Category Archives: CO2

Big-Portion Sustainability

This year, McDonalds will expand its international chain with over 1,100 new locations. And this is great news for the environment. Surprising? Many ecologically aware eaters talk about small and local initiatives: independent farms, CSA produce boxes, and farmers’ markets. But large-scale environmental benefits can be achieved through changing our existing, large-scale food system.

Without a doubt, the dialogue started by the sustainable food movement has had an influence on how McDonald’s presents itself. At least some of the initiatives McDonalds has taken towards sustainability are there to appease societal demands that corporations have a conscience.  McDonald’s website offers emotional video clips about how the company supports the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Food Animal Initiative, funding research on how to make commercial scale agriculture sustainable, and the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, looking for sustainable approaches to an industry that has contributed to deforestation in Malaysia.


In a world of greenwashing, corporations’ environmental initiatives come across as insincere, self-serving marketing tools. But when it comes to large-scale business sustainability, there is more than just marketing at play: sustainable choices to reduce consumption and waste are also easy ways to cut costs, creating a strong, profit-based commitment to wiser use of resources. And a company as large as McDonalds can institute changes that have wide-reaching influence.

As Joshua Brau, a Yale Business School student who has worked with McDonald’s explains, “Shareholders typically have a single concern: maximizing returns. And these companies see there is a substantial business case for reducing environmental impact,” going on to say that, at McDonald’s, “the sincere interest in doing good is in line with company objectives. Less energy consumed and higher efficiency translates to increased profits”.

In McDonalds restaurants, LED lights and efficient fryer fireups save energy, and sustainable building practices are being incorporated into new locations. When purchasing from suppliers, McDonalds uses a Supplier Environmental Scorecard to measure packaging waste, maximize recycled materials, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Using this index, companies that produce food for McDonalds, such as East Belt Bakery, were able to improve their input to output ratios– making food more efficiently and saving money in the process. Pleased with the results, East Belt introduced this index to the North American Bakery Council and helped 50-60 similarly large bakeries use less energy and resources in production. In 2007, the Australian Food Company, a supplier to McDonalds, cut their water use 30% through practices such as rainwater collection and new cleaning systems as suggested by the Environmental Scorecard. And in Canada, suppliers using the scorecard cut water use 56%, energy consumption 67% and waste production 67% between 2005 and 2006.

Good environmental choices are often good business choices, and companies as large as McDonald’s have huge environmental impact when they make money-saving changes. As McDonald’s VP of Corporate Social Responsibility Bob Langert explains in an interview on Daily Finance, “We as a company spend $1.7 billion on energy around the world. Energy efficiency can cut that cost. The other big issue is waste. That includes packaging that turns into waste and other waste in general. We spend $1.3 billion on processing waste. So reducing our packaging and figuring out ways to divert waste will be necessary and help our bottom line. It’s the right thing to do, but its also business related”.

These figures beg  the question of how genuine environmental intentions must be: is sustainability at McDonald’s of a lesser value because it self-serving? Does sustainability have to be a grassroots initiative?

The reality is that environmentalism has been ignored for too long, in part because the private sector views it as a financial burden. By equating wise use with profit maximization, an environmental consideration of how we eat can reach a wider eating public. Environmental eaters should promote and patronize farmers’ markets and co-ops, but also applaud the corporate sustainability measures, even if incidental, that are creating a large-scale norm of efficiency and ecological consciousness.

Taking a Leaf Out of Europe’s Compost Heap

What can the United States learn from Europe’s treatment of organic waste?

When it comes to sustainability, Europe is generally far more advanced than the United States is.  The situation in the arena of composting is no different; the countries across the Atlantic are clearly winning, with many more extensive composting programs in place, programs that America could use as models to raise itself to a new level in the global fight for sustainability.

The largest compost heap in Europe, Brentford, England. Photo courtesy of ajschu/Flickr Creative Commons

According to the European Compost Network, “source separation of organic residues from households and gardens is a success story of most European countries, thereby helping to meet recycling and climate change targets and market requirements.”  E. Favoino’s report “Composting across Europe” separates European regions into four categories of participation when it comes to composting, with Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands having “strategies and policies [that] are already fully implemented nationwide.”  Next come Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Catalonia (a nationality of Spain), and Norway, where policies are “fully outlined” but the programs themselves are still being developed.  In Finland, France, the United Kingdom, and Wallonia (a region of Belgium), programs are just getting started but may already have written policies.  The remainder has not yet shown any inclination to begin a source separated organic waste disposal program.  While composting has not yet reached its full potential in Europe, when one considers that the same practice is largely a personal one in the United States with only around 90 municipalities currently implementing programs, it becomes clear that Europe’s organics are being treated much more sustainably.

A biogas purification plant in Lund, Sweden. Photo courtesy of P1r/Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to your average composting, Europe is also a forerunner when it comes to anaerobic digestion, the breakdown of organic materials in an oxygen-free setting that allows for the production of carbon dioxide and methane, the main component of natural gas.  These byproducts of the decomposition process are known as biogas, a form of renewable energy that can be used to replace global climate change-causing fossil fuels.  Anaerobic digestion is also a means of capturing greenhouse gases that if produced in a non-controlled anaerobic environment like a landfill would be released to the atmosphere, where they would contribute to global warming.  A plant in Amiens, France claims to be the first in the world to subject organic waste to anaerobic digestion.  It deals with the waste stream of two cities and has been selling the biogas to Gaz de France since 1987.  Many other European areas have since begun similar programs, such as Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and Elsinore, Denmark.  According to Albert Morales of Renewable Energy World, “higher energy prices and government incentives have spurred widespread adoption of this technology [in Europe].”  Biogas in the United States, on the other hand, “has never had the sort of political support or constituent base to mobilize action in Washington.”  American biogas receives only $1 of subsidy per unit of energy (mmbtu) generated, compared with $2 for solar and wind and $8.55 for biodiesel from agri-fuels.

Global sustainability is not a competition; ultimately there is one Earth that both “winners” and “losers” will have to share.  At present Europe is far ahead of the United States, but it is not in the lead because it’s an Olympian – it’s in front because we’re standing in our own way.  Achieving a more sustainable country – partially through an increase in composting and anaerobic digestion – will not be easy and may very well require a restructuring of our government’s priorities, but Europe is proof that all the pieces exist and are perfectly capable of fitting together to form a fully functioning, ecologically sound system.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

At my urban university where students are informed when they are allowed to sit on the lawn and when they are not, it is often difficult to remember nature. However nature, particularly in the form of trees, is never far. From pop culture (Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas) to folklore (Johnny Appleseed) trees are deeply embedded in our society.

Johnny Appleseed Surrounded by Trees SVadilfari/Flickr Creative Commons

Trees have become a symbol of nature at large, and an emblem for the green and environmental movements. Not only that, but trees have been of great inspiration for scientists who are looking to nature for solutions to environmental problems. This inspiration can be used to help us bring more sustainable and green technology to the Big Apple itself.

Returning to our Roots

Researchers at SolarBotanic have gone even further than being inspired by trees, they have created artificial trees that, among other things, harness solar, heat and wind energy and filter the air just as trees do. These biomimetic energy sources can be “planted” anywhere from the desert to urban environments and their realistic designs bring nature’s beauty along with nature’s power. SolarBotanic trees utilize nanoleaves that effectively absorb light waves in both the visible and invisible spectrum. This means that the nanoleaves cannot only transform light into energy like other solar cells, but they can also transform infrared rays (in other words, heat) into energy. This way electricity can be provided to a home or a car straight from a “tree” in your front yard.

SolarBotanic Trees, Rebuildingdemocracy/Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Courtesy of Solar Botanic

Nanoleaves are thin, like actual leaves, so they can blow in the wind while remaining attached to the tree. The movement of the leaf flapping back and forth is mechanical energy, which is harnessed by the SolarBotanic tree, providing even more energy and electricity.

Trees do not merely capture light as energy, they also provide us with cleaner air. The SolarBotanic tree does something similar by using a facilitated transport system modeled after our lungs, another inspiration from nature. In the tree there is an “agent” that separates out the CO2, effectively removing it from the air. SolarBotanic is truly paying homage to the tree, and using an already perfect design to provide a beautiful (and effective) form of alternative energy.

Mother Nature Knows Best

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming are an extremely serious issue in the modern world. We need CO2 for everything from oil drilling to blood banks, but too much CO2 in our atmosphere is poisoning our planet at an alarming rate. The government is seriously looking at carbon sequestration, which involves collecting CO2 from the air (mostly from smoke stacks) and injecting it underground, as a method to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

ZScott-Singley/Flickr Creative Commons

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, even if the carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques that are being explored today are 90% efficient, about half of the world’s carbon CO2 emissions will still be released into the environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to find other approaches as well.  Dr. Klaus Lackner and Dr. Allen Wright, researchers at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a remarkable, biomimetic alterative—recycling CO2. They have developed a “tree” made of plastic that absorbs CO2, just as trees do, but 1000 times more efficiently. In addition to its efficiency, the plastic resin that absorbs CO2 when it is dry, releases that same CO2 when it is wet. This means that the industries that need CO2 (for oil drilling or carbonated drinks) can purchase recycled CO2. It is also a possibility that recycled CO2 can be converted into gasoline and then the gasoline emissions can be recollected as CO2. This would allow us to still use our cars but ensure that the net level of CO2 in the atmosphere stops rising so drastically.

Dr. Allen Wright, the Senior Staff Associate at the Lenfest Center, pointed out to me that “observing that plants do in fact perform ‘air capture’ did prove at the outset that it was possible” however he also says that the “pine branch shape” of the resin is “purely coincidence.” As he says, “A pine branch shape worked well for that because the ‘needles’ would compress nicely.  It is not a particularly useful geometry for many reasons.  The term ‘artificial tree’ is use to help people understand what we are doing.  A practical device deployed in the field for air capture will not likely look like anything found in nature…more perhaps like a carousel sitting on top of a shipping container.”

The Carbon Cycle timmeko/Flickr Creative Commons

Recycling carbon is exactly how nature works. CO2 is produced as a byproduct but it is recycled throughout nature (through the carbon cycle). This technology takes nature’s foolproof method or “recycling” carbon dioxide and applies it to the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. As Dr. Wright explained to me, “the goal of air capture is to remove roughly 10-30% of the CO2 in the air passing through the collector, not to produce CO­2 free air. That would put the air exiting collector at a pre-industrial level of CO2.” Therefore plants can still grow and participate in the carbon cycle without being affected by the CO2 emissions people are producing.

This video elaborates on how this plastic “tree” could dramatically change our world.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27163710[/vimeo]

With sustainable technology like this we can continue to live our city lives while still changing how we interact with the environment.

Biomimicry in the City

New York is a large city with the majority of its greenery confined to parks. Yet the city is making an effort to incorporate green energy and biomimicry into its urban ways and Clean Energy Connections is making an effort to help provide the network to make this transformation possible. On November 3rd, there will be a fascinating panel called Biomimicry in the Big City: Can Nature Inspire Cleantech Solutions?

It is not always easy to remember the trees when you are surrounded by the bright lights and steel of New York City (or any urban environment). But the innovations and inspiration trees provide us can keep our cities—and our world—cleaner, more energy efficient and more sustainable.

Oceans: Save the 99%

The Ocean as Inspiration

I first heard of biomimicry when I was visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer. After spending the day enchanted by the colors of seahorses, mesmerized by the foreignness of jellyfish, and playing with starfish, I settled down in the movie theatre for a break. The movie introduced me to the term biomimicry and thus began my fascination with nature as an inspiration for technology.

One technology highlighted in the film was the Mercedes-Benz bionic car. Bionics is another name for biomimicry in technology and was given its name in 1958 by an officer in the American air force.

Biologists and engineers collaborated at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center (MTC) to find a new, innovative shape for a car that would, among other things, be more aerodynamic and would increase the car’s gas mileage.

Boxfish AMody/Flickr Creative Commons

Surprisingly, the boxfish with its angular, cube-shaped body was found to be more aerodynamic than animals such as the dolphin and their streamlined shape.

It turns out that the boxfish has the ideal shape for a car, a shape that has emerged after millions of years of evolution. The box-like, rigid shape of the fish both protects it from getting hurt by collisions or high pressure and it also causes vortices in the water to form, which stabilize the fish and ensures it is not “blown” off course.

When applied to cars, the boxfish’s shape resulted in one of the lowest drag coefficients ever tested. Because of this the bionic car’s fuel consumption is 20% lower than other cars.

Bionic Car: Mercedes-Benz Researchers Used the Box Fish as Inspiration for a New Energy Efficient Car

Not only that, but the boxfish’s hexagonal scales are also utilized in the bionic car. These “scales” are lightweight (the weight of the car decreases by 30%) but the structure of the car is much more stable and rigid (about 40% more rigid). This means that the bionic car is energy efficient, environmentally friendly and still extremely safe!

A Whole New World

There is still so much to learn about the ocean, but already it is incredible to realize the multitudes of problems the ocean can solve as we learn more about its mysteries. Researchers are inspired by everything from bull kelp as anchors to whale fins as wind turbine blades.

One of my favorite sources of inspiration from the ocean is cephalopods (such as octopi and cuttlefish). Cephalopods have the incredible ability to camouflage themselves. Watch this video (an excerpt from David Gallo’s, a famous oceanographer, TED talk) to see a breathtaking example.

This octopus (and other cephalopods) can camouflage because of three main reasons:

1) Chromatophores: These are sacs of pigment (color) directly connected to the octopus’s nervous system that allow it to change its own color almost instantaneously.

2) Papillae: These allow the octopus to change the texture of its skin.

3) Leucophores and Iridphores: These allow the octopus to affect how light is reflecting off of itself, perfecting its optical illusion.

Octopus CCaviness/Flickr Creative Commons

This vanishing act is not merely a youtube phenomenon. As scientists learn more about how these underwater magicians do what they do (even though cephalopods are color blind), there are a lot of potential applications. Biodegradable video screens for electronic devices, non-toxic paints, and possible military applications are just some of directions engineers and designers can take this biological inspiration.

How To Protect Our Oceans

Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with water pollution and lack of respect for the oceans that cover 71% of our planet.

71% of Planet Earth is Water

Despite the fact that the majority of our world is water, only 1% of the ocean is protected, in contrast to the 12% of land that is protected.

Groups like the Marine Conservation Institute, Oceana and MarineBio were created to increase that number.

MarineBio is an organization that remains politically neutral while working to protect our oceans. David Campbell, the founder and director of MarineBio, stresses that the ocean is “where we look to see what the condition of our planet is. We can clean up the land in some places but until we address what is going on with the ocean with pollution…and the climate and CO2…we’re not getting anywhere.” Even though in the past ten years ocean protection has improved, Campbell emphasizes that “science has been saying for a long time that we need to start paying attention to the ocean. We have just begun.”

By protecting the ocean, these groups are also protecting biomimicry. They are ensuring that the ocean, a muse of technology, is still able to inspire us as the world progresses. As Campbell said when asked about what we can learn from the ocean: “Pretty much everything.”

Coral Reef Ecosystems

From Bright and Bio-diverse to Blighted and Bleached. What are Coral Reefs, and why are they in Danger?

Coral Reefs are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet.  These wondrous undersea worlds are often referred to as ‘rain forests of the sea,’ a name that expresses their ecological complexity, their beauty, and their vulnerability.  But what exactly is a coral reef, and why are they in danger of destruction?

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

The first time I saw a coral reef ‘up-close and personal,’ was on a snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys. The beauty of what I saw amazed me. I was eager to explore its nooks and crannies, and I was curious to know how it all got there.  My first question was: What exactly is a coral reef, and what exactly are corals?

I would soon get my answer.  I would also get a lot more information about coral reefs than I had asked. Through an impassioned, impromptu speech from a man who had grown up in the Caribbean, I learned of the destruction of the once beautiful coral reefs off the shores of his hometown. Solemnly, he told me of the remains of a reef that he used to swim at as a teenager.  The reef had once thrived, but now it sat seemingly life-less and abandoned on the seafloor.

In the past three decades, the world’s coral reefs have experienced unprecedented decline.  The trend is continuing.  Decline in coral reef health and coverage is caused by a number of factors; many of them inflicted by humankind.  Overfishing strips reefs of species that keep the ecosystem in balance; pollution from agricultural runoff brings toxins that can kill the coral; and hurricanes ravage and crumble the reef structure. On top of all of this, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, may be the most significant threat of all. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, both of which are linked to increasing carbon emissions, can have serious impacts on coral reefs.

The video below describes some of the most significant threats to coral reefs.

Coral reefs are extremely complex ecosystems: conglomerations of animals, minerals, algae, and other organisms, breaming with life and ecological productivity. What most of us see underwater and identify as ‘coral,’ is actually a colony of thousands upon thousands of tiny invertebrate animals (coral polyps) nestled together and built up upon the calcium carbonate (limestone) ‘skeletons’ of sometimes thousands of years worth of old coral colonies. Mollusks, young fish, sea turtles, and many others, seek food and refuge within the reef, so when coral reefs are destroyed, so are the habitats for all these other living things. But with this complexity and productivity comes vulnerability.

Even small changes in water temperature leave coral reefs vulnerable to a phenomenon called coral bleaching. Bleaching occurs when coral polyps under stress expel the algae that live symbiotically within them. When the algae are gone, the coral appears white, or “bleached,” because algae gives coral reefs their vibrant color.  Bleaching also leaves coral without a significant source of energy, energy from algal photosynthesis.  The stressed, bleached coral may become more susceptible to disease.

Coral Bleaching. Photo by Mark Spalding Courtesy of World Resources Institute/Flick

In their study, Coral Reefs & Global Climate Change, Robert Buddemeier et al., link the bleaching phenomenon to global climate change. They write, “Increases in ocean temperatures associated with global climate change will increase the number of coral bleaching episodes…While coral species have some capacity to recover from bleaching events, this ability is diminished with greater frequency or severity of bleaching. As a result, climate change is likely to reduce local and regional coral biodiversity, as sensitive species are eliminated.”

Ocean acidification, associated with increased atmospheric CO2 levels, may also seriously harm coral reefs. Acidification of the ocean will lessen the availability of carbonate ions in the water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Corals need to be able to extract carbonate ions from the seawater in order to build their skeletons.

Sadly, coral reefs, with all their beauty and biodiversity, are among the first of many ecosystems to suffer the effects of climate change and increased carbon dioxide emissions. However, all hope is not lost. Efforts to protect and restore the world’s coral reefs are underway. Future blogs will discuss some of these efforts, in hopes of inspiring readers towards action.