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Apps That Can Help You Eat Sustainably

There’s no getting around it: shopping for food in an ethical and sustainable manner is difficult. The information needed to do so can be hard to find, and is in many cases unknowable to a non-expert. Transparency is not a main prerogative for most products offered in groceries or restaurants. Far from it — products claiming to be organic or healthy are often that in name only.

Enter: HowGood, Happy Cow and Seafood Watch.

Continuing a recent series of posts on technology and sustainability (see earlier posts here and here), the Clean Fairfax blog will explore several mobile applications that can help you shop for food in a more sustainable manner!

HowGood

HowGood is a rating system and app that helps shoppers understand growing guidelines, processing practices and company conduct behind each product. Walk into any HowGood affiliated store (Giant Food is currently the only partner in Fairfax County — with more coming soon) and pay attention to the labels. Many products will have HowGood “Good” “Great” or “Best” ratings on their tags, relating to their overall sustainability scores. How are these ratings created? HowGood collects comprehensive information on products from the USDA, Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance and 350 other sources, and rates according to 70 different indicators. Using your phone, you can also scan any barcode in the store and view a breakdown of a product’s rating, or better yet you can map out your entire grocery list using the app. The days of wondering if that box of granola is actually organic or sustainable are over!

Happy Cow

A go-to app for vegetarians and vegans, Happy Cow is Yelp for sustainable dining and grocery shopping. The concept is simple: vegetarians want to know which restaurants are truly amenable to their green lifestyles, and just as importantly, they want to know which restaurants have the best food. Download, search, enjoy. Enough said!

Seafood Watch

Much to the chagrin of conservation groups, it seems that anything goes out on the open seas. Unsustainable fishing practices are unfortunately still commonplace today, literally leading to classic cases of tragedy of the commons. In response to overfishing, Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is taking a novel approach to this issue by helping consumers and businesses make better seafood choices for a healthy ocean. The Seafood Watch app keeps consumers informed about the latest recommendations on which fisheries are currently sustainable. More on Seafood Watch’s recommendations:

Buy “Best Choice” recommendations first, they’re well managed and caught or farmed in ways that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife. You can also buy “Good Alternative” recommendations but be aware there are concerns with how they’re caught or farmed. Don’t buy “Avoid” recommendations because they’re overfished or caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment. — Seafood Watch

For example, Seafood Watch currently suggests that Virginians buy farmed Arctic Char and Tilapia, but urges residents to avoid imported Mahi Mahi and Bluefin Tuna. See a fish that sounds delicious on a menu or at the fishmonger? You can search specific fish on the app to see if it’s a sustainable choice.

Increasingly, there are less and less excuses not to shop for food in an ethical way. Step up!

Nature App Lets You “Capture Pokémon” In Real Life

Photo Courtesy of Pokemon Go

The kids are running around the neighborhood playing Pokémon Go with their phones again. It’s great that they’re out of the house getting exercise, but you wish that they could funnel their enthusiasm into something a bit more… constructive. Well, we’ve got a creative solution to your concerns!

iNaturalist is a phone app that essentially allows kids (and adults) to play a real-life version of Pokémon! In the most general sense, iNaturalist is an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature. The app is simple: take a photo of any kind of flora or fauna with your phone, and the app will help identify the organism and geo-tag the information so scientists can better understand the local ecosystem.

This app is ideal for anyone interested in the environment. See a funky-looking spider on the jungle gym but have no clue what it is? Snap a pic, upload it to iNaturalist and the app will quickly identify that arachnid and save it to your profile! See a vibrant flower on your hike in Sky Meadows State Park? iNaturalist can help with that!

The designers of iNaturalist have created an app that can inspire a love of nature that could last a lifetime. Download it today and take your kid out to catch real-life Pokémon!

Prime-time for Farmers Markets: Lots of Fresh Produce and Special Events

July and August are definitely the best months to get to the Farmers Markets in this area. According to the Virginia Harvest Calendar http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/producechart.pdf published by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services this is when most of the produce is being harvested, so you will find great abundance and variety at the Farmers Markets. Also, August 2-12 there will be special events to celebrate National Farmers Market Week. (see July 26 Facebook post @CleanFairfax)

Go eco-friendly:Bring plenty of reusable tote bags, reusable produce bags, and reusable containers. Clean Fairfax is encouraging Fairfax County residents to join the #plasticfreeproduce movement. Also, consider composting the remains of your fruits and vegetables.

Why support the Farmers Markets?

1. Freshness:

Fruits and vegetables are guaranteed fresh since they are local. You can talk directly to the farmer to find out about the produce you are purchasing.

  1. Protect the Environment:

Food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate. All this shipping uses large amounts of natural resources (especially fossil fuels), contributes to pollution, and creates trash with extra packaging. Conventional agriculture also uses many more resources than sustainable agriculture and pollutes water, land, and air with toxic agricultural by-products. Food at the farmers market is transported shorter distances and is generally grown using methods that minimize the impact on the earth.  (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture)

  1. Support Family Farmers:

Family farmers need your support, now that large agribusiness dominates food production in the U.S. Small family farms have a hard time competing in the food marketplace. Buying directly from farmers gives them a better return for their produce and gives them a fighting chance in today’s globalized economy.  (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture)

  1. Promote Humane Treatment of AnimalsAt the farmers market, you can find meats, cheeses, and eggs from animals that have been raised hormone- and antibiotic-free. Also, they are often openly grazed and cage free rather than forced into cramped feedlots and cages.
  2. Connect with Your Community

Farmers Markets offer a communal gathering place for neighbors.

National Farmers Market Week with cooking demonstrations, games, kids’ activities, raffles for gift baskets and more is running from Wednesday, August 2 to Saturday, August 12, 2017 at the Fairfax County Farmers Markets. Watch the promotional video (https://goo.gl/MHQGte) for additional information.

For directions and vendors at each market visit

http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/farmersmarkets or call Community Horticulture at 703-642-0128.

Get Outside!

 

In 2005, Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book, Last Child in the Woods, to describe the host of behavioral problems he attributes to humans, especially children, spending less time in the outdoors.

Highlighting this trend away from connecting with the natural world, a recent National Aquarium commercial shows a child watching sea life in an underwater tank and remarking how “life-like” it is. The dad tries to help the son recognize that it IS real-life, not virtual reality.

The solution: GET OUTSIDE! We are lucky here in Fairfax County to have 427 parks on approximately 23,359 acres of land. There is truly something for everyone: from outdoor waterparks to the new Treetop Adventure Course at South Run. The parks also include many miles of hiking trails. For  more information about Fairfax County parks and programming, go to http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/

For those who want to gain in-depth understanding of the natural environment or want to work on an environmental project in their community, the Master Naturalist program may be an option. The Master Naturalist program describes itself on its Virginia website as “volunteer educators, citizen scientists, and stewards helping Virginia conserve and manage natural resources and public lands.” This organization has trained experts to help reconnect people to their natural surroundings. Check out the Fairfax Chapter http://www.vmnfairfax.org/SitePages/Home.aspx

For individuals who want to go even further, registration to start the training towards becoming a Master Naturalist is happening right now for the fall training session. http://www.vmnfairfax.org/Shared%20Documents/2017%20UPDATED%20FMN%20Application_Fillable.pdf

 

Parties in the Woods: Litter and Fires

Fires set by groups of young people “hanging out” in the woods in Fairfax County are posing a real threat to the environment. Typically, small groups of students, usually high school age, will find wooded areas to congregate, often during the school day. Many times they have brought snacks and beverages, sometimes alcoholic beverages. Not wanting to show they have been cutting class—and, in some cases, illegally drinking— they will usually leave the packaging in the woods. Piles of cans, bottles, wrappers, etc. dot the wooded areas surrounding some of our high schools. More conscientious students even put everything in a bag and tie it up, though they still leave the bagged litter rather than try to dispose of it properly.

While this litter is a nuisance and does have an environmental impact on area wildlife that gets entrapped or ingests the litter, when groups decide to add a bonfire to their party in the woods, they are inviting possible environmental devastation, particularly as we get into the dryer months and students are out of school with more time on their hands.

Please immediately report to the police department any evidence of fire activity or ongoing problems with litter piles left over from “parties” in the woods.

June 8: World Oceans Day

In 2008 the United Nations proclaimed June 8 World Oceans Day. This year the theme is Our Oceans, Our Future. The conservation action focus isencouraging solutions to plastic pollution and preventing marine litter for a healthier ocean and a better future.”

According to the Oceanic Institute, oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water. With such great volume of water, how can litter be a problem?

We’ve all seen litter debris wash up on the beaches ruining the beach aesthetic and posing a potential health problem as beachcombers walk barefoot along the shore and toxins leach out of the litter. Some who have gone snorkeling or diving may have also encountered plastic bags, parts of fishing gear, plastic bottles, etc. below the surface of the ocean. And, of course, there are the entanglement problems: animals with plastic bags or plastic six pack holders wrapped around them. And ingestion situations: sea creatures with assorted garbage in their stomachs.

Particularly unbelievable is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, described as a soupy collection of marine debris—mostly plastics – with estimates measuring it at anywhere from 270,000 square miles (about the size of Texas) to 5,800,000 square miles (more than one and a half times the size of the United States). Similar, though somewhat smaller, swatches of floating litter, primarily large plastic pieces and the small micro-plastics these break down into, exist in the other oceans as well.

And marine litter has permeated even to the deepest parts of the ocean. Dr. Lucy Woodall, a scientist at the University of Oxford, conducted two large-scale surveys of deep sea areas in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and found litter at all locations, despite the depth of the samples and the remoteness of the locations.

And this is just the visible litter. Dr. Woodall’s sampling of deep sea organisms found evidence of ingested fibers in every creature.

This summer, when you head to the beach, be sure to pack out what you bring in. Consider going the extra step and picking up any litter you see.

And remember that the litter problem actually begins miles away from the ocean: our waterways here in Fairfax County go into the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.

Start with an effort to keep our waterways in Fairfax County free from litter. Contact Clean Fairfax if you have seen a trashy area you would like to clean up and need gloves and bags.

For more information about World Oceans Day go to http://www.worldoceansday.org/

Weed-free—Naturally!

Keeping our yards weed-free: It’s more than just a desire to “keep up with the Joneses” and not have the ugliest yard in the neighborhood. I would argue that most suburban homeowners in our area strive to maintain a beautiful yard because it is a pleasure to come home to a blooming weed-free paradise after a day of inside work. In our moderate climate zone, we are blessed with a fairly long growing season and an ability to cultivate a large variety of plants. With this opportunity, however, comes responsibility.

I noted in a previous blog (Invasives=Plant Litter March 20, 2017) the importance of planting non-invasives, and, whenever possible, removing invasives. However, what to do about weeds is another aspect of suburban gardening that requires careful decision-making to reduce negative environmental impact.

According to the Plant Natural Research Center, “While most modern herbicides are designed to kill only plants and have little or no toxicity to humans, many still have extreme consequences in the environment, changing habitats in ways that affect insects and wildlife. These consequences extend to water courses where they may kill beneficial aquatic plants and fish.”

In addition, a Purdue University study of dogs from treated and untreated yards found that untreated grass contained chemicals from drift from other yards, and half of the dogs studied who lived in untreated yards still had chemicals in their urine. The Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Purdue found that certain garden and lawn chemicals are linked to canine bladder cancer.

And there is some evidence that toxins in herbicides CAN affect humans. A case-controlled study published in March 1999 by Swedish scientists Lennart Hardell and Mikael Eriksson showed that non-hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is linked to exposure to a range of pesticides and herbicides, including glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup often used to control poison ivy in this area. Relatively unknown prior to the 1940’s—about the time pesticides and herbicides came into more widespread use— NHL is now one of the most common types of cancer.

Fortunately, Earth 911 offers some excellent all-natural ideas on how to take care of weeds: http://earth911.com/home-garden/all-natural-weed-killer/?utm_source=New+Earth911+List+-+2015&utm_campaign=50dab42296-Tuesday+Emails+5.9.17&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5e8b4dc609-50dab42296-167852373

You may also decide that that “weed” in your garden is really quite beautiful and worth leaving alone. Make environmentally sustainable choices in your garden this year!

(Native Joe Pye Weed is popular with both bees and butterflies—and is technically not a weed : -)

Don’t be a Fawn Kidnapper! 

Fairfax County is fortunate to have expanses of forest that are the habitat for many woodland creatures. During the spring, deer fawns are often temporarily left alone while the does forage. Many people mistakenly assume these baby deer have been abandoned. Unless the fawn is obviously hurt or sick, the Fairfax Police Department urges people to leave the fawns alone. For more information, go to https://fcpdnews.wordpress.com/2017/04/21/orphaned-or-abandoned-deer-fawns-dont-be-a-fawn-kidnapper/

 

Bye-Bye Protected Bay

I noted in my 1/11/17 blog (We are Closer to the Ocean Than You Think— http://wp.me/pBXWQ-WC ) that while we are a few hours away from the nearest beach in Northern Virginia, our streams and rivers here in the Potomac Watershed all go to the Chesapeake Bay. Now our Bay is in jeopardy!

President Trump plans to completely eliminate funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia) that has improved water quality in the Bay over the years.  In 2014, the partners signed the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which established specific goals, outcomes, management strategies, and work plans to guide the restoration of the Bay, its tributaries and the lands around them. The EPA has used the $73 million a year program—of which Virginia got $9.3 million last year—for such projects as the upgrading of deteriorating sewer facilities and the building of fences and dams to capture sedimentation and farm runoff.

According to the State of the Bay 2016 report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to “saving the Bay through education, advocacy, litigation, and restoration,” there has been a modest reduction in water pollution and increased abundance of blue crabs, oysters and other fisheries in the last few years. The Foundation attributes the improvement in part to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) plan, the largest cleanup plan ever developed by the EPA. This plan sets limits on nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution to meet water quality standards in the Bay and its tidal rivers.

However the Chesapeake Bay Foundation still gives the Bay a rating of only C- as there continue to be problems with overall health of the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Program website agrees: “The Bay’s health has slowly improved in some areas. However, the ecosystem remains in poor condition. The Bay continues to have polluted water, degraded habitats, and low populations of many fish and shellfish species.”
This is no time to be backing off protection for the Chesapeake Bay!  

 

 

Invasives = Plant “Litter”

Happy Spring! Start planning your non-invasive plantings now….

Like litter, invasive plants negatively impact the environment. Invasive plants, particularly ground cover like ivy and clematis, often have very little root structure and therefore when they cover large areas, fail to prevent erosion. Sediment then gets into our streams and creates poor water quality which impacts wildlife

Also, as their name suggests, invasive plants tend to “take over” areas. Invasive plants cause declines in native plants, including trees. They also can reduce both food and shelter for native animals, contributing to a decline in biodiversity. In fact, invasive plants are cited as a factor in Endangered Species Act listings!

 

Consider joining a local effort to remove invasive plants through Fairfax County’s Invasive Management Area (IMA) Volunteer Program:  http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/resource-management/ima/
Convinced that natives are the way to go? Here are some upcoming native plant sales in the Northern Virginia area:  http://vnps.org/spring-2017-plant-sales/