Archive | conservation

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!

New Program Coordinator is Member of the Notorious Litterati

Clean Fairfax Council would like to welcome its newest team member, Sam Raasch! Sam is a northern Virginian, born and raised, and a graduate of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. He is passionate about science communication and engaging the public in conservation efforts. Before landing at Clean Fairfax, Sam worked in various natural resource conservation roles at Virginia Tech, New York University, World Resources Institute and the US Forest Service.

 

But more importantly, Sam is an associate of the infamous Litterati. What’s the Litterati, you may ask? Why, it’s a mobile app that uses crowdsourcing to identify, map, and collect the litter we pick up as a community. It’s a simple but formidable concept that can change the way litter reduction is researched and resolved.

Partial Litterati Map of Fairfax County

Partial Litterati Map of Fairfax County

Any time Sam sees a piece of trash, he opens the Litterati app, snaps a quick photo, and the app applies a GPS coordinate, classifies the type of trash and uploads it to a map. Why is this useful? First and foremost, Sam finally has an easy, effective way to alert authorities about local litter hotspots, and consequently, local authorities better understand their municipality’s waste management needs. Furthermore, the data can be used to put pressure on businesses that are not focused on sustainability! Perhaps Sam’s favorite taco shop gives far too many hot sauce packets per order and the packets are ending up in the local stream. Sam’s a nice guy but he might be forced to use his finely tuned Litterati skills of persuasion to show them, using the app, that their sauce packets are ending up in the wrong places!

 

Litterati is one of the most recent efforts to crowd-source data collection for science, but we’ve seen several other great examples of technology that inspires conservation. The app iNaturalist, essentially a real-life version of Pokemon Go, allows citizens to take photos of local flora and fauna and share the data with scientists. In 2012, 150 tons of plastic pellets spilled from a container ship directly off the shores of Hong Kong during a severe typhoon. A citizen then created a geo-tagging app to track the various locations of the spill, and residents used the app to begin the cleanup effort.

If you’re interested in being part of litter reduction in Fairfax County but don’t have the time to organize a stream cleanup, download Litterati (https://www.litterati.org/)! Help our county clean itself, one photo at a time.

P.S. — Litterati is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to continue improving the app.

Food: It’s a Terrible Thing to Waste!

Clean your plate: children in India/Africa are starving! Many of us heard this injunction growing up. Insufficient food is a huge problem in many countries, but even here in Fairfax County 44,000 residents receive help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because they are unable on their own to get enough food to eat.

Some individuals, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. try to close the loop and donate “extra” food to those in need, but Sustainable America estimates that 40% of food in the United States is wasted.  For more information on eating out without wasting food:  http://www.sustainableamerica.org/blog/eating-out-without-wasting-food/

Leftover food that cannot be used by others is an environmental opportunity. This past spring, Fairfax County’s Solid Waste Management Program announced its launch of a pilot composting program “to encourage the growth of local companies that collect food waste (also called organic waste) from homes, events, businesses, etc., and turn it into compost. The compost can then be used as a high-quality soil amendment in residential backyards, farms, and landscaping projects.”

What makes this type of large-scale composting appealing is that items that normally would not go in a smaller household composting operation such as bones and meat and paper products can be included.

To date, two composting companies, Compost Crew and Veterans, have registered with the program. The County has reviewed these companies’ equipment and operations, thus providing some assurance to potential customers that they are operating in a safe and sustainable way.

To participate in this pilot program, contact Compost Crew at http://compostcrew.com/signup/ or Veterans at https://www.veterancompost.com/our-services/

Bottom line: Try not to waste food, but if you do have organic scraps, put them to good use!

Solar Energy in Virginia

Solar energy not only contributes to environmental sustainability, but also makes economic sense from a statewide perspective. While our national government continues to tout the need to support the coal industry, solar is slowly making some inroads in the Virginia energy system. As our Solar Report Card shows, however, both lukewarm state policies and insufficient incentives still keep solar from being all it could be in our (mostly) sunny state.

A few facts to debunk some myths:

Jobs:  Only 2,647 Virginians still work in coal mining while 4,338 work in solar energy and 1,260 in wind power—and employment in alternative energy is rising. (January 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report). The number of solar jobs in Virginia climbed by 65 percent between 2015 and 2016 and solar jobs grew 53 times faster than the overall state economy according to a report released by The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, which defines solar workers as those who spend at least 50 percent of their time on solar-related work. Alternative energy, and solar in particular, offers great employment opportunities for Virginia residents.

Cost:  Dominion Energy’s latest integrated resource plan (IRP) for Virginia reveals that utility scale solar farms (20 megawatts and up) can produce electricity at a cost that beats coal, gas, and nuclear. Accordingly, Dominion is proposing a build-out of 249 megawatts of solar per year. Meanwhile, Amazon Web Services has been building 260 megawatts of solar in five Virginia counties to supply its data centers. And developers have proposed more than 1,600 megawatts of additional solar capacity in counties across the state. At the large-scale level, there is some growth.

What about the cost to the average homeowner? Unfortunately, while the Federal government offers a 30% income tax credit, VA is behind many other states in offering incentives for homeowners to go solar. Some counties and cities in Virginia, including Fairfax County, exempt solar energy equipment from local property taxes, but that’s about it. There is no income tax credit offered by the state of Virginia.

For comparison, Maryland residents get $1,000 when they purchase a solar system smaller than 20 kilowatts for their primary residence. Also, homeowners do not have to pay any extra taxes on the increased value of their home when they go solar and the purchase of the solar energy system is tax-free. According to Solar Power Rocks, an independent organization “committed to giving homeowners a clear picture of the policy, incentives, and investment returns on local solar panel installations.” payback time for 5-kW solar in Maryland is 10 years and the Investment Return Rate is 10.3%. Here is Virginia’s Solar Report Card.   

Source: https://solarpowerrocks.com/virginia

RPS Law:  Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is a law used to require electric utilities to generate a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources by a certain date. If a utility company fails to meet these goals, it can be subject to large fines.  Virginia’s standard is 15% of base year (2007) sales by 2025. For more info about Virginia’s RPS:  http://programs.dsireusa.org/system/program/detail/2528

Solar Carve-out:  Part of a state’s RPS that sets a specific goal for electricity generation from solar panels. Virginia does not have a solar carve-out.

Net Metering: Billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. For more info on VA’s net metering policies: http://www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/PollutionPrevention/VirginiaInformationSourceforEnergy/DistributedGeneration/NetMetering.aspx

Battery Storage: Power producers face a constant challenge of supplying energy to match the ebb and flow of energy demand. Many people continue to hold the erroneous belief that solar power is too inconsistent to be reliable, i.e. when there is no sun there will be no power. According to Ivy Main, from Power to the People VA, several factors make the storage problem a non-issue in Virginia.

  • First of all, we have a huge grid managed by independent operator PJM Interconnection that easily compensates for any “down” time. While solar makes up less than 1% of its electricity supply currently, PJM’s own March 2017 study concluded that its grid could handle up to 20% solar right now without any new battery storage, resulting in energy savings (see “cost” above) and a reduction in carbon pollution from the move away from coal and gas sources.
  • Secondly, hidden in Bath County, Virginia, is the world’s largest “battery:” pumped storage provided by a pair of reservoirs generating over 3,000 megawatts of hydropower that PJM can use to balance out supply and demand.
  • Finally, actual batteries are also an option since their price has dropped by half since 2014. Solar-plus-storage combinations now compete with new gas plants that run only when there is a high demand (“gas peakers”) and batteries can also be paired with solar to form microgrids for emergency use during widespread outages.

Considering solar? Contact Solarize NOVA, a non-profit, community-based outreach initiative that brings solar power to people in their homes and businesses in Northern Virginia. They will answer questions, help find a qualified solar installer, and perform a free solar satellite assessment. http://solarizenova.org/

Keep on top of energy legislation in Virginia at https://powerforthepeopleva.com/

Help Clean Fairfax in its mission to keep Fairfax County green and sustainable!

Spotlight on Eco-Friendly Business: THE INSIDE SCOOP

The Inside Scoop               

Owner: Daniel Azar

Opened for business: 2/14/2014

The Inside Scoop, a local food truck selling organic homemade ice cream and treats, made some eco-friendly changes after participating in Clean Fairfax’s SpringFest, an annual celebration of Earth Day that encourages sustainable practices.

According to owner Daniel Azar, “SpringFest’s requirements prompted me to look for alternatives that I used for that event.  After that, it stuck, and I started phasing out as much plasticware as possible.” Daniel also noted, “There is a growing concern over how much non-compostable waste we are producing.  All you have to do is google ‘landfills’ and you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of garbage that will never break down.  There needs to be more laws in place (such as California’s required recycling), but also grassroots efforts to help raise awareness and make changes, without needing to wait for a federal mandate, because it’s just the right thing to do.”

Daniel found that depending on the item, it was either the same price as plastic or a little higher, but went on to say that the slight increase in cost should be a trivial concern to businesses, small and large, because “our environment, our ecosystem, is worthless if we can’t live in it.”

His recommendation to other businesses is to “not let the bottom line be more important than the overall health of both ourselves and all of our neighbors: Fourlegged, bipedal, winged or otherwise.”

EXAMPLES OF ECO-FRIENDLY PRACTICES USED AT THE INSIDE SCOOP:

Avoidance of single-use plastics (straws, packaging, utensils, dishes, containers, bags) 

Phasing out of plastic dishes and spoons for paper and wooden ones.

Energy conservation 

Turn off and unplug any appliance not currently in use.

Recycling

Recycle at every opportunity!

Local sources

Dairy, heavy cream, and several ingredients & toppings are

locally sourced from farmers markets right here in Fairfax County and from our nation’s

Dairy State: Pennsylvania.

Organics

Dairy, agave & heavy cream are Organic.

Fair-trade 

The coffee in Espresso Chip ice cream is Fair Trade.

Composting

Wooden taster spoons, teaspoons & paper cups are all compostable.

Waste Prevention (e.g. donations of unsold product to needy)

Donated to 3 different homeless & needy shelters in the D.C Area.

Support this eco-friendly business and enjoy some yummy ice cream and treats:

http://www.theinsidescoopcreamery.com/

 

 

Why plastic bag bans or taxes haven’t happened in Fairfax County

As I distribute reusable produce and tote bags at the Fairfax County Farmers Markets during National Farmers Market Week, I often get asked about why Fairfax County has not banned plastic bags or taxed their use like many other jurisdictions around the world.

  • The first problem is that many people are not aware of the extent of the problem caused by plastic bags. In addition to being left as litter, because they are lightweight, plastic bags often fly out of trash cans and trucks, and also escape out of landfills. And, according to most estimates, in part because they are recycled separately from other plastics, only 1% of them ever make it to a recycling center.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags. One out of every ten items picked up in an International Coastal Cleanup in 2009 was a plastic bag.

Locally, Clean Fairfax’s monitoring of two 100 foot stream segments as part of our Clean Streams Initiative showed alarming results: Our Quander Brook monitoring site, which receives stormwater runoff from a Walmart shopping center, had 136 plastic bags just six weeks after the site had been completely cleaned. On Little Hunting Creek, runoff from a high density residential area of apartments left 92 plastic bags three months after that site’s cleanup. 

 

And plastic bags kill wildlife:  Entrapment, ingestion, and leaching as these bags photodegrade wreaks havoc on plant and animal life, particularly as bags float from our streams into the ocean.

  • Another problem with trying to get legislation to stem the tide of plastic bag pollution is that in VA there is the Dillon Rule which does not allow a local jurisdiction to create a ban or tax. While plastic bag legislation has been raised at the Virginia Statehouse, it has not passed. Strong business lobbies oppose it, and many legislators don’t want to ruffle constituent feathers with a perceived inconvenience.

So, it is up to individuals to make the eco-friendly choice by bringing reusable bags to every shopping experience—and to let their state representatives know that they want legislation that will help keep plastic bags out of our streams and oceans.

Attainable Sustainable: Eco-Watch not Eco-Witch

Going into Fairfax County streams to monitor and cleanup the horrific litter problem. Seeing the headlines about the long-range environmental impact of climate change. Watching webinars on the devastating effects of marine debris on wildlife. It’s enough to turn me into an eco-witch, i.e. one who constantly finds fault with individuals and businesses who are not maintaining high environmental sustainability standards in their daily practice—and governmental policy decisions that undermine our environmental quality.

 

It is important to stay vigilant to unsustainable practices, “eco-watch,” but avoid only harping about the problems as an “eco-witch.” It is time to take action. Most people— and businesses— are willing to follow sustainable practices if they 1) are easy to follow, i.e. don’t require a lot of extra work and, 2) don’t cost extra money.

So how might public outreach that is “attainable sustainable” play out?

Be a model of sustainable practices and provide the means for others to follow these.  Your simple actions can serve as a positive “eco-watch” for others: make a point of refusing straws, plastic bags, and single-use water bottles; bring reusable containers to take home leftovers at restaurants; choose fair trade, organic, and locally sourced products (e.g. Farmers Markets); and purchase energy-efficient cars and appliances. In addition to publicly modeling eco-friendly products and practices, actions such as providing friends and family with reusable bags and water bottles and buying them fair-trade gifts help spread the sustainability movement.

On a larger scale, contact restaurants that still use Styrofoam or plastic clamshells for take-out—neither of which are recyclable in Fairfax County—about using more sustainable packaging. Stay on top of environmental legislation (consider subscribing to Daily Action Alerts) and contact your local, state, and national legislators about supporting legislation that helps, not hurts, the environment.

And support organizations like Clean Fairfax that are working to inculcate more eco-friendly practices.

Don’t just complain as an “eco-witch.” Eco-watch and take action.

Carbon Offset Your Summer Travel

Summer is a heavy travel time and eco-tourism is on the rise. In fact, the UN has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

 A 2013 NY Times Sunday Review article entitled “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel” says that one round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.

One way to minimize the environmental impact of your travel is to purchase carbon offsets.  A carbon offset is essentially a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that compensates for an emission produced somewhere else. But when buying carbon offsets, it is important to be clear on what offset sellers are guaranteeing. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the offset should be real, verified, enforceable, and permanent. Also, the offset should be additional with no leakage. In a 2016 article entitled “Should You Buy Carbon Offsets?” they give the following example:

If the offset seller is giving money to a landowner in the Amazon who promises to leave his/her trees standing to maximize carbon sequestration, there needs to be a way to ensure there is an actual landowner with the trees, a way to penalize this landowner if s/he does not follow through, and guarantees that the trees won’t be burned down six months later. Also, if the landowner was not planning on removing the trees anyways, this would be considered a gift rather than an offset. Finally, if the logging company just buys the land next to the landowner’s land, then the carbon offset just shifted deforestation rather than prevented it.

According to the NRDC, “The best carbon offset programs are transparent. If you have concerns, you should contact the seller to find out exactly what you’re buying. Many will allow you to direct your money to specific projects or away from others.”

 There are numerous carbon offset sellers online. Be sure to read the fine print.

Green-e provides international energy certification. Their suggested list is at https://www.green-e.org/certified-resources/carbon-offsets

 If you want to know how much carbon you are creating go to http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/calculator

A more detailed carbon calculator can be found at https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/

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 : -)