Monthly Archives: October 2013

Wasted Food = Wasted Water

greatlakes

Grocery stores do it. So do restaurants, schools, farmers, you and I. We all waste food. At the local, state and federal level, discarded food is widely recognized as a serious environmental and socioeconomic problem.

Among the many negatives associated with food waste is the added strain – through excess consumption and production – it places on our finite freshwater resources. Surface waters and groundwater are already under tremendous stress from various industries as well as from climate change, which has intensified the global water cycle causing drought and torrential rains.

What we eat every day represents about 50 percent of our total water footprint, which includes the enormous volume of “virtual water” needed to produce our food. The water footprint concept helps us to better understand, among other things, the complex relationship between agriculture and water resources, and in particular, the water embedded in our food. Given the water-intensive nature of growing, processing, packaging, warehousing, transporting and preparing food, it is not hard to sumise that wasted food means wasted water.

Our food system’s impact on water resources goes beyond water use, withdrawal and consumption; agricultural pollution negatively impacts water quality in groundwater, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands and estuaries. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural activities that cause pollution include “poorly located or managed animal feeding operations; overgrazing; plowing too often or at the wrong time; and improper, excessive or poorly timed application of pesticides, irrigation water and fertilizer.”

When you crunch the numbers, about 25 percent of all freshwater consumed annually in the US is associated with discarded food. Having trouble visualizing how much water that is? Well, it’s a little more than the volume of Lake Erie.

And yes, wasted food also means wasted energy.  Approximately 2.5 percent of the US energy budget is “thrown away” annually as food waste.

Fortunately, many people and organizations have given a lot of thought to how we can reduce food waste and when we can’t reduce it completely companies like BioHitech America have put a lot of thought into how to turn the food waste into new water.

Advertisements

Buying Carbon Offsets

carbonneutral

With bands like Coldplay and Pink Floyd releasing carbon-neutral albums, airlines like SilverJet claiming carbon neutrality and a growing troop of celebrities trumpeting their low-carbon lifestyles, a person might wonder how they all do it. How do bands, businesses and people cancel out what seems like an unavoidable emission? Carbon neutrality begins with reduction. It’s a concentrated effort to produce less waste and use more renewable energy. After reduction has reached its limit, or its comfortable threshold, carbon offsets can make up for the rest.

Carbon offsets are a form of trade. As people and businesses become more aware of their own contributions to global warming, some turn to carbon offsets as a way to go neutral. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The projects might restore forests, update power plants and factories or increase the energy efficiency of buildings and transportation. Carbon offsets let you pay to reduce the global GHG total instead of making radical or impossible reductions of your own. GHG emissions mix quickly with the air and, unlike other pollutants, spread around the entire planet. Because of this, it doesn’t really matter where GHG reductions take place if fewer emissions enter the atmosphere.

Carbon offsets are voluntary. People and businesses buy them to reduce their carbon footprints or build up their green image. Some companies make real efforts to modify their operations, create fewer GHG emissions and offset the rest. Offsets don’t excuse excess, but if viewed as aid for people and the environment, they can be beneficial.

Offset companies first estimate a customer’s personal carbon output. Their web sites include carbon calculators that determine the total GHG produced by a year’s worth of electricity or driving, an event or even a round-trip flight. Offset companies then charge an amount based on their own GHG price per ton. The money funds programs that offset an equal amount of emissions. Some offset companies allow customers to choose their projects; others do not.  Forestry offset projects are popular because they represent real, visible improvements. People feel more comfortable buying 50 trees than sequestering a ton of methane.

Some environmentalists, however, doubt the validity and effectiveness of carbon offsets as it difficult to judge the quality of offset providers and projects. Trees don’t always live a full life, sequestration projects (for the long-term containment of emissions) sometimes fail and offset companies occasionally deceive their customers. Carbon offsets do, however, raise awareness about lowering the GHG world total.

Fracking under Monterey’s Vegetable Patch

fracking

Under California’s central valley lies a vast field of shale oil that’s ready to be exploited thanks to the hotly debated oil and gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Known as the Monterey Shale Formation, the unconventional oilfield lies underneath the lower half of the San Joaquin Valley. The farmland sitting on top of the shale is known for producing raisins, nuts, fruits, vegetables and cotton.

The oil-rich Monterey Shale deposit represents a tantalizing opportunity for the oil industry, as unlike elsewhere, oil, not natural gas, is to be extracted. As the deposit lies, in part, over the Central Valley (aka our national vegetable patch) there is some urgency to bring regulations to bear before a new shale boom erupts.

For those accustomed to the inch-by-inch slog of the fracking debate in states like New York or Pennsylvania, it seems as though California is moving at warp speed.

On September 20th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law, which will regulate fracking in the Golden State as of January 1, 2014. The bill means – for now – no moratorium (as environmental groups had hoped) nor unrestricted easy, breezy access to drilling in the Monterey Shale (as the oil industry had hoped).

California will be home to the nation’s toughest fracking regulations, requiring permits to be filed for drilling wells, notification of neighbors living near wells, groundwater testing and more study of fracking’s effect on the environment. These requirements will also apply to acidizing, or the use of chemicals to dissolve shale rock formations.

The bill further requires that by January 2015, state officials must complete their environmental study and the state Department of Conservation must create the new fracking permitting process. As a part of that process, oil companies must fully disclose which chemicals are used in fracking, a provision to which the oil industry did not object.

This may just be the tip of the iceberg with fracking in California. While producing a lot of unconventional oil and gas may boost the economy, without the proper regulations and oversight, fracking could do a lot of harm to the state’s farmland.

Given California’s rich oil history, oil and agriculture interests have co-existed for a long time, but fracking could pit the two against each other for the first time.

NJ Has A Landfill Problem

fenimore

The children attending schools in Roxbury, New Jersey can’t go outside because of the gaseous smells coming from the troubled Fenimore landfill located in Morris County.

The state Attorney General’s Office plans to sue the owners of a troubled Morris County landfill today over a stench producing cleanup effort at the site, where state officials are now hauling in new equipment in hopes of quelling the smell.

The two civil complaints that have been filed against Strategic Environmental Partners will accuse the company of several violations including fraud, misappropriation of more than $1 million in tipping fees, and violations of New Jersey’s Solid Waste Management and Air Pollution Control acts.  The DEP order allowing Fenimore to reopen in 2011 required the owners to place all revenue from tipping fees for certain materials into an escrow account, to be used exclusively for the proper capping of the landfill. That never happened, according to the sources, who said the state is seeking millions in civil penalties.

The dump hadn’t been used since 1979, though it was never fully closed. Strategic Environmental accepted construction debris as a way to cap the site, but it began emitting hydrogen sulfide that stunk up nearby neighborhoods and led to hundreds of complaints.

Sometime soon, the Christie administration will step in and add new equipment to the landfill in hopes of eliminating — or significantly reducing — the smell.  The equipment, a pollution treatment system known as an industrial “scrubber,” will be put in place as a temporary measure. A permanent scrubber built specifically for Fenimore will be added later.

Strategic Environmental is already suing the state and local officials in federal court, accusing them in a lawsuit filed in August of carrying out a “civil conspiracy” that deprived them of their rights to property, due process, free speech and equal protection under the law. A lawyer for the owners has said they made every effort to control the gases coming from the site.

Hopefully the kids are able to go back outside soon.

Bad Habits Are Hard To Brake

FossilFuelUsage

Our country has a very bad habit: A dependency on fossil fuels.

For years now, the dangers of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) have been piling up. One of our largest concerns lies in the finiteness of these resources. Currently, the United States consumes 20.5 million barrels of fossil fuels a day, making up almost 25 percent of the global usage. If we continue at this rate, scientists argue that our resources will soon run dry, leaving us without energy.

The massive consumption of fossil fuels has also intensified our environmental concerns. As most know, the burning of fossil fuels releases CO2 into the air, which traps the sun’s rays, heating up the earth. Although CO2 is a natural part of our atmosphere, the increasing amounts of this greenhouse gas have raised the temperatures to new highs, resulting in droughts, rising sea levels, and strange weather patterns. As a result, global warming is one of the biggest environmental issues that we are facing today.

Due to all of the issues with fossil fuels, many countries are looking for new solutions. But, this does not come easily. In order for a coal-based nation to switch over to greener solutions, it needs money, effort, and time.

China represents one of the nations paving the way for such advancements. In 2011, the nation invested nearly $51 billion in alternative energy technologies. As a result, they currently have the highest renewable power capacity at 70 gigawatts in total. The United States is close behind in its investments, having spent $48 billion with a total generation of 68 gigawatts.

Despite these enormous investments, changes still need to be made. Cutler Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies at Boston University has explained that, based on his research, no country will completely change its dependency to renewable resources in the next 50 years. He argues that “we will have to engineer the transition,” a step that seems nearly impossible.

According to Cleveland, stopping these bad habits will require two major steps. The first is to force the transition by means of economics. He argues that by changing the price of carbon through federal legislation, the increased payments will divert the people from fossil fuels to the better solutions. This argument then leads into his second step, where Cleveland calls for a more educated conversation between the government and its people. He argues that in order for a change to be made, the people need to know what impacts their decisions are making on the environment. Increasing awareness will create a greater demand for efficiency, and a decreasing reliance on such harmful fuels.  In the end, the U.S. needs to shift away from coal and oil to natural gas, renewable energy and nuclear.

Although complete changes are not ccurring immediately, the efforts to stop these bad habits are being made. As time goes on, we are quickly developing more and more efficient technology that is cheaper, more effective, and can be manufactured much more quickly.

Slowly but surely, changes towards better solutions will allow us to kick this bad habit. 

Using Satellites to Provide Better Data

grace

Approximately 200 miles above the Earth’s surface, two satellites circle the planet together, measuring and sending data about changes of many things.  The satellites are referred to as Grace, (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment).  While they live in space, they’re providing invaluable assistance in managing one of our natural resources on the ground, groundwater.

GRACE has created a unique picture of groundwater storage level changes over the past 11 years. This information already is helping water users and policymakers manage scarce groundwater resources in California, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin and several other locations around the world. It’s also providing an example of how satellites and remote sensing are reshaping the water world, opening new frontiers for water resources management and making remarkable progress in spotlighting global water risks.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), approximately 26 percent of the freshwater withdrawn in the United States every day comes from groundwater.  That number varies in different regions and countries, but groundwater-storing aquifers are an important source of drinking water and a primary buffer against drought around the world, offering more stable supplies when surface sources such as lakes and reservoirs are depleted. But in many parts of the world, little or no information is publicly available on how much water a given aquifer contains. It’s rare to know how much water people are withdrawing or how this relates to replenishment rates.

Even in a developed state such as California, land owners can pump underground water without any reporting or metering. The specifics, of course, change around the world, but ignorance of groundwater levels and sustainable withdrawal rates is the common denominator.

That’s where GRACE comes in.

As the two satellites orbit the earth, they provide transparent but necessary data that can make up for the lack of on-the-ground monitoring of water resources around the world.

At times, some countries have refused to release their water-related data, citing security concerns, but the GRACE remote-sensing technology has created a bypass around the reluctance of many countries to release their data providing us with greater precision mapping and understanding.

River basins must be managed efficiently, equitably and sustainably which is not possible without data.  The goal of all this is to create leverage for water managers and for politicians to hopefully start acting on the best management solution for groundwater.  Thanks Grace.

A Wastewater Treatment Facility’s New Best Friend

foodbestfriend

Food waste is the second largest category of municipal solid waste (MSW) sent to landfills in the United States.  Over 30 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year.  Shrinking landfill space, escalating landfill taxes, and reducing harmful emissions from landfills, are creating strong incentives for local authorities and businesses to find other treatment options for their food waste.  Many are turning to wastewater treatment facilities.

The volume of organic waste that needs to be treated is growing due to an increasing population and more stringent regulations designed to reduce organic waste being sent to landfill.  For the treatment of food waste, Anaerobic Digestion (AD) offers the greatest environmental benefit of any treatment option.

Anaerobic digestion technology is commonly used throughout the United States to break down sewage sludge at wastewater treatment facilities already.  In the past few months, there has been a movement to start adding food waste.

So, why is it a better treatment option than sending the food waste to a composting facility?

  1. Because the energy capturing infrastructure is already in place at many waste water treatment facilities.

  2. Because wastewater treatment facilities already have the on-site expertise and years of experience dealing with anaerobic digesters which are difficult to operate without thorough knowledge.

  3. Wastewater treatment facilities are located in urban areas where compost facilities are typically located farther away.

  4. Wastewater facilities offer an opportunity to employ more people.

  5. Anaerobically digesting food waste prior to composting reduces the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which contribute to air pollution.

  6. Renewable energy is source of revenue and is in high demand.

As energy prices continue to climb, capturing the energy from food waste, using it to operate these facilities and selling the excess energy back to the grid is a great outcome for both the wastewater treatment plants and local municipalities.  In addition, the production of renewable energy will make wastewater treatment facilities eligible for Government incentives.

Organic waste is a hugely valuable resource, and the United States needs to get the most out of it.  Expanding the use of anaerobic digestion inside the wastewater industry is a great way to get this done.