National Geographic takes a look at America’s best national parks

As the weather gets nicer and people start looking for activities to do outdoors, many nature lovers will find their way to one of America's roughly 400 national parks.

Just recently, National Geographic released the latest book in its "The 10 Best of Everything" series, which breaks down America's top national parks. Its list is as follows:

10. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
9. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
8. Yosemite National Park, California
7. New Orleans Jazz Historical Park, Louisiana
6. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
5. Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York
4. Santa Fe National Historic Trail in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma
3. Alagnak Wild River, Alaska
2. Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
1. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California.

The release of the book comes alongside the unveiling of a special tablet edition of USA Today that was put together in collaboration with National Geographic Channel. This offering even features a special guest essay by illustrious filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" for PBS a few years ago.

"[National parks] perform a kind of open-heart surgery on us, permitting us more room in our hearts for the love of these places, for the love of our country, for the love of our family," Burns writes. "We are all co-owners of some of the most moving places on Earth, and while much of that emotion is born in the spectacular scenery we are seeing there, it also finds its source in us and our love and connection to each other."

It's important for anyone who is going green to experience the beauty of national parks if they want to truly appreciate what they are trying to protect. By understanding what ozone and carbon emissions can destroy, it may be easier for environment lovers to make the small sacrifices – taking quicker showers and recycling more frequently – that can make a real difference.

“Smart Home” exhibit in Chicago reopens with even greener look

The number of American home shoppers who are looking for eco-friendly houses has been going up significantly of late. More people are realizing that green homes are not only beneficial for the environment, they can also save money on utility costs over time. Earlier this month, McGraw-Hill Construction reported that green home development is expected to make up to as much as 38 percent of the construction market by 2016.

The innovations and advances in green home construction have been limited only by the imaginations of the world's most brilliant architects and engineers. To display some of these amazing ideas, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago features its own "Smart Home."

The exhibit opened up in 2008, and since then, has been toured by more than 300,000 visitors, according to The Huffington Post. The museum just reopened the house after a number of green renovations were added with the help of tech experts from the blog Gizmodo and other bright minds.

The three-story home, which has its own 40-foot wind turbine, has a number of items that have been recovered or repurposed from other places, such as universities, other museums, steel plants and laboratories.

The home achieves a contemporary style with its reclaimed furniture and amenities, as well as with the way futuristic technology is integrated into everything from the front door to the bathroom's Cybertecture Mirrors that can log on to Facebook

The exhibit is called "Smart Home: Green + Wired," and will be open until January 6, 2013 and runs daily tours through 1:30 p.m. Tickets to go through the home, which also permit guests access to the museum, cost $23 for adults, $22 for seniors and $12 for children.

California’s Sequoia National Park plagued by smog

Nature enthusiasts from all over the world have traveled to California to see the majestic Sequoia redwood trees. And while these trees are known for their enormous stature, the biggest thing in California's Sequoia forest is its pollution problem.

Emily Schrepf, a member of the nonprofit advocacy group, the National Park Conservation Association, told The Associated Press that the ozone levels in this historic vegetation are comparable to urban areas like Los Angeles, and are worse than any other national park in the United States.

While visitors can actually drive along roads that cut right through the base of the massive organisms, there are signs posted that warn them when the air quality is so poor that hiking isn't safe. The media outlet also said that job seekers who are looking for employment at California's Sequoia National Park are actually warned on the government employment website that it is unhealthy to work there.

The source indicated that much of the smog that's present in the park comes from "the San Joaquin Valley, the expanse of farmland that is home to California's two busiest north-south trucking highways, diesel freight train corridors, food processing plants and tens of thousands of diesel tractors."

Ozone can blister lungs just as being in the sun can damage skin, and similarly, the severity of harm varies from person to person.

The AP suggests that the only possible way to alleviate this issue is to address the San Joaquin air basin, though Jaime Holt, a spokeswoman for that location, explained that there isn't an unusual amount of pollution being produced, it has simply built up over time.

Majority of car shoppers looking for fuel efficiency

It's no question that fuel economy has become a bigger concern for car shoppers in recent years as the price of gasoline has gone up, in addition to a growing awareness of the adverse effects tied to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by vehicles. This has resulted in pressure from consumers on energy providers to come up with practical and affordable alternative fuel source solutions.

Likewise, the automotive industry has been trying to adapt to the evolving demands of consumers by manufacturing an increased number of hybrid and electric vehicles. Those vehicle manufacturers who haven't tried to innovate their products are missing out on a growing demographic of car shoppers who are searching specifically for autos that won't guzzle down gasoline quickly, costing them at the pump.

According to the latest car owner survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center, the most important factor that car shoppers have looked for in new vehicles is fuel efficiency, which garnered votes from 37 percent of the respondents. As pointed out by the Mother Nature Network, this may not seem like a significant percentage, but it was 20 percentage points ahead of the runner-up, vehicle quality.

The report showed that 60 percent of the participating car shoppers said they would rather buy a car that's smaller than they'd like so long as it has great fuel economy.

The study showed that fuel efficiency motivated car owners to shop for new vehicles much more so than any other factor. Ninety percent of the respondents said they wanted a new car to save money on fuel, while 69 percent said they were interested in the latest fuel-saving technology.

Los Angeles passes law to ban plastic bags in grocery stores

There are a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to the use of plastic bags in America. Some have argued that if recycled properly, plastic grocery bags aren't detrimental for the environment at all as long as they don't end up in landfills. But, the majority opinion of green advocates seems to be that people and businesses can't be trusted to be responsible with plastic bags, as they will likely just throw them out because it's easier.

The debate is over in Los Angeles, however, where shoppers will no longer have to choose between paper and plastic when they check out of the grocery store, as the decision has been made for them.

On Wednesday, May 23, the second largest city in the country made history by officially banning the use of plastic bags at supermarkets and other stores.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the petition to initiate the ban has been advocated by a number of environmental protection groups and celebrities including actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, most famous for her role as Elaine Benes on "Seinfeld."

Attorney H. David Nahai, a former executive for the Department of Water and Power, was one of those pushing for the legislation.

“Plastic harms our environment," Nahai explained to the news source. "It is a threat to the coastal economy. It is a danger to marine life and it is an unconscionable burden to taxpayers who have to foot the bill for cleanups year after year."

There will be a four month review period effective with the passing of the bill. Following that, big stores will have to phase out their use of plastic bags within six months, and small stores will have one year, the media outlet reports.

How one New York family produces less than one pound of trash every year

Many Americans have been trying to cut down on the amount of waste they generate every day by recycling and finding ways to reuse items because they know that their trash will simply pile up in landfills. As more and more people realize how much reducing waste actually helps the environment, the ways with which they do so become increasingly innovative. But, that's all old news for the Burger family, who told The Huffington Post that they produce no more than 12 ounces of trash every year.

The four Burgers, who hail from Whitney Point, New York, have brought the same single brown paper bag to the landfill for last 20 years, the source reported.

"If you take something into your life, you are responsible for it. If you don't want the responsibility, don't buy the item," Chris Burger said, explaining the philosophy that has made him and his family so waste-efficient. "And responsibility does not end when the trash is taken to the curb."

But how is it possible that the Burgers almost entirely avoid throwing anything out?

Chris told the media outlet that he is very careful when he shops, paying very close attention to the type of packaging products use and approaching shopping as though there is no way to throw out garbage. He also explained that if a community doesn't have a recycling program, residents should come together to advocate for one.

That's exactly what he and his wife Cindy did in the 70s when recycling programs were exceptionally few and far between. The two brought cans to scrap yards and jars to a glass factory, and eventually, they played a big role in establishing recycling collection in their county, according to the news source.

With some smart shopping, composting and resourcefulness, anyone can follow in the Burgers' footsteps.

New technology prevents excess energy consumption in idling vehicles

When a regular vehicle comes to a stop, it idles and consequently wastes a lot of fuel. Manually turning the automobile off and back on again takes a lot of time and uses a bit of gas as well. There's an innovative technology called Start-Stop that's being integrated into new cars that solves this problem.

The technology automatically turns a vehicle's engine off while it's idling, and when the driver releases the brake pedal or presses down on the clutch, the system turns the motor back on, according to a press release.

MaryAnn Wright, vice president of Global Technology and Innovation at Johnson Controls Power Solutions, the company that introduced Start-Stop, said that there needs to be a change in the way people think about clean technology solutions in the auto industry.

"Clean technology isn't just about electric vehicles," Wright explained in a statement. "It's about implementing proven technology that large numbers of consumers are willing to purchase. Our research indicates that near-term mass commercialization of more fuel efficient vehicles will come from the traditional gas engine, led by Start-Stop, and will be followed in the long-term by broader adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles as they become more proven and affordable."

Not surprisingly, the results of a recent study conducted by the company revealed that 97 percent of the 1,200 survey respondents want to use Start-Stop in their own automobiles, according to the release. Most said that this was because they wanted to save money on fuel, while a majority of the participants indicated that it was because the technology "just makes sense."

State of the Air report shows promise, room for improvement

Cities across the world have been spearheading initiatives to reduce their impact on the environment at increasing rates over the last few decades. Some have come a long way, others still have room for improvement. To gage which category cities fall under, the American Lung Association (ALA) has released its 2012 State of the Air report. 

One of the most alarming statistics that the report revealed was that roughly 41 percent of the country's population is suffering from dangerous levels of pollution that could have a negative impact on their ability to breath.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, ALA project director Janice Nolen explained how much pollution can affect public health. She used the 1996 Olympics, which took place in Atlanta, as an example. Nolen said that during the games, morning traffic dropped by 23 percent, which consequently lowered the area's ozone levels by 28 percent. Perhaps not so coincidentally, emergency room visits for cases of pediatric asthma decreased by an estimated 42 percent.

While there were obviously frontrunners and trailers in the ALA's 2012 report, there was also some promising news regarding the worst offenders. Twenty-two of the 25 cities which were found to have the most ozone pollution actually had improved data compared to last year.

"State of the Air shows that we're making real and steady progress in cutting dangerous pollution from the air we breathe," Charles Connor, president of the ALA, said in a statement. "But despite these improvements, America's air quality standards are woefully outdated, and unhealthy levels of air pollution still exist across the nation, putting the health of millions of Americans at stake."

It's important that citizens do as much as possible to reduce their personal impact on ozone levels, and with that, hopefully the numbers can improve even further next year. To see how your county is impacting the atmosphere or for more information about the study, visit the State of the Air website.

Small businesses finding success through green initiatives

Just like individuals, businesses have been going green for a number of reasons. By reducing their impact on the environment, organizations are not only more appealing to consumers, they are also saving a lot of money on energy costs.

A recent article in Entrepreneur Magazine highlighted the recognition small businesses have garnered for their eco-friendly efforts as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a list of companies that voluntarily have taken on clean energy initiatives. To qualify, organizations must use solar, wind or low-impact hydropower.

The source indicated that Intel Corporation and Microsoft Corporation were among the largest users of green energy sources in terms of kilowatt-hours, but small businesses, on the other hand, were most prominent on the EPA's list of organizations that run entirely off of green power.

One company that the publication featured in the story was MOM's Organic Market, which is run by Scott Nash and operates out of Rockville, Maryland. He explained that his company has very high customer and employee retention rates, which he believes can be attributed to MOM's green initiatives. And according to the Charis Egland-Smith, the person in charge of the company's environmental programs, the cost of going green hasn't been an issue.

"For a small business to say 'We are 100 percent green power,' because their total electric loads are fairly small given that they are in fact a small business, the ultimate absolute marginal cost tends not to be very high," says Collison. "'We are 100 percent green power' is such a valuable message, that they find it is compelling." 

Businesses that are interested in going green can speak with their local energy provider to go through their options. If they can't help out, business owners can visit the EPA's Green Power Locator here.

Exotic vacations can bring families together through green activities

Ecotourism is becoming very popular, but as this blog has discussed in the past, it can be very difficult to find a destination that's truly eco-friendly. Of course, green travelers can ride bikes and hike rather than drive around sightseeing if they want to lessen their impact on the environment, but it can be difficult to convince a whole family to partake in such activities.

One great location for a green vacation is Hawaii. For the most part, all of the attractions and experiences the islands have to offer are outdoors and require little-to-no energy consumption. From snorkeling to surfing, kayaking to zip lining, it's possible to plan an entire week of activities that are completely independent of energy use. Additionally, there are a great number of eco-friendly hotels and resorts that trip planners can browse through here.

Oftentimes, when someone talks about going green, they're referring to reducing their impact on the atmosphere by avoiding any activities or products that can be associated with carbon emissions, but the ocean can sometimes get overlooked. Since most of the planet is covered in bodies of water that are integral to the globe's ecosystem, parents can educate their children and themselves on efforts to keep the oceans clean.

In Marathon Key, Florida, visitors at the Hidden Harbor Motel can participate in hands-on marine environmental programs in which they can actually get into the water and help rescue endangered animals. The hotel is next to a sea turtle hospital and a recovery aquarium for injured and ill creatures.

Is there better way to spend some time off than actively helping the environment in an exotic location?