students in STEM/STEAM classes learn how to build robots. That’s fine but we don’t want robots just to have robots. Ideally they solve important local and world problems.

If STEAM training starts with an analysis of ways their communities and the world are unsustainable, it brings relevance to the education. Students can choose issues they care about and think about how they can build robots or other technologies to address these problems. Can they build technologies to identify recyclables or invasive species, clean water or power a light bulb in poor communities, or even solve climate change?

One inspiring example is Heirs to Oceans. It is a group formed by enterprising home-schooled kids in the Bay Area. They are passionate about the seas and climate change. They, with the help of some grown-ups, created this podcast about their program:

Kids/parents from all over the world can join their efforts here:

Programs like these energize kids to learn and help them find their calling in life.

Avoid unintended consequences

Humans are great at solving one problem while creating several more. It’s a function of simplistic cause-effect thinking. In contrast, sustainability brings a systems view, a more circular system where, for example, human activity pollutes the water and the water harms people. You’re called upon to consider how systems are interconnected and to find leverage points where a small action can make a big positive difference. And it helps students to foresee potential actions and reactions.

Your students will enjoy a cautionary tale like the Cats in Borneo which is explained in this short video:

Borneo contacted the World Bank to help them address malaria. The World Bank’s solution killed the mosquitoes but their solution also led to roofs collapsing and cats dying. Then the rat population exploded resulting in an outbreak of plague. Watch the video to find out how these effects were connected.

Benefit from a toolbox of innovative practices

There’s a commonly referenced Einstein quotation, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A corollary could be that you can’t solve problems with the same approaches. Sustainability and systems thinking brings a new set of tools for finding innovative solutions.

Waters Foundation is a good source for information on systems thinking in language appropriate to children. Here’s a link to their 14 Habits of a Systems Thinker. These tools aren’t just for mature kids. There’s a wonderful video (that I can’t find online anymore) of pre-schoolers using a causal loop diagram to explain how being mean to another child can create more problems.  This link will take you to an example of very young kids using behavior over time graphs.

Like STEAM, systems thinking is a tool (a means) that should be paired with sustainability (an end). However the sustainability field has a set of useful tools as well. Here are a few that might be inspiring to students:

The four Natural Step principles (system conditions) for a sustainable society were developed by scientists to get at the root of what a society needs to do to be both environmentally and socially sustainable. There are some wonderful short videos on YouTube from Sustainability Illustrated that can explain sustainability and these 4 principles in several minutes.

Biomimicry is the practice of using nature as an inspiration for how to design our products and processes. On the Biomimicry Institute, you can use their Ask Nature database of biological solutions. These are already gaining traction in the real world: swimsuits designed with sharkskin to reduce drag, paints that clean themselves like a lotus leaf, and surgical glue inspired by slug slime.

The Circular Economy is recycling on steroids, a society where everything is either used again, consumed or safely composted. That society doesn’t exist yet but Europe and China are both working on projects related to this concept. A related concept is industrial ecology or industrial symbiosis, where an industrial park is designed such that the waste of one operation because input to another.

“A fertilizer factory is fed with vinasse, a byproduct of sugar, from a nearby beer brewery. A paper and pulp plant receives scrap wood from a nearby wood factory as input, while providing sludge for fertilizer, green mud for building materials, white sludge for a citric acid factory and a cement plant, wood chips for a charcoal factory, fly ash for a cement plant, and waste hot water for an aquaculture mill.” 

If you want to learn more, come to our Sustainability in Schools Symposium.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

How long does it take stuff to decompose?

Here are some startling facts about how long it takes various materials to decompose in a landfill. I was actually surprised that somethings decomposed at all.


  • Plastic bottles: 70-450 years 
  • Plastic bag: 500-1000 years 
  • Tin can: around 50 years 
  • Leather shoes: 25-40 years 
  • Thread: 3-4 months 
  • Cotton: 1-5 months 
  • Rope: 3-14 months 
  • Cigarette: 1-12 years 
  • Milk packet (tetra) covers and drink packets: 5 years 
  • Nylon clothes: 30-40 years 
  • Sanitary napkins & children diapers: 500-800 years 
  • Glass bottles: 1,000,000 years
  • Hairspray bottle: 200-500 years 
  • Fishing line: 600 years. 
  • Glass bottle; 1-2 million years 
  • Aluminum can: 200 years

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Zero waste in the built environment

As part of New York City's intent to be zero waste by 2030, architects have gotten together to create zero waste guidelines.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Surprising facts about diet and the climate

This recent study figured out that one-fifth of Americans generate almost half of the food-related greenhouse gases. They must eat a lot of meat! Not good for their health or the planet. Where do you think you are on this scale?

One fifth of Americans are responsible for half the country's food-based emissions - Popular Science

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What’s for dinner? Bugs, weeds and algae

Sounds disgusting to Americans but soon we’ll be eating bugs, weeds and algae. You just won’t probably know it. Just like most people don’t want to see the sad cow face when they eat a burger, most people don’t want to see the antennae and carapace of the bug. But bugs are a great source of protein and are much more sustainable to produce. Take a look at what may soon be on your menu...

Menu of the Future: Insects, Weeds, and Bleeding Veggie Burgers - National Geographic

Splitting hairs on renewable energy

This article is for carbon-geeks. It explains a drawback of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (the international standard for reporting greenhouse gases) in that it treats all renewables the same. But if, for example, my solar array is replacing an old, inefficient coal-fired power plant and yours if offsetting a natural gas plant, we are producing different carbon benefits. The article offers a couple other options.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Shoes made from FSC certified trees

These aren’t the colorful Dutch poplar clogs. These are sneakers made from eucalyptus fibers. I wonder if they smell good too. To make sure they’re not contributing to deforestation, they are using the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification for forestry practices.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Sustainability: customers increasingly hold both carrot and stick

The interest in corporate sustainability continues to grow. An increasingly, customers are wielding both carrot and stick.

Customers are also increasingly likely to look for a brand that better aligns with their values. A recent global study by BBMG and GlobeScan revealed that for the first time since 2009, more consumers say they have punished companies for their behaviour (28%) than have rewarded them (26%).
While figures in the 20% range not might seem like a lot, it is enough for a tipping point.

Here are 5 trends in corporate sustainability.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Another reason to use green cleaning approaches: your lungs

I remember the time I tried a spray shower cleaner a friend had recommended (remember the scrubbing bubbles ads?). My bronchial tubes hurt and I started to cough. Simple Green does the same thing to me. There’s a so-called green product from Clorox that drives me out of the room.

Increasingly research is showing that a lot of household and commercial cleaning products are hurting lung function, especially for women.

So if the man of the house doesn’t want to do all the housecleaning, switch to safe cleaning methods: water, vinegar and baking soda can clean virtually anything. Use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect sealed surfaces.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Orange bag + plastics = diesel

It’s been a while coming, but it appears a company in Salt Lake City has figured out how to turn 3-7 plastics, including plastic bags, into diesel fuel.  This couldn't come at a better time now that China has decided not to be the world's dumping ground anymore.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Police testing Tesla

If you’re a cop and want to have a car that will outrun the bad guys, why not get a car that has a insane driving mode? Even though they’re expensive, Teslas are increasingly being purchased by police departments. I hope they also buy green power or get solar panels with them.

Preparing your garden for climate change

Some amount of climate change is inevitable, even if we act immediately. We’re already seeing it. Here in Arizona, drought and temperatures often 10degrees above normal for weeks is becoming common. If you love gardening, as I do, you worry about your stressed plants. Rather than pouring even more water on them and covering everything in burlap, here are some tips to prepare your garden for a changing world. Most importantly build your soil: it sequesters carbon and retains moisture.

9 Radical Ways to Face Climate Change, with Brooklyn's Rebecca McMackin - Gardenista - Gardenista

Friday, March 9, 2018

Colorado driving flat out toward electric cars

Colorado is making big investments in electric car infrastructure to meet their goal of 1 million plug-in electric cars on its roads by 2030. But they estimate it will save their citizens big bucks:

  • $4.1 billion will accrue to electric utility customers in the form of reduced electric bills;
  • $29.1 billion will accrue directly to Colorado drivers in the form of reduced annual vehicle operating costs; and
  • $9.7 billion will accrue to society at large, as the value of reduced GHG emissions

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Saving our Verde River with beer

It seems counter-intuitive to save a river by creating a product that uses water, but this article documents how we can replace thirstier crops like cotton and alfalfa with barley. It's a great example of sustainable entrepreneurship, aligning the various segments of the supply chain to make this new industry work for everyone.

How to remove a million pounds of plastic from the ocean and waterways?

Answer: you make it part of your business model.

Image from United by Blue website
United by Blue commits to removing a pound of trash for every item purchased from their company. Somehow that claim makes me feel as if I’m being held ransom to their products, but at least it’s having good effects. They don’t just donate to groups doing the work; they organize it. They have both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce sales.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

High speed rail inching out air travel in EU and Asia

Trains are more fuel efficient than air travel. This is true for freight as well as passengers. This article shows in charts who high-speed trains are taking market share from air travel by being virtually as fast but less expensive. That sends a market signal to choose the more sustainable option. Not to mention they are a lot more comfortable than the sardine cans we call airplanes these days.

Watch Out, Airlines. High Speed Rail Now Rivals Flying on Key Routes - Bloomberg

Monday, March 5, 2018

Meauring Happiness: How are we doing

According to this research, Arizonans are doing pretty well relative to other areas in Optimism, the feeling you can get ahead if you work hard. It's different for non-hispanic whites vs Latino and African American populations. This looks like an interesting tool to investigate further, as the article refers to an interactive map.

And here's a link to an interview with the author of Happiness for All? Unequal Lives and Hopes in Pursuit of the American Dream,

Make your own cleaning products

Here are recipes to make your own household cleaners..cheaper and safer than a lot of store-bought alternatives.

These Homemade Cleaners Are Easy to DIY — And Really Work - Food Network

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Stylish shoes made from pop bottles

This company has figured out how to make comfy shoes from recycled plastic. Not cheap but for those of you who like to show off your shoes while avoiding high-heels, you might check these out. A friend loves them.

This is why diversity in STEM science matters

If I say, environmentalist or environmental scientist, what comes to mind? Likely a white guy, either young and scruffy, or middle-aged and studious. Not a woman, not Latino, not Black, not East Indian or Asian, not even Native American. Don’t feel too bad; we’ve all internalized some stereotypes, even if we need to push against them.

To some degree, this stereotype comes from the roots of the environmental movement with a lot of White middle class people. But it’s changing and we need to increase diversity to get better results. This story is a great example, a Latino who quickly nailed the reason for anomalies in data about asthma in Latin populations. Being a geneticist and knowing his cultural heritage put the pieces together.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Malaysia teaching sustainability at university

Malaysia is integrating sustainability into education. This could be a model for other countries.

To enhance awareness of planetary boundaries, the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University, Malaysia, paired up with the SDG Academy, a free online education platform offering graduate-level courses related to sustainable development. The result was a Blended Learning Program that combined the SDG Academy’s expert-led online syllabus with in-person classroom instruction tailored specifically to the national context of Malaysia. The Blended Learning Program educated participants about the global environmental consequences of their everyday life choices, to encourage more conscientious decision-making.

Net zero buildings make financial sense, even for developers

Rocky Mountain Institute decided to move into a net zero office building. They've used their experience to debunk a number of different myths. Traditionally it's been thought that the additional expenses associated with making a building net zero wouldn't provide a return to a developer, especially if he or she decided to sell right away. Not so.

NZE-leased buildings can be up to 19 percent more profitable for developers who hold on to their property and 17 percent more profitable for developers who choose to sell their property immediately.
It's good for tenants as well:

The greatest benefit to the tenant comes from higher employee productivity and satisfaction due to improved thermal comfort, natural daylight, and residing in a healthy building—all shown to improve productivity by 6–16 percent.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Why social sustainability is as important as environmental sustainability

You may have noticed that our logo has People, Planet, Prosperity (considered the three legs of sustainability stool: economic, social and environmental sustainability.)
From Social Watch,
Often people are confused about the social and economic piece. They think of sustainability as predominately environmental. 
It's certainly true that our society is wholly dependent upon nature, our economy is a "wholly-owned subsidiary of Nature," as Ray Anderson liked to say. It's probably most accurate to see these as concentric circles, with Environment the largest, then Society and then our Economy as a subset of our society. (See the common example from Social Watch.)
But we can't get to environmental sustainability without getting people on board, without meeting human needs. We're so clever, we find ways to circumvent natural limits that other species face. We go ahead and meet our needs unsustainably, if we have to. If you were a Brazilian farmer who had to burn down some rain forest to feed your kids, you'd do it, right? If you have to get into a fossil-fuel driven car to get to work, you do it. "Now" matters more to us humans than long-term impacts, especially when we're in crisis.
So the end-game is finding a way that we can all have a good life within the limits of nature.  

Sounds good, but still a bit vague, right? To make matters worse, what determines a good quality of life differs. In underdeveloped nations, access to clean water and sanitation is key. In the developed world, we've developed a dizzying array of things we think we need to be happy. So for now, let's examine social sustainability at the community level.

Think of social sustainability as quality of life. What in your community is undermining the quality of life for those who live and work in the community? 

Let me use Sedona, my home town, as an example. The City is already working on two big priorities that I consider part of social sustainability:

Traffic: Traffic jams are a huge headache for people in the community; they affect how we feel; just yesterday I talked to someone who moved to Cottonwood because of it; and of course it has environmental and economic impacts as well like air pollution and days I shop or eat out in Cottonwood so I don’t have to drive to West Sedona from Village of Oak Creek. And I'm sure our three million visitors don't like sitting in hour-long traffic jams during high-season and holidays. It's also bad for business.

Lack of workforce housing: Many people who work here can’t afford to live here; this is an interconnected problem between the types of jobs here, wage scales, cost of real estate vs rent that can be charged. Having to commute (especially in bad you see how everything is connected?) requires that people of modest means must own a car or spend hours on public transit, away from their family.

We have some other social challenges in Sedona including some hunger and homelessness. Our education system seems to be struggling because our state doesn't fund it as well as most other states. The transient nature of our community (people who live here part time, where this is not ‘home’, as well as being a retirement community) has an impact on social cohesion or social capital which can be important assets when the community needs to come together to get things done. Sedona isn’t very walkable, which affects people’s health and requires they get in their car. So the work the City is doing around urban planning, to create walkable centers, is also a social sustainability initiative.

Other communities have different social sustainability issues, things like crime levels, drug abuse, food deserts (where people can’t get easy access to fresh food), rates of obesity, etc. 

It’s hard to think about social sustainability in the broad sense (although there are some good theoretical frameworks out there like Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef’s 9 fundamental human needs and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals). But if you just keep asking, “What is undermining our quality of life in our community?” you can easily identify what needs to be addressed.
And then here's the trick: find solutions that also help the economy and the environment (or at least that don't make them worse.) That's the special sauce of sustainability, seeking solutions that make everything better: People, Planet, Prosperity. All three. Not trade-offs.

ELF from Organic Transit:
So how do we, for example, fix traffic in Sedona while making the other P's better? We certainly don't build wider roads. Instead:
  • We can build a better transit system to handle all the tourists which would make their visit more enjoyable, one that would explain what they're seeing and make it easy to start hiking from one trail head and get picked up at another. 
  • We can encourage the formation of a new business that would rent 'neighborhood electric vehicles' like this solar-powered ELF, buzzing around in bike lanes or rarely used sidewalks, with drivers stopping to take pictures whenever they want (instead of filming out their sunroof while they drive--trust me, they do it). 
  • We can get tour companies to collaborate on scheduling transportation, perhaps through an app. "Done with your trip to the local wineries? A tour to Honanki is leaving in 10 minutes. Click here to learn about that archeological site." 
These more sustainable solutions (vs. widening roads) create new economic opportunities, improve the visitor experience, and reduce greenhouse gases. 
People, Planet, Prosperity: Win, Win, Win.