Zero-Waste: What’s the Hype?

With all the recent reports on climate change, viral videos of sea animals trapped in plastic pollution, and a recognized awareness of the changes we need to make to keep our planet happy and healthy, the term “zero-waste” has become more prevalent. Plastic pollution reaches far beyond the plastic straw issue; plastic pollution is represented by all plastic, single-use and reusable, that makes its way from its place of consumption to an obtrusive place in nature. It’s the plastic water bottles, the food containers, the microplastic contamination, as well as non-plastic items, that clog our waterways and pollute our highways.

Zero-waste isn’t about stopping consumption, or completely cutting your waste production- that’s impractical, and and we would make no progress if we told everyone, “okay, no waste for you this month!”. Living a zero-waste, or waste-aware, lifestyle is about making a conscious effort to use reusable shopping bags, to buy fruit that’s not wrapped in plastic, to use glass containers to store food, to use your own to-go cup for your daily coffee. It’s about being aware of the products you use and consume, and to do your best at reducing the byproducts of consumption.

I have a few questions myself about the issue- is it acceptable to bring your own utensils when eating out, in order to avoid the plastic utensils given by the restaurant? What about paper napkins, could you bring a cloth napkin instead? These actions may cause an uncomfortable situation in a restaurant, but they could also spark discussion for the operation of the restaurant, maybe they should be offering reusable utensils or napkins. There’s also the big C word: Convenience. Isn’t it easier to buy an already peeled pomegranate than having to dissect the fruit to harvest the seeds yourself? The scope and reality of waste-aware living is still a bit ambiguous, but it’s the thought that turns into action that will lead to a change of habit.

Yes, we can clean up our oceans, our streams, our fields, but we need to stop waste at its source. By consciously choosing items that don’t have packaging, or reusing the glass jar from last night’s pasta sauce to store leftovers, by thinking before acting, progress can be made. I implore you to simply Googlezero-waste“, and learn a bit more about some habits that can be changed for the better, and consider how you can make a difference.

PS- Food waste. Did you know that about 1/5 of food is left in the field during harvest because it is misshapen, or not labeled as “good enough” to eat? Food waste is an immense and expansive issue, and will be featured in it’s own blog post to come!

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Learn from the sea, respect the sea, love the sea! The oceans have so much to offer, so much beauty is found beneath the water’s surface. I also need to see the sea, it’s been too long! 

 

Mountain “Tidal” Pools

I love the ocean. I also love the mountains. Upon first glance, mountains and oceans really don’t have much in common. And, actually, they are kind of opposites. Mountains reach far into the sky whereas the ocean hides its depths down to the sea floor. By this virtue, mountains have been explored and climbed, most peaks reached at one time or another. On the other hand, there is still so much of the ocean that we may never know; the vastness of the oceans offers mystery and history, the majority of which is beyond human exploration’s reaches.

As opposite as they are, the mountains and the ocean share at least one similarity, and that is the diversity of life they support. Growing up, I spent hours exploring tide pools, jumping from rock to rock on the Atlantic Coast, exploring the treasures of the tide. The little pools of seawater were filled with creatures and plants, keeping my curious mind occupied as the tides slowly came in and then receded again. These microcosms came to  mind again not at the beach, but when I was 7,500 feet above sea level in the Alps.

Between my recent time spent in the Swiss Alps and foothills of the Black Forest (as well as studying the biodiversity of the region), I have learned that on and under just one rock, there can be multiple species of mosses, tons of different lichens, various “cushion plants”, and several types of grasses. When examining one specific rock for an assignment, a classmate of mine (also an avid ocean lover) compared it to a tide pool. Yes, one is underwater and the other is found where the air is thin, but they share the same basic principles that come along with a microhabitat. At first glance, it’s just a little water, or it’s just a rock, but looker further, notice the beautiful details of the space filled with life, and so much to discover.

 

All About Solar

Who doesn’t love a sunny day?! The sun is literally the center of our lives, starting our days and warming our earth. The beautiful sun can also be converted into usable energy. Now that it’s mid-November, the days are growing shorter, the sun is getting less frequent. This is one of the criticisms of solar power, it’s intermittency, or inconsistency, which people correlate to unreliability. Although true, the sun doesn’t shine 24/7/365, there really is no perfect solution to our energy needs. Natural fossil fuels release long-sequestered carbon and emit greenhouse gases, wind power is noisy, obtrusive, and just as intermittent as solar, geothermal and nuclear powers have their own difficulties. Yet we need energy, to warm our homes, power our cars, and light our lives.

Entering my fourth month in Germany, I have noticed, and studied, the high number of solar panels around Freiburg. They are everywhere! Even in my student housing complex (which used to be a hospital during WWII!) there are solar panels that I can spot from my kitchen window. The town hall looks like something from the future, a round building decked out with solar panels around the entire structure. An old landfill is in the process of being covered by solar panels, feeding into the local power grid. Part of the prominence of local solar panels is due to subsidies from the city of Freiburg in the early 2000s to retrofit older homes with solar panels. As a result, a good portion of homes now produce energy, and help to power the city.

The pictures below show the rooftop of Hotel Victoria, an eco-friendly hotel that became sustainable in the 1980s, before sustainability was “a thing”. The hotel now relies 100% on renewable energy, much of which is sourced from the rooftop solar panels and small wind turbines. The solar panels are just one part of the many sustainability aspects of the hotel, accompanied by a wood-pellet heating system, groundwater cooling, strong insulation, and many other factors.

There is no perfect system for energy extraction, and each energy source has its pros and cons. However, solar is definitely a step up from fossil fuels and natural gas, and should be considered as an alternative energy source going forward.

 

Sustainability: A quick definition

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable- to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – World Commission on Environment and Development

Sustainability is a term tossed around all the time; sustainable living, sustainable businesses, is this or that sustainable… Yet it is not very often that the term is closely examined. Sustainability is about living within our means, consuming enough for ourselves and also ensuring the prosper of the next generation. Sustainability is keeping the earth the beautiful and biodiverse planet that it is, coexisting with every little thing that dwells alongside us humans. Sustainability can be a lifestyle, it can describe a business, various “things” can be sustainable, but the root of sustainability is respecting the land and the sea, and leaving nothing but footprints on all your adventures.

Walkable Cities

I have spent the past few weeks studying what makes a city sustainable and pedestrian friendly. Freiburg, Germany, the city in which I have been studying, is an excellent example of a city designed with pedestrians in mind. Many streets are one way, to accommodate walkers and bicyclists, sidewalks are large, and the main square now hosts a daily farmers market where there used to be a parking lot. One key component of a sustainable city is the ability for people to either walk or bike to their destination, reducing car emissions and promoting a healthier lifestyle. 

I visited Amsterdam this past weekend, the bike capital of the world. In addition to the excess of bicyclists, the main downtown area is almost exclusively pedestrian walkways. Too many times we were walking along, only to realize that we were in the middle of the street, and yes in fact cars do drive here, although only periodically. The ease of such a walkable city not only improves the tourist experience, but also encourages a healthy, active lifestyle for those that live there. Walking is also an incredible way to get to know a new city! If we all walk, rather than drive, just a little bit more often, it can greatly decrease the amount of emissions that enter our atmosphere. Plus, it’s always nice to get a little fresh air! 

 

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is scary, and so are the effects of a changing climate! Have a fun and safe halloween, and be conscious of some of the byproducts of the holiday, such as candy wrappers, glitter, and single-use decorations.

Which is scarierA. empty candy bowl or B. all the plastic candy wrappers ending up as litter? 

-As disappointing as it is to come upon a house without any candy to offer, think about all the plastic wrappers, from the candy that was taken, ending up in nature! It is predicted that within the next few decades, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Don’t contribute to that statistic!

Which is worse: A. snow or B. rain while trick or treating?

-The changing climate is having impacts on natural weather events, as well as timing of the change of seasons. It may snow earlier than usual, or rain harder. Make sure to pack an umbrella (and gloves!) while walking around your neighborhood!

Which is freakier: A. Someone dressed up as a melting iceberg or B. the polar ice caps actually melting?

-An iceberg might be a bit of a bulky costume to wear for halloween, but the melting ice caps are no laughing matter. Recent research shows that once the ice starts melting, it is harder to re-form, due in part to the increasing air temperature.

Which would make you jump: A. a creepy crawly spider crawling up your leg or B. the extinction of bugs and insects? 

-Spiders are creepy!! But spiders, along with hundreds of other species of bugs and insects, are vital to the health of our ecosystems.

Question: are ghosts as real as climate change? 

-I’m not sure how you feel about ghosts, but climate change is definitely real, and just as scary as (if not scarier than) ghosts!

Lessons the Mountains Taught Me

I was lucky enough to spend three incredible days in the Swiss Alps last week, hiking, and studying the climate and vegetation patterns. I have always been an ocean girl, but wow, the mountains are certainly amazing! I think that we can always learn a thing or two when we’re in new places, and especially outdoors. Here are a few of my thoughts and takeaways from the trip:

  1. Watch your step, but don’t be afraid to look up and around to take in your amazing surroundings.
  2. Breathe. The air is fresh, the day is clear, take a moment and enjoy it.
  3. The sun is always shining, whether you can see it or not! Even at night, it shows itself in the form of a star-speckled sky.
  4. Stay up late and stargaze, wish on a shooting star. Nothing compares with a sky that is glowing with stars.
  5. As with the ocean, standing beside the mountains makes you feel like the smallest thing on the Earth. It is a big wide world, and it is also a small world in other ways.
  6. Trust your body and yourself. You are stronger than you think, and are capable of more than you realize.
  7. Grow where your roots are, and don’t be afraid to be transplanted. Sometimes a strong wind will uproot you and take you to another peak, go with the flow and thrive where you are planted.
  8. Don’t drink water from a glacial river, aka glacial milk. A brilliant aqua, the ice-cold rivers have tiny particles of rocks and minerals (not great for the digestive system!)
  9. Tread lightly, and leave no trace.
  10. Just be. Be happy, be yourself, be outside, be awesome, be humble, be curious.

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Time in the Black Forest

I have been lucky enough to spend a good portion of my recent class time in the Black Forest! Not only am I outside of a typical classroom setting, I am outdoors, hiking through fall foliage, and back in time for lunch. The “Black Forest” is not quite what I had pictured; it is not a dark, creepy forest one might expect to see in a Halloween movie feature. It is a gorgeous setting full of mixed tree species and hills and valleys that form a picturesque backdrop one might think of as “foothills in Europe”.

As a class, we have been looking at the natural progression of the forest, and how vegetation changes based on location in the forest, in relation to elevation, and based on climatic factors. Although much of the forest is “natural”, there is no part of it that has been untouched by humans. In the last century, the majority of the forest was cut down in order to establish the surrounding area, and to make charcoal. As a result, most of the forest is planted, with some nonnative species. As gorgeous as nature is and can be, it is also important to realize the human impact on the nature, and what we consider to be and identify as “natural”.

They say not to compare new places with places you have been to before, to take in each new place as a new experience and to soak up every little detail. It is hard not to compare, as humans we like to have personal connections and to familiarize ourselves with new places, making “new” a bit less intimidating, but also not quite as special. The beauty of new places is that there is so much to discover and notice. The more time I spend in Germany (and in the Black Forest, which I have now visited three times!), the more familiar it becomes, and its familiarity is it’s own, rather than familiarity because it reminds me of somewhere else. In the words of Jack Johnson, “you remind me of you”.