Category Archives: Green living

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.

The Origins of Composting

Composting is far more than a branch of the new green movement – it’s a system as ancient as life itself.

So much of what we do now we consider to be new, revolutionary even – granted, Mozart couldn’t listen to rival composers on an iPod and Newton was born centuries before the first computer came to life, but what about the green movement that’s taken hold of everything from shampoo to politics?  The majority of the contested elements involved in the movement – energy, habitat destruction, materialization – have only existed on a large scale since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century.  Much of what the green movement is advocating is not new at all, but rather a return to a not-so-distant past.  Composting, in fact, has been around for longer than humans have been on Earth, the practice of decomposing organics that is now gaining ground having first started on an Earth billions of years away from needing its own movement.

Moss, a bryophyte. Bryophytes are thought to be some of the first plants to colonize land. Photo courtesy of Raphaëlle Scalvenzi/Fotopedia Creative Commons

Imagine this: Earth’s crust has finally solidified and its volcanoes are spewing water vapor, which falls as rain after condensing in the atmosphere and creates the oceans.  Approximately 3,500 million years ago, the first organisms came to life in those oceans, the cycle of life and death that today allows what we know as composting to function beginning.  The first land plants appeared 445 million years ago, while humans have only been around for 200,000 years.  Throughout time, organisms have died, been decomposed, and supplemented the growth of new life, their nutrients being continually recycled.

Humans got involved in the process late but composted long before the present day.  In fact, the first account of composting dates back to the Akkadian Dynasty, which took place in a fertile area of modern-day Iraq between 2320 BC and 2120 BC.  The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans were all versed in composting, and Cleopatra is said to have declared worms sacred after seeing them engaged in the practice.  Marcus Cato, a Roman Statesman, was responsible for the first written composting instructions and may have been the first to practice vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic materials.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet mentioned composting, advising his mother “Confess yourself to heaven, Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4).

Justus von Liebig, whose research led to widespread chemical fertilization. Photo courtesy of telehistoriska/Flickr Creative Commons

In 1840, chemical fertilization began to take off when the German scientist Justus von Liebig determined that plants draw nourishment from chemicals in solution.  It wasn’t until Sir Albert Howard – known as the father of modern compost making – published An Agricultural Testament a century later that organic farming found new appreciation. Howard believed that “the wheel of life is made up of two processes, growth and decay, and one is the counterpart of the other.”  He developed what is known as the Indore method of composting after spending 1905 to 1934 working in India with local farmers.  His method combines three parts organic matter with one part manure in layers, which are regularly moistened and turned until ready to be applied to gardens and fields.  J.I. Rodale imported Howard’s method to the United States, where he distributed it in his magazine Organic Gardening. Since then, vermicomposting – originally commercialized in order to provide sports fishermen with bait worms – has also become a commonly used method for breaking down organic waste for use in growing.

Composting as a human process is becoming more and more common in the present day as we fight to find ways to protect the planet and support our own habits and needs.  However, before we charge ahead into the future, embracing organics recycling as just another fresh wave in the tide of green overtaking the globe, we would do well to look back on its history and remember that we are not instating a fancy, man-made program to save the Earth – we are restoring one that functioned perfectly without our help.

Fertilizer: Organic or Inorganic?

Which type of fertilizer wins out when it comes to meeting our food demands and protecting the planet?

Those who tend to plants – whether they be solitary gardeners maintaining backyard plots or farmers in command of agricultural mega-crops – have a choice when it comes to the type of fertilizer they feed them.  Fertilizer is any additive that provides essential nutrients like nitrogen and potassium to growing plants and can be organic – derived from plants or animals – or inorganic – derived from minerals or synthesized by humans.  Each has both advantages and disadvantages and is ultimately integral to maintaining the grand-scale generation of plants necessary to sustain the demands of our booming society.

Elephants have been kindly fertilizing plants for centuries. Photo courtesy of wackystuff/Flickr Creative Commons

Fertilization by organics is a natural process that occurs whether or not humans are involved, but it cannot support the enormity of our current food system.  In fact, it’s thought that the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is responsible for feeding nearly half of Earth’s population.  Organic fertilizer is not as effective as inorganic fertilizer in that it generally has lower nutrient content, solubility, and nutrient release rates.  Furthermore, it is more difficult to tailor organic fertilizer to meet specific nutrient needs, as it is derived from such diverse sources and its nutrient amounts cannot be known without testing.  Despite these drawbacks, organic fertilization is invaluable.  In fact, Enzo Favoino and Dominic Hogg, authors of “Waste Management & Research: The potential role of composting in reducing greenhouse gases,” say that applying organic matter to soil may heighten its ability to sequester carbon dioxide, and “increasing organic matter in soils may cause other greenhouse gas-saving effects, such as improved workability of soils, better water retention, less production and use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced release of nitrous oxide.”

Nitrogen fertilizer being spread on corn fields in Hardin County, Iowa. Photo courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr Creative Commons

Although world hunger would swell without the assistance of inorganic fertilizers, they are not perfect either.  They deliver more nutrients better, but they require non-renewable resources like phosphorous and potassium, which are mined.  Nitrogen – as it makes up the majority of our atmosphere – is essentially infinite, but in order to be used by plants it must first be “fixed,” or converted into ammonia.  This process, when performed by humans, requires fossil fuels, the burning of which is responsible for global climate change.  According to Aleksander Abram and D. Lynn Forster’s “Primer on Ammonia, Nitrogen Fertilizers, and Natural Gas Markets,” in 2004 “317 billion cubic feet [of natural gas were] used to manufacture ammonia” in the U.S.  In addition, inorganic fertilizers do not consist entirely of nutrients but also include compounds like salt, which can build up in soil and change its chemistry, making it less suitable for planting.  Inorganic fertilizers are also more susceptible to leaching and wash away more easily, exacerbating problems like eutrophication, the depletion of oxygen in bodies of water due to overactive plant growth, which can lead to mass die-offs of aquatic fauna.  Around half of all U.S. lakes are currently eutrophic, and many coastal waters are now considered “dead zones.”

While neither type of fertilizer is flawless, both have their merits, inorganic more efficient and reliable and organic healthier for the soil and the planet.  At this point in the global food situation, the composting of organic mass to yield fertilizer can only act to supplement the use of inorganic fertilizers, but as long as humanity continues to eat and leave food scraps behind, composting will remain a viable option for sustaining both worldwide food production and the Earth.

Buy Right at Bi-Rite

Even as awareness of fresh and local diets is exploding in restaurants, schools, stores, and cookbooks, many eaters feel like they don’t know how to prepare their own food. Sam Mogannam, owner of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, and writer Dabney Gough released Eat Good Food: A Grocer’s Guide to Shopping, Cooking, & Creating Community through Food to address that very problem.

This book takes its readers through every step of making a meal from sustainable and local ingredients, emphasizing that good food is a fun way to build community, not a daunting challenge. It meets Bi-Rite shoppers half-way, offering recipes for prepared-food favorites found at the deli counter, but also challenging eaters to take a more active role in how they shop and cook, giving directions on how to select seasonal produce and suggestions for questions to ask butchers.

A Bi-Rite shopper gushes, “it was really wonderful to have a recipe take shape in my shopping basket before me, I was in control of this food, and that experience is so much better”.

As Amanda Gold’s San Francisco Chronicle critique explains, “What makes the book particularly valuable is its comprehensive guide to ingredients found in the aisles of Bi-Rite – and in other stores like it – that helps readers become better-informed shoppers. The approach is a natural extension of a store that has built a business, and a community, around doing the same thing”

By bridging the gap of food knowledge that makes so many Americans anxious, unsure, and afraid of cooking their own food from sustainable ingredients, Mogannam and Gough open their reader to participation in the food movement that is gaining momentum in the food system.
And even though, as the owner of Bi-Rite, Mogannam has a clear motivation for touting the benefits of local, sustainable, fresh food such as that which he sells, his book is committed to the larger message of sustainable eating. Instead of giving rigid rules for how to eat, or how to eat his own store’s product, Mogannam teaches shoppers to become engaged in the process, to create their own standards for good food. As Bi-Rite’s marketing director Kirsten Bourne explains, “We don’t have a formal definition of local– what we care about is being able to picture a person or place where food was produced, and liking what we see”. With this Bi-Rite philosophy in mind, Eat Good Food sets out to “empower people to go into a grocery store and ask how food was produced and where it came from, and make shopping a fun opportunity to support food systems you believe in”.
From the wealth of information and inspiration in this book, maybe a few more Americans will start biting into the challenge of doing just that. With his book, Mogannam invites a wider audience to enjoy really delicious food with a dimension of environmental and community consciousness. He says, “I look forward to seeing where this food movement takes us in the next 10 years… good food is deserved by all”.

Bringing Gardens into the 21st Century

Greenhouses that Create an Exciting Mixture of Technology and Nature

When I imagine a garden, I think of a small plot of land strewn with tools and covered with soil. I think of getting my hands dirty in a place that is a refuge from my normal life filled with computers and technology. One organization, however, does not see gardens this way. Instead, they see the opportunity to integrate new technological methods into age old gardening techniques.

New York Sun Works promotes urban sustainability through science education. Their initial project was The Science Barge, an urban sustainable farm that grows farm using only alternative energies. Its goal is to educate the public about issues of sustainability and inspire people to think about more efficient ways to use energy, especially in the city. Since 2007, over 3000 New York City students have visited the barge. The video below shows the work that the science barge does.

The Science Barge in Yonkers, NY, AIDG Flickr/Creative Commons

The Science Barge is currently owned by Groundwork Hudson Valley and is located in Yonkers, NY, while New York Sun Works has moved on to something new: The Greenhouse Project. The Greenhouse Project is an initiative to teach students about health and nutrition through the construction of hydroponic greenhouse labs. The greenhouses constructed by New York Sun Works house the newest technologies in sustainable urban agriculture, including rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels, compost stations, vertical vine crop systems, aquaponics systems, and more.

The first greenhouse was built at the Manhattan School for Children. MSC is a public school on the Upper West Side started by several parents in the neighborhood.  In keeping with the tradition of parent involvement, the Greenhouse Project at MSC was started by a small group of parents who were inspired by the Science Barge. The 1,420 square foot greenhouse grows about 8,000 pounds of produce a year, including cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. The vegetables are grown through a hydroponic system, which does not require soil and uses less water than traditional growing methods. Instead of pesticides, the greenhouse uses insects such as ladybugs to protect plants from pests. The greenhouse functions as both a classroom and a garden. When I first walked into the garden, I immediately saw two large rain-water collection barrels, hundreds of plants, and a large tank full of water in the center of the room. When I looked more closely, however, I also noticed a Smart board, desks and chairs, and student made posters and artwork throughout the greenhouse.

Rain-water harvesting tank at the Manhattan School for Children

Shakira Castronovo, the elementary school science teacher at MSC became the garden and nutrition teacher as soon as the greenhouse was built. While she was not as involved as the parents in building the facility, she says it was always assumed that she would take over the curriculum instruction surrounding the greenhouse once it was built. And that she did – she currently is responsible for the care of the greenhouse, as well as teaching science to students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Castronovo uses the NYC science curriculum standards and attempts to teach each standard through work in the greenhouse. For example, one of the kindergarten standards is making observations about properties. The students are learning this skill by observing the different types of herbs growing in the garden. The fifth grade, on the other hand, uses the aquaponics tank, which contains fish, insects, and plants, to learn about ecosystems.

Castronovo has noticed that the greenhouse creates excitement about science. Last week, a young student said to her, “I can’t wait for Thursday!” When Ms. Castronovo asked her why Thursday was a special day, she responded, “I have greenhouse on Thursday!”.  Castronovo adds that the greenhouse has a different attraction than an ordinary school garden. “The students are drawn to the mixture of nature and technology,” she said. “They are fascinated by the 21st century technologies, but at the same time, they like being in nature and examining plants and animals.”

Unlike many other school gardens that aim to grow food for the cafeteria, the Ms. Castronovo prefers that students eat the vegetables they harvest in the school garden, rather than sending them to the cafeteria. In the cafeteria, she says, it is harder to see the connection between the plants that they grew and the food they are eating. In the greenhouse, however, harvesting and eating vegetables is all a part of the cycle that the students are learning about. If a student wants to eat a piece of kale, for example, they harvest the kale plant. They must then go over to the “nursery”, where younger plants are growing, and pick a new plant to replace the kale that they just harvested. The student then picks a seedling and moves it to the nursery, to replace the plant that they just removed. Through this process, students are intricately connected to the process of growing and eating food.

New York Sun Works aims to build 100 similar rooftop greenhouses at schools in New York. While Ms. Castronovo believes that the construction of the actual facilities is a reasonable goal, she adds that it is unrealistic to find a teacher like her – a teacher who oversees the functioning of the greenhouse as well as creates and teaches a greenhouse curriculum to students. Ms. Castronovo is constantly overwhelmed by the amount of work that she has to do, ranging from preparing a lesson, to grading homework, to fixing leaky pipes in the greenhouse. Still, she truly believes in the educational power of the greenhouse. She remembers a student who, before she started learning in the greenhouse, wasn’t particularly passionate about anything. Now, she wants to be a scientist. “I hope that my students remember some of the content I teach,” Castronovo says, “but even if they don’t, if I can help encourage that love of science in kids, then I have done my job.”

MSC Greenhouse (http://nysunworks.org/thegreenhouseproject)

Feeding Constituents Hungry For Change

On Tuesday November 1st, Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, with Senator Sherrod Brown, submitted the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA) S. 1773 and H.R. 3286, as part of the 2012 update to the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that dictates America’s agricultural policies and programs, and is renewed every 5 years. Pingree and Brown’s bill integrates support for local food producers and consumers into the upcoming adjustments the Farm Bill will see in 2012.

Pingree supports local farmers and consumers, photo courtesy of pingree.house.gov

As Pingree says, “This bill breaks down barriers the federal government has put up for local food producers and really just makes it easier for people to do what they’ve already been doing. It creates jobs on local farms and bolsters economic growth in rural communities.”
And the benefits of local food systems goes beyond economic growth. In a study of farm costs and food miles, researchers led by J.N. Pretty found that if Britain’s globalized food system switched to local food sources (within 20 km of home), the environmental costs would fall from £2.3 billion annually to £230 million annually, a reduction of more than half. The Center for a New American Dream calculates that food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles, in fossil-fuel burning transportation, to reach consumers, and that local farms not only eliminate the pollution associated with transportation, but also, regardless of whether they are certified organic, use less chemicals and protect biodiversity with wider agricultural gene pools, supporting long-term food security.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act works toward these environmental benefits by supporting rural, entrepreneurial, community-based, and independent farmers with financial programs, research initiatives, and business incentives and support.

The bill will make Farm Service Agency credit  more accessible to local and regional farmers and ranchers, allocate $30 million annually to Value-Added Producer Grants, improve the Risk Management Agency’s insurance coverage for specialty crops and mixed operations, facilitate Organic Certification, make room for commodity program participants to grow fruits and vegetables, provide Rural Business Opportunity Grants, Rural Business Enterprise Grants, & Community Facility Grants & Loans to local and regional food systems, put $30 million a year towards farmers’ market promotion, give $90 million annually to the Specialty Block Grant program, and create a special budget for local and regional crop and market development.

Pingree and Brown offered the bill to a wave of food-policy advocacy support. It appears to be strategically released to coincide with the Center For Science in the Public Interest’s Food Day, a nation-wide event advocating food, hunger, and sustainability on a grass-roots level with goals of creating food policy. Pingree’s legislative director, Claire Benjamin, explains, “Congresswoman Pingree worked on developing the ideas in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act through the course of the last 10 months with input from a broad coalition made up of 18 farm, nutrition and food security organizations. The timing worked out well to use Food Day as a platform for announcing the bill”. Benjamin also expressed support and encouragement of the first annual Food Day, calling it, “a great success and huge organizing opportunity for people who care about these issues”.

Pingree meeting Food Day participants, photo courtesy of Huffington Post

The quick and concrete government response to the Food Day campaign is exciting to both farmers and consumers, and is being awarded huge support and endorsement from groups such as the National Farmers Union, Community Food Security Coalition,American Farmland Trust, and the National Farm to School Network.

Speaking to Western Farm Press, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Helen Dombalis said, “We applaud Senator Brown and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing this legislation, which is important to farmers and consumers alike”.

However, the actual impact of this bill can be called into question when considering that none of the initiatives are allocated more than $100 million dollars. This seems like generous funding, until we consider that the last Farm Bill, passed in 2008, was a hefty $288 billion dollars.

What’s more, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is planning to reduce the 2012 budget by as much as $23 billion, and indicated that sustainable, community-based initiatives will be cut, saying in an interview, “We’ll have fewer dollars for rural development but we’re looking to partner with non-profit foundations to pick up the slack”. Vilsack expressed a disregard for government responsibility for small and sustainable farmers, even though it that same interview he lauded the merits of organic and small farming, saying, “Four percent of the nation’s farmers are organic but it’s a fast-growing segment. The farms are usually small but provide a great strategy for rebuilding rural America”.

Pingree’s office hopes that the modest monetary requests and soundness of investment will translate to a well-received bill. Benjamin says, “the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act makes up a fraction of the costs of the overall farm bill, and we feel like the spending in the bill makes strategic investments in a growing sector of the economy,” and goes on to point out that several of the proposed initiatives don’t even have price tags attached, saying, “Many of the provisions in the bill are common sense, no cost policy changes that would significantly bolster this growing sector of the economy, and help consumers access healthier, local food”.

Regardless of budget size, the government accountability to constituents’ interest in sustainable food and farming is a promising spark of political action, and with more discussion, awareness, and advocacy, is likely to build momentum. If Food Day championed such legislation in its very first year, Americans interested in food and farm can be optimistic about their potential for further change.

Building a Better Future

As the 7 billionth person was born this week (or so we think), our planet continues moving closer to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. We are running out of room and resources. Pollution is causing global warming and freak snow storms. One way to address these issues is to change our interaction with our environment quite literally, through biomimetic architecture.

Mick Pearce

Pearce was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2003 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work in creating sustainable and low-energy buildings. One of his most famous buildings is Eastgate Centre, a shopping center in Zimbabwe that utilizes a cooling system inspired by a termite mound.

A Termite Mound; CCizauskas/Flickr Creative Commons

Termites in Zimbabwe farm their own food. The fungus that they grow can only survive at a temperature between 86.0 and 89.6° F, but the temperatures in Zimbabwe can fluctuate between 37.4 °F and 107.6 °F degrees every day. Over time, termites have developed a remarkable passive cooling system that maintains the temperature right around 87 °F with very few fluctuations. The termites build a system of heating and cooling vents to funnel air through the mound effectively allowing air currents to act as air conditioning.

Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe; GBembridge/Flickr Creative Commons

Pearce, inspired by this system, decided to apply it to the complex he was designing in order to save costs. During the heat of the day, the material of the building itself absorbs the heat from the sun, machines, and people allowing the temperature inside to only increase minutely. As the day cools, the warm air rises and is vented out through the top of the building (this movement is assisted by fans though it does happen naturally). At night, the cool breezes are “caught” at the base of the building (through spaces in the floor) until the building has reached the ideal temperature to begin the next day. Thus, the building mimics the termite mound’s natural air conditioning.

Because of Mick Pearce’s innovations, the Eastgate Centre uses 10% less energy than a comparable building and the owners have saved over $3.5 million just because an air conditioning plant did not have to be imported. This allows them to rent space to tenants for 20 percent less than in a neighboring building that is newer.

Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson

There are too many biomimetic architects to mention them all, but both Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson have fascinating TED talks that express how important it is for architects to look at the world around them for inspiration.

Pawlyn was one of the architects that designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. These domes, which are in effect large greenhouses whose elaborate structures are inspired by nature, have completely transformed horticultural architecture. He has strong beliefs that if architects look at how in nature processes are efficient with their resources, utilize closed loops, and gain energy from the sun a better, more sustainable world can be built.

Larsson works with sand. Desertification is a major problem in today’s society, but Larsson is trying to look at this problem as an opportunity. He is working on using a bacteria, bacillus pasteurii, to turn sand into a solid building material. Not only would this provide more support to plants, but it could also potentially allow for living spaces to be carved into sand dunes. This would be in stark contrast to life in the desert today where people are often evacuated due to sand dune movement. This project is also cost efficient. As Larsson notes in his TED talk “for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars.” (7:37-7:53) Larsson is embracing sand as a new building material and using bacteria as an inspiration for a better future.

Remember Context

Pearce, Pawlyn and Larsson are all architects who bring nature into their work on a grand scale, but architecture is an art form that is always taking into account its surroundings. Todd Rouhe, cofounder of common room and a professor of architecture at Barnard College, points out that in architecture, “context…is one of the most important things…Environment is everything, whether or not it’s even environmental. And I think that one thing that architects can do to acknowledge the environment…is to pay attention to that context and respond to it…That response can heighten the…sense of the environment.” Just as architects must keep in mind context, both natural and urban, when designing projects, so too must people remember our world and our surroundings as we build and grow.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, biomimetic architecture is a crucial way to continue working towards a sustainable future where nature is more than just an inspiration, but also a lifestyle.

Omnivore’s Solution

Vegetarianism seems oppositional to American life; as a culture, we stand fiercely loyal to fast food, barbecues, and steak knives. It is such a part of our national gastronomic tradition that even its proven harm to health cannot deter our meat-eating ways. We have long ignored that saturated fat from animal-protein is connected with cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
But in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced a document that would change the world’s understanding of how our food affects our environment. Livestock’s Long Shadow announced “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport”, creating emissions from feed production, cultivation of feed crops, organic matter losses, feed transport, animal production, and product transportation”.

Even still, most Americans continue their meat-based diet because, simply put, they like meat. Regardless of objective arguments for removing meat, or just beef, from the diet, only 3.2 percent of the American population adheres to a vegetarian diet, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau for Vegetarian Times in 2008.

But in addition to this small population of strict vegetarians, the Harris study found another 10 percent of American adults follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, and another 5.2% are “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
For many, meat is becoming a lesser, rather than absent, part of the diet. Al Gore, arguably the nation’s most vocal and visible environmental advocate has said, when asked why he doesn’t adopt a vegetarian diet for the environment, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat”. Even an environmentalist can find it hard to give up meat, but more eaters are seeing that just taking steps in the right direction is an important part of addressing the environmental harm of beef.

As Barnard biology professor and food specialist Hilary Callahan states, “A key and incontrovertible ecological principle is that eating lower on the food chain saves energy and makes more food available for more people. This applies for terrestrial systems (avoid beef, pork, chicken, others) and for marine systems (avoid eating predatory fish)”.

Considering that transporting, processing, producing, retailing, storing, and preparing 1 kilogram of beef, cheese, and pork creates as much as 30 kilograms of CO2 while fruits and vegetables are associated with 2.5 kilograms of emissions per kg of edible end-product, even moderate dietary reassessments could dramatically change the food system’s impact on global warming. Regardless of “vegetarian” or “meat eater” labels, a part-way shift from carnivorous to herbaceous meals could have appreciable impacts.

A variety of organizations, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Humane society to Stanford University are advocating a new, but practical diet. They invite a wider range of eaters by reporting the environmental and health advantages of reducing meat consumption, while understanding that quitting cold “turkey” can be too much to ask.

This trend, dubbed “flexitarianism” has produced a bevy of cookbooks, including The Flexitarian Diet, The Healthy Hedonist, and Everyday Flexitarian, as well as recognition on The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

As Vegetarian Resource Group Consumer Research Manager John Cunningham observes, “There have always been “meat reducers”, people who try to limit meat in their diets even if they are not strict vegetarians, but the emergence of the word “flexitarian” in the last 5 years has created a demographic for vegetarian restaurants and products that marketers are excited about, and has made it socially more convenient to be a vegetarian”

Mainstream eaters are being challenged to eat more vegetables, try cooking just one vegetarian meal a week, or buy sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. The focus of flexitarianism is to introduce a form of vegetarianism that is easy and approachable.

Painting the White House Green

The White House Kitchen Garden (Lelkund/Flickr Creative Commons)

An Educational Garden in the Most Famous Residence in Country

While many school and community gardens are created in playgrounds, on roofs, and in abandoned lots, today we will be visiting a garden that is most definitely not planted on a vacant property. The White House Kitchen Garden is instead located on the beautifully manicured lawns of the most well known residence in the country. The garden, visible to the general public passing by the White House, is located on the South Lawn. Over the past two years, it has become a symbol of health and sustainability, championing Michelle Obama’s cause of ending childhood obesity.

Despite the enormous popularity of the White House Kitchen Garden, the beautifully kept garden on the south lawn has not always been there. Throughout White House history, there have been various attempts to build and maintain a garden, but one of the only full functioning gardens was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. The victory garden was planted during World War II in an attempt to encourage others to do the same in order to alleviate food shortages produced by the war effort. Since the Roosevelt’s, however, there has not been a fully functioning White House Garden until the Obama’s came along.

Advocates of sustainable food have been pushing for a White House garden for decades.  In 1995, Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, wrote a letter to President Clinton encouraging him to build a garden on the White House grounds in order to help create a demand for sustainable agriculture. “The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives,” she says in her letter. “Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion.” While Clinton was initially supportive of a White House garden, ultimately, Hilary Clinton planted only a small rooftop garden that did not accomplish Waters’ goal.

Michael Pollan, a writer and activist who focuses on food and sustainability, wrote a letter to Barak Obama in 2008, right before he took office. “Farmer in Chief”, which was published in the New York Times, urges Obama to focus on food.  Pollan urges Obama to create a new victory garden movement, “this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.” The movement must begin, he writes, with the First Family. A White House garden will create a powerful image – “the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.” Kitchen Gardeners, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable local food systems, led the “Eat the View” campaign, creating a petition for a White House garden that attracted over 110,000 signatures.

In the spring of 2009, the campaign proved successful when Michelle Obama created a 1,100 square foot garden on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama started the garden to feed her own family, but also as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to help solve the problem of childhood obesity. The campaign encourages community gardens as “a way to engage members of your community or congregation around healthy, local food.” Mrs. Obama also adds that gardens can serve as an educational tool.

Garden Layout (whitehouse.gov)

And the Obama’s have used the garden for just that purpose. The Bancroft Elementary School, a DC public school located less than three miles away from the White House has been involved in the White House garden from its inception. Fifty students from the Bancroft elementary school helped Mrs. Obama clear a section of lawn and plant the garden in March 2009. Since then, Obama has hosted groups of students at the garden where she speaks to them about eating healthily and sustainably and engages them in planting and harvesting in the garden. The video below is a speech that Mrs. Obama made to students from Bancroft in March, 2010, one year after the garden was started.

The garden, like all presidential actions, is not without controversy. The Obama’s decision to keep the garden entirely organic provoked a response from the Mid-America CropLife Association, who wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama calling for the use of “conventional agriculture” in the White House garden, particularly the use of “crop protection products” (i.e. pesticides). Still, the Obama’s have maintained the plan to keep their garden entirely organic.

October 5, 2011 garden harvest. Michelle Obama harvested vegetables with students from the Bancroft Elementary School (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Less than a month ago, students from the Bancroft Elementary School again joined Mrs. Obama in the garden for the third annual fall harvest. Once the hard work of the harvesting was over, the students, together with the White House chefs, prepared grilled vegetable pizza.

Peter Ganong, a former resident of Washington D.C. has walked by the White House and noticed the activity in the garden. “I was inspired to see that gardening and a connection with the earth and food was a central part of the image of this white house,” he said. And that is exactly the goal of the White House Kitchen Garden – to inspire the public to connect with their food and the environment.

Beyond the Backyard: Composting on a Municipal Scale

A look at an entire city that composts and others that are joining in.

Composting – the systematic collection and decomposition of organic material meant to divert waste from landfills and to return vital nutrients to growing plants – has not gained as much ground as recycling has since the environmental movement began, but many American cities have successful programs.  While anyone can compost in the comfort of their own home with nothing more than a bin of dirt and a bunch of worms, few are interested in hosting the slimy Earth dwellers and would be much more likely to compost if they could dispose of their food scraps and yard waste as easily as they can their garbage and recycling.

Composting, recycling, and garbage. Photo courtesy of leafwarbler/Flicker Creative Commons

I was lucky enough to grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area, arguably the capital of the green movement in America.  The Bay is no stranger to municipal composting; San Francisco has mandated composting as a key part of its effort to reach zero waste by 2020, and Alameda County Industries is responsible for disposing of garbage, recycling, and yard waste (composting) for the East Bay cities of Alameda – where I live – and San Leandro.  ACI had one of the first collection programs in the Bay Area, and its relationship with Alameda serves as an excellent model for how an entire city can implement a composting program.

In 2002, StopWaste.org spearheaded a waste reduction program in Alameda County, leading ACI to begin allowing food scraps and food-soiled paper like takeout containers to be emptied into the yard waste bin, which provided a diversion for food waste that before would have gone to a landfill. The organic matter placed in the “green bin” is collected by a special organics truck and taken to the Newby Island Composting Facility in Milpitas where it is ground, screened, and arranged into windrows, or rows.  The windrows are then turned and watered to enhance the decomposition process until the finished product – compost – is achieved.  According to Teresa Montgomery of ACI, the nutrient-rich matter is then sold to the public, to garden outlets like Orchard Supply Hardware and Home Depot, and to farms.

The composting process at Newby Island.

While ACI’s program has been operating successfully for nine years, it’s had its share of challenges.  “Running an organics collection program is costly,” assures Montgomery, who says their greatest expenditures are “having to provide another collection cart…having to create additional collection routes… trying to educate the public regarding proper sorting…[and] processing the organic materials.”  ACI maintains the program not for profit but to meet California’s waste reduction goals and, emphasizes Montgomery, “because it’s the right thing to do!” ACI has had to put a great deal of effort into public education, as it is not always intuitive what can and cannot go into the organics bin. One thing that can be confusing is how to deal with bio-plastic products, or “spudware.”  Some composting facilities have the infrastructure to deal with this seemingly green alternative to generic plastic, but others like Newby are unable to process them and usually screen them out and send them to landfills. Montgomery says, though, that “Alamedans are eager to participate and do so correctly about 90% of the time.” Finally, “the ‘ick’ factor has been [ACI’s] biggest obstacle all along.”  Many consider using their green bins to be too messy, so ACI must provide advice on how to keep them fresh.

The Jepson Prairie Organics composting facility, which is responsible for San Francisco's organic waste. Photo courtesy of mental.masala/Flicker Creative Commons

While the Bay Area is rife with recycled organics, it does not have a monopoly on cities that compost.  In 2009, Seattle expanded its program to reach its own zero waste goal, while Portland, OR was slated to begin a curbside collection program today. According to a national survey conducted by BioCycle, as of 2009 over 90 communities in the U.S. claimed their own residential composting programs, including cities in California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington.  As composting on a grand-scale becomes more widespread, America’s need for landfills will shrink and our waste problem will gradually reach a more manageable level.