Buy Eco-Friendly Gifts This Holiday Season

With Hanukkah and Christmas just around the corner, shoppers have begun the holiday season by purchasing gifts for their loved ones. This presents the perfect opportunity for being environmentally conscious, as there are countless eco friendly products out there that would make for great gifts!

When doing your holiday shopping, here are a few things to look for if you want to buy products that are responsibly and sustainably manufactured:

  • Items made with recyclables: It's never been easier to find gifts that are made with an alternative to plastic and other materials that have been recycled.
  • Limited or no packaging: Since it's only going to end up in the trash, you may as well try to find products that either come with little or no packaging.
  • Local products: Just as you would with food, try to find gifts that were made locally.
  • Quality over quantity: Buying gifts that will last a long time is much better than purchasing items that will end up in a landfill within a few months.
  • Vintage and used gifts: While some may believe that all gifts should be brand new, your loved ones will certainly appreciate a well-picked vintage item such as clothing or furniture, given how popular vintage and antique style is these days.

If we all take these small steps to ensure that our gift-giving is environmentally friendly, we can put a major dent in the amount of trash that makes its way to dumps, while also finding a new home for items that had been abandoned by previous owners. Most importantly, the recipients will love that their presents were green products!

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Are Bicyclist Protections Strong Enough?

Bicycles are terrific green vehicles, so it would make sense for municipalities to encourage as many citizens as possible to leave their car at home and purchase a bicycle instead for daily commuting and running errands. It's certainly true that many cities have created extensive bike lane networks and infrastructure that makes it easier for bicyclists to stay safe on the roads. But as a recent New York Times op-ed points out, there's a major problem with the way these cities are prosecuting (or not prosecuting, as the case may be) drivers who hit bicyclists on the street.

In the article, Daniel Duane, a San Francisco journalist who enjoys biking but worries about the safety issues, notes that there are countless instances of bicyclists who are hit, and sometimes killed, by motorists. Yet these drivers are often allowed to walk away from the incident without as much as a citation, let alone the possibility of jail time. Police departments are typically hesitant to file charges, and in the rare case that these drivers go on trial, juries are unwilling to convict.

The Economist notes that this isn't the case in other countries. In the bike-friendly Netherlands, the driver is almost always at fault if they hit a cyclist. That country has considerably more bike riders than the United States, but in America there are eight times as many cycling deaths per billion kilometers traveled. In order to create the kind of cycling culture in the States that exists in Northern Europe, policy makers and law enforcement must come up with a better system of punishing drivers for hitting cyclists. Given how important bikes will be in the coming decades to reducing carbon emissions and lowering obesity rates, it is essential for local leaders to create a culture that values these habits rather than implicitly punishes them.

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Aquaponics Solves Problem Of Shorter Seasons

As part of an effort to raise student consciousness about aquaponics and sustainable agriculture, a Michigan Technological University (MTU) researcher has developed and constructed a system on campus that is providing food for the school's residence halls. Rob Handler was able to grow cherry tomatoes, kale, onions and basil in his garden, while also raising Tilapia to be used for fish tacos.

Handler is the operations manager of the Sustainable Futures Institute at MTU and his aquaponics system is educating students about the benefits of the process, which include higher yields, reduced water usage and the elimination of any pesticides or inorganic growing matter.

One interesting aspect of Handler's aquaponics is that his crops are rooted in clay pebbles, rather than using soil. He says this enables the plants to grow shorter roots, as nutrients are more effectively distributed.

"We've grown cherry tomatoes that grew so tall I need to harvest them with a ladder," Handler told Michigan Tech News. "It's the same interaction that happens in the natural world. We are just managing things with tanks and pipes."

The source points out that the practice of aquaponics traces back hundreds of years, when rice farmers in East Asia noticed they experienced better yields when they added fish to their rice paddies. The water the fish swim in is purified by the plant roots and soil, which benefit from the fish waste in the water. It creates a circular filtration system that requires very little water beyond the initial amount needed for the fish tank.

More importantly, an indoor aquaponics system can help lengthen what are normally very short planting and harvesting seasons in Michigan. Commercializing the practice could result in more local agriculture for the region, reducing their need to ship in produce and livestock from other parts of the country.

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Two Pesticides Linked To Gynecological Disorders

A new study draws a link between exposure to two pesticides and gynecological disorders in women. The report was published by researchers at the University of Washington on November 4 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The authors of the paper found that women who were exposed to beta-hexachlorocyclohexane and mirex were more likely to suffer from endometriosis, a condition in which the tissue lining the uterus grows outside of it and causes pain and even infertility.

"Since endometriosis is an estrogen-driven condition, we were interested in investigating the role of environmental chemicals that have estrogenic properties, such as organochlorine pesticides, on the risk of the disease," Kristen Upson, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said in a news release. "We found it interesting that despite organochlorine pesticides being restricted in use or banned in the U.S. for the past several decades, these chemicals were detectable in the blood samples of women in our study."

Although the study's authors were careful to point out that this doesn't necessarily mean there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the pesticides and endometriosis, it's still a troubling finding. The case against pesticide use has been building for decades, largely because of its affect on public health, in addition to the disastrous consequences for eco-systems. As the Pesticide Action Network points out, these chemicals are becoming more prevalent because farmers have had to increase their reliance as pests develop immunity and defenses against the chemicals

Furthermore, what this study points out is that even after such substances are banned, they can have serious affects on humans long after they've been removed from use. It's another reminder that if the United States wants to make progress on developing more sustainable agriculture, it needs to start now, and not later.

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The Case For Linoleum

In the past we've talked about how cork flooring presents one of the best alternatives to conventional flooring materials for homeowners devoted to green living. Another option that may provide more flexibility in terms of color and style is linoleum.

Yes, that linoleum. You may remember it as the ugly material that you stepped on when roaming your high school hallways, or perhaps you used it for craft projects in art classes. While linoleum isn't exactly new technology, it remains one of the most sustainably produced, practical and aesthetically tasteful flooring options.

For starters, linoleum is made from linseed oil, which is derived from the linseed plant. As Living Green Magazine notes, the other materials used to make up linoleum, including the pine rosin and wood flour that give it its structure, are derived from renewable sources, typically sustainably-raised pine trees.

Like cork flooring, its also water resistant and easy to clean. Not only does this keep it from rotting, but it also makes it less susceptible to bacterial growth, which can affect your family's health.

But most importantly for the stylish homeowner, linoleum is no longer the ugly, dull material that you remember from your childhood. Manufacturers such as Forbo Flooring, who produce their own trademarked formula known as Marmoleum, have created linoleum flooring systems in hundreds of colors and styles, and one of the benefits of this material is that it doesn't lose its color over time. The pigments penetrate beneath the surface, so even as you continue to walk on it, it will retain its vibrancy.

If you're planning to redo your floors any time soon, consider linoleum for an environmentally friendly option.

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What Can Groningen Teach Us About Creating Bike-Friendly Cities?

In recent years, U.S. cities have made great strides in creating bike-friendly infrastructure that encourages residents to leave their car at home and travel everywhere by bike, one of the best ways to save energy. But in many areas, transportation policy still focuses on automobiles, which means that adding bike lanes and storage areas becomes an afterthought for city planning officials, rather than something that is integral to the urban lifestyle.

The same cannot be said about Groningen, a city in the Netherlands, where a combination of happenstance and innovative urban planning have produced a thriving bike culture unlike any in the United States. Nearly 50 percent of trips in Groningen are made using bicycles, and in the city's compact center, hardly any cars can be seen. Instead, commuters use their bikes to go to work and run errands.

What led Groningen to become so bike-centric?

The city used to be a fortress town that controlled the flow of traffic into Germany, and it was constructed within the walls of that fortress. This meant that rather than building out and creating sprawl, the city built inward and up, making it denser and more compact. Then, in the 1970's, Groningen was divided into four quadrants, and cars were forbidden from traveling directly from one quadrant to another. Instead, auto traffic was diverted to a circular road around the city, which made such commutes take significantly longer than traveling by bike.

Additionally, the city created numerous bike lanes and parking areas for those bicycles, providing further incentives for residents to travel on two wheels rather than four.

What can American cities learn from Groningen's experience?

One of the main reasons that similar policies aren't enacted in this country is intense political opposition to anything that would limit car traffic. For example, when New York recently implemented its Citi Bikes bicycle sharing program, shopkeepers all over Manhattan and Brooklyn protested that the creation of more bike lanes and the removal of parking spots would scare away customers and cause businesses to lose money. Similar political controversy in other communities has created a situation in which bike advocates are fighting an uphill battle for even the most basic accommodations such as dedicated lanes and parking areas.

But Groningen's urban planners dealt with the same controversy when the quadrant system was first developed, and stuck to their plan anyway. The Atlantic Cities, an urban lifestyle website, points out that the same interest groups, mostly businesses, opposed the policy, claiming that they would lose out on revenue. Some threatened to leave entirely.

"Wonder of wonders, the world didn't collapse," Greg Ashworth, a professor at the University of Groningen, tells the source. "The shops didn't leave the city. The police found, yes, people could learn how to handle this plan. People adapted to it."

What policies would create a better biking experience in U.S. communities?

American urban planners can do more to incentivize denser development and up-zoning, relieving building height limits and parking minimums that contribute to sprawl. Areas such as Los Angeles and Silicon Valley are fairly expansive, so the key is to create localized communities with better bike infrastructure, taller buildings and more toll roads that encourage residents to abandon cars in favor of walking and bicycles.

Unfortunately, European lifestyles are sometimes stigmatized in the U.S. as being less robust and more minimalist, but if Americans want to enjoy cleaner air, green living and healthier lifestyles, there's a lot we can learn from countries like The Netherlands and Denmark that have done a good job of incorporating these features into their urban environments.

Old CDs Can Be Used For Water Purification

Scientists at the National Taiwan University, National Applied Research Laboratories in Taiwan, and the Research Center for Applied Sciences in Taiwan have developed a system that uses old optical discs, such as CDs and DVDs, to clean contaminants from water. If successful, the process could provide impoverished communities with access to potable drinking water where none had previously been available.

The system, which will be presented at the Optical Society's Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, this week, uses the flat side of discs to grow zinc oxide nanorods, thin structures that resemble hairs. Afterward, the scientists ran water from a hose over the surface and placed them discs under UV light. They found that the nanorods broke down 95 percent of the contaminants in the water, making it consumable again.

"Optical disks are cheap, readily available, and very commonly used," Din Ping Tsai, a physicist at National Taiwan University, said in a news release.

According to the researchers involved in the project, about 20 billion CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays are produced every year, and 100,000 tons of these end up in landfills. When optical discs compose, the produce chemicals that can lead to brain damage and other harmful effects. Therefore, developing a system that recycles these discs not only helps those areas lacking safe drinking water, it also removes dangerous compounds from dumps that could eventually leak underground and contaminate water supplies. 

The optical disc water filtration system will also be cheap to produce and distribute, which is especially important given how difficult it often is for residents of impoverished countries to purchase life saving equipment and technologies.

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The Promise Of Rooftop Farms

Rooftop farming continues to grow in popularity, as residents of crowded cities with high rents who want to have local farms have been able to realize this dream by occupying the otherwise empty rooftops of buildings. In addition to producing a fresh food supply to locals, this style of agriculture also presents a number of benefits in terms of improving the environment and allowing more people to engage in green living.

A recent article in NPR highlights the efforts of Windy City Harvest, a non-profit program that raises a large vegetable and herb garden on top of Chicago's McCormick Place, a large convention center. The goal of Windy City Harvest, which employs ex-convicts and Chicago youth, is to provide 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of food for McCormick Place's food service company.

Rooftop farming can lower a building's energy costs because the plants absorb sunlight, reducing the need for air conditioning. They also consume carbon dioxide, which helps clean the air and limit climate change.

"Rooftops will be part of the mix of urban spaces that will be increasingly used to 'scale up' urban agriculture," Joe Nasr, a member of the faculty at the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University in Toronto, told the source.

Particularly in areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities where the weather is agreeable year round, this trend could be the next front in the battle to increase the prevalence of locally grown foods. With space at a premium, and with so many additional benefits to gain besides fresh food, there's little reason rooftop farming can't become a more permanent and prominent part of the urban landscape.

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Can The World Run On Renewable Energy Within 20-40 Years?

One of the perceptions of renewable energy that environmental advocates often work to eliminate is that technologies like solar, wind and other forms of clean power are prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, many people still believe that the future of U.S. energy infrastructure is in natural gas and "clean coal". But a recent report from Stanford University is the latest evidence that this view is mistaken and that global energy supply could eventually be derived primarily from renewables.

The study, co-authored by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and U.C. Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi, states that the world's power needs could be met with solar, wind and other alternative, sustainable sources within 40 years using current technology. Their findings were published in Energy Policy, and involve a plan that would convert most of the world's power usage to electricity. Wind and solar would provide about 90 percent of the world's energy needs, while geothermal and hydroelectric would contribute about 4 percent.

For applications that require much higher power outputs, such as fueling large ships and trains, the world could rely on hydrogen, which could be procured using electricity.

Making these changes, the authors believe, would result in 2.5 to 3 million lives saved, and would allow the world to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change.

"Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources," Jacobson said in a press release. "It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will."

While the answer to that question remains uncertain, hopefully research will continue to pour in and convince the general public of the seriousness of our energy problems and the potential of renewable sources.

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Expiration Dates On Food Labels Leading To Waste

Most Americans judge the freshness of food not by tasting or sniffing it, but by looking at the expiration or "sell by" date printed on the packaging. Although this may seem to make sense, these dates are often poor indicators of when food is no longer safe to consume, and using them as an excuse to toss produce, milk and other products leads to a staggering amount of food waste.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School recently published a report on the topic, which states that dates printed on food packaging aren't standardized by the government or any regulatory body. Typically, they're only meant to indicate to grocery stores when food is at its peak freshness, not when it becomes unsafe to consume.

As a result of this and other inefficient consumption practices, Americans waste 40 percent of their food, totaling $165 billion a year that is simply thrown in the trash or dump. The rest of the world isn't much better: Nearly one-third of the global food supply is tossed out, leading to 3.3 gigatons of carbon emissions when it sits in a landfill decomposing.

The NRDC has a few policy prescriptions that would lead to a better system for indicating food expiration:

  • Make sell-by dates on packaging invisible to customers.
  • Replace them with a standardized system, regulated by the FDA, to determine the actual expiration dates of foods. This should also include "freeze by" information.

Given how many people throughout the world continue to live in hunger and poverty, it is imperative that agriculture industries make more concerted efforts to limit waste and encourage more efficient allocation of food supplies.

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