Why We Should Worry About the State of Our Water

Aug 11 2014 • Posted by

The world is running out of clean water. We now live in a country where every water body is degraded in quality to some extent. Before water quality standards were written into law, companies freely dumped their effluent waste into local water bodies. The pollution of such water bodies has not been entirely undone, even when attempts to clean them have been made. For example, between 1947 and 1977, General Electric dumped at least 1.3 million pounds of PCB’s into New York’s Hudson River. When the Hudson’s water quality came into question, GE spent millions on donations, lobbyists, scientists, and lawyers, all to avoid taking responsibility (especially after the Hudson was declared a Superfund site in 2002). The company’s biggest fear was that if they were forced to take responsibility for pollution (and therefore remediation) of the Hudson, then they could be forced to take responsibility for other sites that they contaminated*. This would be unfavorable because the requisite equipment and time lost to remediation would cost them additional money.

Since the early 2000’s, GE has been forced to clean the PCB’s from the Hudson, but they do not have to bring the river back to the quality it was in before they arrived. This is problematic for numerous reasons. For one, even if small traces of PCB’s remain, there is still risk to human health. Even in small doses, any toxin can be detrimental to human health if people are exposed frequently enough. More important however, is the fact that PCB’s bioaccumulate in living tissue, meaning that they increase in concentration with each succession of the food chain. This implies that even if all of the PCB’s were to be removed from the sediment in and around the Hudson River, PCB’s will remain in the tissue of local organisms for several years, magnify with each link in the food chain, and eventually reach humans in high concentrations.

For a lot of people, a notice of polluted water spurs an immediate trip to the supermarket to purchase bottled water, yet bottled water is almost always the same quality as local tap water. In many cases, bottled water is tap water. Companies like Poland Spring, which use illustrations of mountain streams to give the impression that their water comes from somewhere pristine and untouched actually draw their water from urban places. Sometimes the water coming out of the faucet is even cleaner than the water on the supermarket shelves! Instead of searching for alternatives, we should demand cleaner water standards. Our government is business-oriented as a result of the way our economy functions. It is a fact that is reflected in the tendency our nation has to be lenient toward even the worst polluters. We have allowed companies like General Electric to weasel their way out of taking responsibility for polluting our water bodies and our land, often times causing record cases of disease in local towns. We should be demanding more from our businesses. In many ways, businesses rely on the satisfaction of the consumer. This is power in our hands, which we can use to demand what should be our basic right. Unless your tap is certifiably contaminated, don’t buy bottled water. Instead, hold polluters and politicians accountable.


*Information about General Electric’s contamination of the Hudson was taken from The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century by Alex Prud’Homme. This is a very informative book and is a great book to read if you are interested in issues surrounding water.


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Stability in Israel (environmental stability that is)

Jul 30 2014 • Posted by

This past week I was fortunate enough to take a trip to the Middle East, more specifically Israel. In a time of tension, I was able to truly see the country in all its glory. I went to the holiest city in the world, Jerusalem and swam in the lake up north. I floated in the Dead Sea and slept in a Bedouin tent. However as an Intern at the South Coast Energy Challenge, I found myself looking at Israel’s environmental sustainability and I was impressed. The first environmentally friendly object that I saw was solar panels everywhere. I saw solar panels on houses, schools and buildings. After experiencing the hot sun I understood why it was everywhere. I also saw windmills in certain areas, turning and making clean energy. The last thing I noticed were giant recycling cages all over Israel filled with plastic ready to be recycled. These cages were in public places and I saw multiple times people throwing bottles and other recyclable goods in the cages. Upon further research I found that Israel was more environmentally friendly then I thought it was.

After researching a little on Israel’s green goals I found out that they are in fact in the coming year will be creating a special green town. The Mt. Gilboa town of Nurit will be Israel’s first green town. This means it’s power will be fully run off of windmills and solar PV units while also planting trees to naturally cool the area. Another astonishing fact is that Ninety percent of Israeli homes have a solar water heater and the company, Arava Power, will have 10 solar fields up and running by the end of 2016. Other inventions like the battery powered car and the cardboard bike was though of in Israel. The fact is that Israel is aware of environmental problem and even as a very small country they are trying to make a difference in the world.



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Energy and Environmental Myths, Misconceptions, and Controversies – Solar Roadways Part 2

Jul 30 2014 • Posted by

This might be a three part blog instead of a two part one. I’m way more hesitant than I should be about this subject. The thing is, a lot of the people in this program are REALLY enthusiastic about Solar Roadways, and I don’t want to be the biggest downer of all time without due cause.

The main issue with solar roadways is that, simply put, it is inefficient. I don’t mean to imply that solar energy itself is inefficient, just that solar roadways are an inefficient method of gathering solar energy. The most obvoius issue is the installation problems it prevents. how long would it take to replace a road with the solar panels that make up a solar roadway? More importantly, how much money would it cost? Tearing up every road in America, especially highways, would take an incredible amount of money and resources.

Of course, that problem could be easily ignored if, rather than replacing old roads with solar roadways, we simply use solar roadways for creating new roads. However, that does not solve every issue. Would it not be just as useful to build solar panels that could generate just as much energy somewhere else? The problem with roads is that they are very close to the ground, and often surrounded by trees and houses. Not exactly prime real-estate for solar panels. For the same amount of money it would take to make a solar road, one could easily make a solar farm that would generate far more energy.

I don’t mean to completely smash everyone’s dreams here. Solar roadways are, as a concept, a pretty decent idea. The issue is that it is just too expensive. Roadways and solar panels are two things that do not really need to be combined. If it cost just as muh to make a solar roadway as it did to make a regular roadway, then, of course, it would be an excellent idea. This may sound odd, but I do think it was a good decision to fund the prototype. There will definitely be niche situations where having solar panels that fucntion as roadways will be useful, and it’s a good technology to have for those situations. Plus, devlopents for making solar panels into roadways can be applied to other solar developments in the future, improving the technology as a whole. However, replacing all the roads in the country with solar panels is simply not all that plausible.

Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t get excited or keep up with its development. Just don’t set your expectations too high! Think of it as a fun experiment rather than the next big step in how we get our electricity.

If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments! I will probably not read them. I might, though. There’s always a chance.

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Little Victories

Jul 22 2014 • Posted by

Weeds! Those feisty little green devils keep popping up in my garden. Here I am trying to be sustainable and grow my own veggies and these little plants keep popping up to ruin my day. I can’t complain, though. Sure, my garden had a bit of a rocky start. For the first week after planting, a gopher taking up residence under my neighbor’s shed snuck out every night to nibble on my basil. But my plants are growing, I haven’t had any issues with bugs or fungus, and I’ve even noticed a few little tomatoes developing! Yay!

In other news, this past week brought a personal victory. I finally did it. I convinced my mother to use reusable bags when she grocery shops. Yes, even my mother, who drives an SUV, insists on forsaking the piles of reusable bottles collecting in our cabinets and the perfectly good filtration system on our refrigerator in favor of plastic bottles, and thinks that a house isn’t clean until it’s full of chemicals has taken a step to be more sustainable. There is hope, my friends. There is hope.

Until next week, blog readers.

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Energy and Environmental Myths, Misconceptions, and Controversies – Solar Roadways Part 1

Jul 16 2014 • Posted by

Before we dive into the pros and cons of this (very) controversial new idea, let’s discuss what it is and who’s doing it.  That’ll buy me at least ONE week to sort out my arguments before I throw myself into the meat grinder of public opinion.

Solar Roadways are, basically, solar panels that can also be used as roads, as invented and invisioned by Scott and Julie Bursaw.  They are shaped like octogons, and only a foot or two in diameter.  They also contain LEDs which can be used to simulate lines typically painted on the road.   Parking lots and driveways could also be made in similar ways.  Though it would begin with the creation of new roads and parking lots, the creators of Solar Roadways hope to have all roads replaced with these panels.

They are made with a thick layer of tempered glass, made to support large amounts of weight (over 250,000 pounds), and so that they don’t become dangerous to motorists or passersby, should the glass break.  It is designed with traction in mind so that cars don’t slip on a rainy day.

That’s pretty much all there is to it!  There’s a lot of complicated science to it, but all you really need to know is that they are solar panels that are also used as roads, and they have to made and installed differently as a result.  This is kind of a short entry, but like I said – I want to get my story straight.  I still need to read arguments on both sides, find some in-depth articles about the cost and tech, etc.  Next week, friends.

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Every Lead Counts: A Reflection on the Success of the SouthCoast Energy Challenge

Jul 16 2014 • Posted by

On the 4th of July, I tabled for the Southcoast Energy Challenge at the Charles Morgan Event in New Bedford. In light of what was forecasted as an impending hurricane, many New Bedford residents had opted to stay indoors, and in any case, the event was pretty empty. For the first few hours I stood with my clipboard, bored with inactivity and grumpy because I wasn’t getting any signups. But then I realized something. Whenever we attend another event, we always end up with at least one more signup, which translates into one more person taking energy saving actions. All we have to do to get someone else on board with environmental initiatives is go to another event. Without overwhelming interest it wasn’t always obvious, but in the world of non-profits, we’re successful.

So what makes our program so effective? As anyone who has worked in an environmental-related field can attest, it’s difficult to get people to care about the inherent value of the natural world. People are moved by nothing more than they are by self-interest and short-term consequence. The crucial point to remember is that everything we do to the environment eventually comes back around to us. Through provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural services we are either directly or indirectly connected to every ecosystem on Earth. When we translate environmental issues into terms of human benefit, especially when those terms are specific, getting people to care is a whole lot easier. This is what we do as purveyors and advocates of the Southcoast Energy Challenge, and it is what makes the program so great.

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Let’s Be Real-ly Sustainable

Jul 10 2014 • Posted by

One night, a few years ago, I rode home from Boston with my dad. As we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 24, we passed the time, as usual, by debating ideas and discussing things that bothered us. I was studying environmental policy at Boston University at the time, and when we landed on the subject of my classes I mentioned to him how I felt that my chosen career path seemed futile because it felt like I was working toward an outcome that, at best, meant delaying the inevitable. This fear had arisen from the realization that what we deem lasting or durable enough to call “sustainable” cannot be sustained indefinitely and until we raise the standard for sustainability, our actions will never be enough.

We live in a world where virtually everything is made out of plastic or some other non-biodegradable material. Sure, there’s recycling, but not everything can be recycled. Think you’re helping the planet by recycling those plastic water bottles? Think again. The caps can’t be recycled. They go straight to the landfill along with many other products you may think you are recycling but are really only sending to the recycling plant to be thrown away, including juice boxes, pizza boxes, and wire hangers. Then, even when we can recycle or reuse things, they are still thrown out eventually or not actually recycled. A water bottle can only be sent through so many cycles before someone throws it away. Plastic bags may be used to carry a lunch or line a small trash can, but this only means gaining one or two more uses at most before the bags are thrown away. Unwanted computers and other electronics are often sent off to be recycled, only to be exported to landfills in third-world countries1. “Non-disposable” or “reusable” products and other things meant to last are overlooked by many environmental activists because they are not purchased with intention of disposal in mind, but these products will degrade and be thrown away just like all of the disposable products we would have used otherwise. Everything degrades eventually and everything must, at some point, be replaced. What does this mean? Everything eventually ends up in a landfill, somewhere. If the things we make, consume, and discard are non-biodegradable (meaning they take hundreds or thousands of years to degrade) or if they are made of toxic chemicals that can be released as a product degrades, we are in serious trouble.

If we really want to make change, we need to revamp the entire system. We need a technological revolution in which we switch to biodegradable and natural materials for our products and packaging. Yes, this means eliminating plastics entirely. Unfortunately the legislation necessary to make this possible is very unlikely to happen. Businesses find plastics favorable because they satisfy the desire for short-term profit and degrade quickly enough to maintain a rapid cycle of obsolescence, and our government is tied to puppet strings held by large corporations. I don’t mean to be depressing. I mean to be realistic. Some might argue that delaying environmental catastrophe is better than allowing it to come faster. I don’t know about you, but if it’s going to happen anyway I’d rather not spend my life working so hard to fight it. I’d like to prevent environmental damage entirely and help to create a culture that is truly sustainable. This is only possible if we get serious, change our ways of thinking, and make the logical choices, however difficult they may seem.


An interesting article about where our old technology ends up:  http://www.ban.org/library/AwayIsAPlaceEssayFINAL.pdf

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Energy and Environmental Myths, Misconceptions, and Controversies – Nuclear Part 2

Jun 30 2014 • Posted by

Last week, if you forgot (and you probably did, let’s be honest), we talked about how nuclear energy works.  Yanno, nuclear fission and all that.  Hopefully you retained at least 25% of that information, because we’re now going to talk about the various pros and cons of nuclear power and why it is such a controversy.

What makes nuclear power interesting is that, unlike many other energy types, the opposing sides can’t be described as “environmentalist” and “non-environmentalist”.  Unlike, say, coal, which environmentalists oppose and non-environmentalists support, or wind power, which environmentalists support and non-environmentalists oppose, nuclear power is supported and opposed by both environmentalists and non-environmentalists.  The reason for this is simple – many people cannot decided whether or not nuclear power is environmentally friendly or not.

Basically, nuclear power just works -different- than most other kinds of energy.  One major benefit of it is that its carbon emissions are much lower than that of many other types of energy production, such as coal.  Theoretically, a perfectly run nuclear power plant would be a much cleaner alternative to other widely used types of energy production plants.  The main problem is what happens when a nuclear power plant -doesn’t- work perfectly.  Nuclear power plants produce large amounts of radioactive waste which, if not disposed of properly, can cause serious health and environmental issues.  If the nuclear power plant itself becomes damaged (such as with Chernobyl), then it can cause the surrounding area to become dangerously radioactive for miles.

A perfectly run nuclear power plant will have very few issues or drawbacks.  Radioactive waste can be disposed of and stored safely (and sometimes even reused), and carbon emissions can be kept very low.  The problem is that mistakes and accidents can happen.  Modern nuclear power plants have a lot of safety measures that pretty much negate the chance of a nuclear meltdown from human error, but there is little people can do to protect a plant from things like natural disasters or terrorist attacks.  Nuclear power is high-risk, high-reward.  It all comes down to whether or not people are willing to take that risk.

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Not Another Plastic Bag!

Jun 30 2014 • Posted by

My sustainability goal has been to reduce the amount of plastic bags I use. I had my plan all laid out in my head. I had my goal, I had my reusable bags, and I was ready to go. I went to the super market yesterday, got my groceries, and the second I got to the checkout a sense of panic instantly crawled in to my head. I planned so well so that I could practice my sustainability goal and then when it came down to it I had failed. I had forgotten all my reusable bags and I was already halfway through the register. I realized that part of the process of becoming a more sustainable person was getting over old habits. I have already placed my reusable bags in my car so that the next time I go shopping I know that I am prepared. I still plan on succeeding at my goal by the end of the summer.  All I need to do now is be more aware before I go shopping and I think that forgetting last time will actually help me remember for the long run.

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Water’ya Waitin’ For? Drink From the Tap!

Jun 30 2014 • Posted by

Our little blue planet gets its colorful description from the huge bodies of water that collectively cover over 70% of the world’s surface. Water is almost everywhere on Earth – even inside of you - about 54% of an average human’s body weight is attributed to water. In fact, life as we know it simply could not exist without water. This wonder-molecule is made up of a single Oxygen atom covalently bonded to two Hydrogen atoms. The way these atoms interact with each other gives way to water’s unique polar geometry. This polarity is why it’s so special – water’s shape makes it a universal solvent – allowing life’s basic components (DNA, proteins, etc) to have a place in which they can exist and interact.

So what’s the big deal? Well, a United Nations report published in 2008 revealed that approximately one billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. This shocking statistic is humbling, and it makes me realize how grateful I should be to have access to clean drinking water. Many Americans take for granted the luxury of being able to turn on a faucet and quench their thirst. Many claim they “don’t like the taste” of tap water, but is this honestly a concern when 1 in 7 individuals would be thankful to have access to that same faucet water? I don’t think so, and so as part as my sustainability goal I aim to significantly reduce my use of bottled water. I’ve been a slave to bottled water for too long, and I’ve just now come to understand that the plastic that I’m wasting by consuming bottles of water is not at all necessary. So, for the 1 in 7, and for the sake of environmental sustainability, I went out and a got a hip new reusable water bottle. I’m super excited to break it in and to finally end my addiction to bottled water by making use of the clean faucet water available almost anywhere in Massachusetts!

Mike Salhany


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