Category Archives: Urban development

Pointing Out the Nonpoint Source: The Impact of Runoff on Coral Reefs

Non-Pointsource Pollution flowing into Florida Waters. Photo Courtesy of NOAA/Flickr.

An estimated 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Dirt, oil, nutrients, and chemicals enter the oceans as runoff; polluted liquid that flows from land to sea.  The sources of runoff are numerous, and its impacts on coral reefs, especially those in costal areas, are profound.

In elementary school, one of my teachers presented the class with a model of our costal city.  She handed a few students bottles of different colored water, and asked them to ‘water their lawns,’ ‘wash their cars,’ and ‘make it rain’ on the city.  They proceeded to drench the model.  Then she told us to watch where the water went.  It rolled down into a small pool of clear water at the bottom of the model.  We watched the pool turn to a brownish-grey hue.

Nonpoint Source Pollution. Photo Courtesy of EPA/

The point of the model was to show us how pollutants, in the form of runoff, flow from land to sea.  We couldn’t really see the ocean turn greyish-brown in real-life, so the model let us visualize where a lot of the pollution was coming from, and what it was doing to the sea water. As kids who grew up on the shore, the lesson hit home.  Most of us weren’t strangers to summer time beach closures due to high levels of pollution.

Watershed Model. Photo Courtesy of AISBWETWMS/Picasa.

Runoff poses a significant threat to coral reefs.  Pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, inorganic materials, sewage, sediments, and heavy metals are washed into oceans daily. As a nonpoint source pollutant, runoff is hard to control, precisely because it enters the water in many places and because the pollutants originate from so many different sources.  Both urban and rural environments contribute to the runoff problem.

Agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to coral reefs.  Over-irrigation and rainstorms cause nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to flow into the sea. Ordinary levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for life on reefs, but increased levels of nutrients result in algal blooms.  Algae thrive off of these nutrients, and grow at alarming rates on reefs when the water becomes over-saturated with nutrients.  Eventually the algae take over, and the coral cannot compete for resources, so they die.

As the EPA points out, “When nutrient levels increase, the delicate balance that exists between corals and algae is destroyed and the algae can overgrow the corals. When this situation is prolonged, the corals are smothered and die beneath the algal carpet. This, in turn, affects the fish and other aquatic organisms using the area, leading to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and affecting use of the water for fishing and swimming.”

Algal Bloom. Photo Courtesy of chesbayprogram/Flickr.

Katharina E. Fabricius of The Australian Institute of Marine Science has noted the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich terrestrial run-off on reefs in her paper,“Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis”.  She writes that “considerable effort has gone into experiments studying the direct effects of elevated dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, as nitrate or ammonium) and phosphate (DIP) on coral calcification, tissue growth and zooxanthellae.”  She goes on to conclude that “chronically increased levels of dissolved inorganic nutrients may alter reef metabolism and reef calcification sufficiently to cause noticeable changes in coral communities.”

Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef is at risk due to agricultural runoff.  According to a report by students at the University of Michigan, “80% of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef is farmland that supports agricultural production, intensive cropping of sugar cane, and major beef cattle grazing (GBR, 2007). These types of agriculture and cattle production pose large threats to the Great Barrier Reef close by.”  Nutrients from these farm areas reach the reef, and cause damage.

Excess nutrients also reach the sea when human or animal waste is discharged as untreated wastewater into the sea or when sewer systems overflow before treatment.  According to UNEP “around 60% of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated, in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is close to 80%, and in large parts of Africa and the Indo-Pacific the proportion is as high as 80-90%.” As the EPA describes, aside from adding excess nutrients to the water, this untreated sewage can bring bacteria and other pathogens to reefs that can cause coral disease and death.

Sewage outfall. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr.

Other toxic materials also impact coral reefs. Heavy metals, chemicals, and oils runoff into the ocean from urban areas and poison corals.  The upset the chemical balance of water that is necessary for coral to live. Most of the oil in the world’s oceans does not come from large-scale oil spills, but rather from smaller sources such as runoff.  The World Wildlife Fund states that only around 12% of the oil that enters the sea each year comes from oil spills. The US National Resources Council estimates that 36% of oil that enters the sea comes “as waste and runoff from cities and industry.”

Cyanobaterial Bloom on a Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The question that begs to be asked is what can be done to prevent damage to coral reefs by runoff?  For one, the US government has enacted the “The Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program.” The program was passed by Congress in order to achieve “coordination between state coastal zone managers and water quality experts to reduce polluted runoff in the coastal zone.”

The program, which focuses on runoff-pollution prevention and is jointly administered by NOAA and the EPA, “establishes a set of management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification), and wetlands and vegetated shorelines, or riparian areas. These measures are backed by enforceable state policies and actions—state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.”  Thus the goal of the program is to give governments the tools and the power to regulate and prevent runoff.  Though these laws are significant achievements, the challenge to lessen runoff is still steep, and threats to coral reefs as a result of runoff are ever-present.

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 (

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.

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, 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.

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.


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.

Waste in NYC: Past, Present, and Future

A history of waste management in New York City and composting’s potential to change the city’s relationship with its refuse.

An overflowing garbage can in NYC. Photo courtesy of ceegee-ceegee/Flickr Creative Commons

It’s no surprise that the most heavily populated city in the world’s most materialistic country has a colorful history when it comes to dealing with waste; while the situation has doubtless improved since visitors dubbed it a “nasal disaster” in 1800, New York City’s streets will probably never be renowned for their olfactory delights.  Small hills of bulging garbage bags lining the sidewalks and trash cans bearing the slogan “Keep New York City Clean” overflowing and surrounded by skirts of rubbish are common sights here – keeping a city of 8 million people from going rotten is clearly no mean feat.

Still, the waste situation in the city has drastically improved.  In 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Health had to ban the “throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets,” and after 1872 the city no longer systematically dumped its garbage into the East River – one can only imagine what it would have been like to live here prior to regulations like these.  The city is historically noteworthy not just for its questionable past waste practices but also for its pioneering advances; it can claim America’s first garbage incinerator, as well as its first recycling center.  However, NYC is also home to the world’s largest landfill, Staten Island’s Fresh Kills.  Opened in 1948 and retired after swallowing much of the wreckage of 9/11, it is America’s contribution to the only two man-made objects that can be seen from space, the other being the Great Wall of China.

The DSNY's collection trucks assembled at a center in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Photo courtesy of BriYYZ/Flickr Creative Commons

New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – responsible for public waste removal since its founding in 1881 as the Department of Street Cleaning – is the biggest sanitation department in the world, with a fleet of 7,899 uniformed workers and 2,230 collection trucks.  It manages “over 12,000 tons of residential and institutional refuse and recyclables a day.”  Outside of its jurisdiction lies the commercial sector, which “generate[s] another 13,000 tons of refuse each day” that is then carted off by private companies.  Though the occasional garbage strike sends the city back to 19th century stink levels, the DSNY’s help has transformed it from an aspiring dump to a habitable metropolis.  New Yorkers, however, are clearly still generating waste at an alarming rate, and all of it is has to go somewhere.  As DSNY commissioner John Doherty revealed, “most of the waste ends up in probably a dozen or more landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.”  The problem, then, has not been eradicated; it has been moved.  Parades of gas-guzzling trucks export thousands of tons of one city’s trash each day, depositing them in landfills for the residents of other cities to deal with.

The best way for New York City to make its way towards true sustainability and to cut back on its modern need to dump on other states the refuse it once threw into its own streets and rivers is to reduce waste at the source.  This is a challenge that may prove even greater than sanitizing a city, but it is one we must undertake.  Because food is – and always will be – such a large portion of what we consume, composting stands out as a feasible solution that cuts down on waste immediately.  At present, though many restaurants recruit private companies to take care of food waste, composting does not make up a significant portion of NYC’s municipal waste program.  According to Natalie Wesson, Project Coordinator for the NYC Compost Project in Manhattan*, the only public collection program – through which leaves and Christmas trees are gathered and composted – has been frozen until fall 2012 due to budget restrictions.  While New York is unlikely to start a more comprehensive composting program anytime soon considering the state of its current one, the DSNY’s “Composting in New York City: A Complete Program History” declares that 55% of the city’s waste post-recycling can be biodegraded, and “[c]omposting represents an important option as the City looks to increase its recycling rate in the face of the closure of its last active landfill and the mounting cost of exporting garbage.”  Though it is unclear when such a program might become a reality in NYC, the city could clearly benefit from following other large municipalities like San Francisco and Seattle in establishing a curbside composting program as the next chapter of its history with waste.

* Funded and managed by the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, hosted at the Lower East Side Ecology Center

The Eastern-Modernization of Western China

This week’s post will elaborate on the history behind the modernization plans spearheaded by the Beijing government throughout the western provinces of China for the past three decades, which then directly leads to the widespread environmental and social justice problems Tibetan traditional society is facing.

Today, the global media ubiquitously discusses about the miraculous rapid growth of the Chinese economy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping inside the last three decades. This growth is actually centered mostly in the Southern coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. If you take a look at the earnings across the different Chinese provinces per capita in the website linked in the end of the post, you will notice that while the Southern provinces with its heavily manufacturing based economy, prosper as the richest ones in China showing drastic signs of alleviation, the provinces in the Western parts of China, Xinjiang, and Tibet, have not made any significant economic improvements in the past three decades.

(source: PRC government) In the photo above, the green indicates the areas covered by the Han Chinese, the Eastern Provinces, who make up 95% of the population in China. The yellow and pink colors indicate the areas occupied by ethnic minorities, the Western provinces of China.

According to Beijing government’s population distribution statistics, Western provinces of China make up 75% of the ethnic minority population, mainly consisting of Uighurs, Mongols, and Tibetans; these areas also include 85% of the grasslands of China.

(source: PRC government)

In order to have the Western provinces ‘catch up’ to the Eastern provinces, in 2006 led by then-Premier Zhu Rongii, launched the Beijing government launched a campaign called Xibu da kaifa, ‘Open up the West’. This was a huge initiative taken up by the government to get the Western frontiers populated by ethnic minorities of China, Xinjiang and Tibet, to catch up to the rapid modernization that was taking place especially in the rest of China. The rest of the post will be mainly focusing on the modernization taking place in Tibet.

The Beijing government’s initiative mainly involved heavy investments in the development of infrastructures such as hydropower plants and transportation. In the name of modernization, traditional cities have been razed and replaced with “modern” ones. Also, while the official State rhetoric mentions the increase of employment opportunities for Tibetans, these jobs are service sector ones directly linked to building modern infrastructures and that do not have much mobility and and are sustainable.

The most controversial of these infrastructures is the railroad built from China to Lhasa, Tibet, because it severely harmed the natural ecosystem by directly running through breeding grounds and the migration patterns of animals such as the endangered Tibetan antelope.

(Source: winner of the 2007 PRC government's photo competition) Note: this photo gained National popularity in China because it showed that the natural grassland ecosystem of Tibet and modern technology can coexist peacefully; However, the photo turned out to be a hoax and the natural ecosystem of the Tibetan grasslands is seriously threatened by these modern human interventions.

In addition to heavy investments, the government also provided many economic incentives such as advertising for job abundance so that Hans from the rural parts of China would migrate to the Tibet. Dr. David S G Goodman, Chinese History professor at the University of Sydney, interpreted this mass migration of Hans into western China as similar to “internal colonization”, in terms of subjugating the locals and having the dominant power favor its own people.

(source: This photo was taken in Lhasa, which is the cultural capital of Tibet. As a viewer can notice in this photo, all the shops of Chinese characters instead of having the traditional Tibetan letters. This shows the huge influence of the dominant Han culture over that of the local Tibetans.

In 2003, Beijing released a statistic, revealing that Tibet’s GDP was 28% higher than it was in 1978. While the government’s initial formal intention for the modernization of the West was to “reduce the socio-economic inequalities and to ensure the socio-political stability in these non-Han areas,” in reality according to an article by BBC, the Han Chinese migrants dominating the economy are the ones who reap major benefits from these growths.

2001, New York Times article quoted then President Jiang Zemin stating “Some people advised me not to go ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said this is a political decision, we will make this project succeed at all costs, even if there is a commercial loss”.

The quote from former President Jiang is significant because it reveals that even though on the surface level the intention of heavily modernizing Tibet may have been for socio-economic advancement, in reality, it was for the political incorporation of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities into the dominant mainstream Han society. This then sets the pathway for the Tibetans to abandon their traditional lifestyles in the grasslands. Dr. Emily Yeh, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, further elaborates on this point by positing that the future grassland management law of Tuimu Huancao, literally translated as “retiring the grazing to the grasslands,” is supposedly the sustainable development component of the “Open up the West” policy in Beijing’s rhetoric. Tuimu Huancao policy will be further explored in my next week’s blog post and it will elaborate on how it is the main source of grassland degradation and its social affects on the traditional Tibetan nomadic lifestyle.

(NOTE: All the statistics the author mentions in this article will be available in detail on the official People’s Republic of China government’s National Bureau of Statistics of China’s webpage)

Burying the Problem: Waste Management in the U.S.

What does waste management look like in the United States and how does composting fit into the bigger picture?

Do you operate on the blissful “out of sight, out of mind” principle, believing that to throw something “away” is to vaporize it?  It’s difficult not to, considering how simple waste disposal seems to be – all the average American has to do is haul their garbage outside and wait for it to disappear.  If you carry your thoughts out to the curb with you, however, and allow them to be carted off, following the path of the pizza boxes and the Styrofoam cups, you will quickly realize that all that waste must end up somewhere.  That somewhere – for all refuse that does not make it into the recycling or the yard waste – is usually either a landfill or an incinerator.

Photo courtesy of sepponet/Flickr Creative Commons

Landfills are essentially gigantic repositories of waste where it’s compacted and buried, day after day, until no more will fit and the site is retired.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 3,091 active landfills in the U.S. and more than 10,000 no longer in use.  The average American is responsible for about 4.6 pounds of waste per day, about 55% of which ends up in a landfill.  Though landfills are usually lined with many layers – such as clay and heavy plastic – meant to protect the surrounding environment from waste and any liquid that may leach from it (known as leachate), the EPA has acknowledged that “even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.”  In other words, the waste – which when compacted is almost entirely cut off from oxygen and the microorganisms necessary for decomposition – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and eventually – whether in 30 years or in 300 – the protection systems will fail and the toxins within will seep into the environment.  Even if we discount future pollution, the Earth does not possess unlimited acreage for us to transform into graveyards for the dregs of our material life, so the less waste that ends up in landfills, the better.

Garbage incinerator in Newark, NJ. Built in 1990, it runs 24/7 and can burn up to 2,300 tons of garbage a day. Photo courtesy of Genista/Flickr Creative Commons

Another 12.5% of our waste is incinerated.  While recently European countries like Denmark have taken advantage of improved waste burning technology to reduce pollution while generating heat and electricity from the combustion of waste, the U.S.’s 87 waste-to-energy incinerators are all more than 15 years old and do not match up in either efficiency or safety.  While health effects stemming from incinerators have not been widely investigated, it is known that the combustion of certain materials found in the waste stream can lead to the release of toxic chemicals like dioxin, which according to the World Heath Organization “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”  The Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, in their book Waste Incineration & Public Health, admits to having “a substantial degree of concern for the incremental contribution to dioxins emissions from all incinerators on a regional level and beyond.”  Though incineration has the potential to generate significant amounts of energy safely, the U.S. system would need to be revamped in order for it to become an attractive option.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produces upwards of 34 million tons of food waste per year, which constitutes over 14% of the entire waste stream.  In 2009, less than 3% of that food waste was recycled, meaning that compostable waste “now represents the single largest component of M[unicipal] S[olid] W[aste] reaching landfills and incinerators.”  Composting efforts – aside from returning nutrients integral to plant life to the soil – divert mass from the waste stream, reducing the overall amount that ends up in landfills and incinerators.  New York City’s Barnard College has already taken the first step towards reducing its waste, its on-campus BioX composting machine taking leftover food from the dining hall and “eliminat[ing] the need for putting it into the waste stream,” says Waste Management professor Peter Bower.  However, if we want to make a real dent in the waste stream – both on the small scale of the college and the large scale of the country – we will need to amplify efforts to recycle food scraps and raise awareness, encouraging people to reduce refuse at the source.

Learning to Grow

How school gardens help children learn and grow


In schools, community gardens have the potential to make tremendous impacts on students’ lives, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Gardens can be used as part of the academic curriculum, where students can learn about plant biology or historical farming techniques; or as an extracurricular, teaching students a practical skill while at the same time giving them something to do after school.

School gardens have been around since the 19th century. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many schools had gardens in their school yards. They became an integral part of the war effort during World War I, providing a source for local food. In the 1990’s the school garden movement made a comeback, led by, Alice Waters, a famous chef in Berkeley, California. In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, Waters founded The Chez Panisse Foundation supporting an “education program that uses food to nurture, educate, and empower youth”. In 1995, in collaboration with the King Middle School in Berkeley, the Chez Panisse Foundation built a garden in the school yard and created a curriculum that was integrated into the academic curriculum, using both the garden and the kitchen. The organization has since changed its name to The Edibile Schoolyard Project, with sites around the country.

Based on the success of the Edible Schoolyard Project and other school gardens in California, in 2006, the California government passed the California School Instructional Garden Act, providing $15 million in grants to sustain existing school gardens and develop new ones.

The success of the school garden movement has spread outside of California. In New York City today, there are 120 registered school gardens, and an estimated total of 400 school gardens across the city. GreenThumb, a program of the New York City Parks Department, oversees the community gardens in New York, providing resources and materials to gardens in the city. Andrew Barrett, the School Garden Operations Associate at GreenThumb, points out the benefits of gardening through experiential learning. “Gardens are important because they get kids outside and working. The benefits of being able to not just sit in a classroom and learn about plants but actually go outside and see them grow are enormous.”

Mayor Bloomberg in the school garden of PS29 in Brooklyn with Rachael Ray (Photo:

Despite the proliferation of school gardens, not everyone supports incorporating gardens into school curricula. In “Cultivating Failure”, published in the Atlantic in January 2010, Caitlin Flanagan argues that gardening takes away from academic time. She points out that there is no concrete evidence that gardens help students meet state standards for English and math. In addition, she criticizes school gardens for putting students from low- income families to work with manual labor. “Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it?” her article says. She adds that school gardens are using the school as a forum in which to advance a social agenda, which she believes is inappropriate. Barrett admits that there are challenges of race, class, and culture in using gardens in schools. “There might be some Latino immigrants who don’t want to work in gardens because they don’t want the stigma of being associated with migrant labor,” he says. But Andrew also notes that Flanagan is making an assumption that all immigrants are from rural areas when, especially in New York City, many immigrants are from cities and have never worked in agriculture before.

The overall response to the school garden movement has been tremendously positive. Thousands of teachers, principles, politicians, and business people support school gardens and make efforts to continue to grow and improve the garden curriculum in schools. Their support allows children all over the world to connect with the environment, their food, and the land.

An Oasis in the Desert

The rise of community gardens and their potential impacts

In a quiet, peaceful corner, I navigate around garden beds growing everything from snap peas, to heads of lettuce, to sunflowers. In the shade of a large tree sits a picnic table and several lounge chairs, inviting me to sit down and relax and enjoy the tranquility of the garden. All of a sudden, I hear the rumble of a train in the distance getting closer and closer until it rushes by, and I am reminded that despite all appearances, I am still in New York City. The small section of green that lies in the midst of concrete is the La Finca del Sur community garden in the South Bronx, an urban farmer cooperative led by Latina and Black women.

There are over 600 scenes like this in New York City – ranging from little plots of land built on previously vacant lots, to rooftops looking over hundreds of apartment buildings, to extensive gardens tucked away in one of the city’s parks. Over the last twenty years, community gardens have flourished in New York, providing one solution to the lack of fresh, healthy, food in low-income areas in New York City. According to the New York City Department of Recreation, community gardens currently make up over 32 acres of land in the city . The gardens occupy areas of the city that would otherwise become areas of filth, litter, and urban decay.  (

Many areas of the region are food deserts, areas where it is impossible to find fresh, healthy food at affordable prices. “There are many places in NYC where you can buy a whole meal at McDonald’s for less than the price of 3 apples” says Adi Segal, author of “Food Deserts: A Global Crisis in New York City”. “Therefore, especially in poor communities and neighborhoods, this leads to very bad diets.” Poor diets lead to many serious health problems, including high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Community gardens not only offer a solution to this problem, but also allow urban citizens to become connected to their food in a way that, today, most people are not. When ordinary consumers are able to literally get their hands dirty and grow their own food, they develop a connection with the food they are eating. Julia Caine, a member of a community garden in Boston, Massachusetts says, “When I am brushing the dirt off the leaves of the plant that I myself have planted, I feel closer to the food that I eat.” People learn to appreciate the long and tiring process that farmers and gardeners partake in order to provide people with food. Community gardens, and especially school gardens, offer New Yorkers ways to be involved in the production and consumption of their food. In the coming weeks, this blog will explore school gardens in New York City, and examine the ways in which they educate students about food, sustainability, and nutrition.