A look at the greenest cars of 2012

For the first time in 14 years, an electric car topped the list.

Green technology is becoming rather common in a diverse array of industries, but it's perhaps been researched and applied more extensively in the automotive field. Since 1998, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has released a list of its greenest cars on the market.

"It's increasingly obvious that automakers are fully invested in providing consumers with the widest possible array of vehicle choices," ACEEE lead vehicle analyst Shruti Vaidyanathan said in a statement. "Earning a spot on the 'Greenest' list is proving to be a real challenge for automakers given the variety of vehicle technologies on the market and the proliferation of highly efficient conventional vehicles. Just using the latest technology does not guarantee a top spot."

For the first time ever though, an automobile powered by electricity has made it to the number one spot on the list. The honors went to the Mitsubishi i-MIEV, which not only knocked out the eight-time reigning champion in its first year of manufacturing and distribution, but also was given a Green Score of 58 – the highest ever in the 14 year history of the list. The i-MIEV sports a combined city and highway fuel economy of 112 miles per gallon equivalent, which is better than any vehicle that's currently sold in the United States, according to an ACEEE press release.

From 2004 to 2011, the Honda Civic Natural Gas topped the list, but was placed in a tie with the lithium ion battery-powered Nissan Leaf, both were given a Green Score of 55 in this year's list.

The Green Scores are determined by a catalog of factors including greenhouse gas emissions from both the vehicle itself and the manufacturing process to make it, as well as general fuel and energy consumption.

Starbucks green image far more than a facade

The coffee company has established an image that makes it seem to be a green giant in a not-so-eco-friendly food industry.

With successful branding, Starbucks Coffee Company has established an image that makes it seem to be a green giant in a food industry littered with wasteful and environmentally harming practices. But, can that presumption be substantiated with any evidence?

A recent study by the Dogwood Alliance, an organization that's focused on preserving and restoring native forest ecosystems, revealed that Starbucks ranked near the top in green food packaging compared to other franchises in the fast food industry.

"Real leadership emerged from companies like… Starbucks who have taken important steps to reduce packaging, increase the use of recycled content and eliminate controversial sources of paper originating from destructive logging practices," campaign director at Dogwood Alliance and one of the report's authors Scot Quaranda said in a press release. "Unfortunately, some companies have chosen to simply paint their paper packaging green…"

Starbucks ingenuity for going green is far more just a facade on its cups and bags. In late 2011, the famous coffee franchise opened a drive-through and walk-up branch in Tukwila, Washington, made entirely out of four large, used shipping containers. The nearly 500-square-foot store has enough room for three baristas to work behind the counter. The new store is applying for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, and according to a story on the company's website, this is just the beginning of a new wave of branches built to meet LEED standards.

The innovative building has a lot of interesting features. The roof of the drive-through is designed to capture rainwater and redistribute it to the landscape around the store. Additionally, the entire building can be moved to a new location quite simply. The Seattle Times reported that the design opens up a whole new set of doors for Starbucks, as the model can be replicated to make temporary store when one is closed for remodeling. Since the source indicated that they plan on remodeling 1,700 stores this year, there may be similar mini-operations popping up all over the country.

A green street of red bricks

One Ohio street was in such poor condition that resurfacing it would have been nothing more than putting a bandage on a broken bone.

Third Street in New Albany, Ohio, was in such poor condition that resurfacing the road would have been nothing more than putting a bandage on a broken bone, according to Civil Engineer News. The next logical option would be to completely rip up the street and lay new asphalt, but that's not what the town wanted to do.

Senior landscape architect Franco Manno told the source that the town explored "bioretention, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other green infrastructure options." Finally, the group decided that going green by laying red clay bricks was the best option.

"When we found out Third Street needed to be totally reconstructed, we wondered if we could do something more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional asphalt," village administrator Joe Stefanov said in a statement. "It turned out we could, while staying under budget. Initial brick construction was only slightly more expensive than asphalt, and we expect maintenance and operational costs to be significantly reduced over the lifetime of the project."

The permeable clay bricks are made of simply dirt and water, which are two resources the planet is certainly not short on. In addition to cheap manufacturing costs, clay bricks can be easily recycled and last for centuries, according the CE News. The pavers are eligible for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, because of the innovative stormwater design, heat island effect, and their use of recycled content and locally produced goods.

One of the more interesting features of the bricks is that they allow for pollutants in water to seep into the soil beneath where they can be naturally filtered out. Traditional asphalt pavement pools water into drainage systems that eventually end up contaminating local water sources.

Where’s the (grass-fed) beef and why does it matter?

Reportedly, people are very willing to pay a higher price for “beef with integrity.”

An old adage suggests that "you are what you eat," but that raises a philosophical dilemma – if you are what you eat (and let's say you eat pork), are you also comprised of whatever the pig ate? If you believe that's the case, then you're probably interested in grass-fed beef. Many people, philosophers or otherwise, that choose to live a green lifestyle have shown increasing interest in the alternatively raised cattle.

While cattle are typically fed a diet that consists of corn and grains, grass-fed cattle, of course, feed on only grass. Because enough grass to feed a herd of cattle can only be produced before the harvesting season, farmers must be prepared to solely produce grass-fed beef, which can be very expensive and time-consuming.

Farmers are taking on the venture regardless, in response to both popularity of the product among consumers and the abating reputation of industrial agriculture, which has become infamous for using excessive antibiotics, steroids, fertilizers and pesticides.

Jon Taggart, a rancher who used to produce beef the traditional way and now raises cattle only on grass, told TIME Magazine that instead of being part of the manufacturing process of the livestock supply chain, he takes care of the whole process himself. He brings the meat that he and his wife package themselves to customers in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, that he said are very willing to pay a higher price for "beef with integrity – straight from pasture to dinner plate."

There are health benefits for the people that eat grass-fed beef, as well. According to the publication, animals that are 100-percent grass-fed are lower in saturated fats and higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids that have been said to improve the immune system and prevent heart disease.

A renewable energy source that comes from the heart

A source of clean energy may be literally right under your nose.

A source of renewable energy may be literally right under your nose. One Swedish company believes to have found a way to use the body heat generated in one building to keep another warm across the street.

"There are about 250,000 people a day who pass through Stockholm Central Station. They in themselves generate a bit of heat. But, they also do a lot of activities," Klas Johnasson, co-creator of the system and head of environmental division at real estate company Jernusen, told the BBC. "They buy food, they buy drinks, they buy newspapers and they buy books. All this energy generates an enormous amount of heat. So why shouldn't we use this heat. It's there."

With that theory, a group led by Johnasson looked to develop a system to capture that heat and reuse it. They devised a plan to put heat exchangers into Stockholm Central Station's ventilation system, which would absorb excess body heat released by the enormous crowds of passersby and convert that into hot water, according to the news source. From there, the water would be pumped across the road to produce as much as 15 percent of the heating a building across the road, Reuters reported.

The system, which the wire service reports will cost roughly $31,000, is expected to lower the cost of the office block's energy consumption by up to 25 percent.

The idea to use body heat for energy creation, while it may seem rather unique, isn't original to Jernusen's research. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a jacket that could absorb warmth emitted from a person's body and turn into power that could be used to charge small electronics in a study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Scientists find a way to use plants in plastic production

Dutch researchers say that they’ve developed a replacement for fossil fuels in the manufacturing of plastics.

It's been well documented that the non-biodegradable nature of plastics makes them less-than-ideal for those who are trying to lead a green lifestyle. In addition to piling up in landfills, plastics consume roughly 4 percent of the world's oil supply, according to the University of Cambridge.

Dutch researchers say that they've found a new way to make plastics with renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, according to the results of a study they published in the peer-reviewed journal Science this week.

The main building block of plastics is a crude oil derivative, but the research team led by senior author Krijn de Jong, an inorganic chemistry professor at Utrecht University, was able to create a class of iron catalysts that could be used to turn plant material into an alternate building block. This material can then be used to create plastics, drugs and cosmetics, according to the Los Angeles Times.

When crude oil gas is mixed with special catalysts, it produces synthetic fibers called lower olefins that make plastic when they chemically bond. Traditional catalysts produce a significant amount of methane emissions and aren't very effective, so in order to make the process more efficient, de Jong and his researchers wanted to find an alternative derived from a greener source.

When some plants are burned, they release a synthetic gas that's similar to the one produced by crude oil. With that, the scientists developed a new iron catalyst that actually yielded 50 percent more lower olefins than typical catalysts. In other words, the combination of plant-produced gas and the iron catalyst could be a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way of creating plastic.

University of Kentucky chemist Butron Davis, who did not take part in the study, explained to the Times that this is just the first step of many to completely change a complex and pricey process.

Either way, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Green housing developments on the rise

Eco-friendly homes made up 17 percent of the overall residential construction market in 2011.

Assumptions about the housing market may lead some to believe that home shoppers shy away from green housing thinking that it will require either too much of adjustment or too large of an investment. While historically those suppositions may have been accurate, new data indicates that there has been an exponential growth of green homeowners, a trend that is expected to continue well into the next decade.

At the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders' Show in Orlando, Florida McGraw-Hill Construction revealed results from their Green Home Builders and Remodelers Study, which showed that green homes made up 17 percent of the overall residential construction market in 2011.

"This study demonstrates phenomenal growth in green building and indicates that we can expect even larger increases in the coming years," NAHB chairman Barry Rutenberg said in a press release. "In a sample of NAHB builder and remodeler members, nearly 90 percent reported building green at some level. This is a powerful testament to the importance of green home building – and transforms the way we think of homes overall."

Based on the results of the study, researchers estimated that green residential home construction should comprise between 29 and 38 percent of the market by 2016. Using those figures, they are predicting a growth in the green housing development market from $17 billion in 2011 to upwards of $114 billion in 2016.

While the American housing market has declined in recent years, Harvey Bernstein, the vice president of McGraw-Hill Construction, explained in the statement that the importance of going green has trumped the impact of a weakened U.S. economy.

The NAHB indicated that consumers are realizing that environmentally friendly homes generate lower bills and a valuable long-term savings.

How to have a green Valentine’s Day

February 14 doesn’t have to be all about getting hokey cards and boxes of mediocre chocolate.

While many look at Valentine's Day as simply a product of consumerism, those with significant others may quickly find that their partner doesn't quite agree with their logic and expects a special day. February 14 doesn't have to be all about getting hokey cards and boxes of mediocre chocolate though. It's actually rather easy to avoid buying into the holiday's consumerist-driven market while making it a special day to celebrate your relationship.

As a matter of fact, it might suit you best to do so, according to the results of a recent poll by Timberland, a company known primarily for its footwear. The survey showed that 77 percent of Americans think environmentally-conscious behaviors are an attractive quality in a partner, and 54 percent said that an outdoor activity would make for an ideal date.

If you and your partner intend to go out, try to head somewhere nearby and make the walk there part of the date. While that is obviously a great way to avoid energy consumption, a long stroll together presents a couple with the opportunity to have a good talk with each other.

Some couples may prefer to stay in together, which can be both very romantic and green with the right environmentally friendly products. A particularly amorous night at home is often associated with candle light, chocolate and wine, which all come in eco-friendly varieties. Candles made of beeswax and soy are good green alternatives to those composed of petroleum-based wax. When looking for sweets and wine, search for options that are marked with a fair trade label.

For a fun and romantic dinner at home, couples may visit a local farm or farmer's market to gather ingredients for a meal they can cook together later on. Just like a long walk, cooking a meal with locally grown products can provide couples with an opportunity to relax, bond and share some much-needed alone time.

Genetically modified foods raising concerns across the U.S.

There are currently no FDA requirements for GM products to be labeled as such on their packaging.

Word is spreading about the risks associated with genetically modified (GM) foods. Under U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, however, there are currently no requirements for GM products to be labeled as such on their packaging.

Recently, Americans have been speaking out against companies like Monsanto that play large roles in the production of GM goods. In a 2010 Washington Post poll, 94 percent of the more than 1,850 respondents said that any product with compromised DNA should be identifiable by consumers. With reports linking GM food to cancer and even an excruciatingly painful skin condition called Morgellons Disease, the overwhelming support of proper labeling on these goods comes as no surprise.

Ten years ago, the FDA decided that GM food did not require special labeling because it wasn't "materially" different from regular goods in that its distinction can't be noticed by any senses like taste or smell.

Politicians have stepped up to the plate on behalf of worried consumers though, and are calling for changes. Assemblymember Jared Huffman introduced the "The Consumer Right To Know Act, AB 88" to the Californian legislature based on concerns about GM salmon, which has yet to be approved by the FDA.

The bill was turned down, but on February 1, Representative Kate Webb introduced the "VT Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act" to the Vermont House of Representatives.

Even if the health risks associated with GM are being overstated, green lifestyle activist Wendy Gordon said that the producers of these foods should adopt labeling so they can promote their product as superior to natural alternative.

"If I just made a better salmon, I'd want people to know about it," Gordon wrote for the Huffington Post. "I'd want them to know that by adding just one gene from a Pacific Salmon to an Atlantic Salmon, I can bring you this [GM] salmon faster and cheaper and without overfishing its wild cousins."

While it may be some time before any bills affecting the production of GM goods are turned into laws, buying organic and locally grown food is one way that shoppers can confidently know what they're eating.

Despite economic troubles, green industries remain strong

There was a 21 percent increase in globally installed wind power capacity in 2011.

The global economy may not be exactly thriving right now, but investing in green energy has clearly remained a worldwide priority. For instance, a study released on Wednesday by research group Next 10 showed that while Californian jobs grew by 12 percent between 1995 to 2010, green careers in the Golden State expanded by 53 percent in that time frame.

Specifically, the world has been paying more attention to renewable wind energy sources in recent years as well. In its annual wind power market statistics report that was released this week, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) revealed that there was a 21 percent increase in installed wind power capacity in 2011. Currently, 75 countries have commercial wind power installations.

"We look forward to more new markets opening up in Africa, Asia and Latin America in 2012 and we expect to see some of the new markets in Latin America beyond Brazil start to approach critical mass," GWEC Secretary General Steve Sawyer said in a press release. "But, at the end of the day we will be hard pressed to keep the industry’s growth up to its potential without a global price on carbon and other measures to account for the real costs to society of conventional power generation."

Today, British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey will open the world's largest offshore wind farm off the coast of Cumbria. With more than 100 turbines, the farm will be able to generate enough energy to power 320,000 homes annually.

The $1.58 billion investment is the first of many to come for Britain, which currently has 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of installed offshore wind power, Reuters reports. The nation plans to increase that capacity to 18 GW by 2020.