Let’s Get Real

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Environment Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, September-October 2016 edition

To date, my mode of operation has been to post articles onto my blog previously printed in The Boonslick Weekly. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of writing a weekly environmental column in our local newspaper for over four years.  That came to an abrupt halt after this article ran. My column was deemed “too political and no longer inspiring”.  Seems I pushed the envelope too far for this small conservative community. I’m still processing this piece of information and will share my reflections on my next posting.  For now, this is how I chose to get real.

Let’s Get Real

I try my best to not be too “political” while writing this column but sadly, the environment has become a partisan issue.

While industry enjoyed business as usual dumping their toxic waste into our waterways, by the 1960s the accumulated pollution was no longer acceptable. Fish were dying in the Great Lakes, rivers were catching on fire, and smog was inundating our larger cities; all threatening our health and well being. Federal laws in the 1960s addressed those concerns – The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and others began to regulate what industry could do, all receiving bipartisan support. By the 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the tradition of Earth Day began, all were on board.

Gradually a shift occurred as documented by the League of Conservative Voter’s scorecard. In 1973, 59% Democrats and 28% Republicans in the Senate, while 63% Democrats and 32% Republicans in the House supported pro-environmental laws. In 2016, 96% Democrats and 14% Republicans in the Senate and 94% Democrats and 5% Republicans in the House cast pro-environmental votes.

I’ve been studying this phenomenon for a while now. Best I can understand, everybody, public and politicians alike, loves the environment; it appears the divide occurs when it comes to regulating pollution. Federal regulations are seen by some as a threat to economic growth or individual liberty. It seems the “big picture” is being lost.  With change always comes the opportunity for innovation – if we had worked together from the get-go, solutions prioritizing our individual liberty and health would have been found. Unfortunately this collective effort didn’t occur.

To get around the discomfort of scientific evidence, industry and politicians started questioning science, the very science that has protected us, brought innovation and enriched our lives. It seems the flash-point was when scientific evidence confirmed humans were contributing to global climate change and the risks it posed. When serious discussion began about further regulating greenhouse emissions in the 1990s, the political divide escalated. Those who were most concerned about “conserving” our earth were dismissed as liberals or socialists. Again we had the opportunity to seize the opportunity for innovation.  If we had chosen to subsidize renewable energy over oil, we would have painlessly decreased emissions, while creating a robust economy enhancing the health of our earth and populace.

Here is my dilemma; I’m not one to post fuzzy cat postings on Facebook. While I enjoy writing about my love of nature, these are not typical times. We are experiencing an unprecedented escalated assault on our health and environment. Industry and big money are firmly pitted against the environment, all too willing to compromise the health of our bodies and environment. In that effort “alternative facts” are now treated like facts and scientific evidence questioned, ignored and buried.

To honor my subject matter – the environment –you may have noticed I have been speaking a bit more candidly. Many of my readers, who too are quite worried, have thanked me for those efforts. While now wracked with concern, I hope to return to a lighter message soon.

 

Our Environmental Champion is at Risk

Eliminating or reducing the influence of federal agencies can have wide range implications. When the Environmental Protection Agency is at risk, I take notice as they are our Champion. Their sole mission is to prioritize the health of our Earth and our well-being! Per their website, “The United States Environmental Protection Agency is an agency of the Federal government of the United States which was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.” Given the important role of the EPA, I was quite alarmed when Scott Pruitt was appointed to head the organization given his deep fossil-fuel ties and long history of suing the EPA, undermining its core mission.

Given this appointment, our president’s 2018 budget request came as no surprise. He proposes a 31 percent cut (2.6 billion) eliminating over 50 individual programs and nearly 4,000 full-time EPA employees, the lowest budget allocation for 40 years. Given the EPA’s wide spectrum of programs including Agriculture, Air Quality, Energy Efficiency and Global Climate Change, Pollution Prevention, Product Labeling, Technology, Transportation Programs, Waste Management, and Water, such a cut would diminish our quality of life.

Health – The EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and the Radon Program would both be threatened severely.  It would be virtually impossible to screen and test endocrine disruptors that threaten reproductive health and children’s growth and test for radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, believed to cause lung cancer.  Recently Pruitt chose to ignore the EPA’s agency chemical safety experts and lift the ban on chlorpyrifos, concluded to cause learning and memory declines among farm workers and young children, exposed through drinking water and other sources.

Air – The Clean Air Act of 1970 funding designed to control air pollution, would be cut in half.  According to the EPA, between 1970 and 2015 emissions have dropped an average of 70 percent.  This program has been hugely successful, projected to save trillions of dollars in 2020 alone.  Cleaner skies have enhanced our health and reduced suffering.

Water –The two largest budget slashes suggested are The Great Lakes Program and Chesapeake Bay Program, up to 90%. Given industrial pollution, close monitoring is critical. The Great Lakes are the largest surface of freshwater in the world, 84% of North America’s surface freshwater. This cut would impact millions as the Great Lakes provide drinking water to around 40 million people in the United States and Canada and serve as a major food source. The Chesapeake Bay also relies on close monitoring to assure good water quality and healthy fish supporting local economies in several states. Grants to help states monitor public water systems stand to lose almost one third; certainly bad news for reeling Flint, Michigan!

Enforcement – The budget proposal reduces spending on civil and criminal enforcement by almost 60 percent making it difficult for the EPA to implement the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, assuring public health.

Clean-up programs – Proposals are to eliminate assistance with regional clean-up efforts in all our major bodies of water. And the Superfund program in charge of cleaning up the most polluted sites in the country would also be compromised.  The EPA identifies the polluters and makes them pay for the clean-up, saving taxpayers money. Per the EPA website, on 5/9/17 there were 1180 National Priority Sites and 50 proposed sites.  The proposed budget reduces enforcement and remedial components by 45%. The Brownfields program which helps towns and cities redevelop former industrial sites is proposed to lose 30% of its funding.  Sadly, contaminated sites disproportionately impact the disadvantaged who tend to suffer silently. This program gives them the opportunity to clean up and revitalize contaminated sites, boost their local economy and enhance their public health.

Climate Protection Program – Plans are to eliminate this program which provides expertise on climate solutions including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and adaptation to climate impacts.  While communities are already struggling with climate change ocean-rise and destructive weather patterns, no funding is proposed to advise or help those displaced communities. As for not pursuing energy efficiencies and renewables, we are missing a huge economic opportunity being enjoyed world-wide.

Nonpoint Source Grant Program – These funds help states deal with pollutants from sources that aren’t regulated by the Clean Water Act; all funds would be eliminated.

Radiation Protection and Response Preparedness – The EPA’s RadNet system monitors fall-outs from nuclear accidents making science-based decisions on how to protect the public. Proposals are to defund the protection program and keep some funds for “essential preparedness work”.

Science – Funding would be cut for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and funding eliminated entirely for the EPAs Environmental Education and Regional Science and Technology programs. Programs to study environmental hazards including lead, poor indoor air quality and radiation would be eliminated, while programs in place to minimize the damage of pesticides would be nearly eliminated.  Five scientists have already been fired with plans to replace them by the heads of polluting industry the EPA should be monitoring.

All these proposals will have a direct impact on our lives and well-being, particularly low-income, and minorities. Plans are already in motion to reconfigure and restructure the EPA’s activities so they will no longer place a “burden” on industry.  When science is questioned, ignored, and slighted with under-funding, it’ll be difficult for the EPA to develop sound regulations that protect us. Without sound science and regulations, how can they possibly fulfill the mission of protecting human health and the environment? When the EPAs mission is undermined, we are the ones who suffer and in turn bear the burden of a polluted Earth. Profits over people in its worst form.

Sources include recent summaries from The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

 

Our Cities Lead the Way

The Sierra Club launched the “Ready for 100 Campaign”, with the charge to accelerate the transition of 100 cities to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. They have compiled a list of cities who are leading those pursuits; three have already accomplished this goal! They define renewable as “carbon- and pollution-free energy collected from renewable, sustainably harvested sources, such as wind, solar, hydro, tidal, and geothermal, as well as energy efficiency.”  The definition does not include natural gas, nuclear, or any carbon-based energy source.

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Sierra Club Campaign Logo

-Greensburg, KS – Population 785. The first town to go renewable in 2013 is mostly powered by wind energy. After being hit by a major tornado in 2007, they adopted the motto “Rebuilding..Stronger..Better..Greener.”

-Burlington, VT – Population 42,282. The first city to go completely renewable in 2014, uses a mix of hydro-power, landfill methane, wind, solar, and biomass energy.

Aspen, CO – Population 6,658. This small ski-resort town met its 100% renewable goal in 2015, utilizing wind and water.

Georgetown, TX – Population 54,898. By 2017, plans are to be 100% reliant on renewable-energy sources by taking advantage of wind and solar energy.

San Jose, CA – Population 960,000. This city plans to meet their 100% renewable by 2020 through energy reduction and solar capture.

Grand Rapids, MI – Population 192,000. The second-largest city in Michigan is on target for 100% renewable by year 2020, plans are to reduce energy usage and build solar facilities.

East Hampton, NY – Population 21,500. Plans are to build a massive wind farm off their shore and invest in solar energy to reach their 100% renewable goals by year 2020.

San Francisco, CA – Population 864,000. With the goal of 100% renewals by 2030, they are encouraging investment in clean-energy sources and pushing for reductions in energy usage.

Rochester, MN – Population 100,000. 100% renewable by year 2031

San Diego, CA – Population 1.37 million. As the largest city on the list, they are pursuing 100% renewable by year 2035.

More progress beyond their list:

Las Vegas (Population 603,488) just recently reached their 100% renewable energy goal after a ten year effort. They are using a combination of solar panels and hydroelectric turbines including the Hoover Dam.  They report renewable and energy efficiency savings will save the city roughly five million dollars per year.  In the state of California, Governor Jerry Brown is pursuing renewable standards of 50% by 2030 state-wide.

Fortunately, cities around the United State continue to march forward. According to EcoWatch, 96 United States cities are ditching fossil fuels in favor of 100% renewable, all committed to that pursuit with or without federal assistance. Eighty percent of our population lives in urban and suburban areas. As more cities and towns weld their local control and seize the health and economic benefits of renewables, their citizens lives improve. I applaud these cities for joining the world-wide effort.

As for Missouri, years ago the City of Columbia committed to 30% renewables by 2028.  And both Kansas City and St. Louis are pursuing goals that will meet EPA carbon reduction targets years ahead of schedule.  Kansas City Power & Light estimates their investments in wind and energy will save their customers one billion over twenty years. Springfield Utilities too found switching to wind power was 25% cheaper than coal, now at almost 36% wind power.

Likely most Missourians have forgotten, in 2008 we passed the Renewable Energy Standard, called Proposition C, by a three to one margin. This law requires the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities (including Ameren) gradually phase in renewable power, ramping up to 15% by 2021, utilizing 2% solar. Unfortunately, our legislators and officials have grappled with the language of the law so progress has been stifled. Ameren now sits at 4%; US Energy Information Administration reported Missouri utilized 3.7% renewables in 2015, mostly from hydroelectric power and wind. It’s unfortunate our voter’s wishes haven’t prevailed – some estimate Missouri has the solar and wind potential to switch to 100% renewables within ten years! Yet, according to the Sierra Club, Missouri is ranked at 39% for clean energy.

 

The New Norm – 100% Renewable Energy Part III

All the gains in renewable is so remarkable; I want to share one more perspective from The World Economic Forum. Established in 1971, this not-for-profit international organization for public-private cooperation is committed to improving the state of the world. They engage the “foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” They highlighted the following notable efforts:

Morocco – This country on the edge of the Sahara desert and the Middle East’s top energy-importing country, is building the world’s largest concentrated solar power plants.  They will reduce their countries dependence on fossil fuel by 2.5 million tons of oil, producing enough energy for one million Moroccans.

Bangladesh – This country is becoming the world’s fastest expansion of solar energy. About 3.5 million homes now have solar home systems.

China – They are turning 800 primary and middle schools in Beijing into “sunshine schools”. These efforts will make the air healthier and increase student environmental awareness.

Mexico – The government promoted energy efficient efforts by distributing almost 23 million free energy-saving light bulbs. The families now save up to 18 percent on their electricity bill. This action alone resulted in reducing 1.4 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

Turkey – Many multi-faceted steps have been taken resulting in substantial growth of renewables since 2001. All projects combined are now reducing an estimated 5 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

One other source – EcoWatch is a leading website that reports on environmental news, green living, sustainable business, science and politics. They report Brazil has 15 fully fossil-fuel free cities. Several others are close to 100% with the Brazilian city average being 59%. EcoWatch cites Asian Pacific cities as the most dependent on fossil fuels; Europe the most renewable friendly with North America and Africa falling in the middle.

Per the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 20,000 oil spills are reported each year in the United States alone; 13,000 significant enough to investigate. Toxic waste pollutes our soils and waterways while burning fossil fuels pollute our airways. With damage to our environment comes compromised health and great suffering.

Nature provides us limitless sources of energy without compromising our soils, waterways and air. We are most fortunate scientists and innovators help us capture those varied energy resources. With less pollution comes a healthier populace saving billions in healthcare costs. We only have one Earth; finite resources future generations will need.  As a humble steward of the earth, I will continue to spread the word so we can all conserve, nurture, and preserve our Earth.

I will wrap up the renewable energy series next week, highlighting the cities around the United States who are leading the pursuit of efficiencies and clean renewable energy, followed by an update on Missouri’s progress.

The New Norm – 100% Renewable Energy – Part II

With a combination of efficient technology improvements and a rapid decline in renewable manufacturing costs, the world can easily capture all the energy nature has to offer. As we choose renewables over fossil fuels, we in turn nurture the earth.  A symbiotic relationship at its best!

To date, European countries have taken the lead on per capita installments of solar and wind in particular, but emerging leaders are now coming to the forefront, developing countries. A couple sources indicate developing countries investments in renewables actually surpassed that of developed countries in 2015!

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports the progress of these Champions. China is the largest investor globally employing the most people in the renewable field in any country. Last year Mexico agreed to double its renewable power generation by 2018, focusing on wind power. India is discussing increasing their goals to 40% renewable by 2030. Morocco’s goals are to pursue energy efficiencies reducing their energy consumption by 12% while growing renewable energy sources to 40% of their needs by 2020.  The Philippines plan to double their renewable power to about 50% by 2030. Indonesia has recently passed legislation aimed to grow their renewable from 5% to 25% by 2023. Based on economic capabilities, the countries that led in renewable energy source investments in 2013 were Uruguay, Mauritius, Costa Rica, South Africa and Nicaragua. And in 2014, the countries with the largest investors per national GDP were Burundi, Kenya, Honduras, Jordan and Uruguay.  South Africa is aggressively pursuing solar, collectors now on almost every third roof in the country. Now those are some amazing statistic!

It’s becoming clear, with the significant cost reductions of renewables, clean energy is now within the reach of poorer countries. WWF explains why this is happening.

  1. Renewables offer three to five more jobs per unit of energy generated than fossil fuels. “Renewables overcome erratic, unpredictable and often high, fuel costs, which is useful for oil and gas-importing nations.”
  2. Renewables consume less water compared to coal, nuclear, and shale gas, making it more conducive to drier and water-stressed nations.
  3. Renewables don’t emit conventional air pollution creating healthier air conditions and there is no toxic waste or ash, such as toxic remains from nuclear and coal. Citizens are healthier and save billions in healthcare costs.
  4. Renewables don’t generate global warming gases. The world is in agreement, renewable are critical component of sustainable development.

With all these benefits, it’s no wonder leaders are pursuing renewables world-wide!

100% Clean Renewable Energy – The New Norm!

World-wide countries are pursuing clean renewable energy, glad to reap the economic and health benefits.  This is proving to be the most exciting emerging industry since the IT boom.  China, alone, plans to create thirteen million renewable jobs by 2020. It’s quite inspiring reviewing all the progress; here is a succinct snapshot provided by the Climate Reality Project.

Sweden – This year, the first country to generate 100 percent of their electricity from renewables. They are committed to eliminating fossil fuel usage and are investing in solar, wind, energy storage, smart grids and clean transport.

Costa Rica – 99% of their electricity came from renewables in 2015. They are capitalizing on hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind.

Nicaragua – Renewables comprised up to 54 percent of their electricity production in 2015. Their goals are to reach 90 percent by 2020 with an emphasis on wind, solar and geothermal sources.

Scotland – In 2015 wind power met 97 percent of the country’s household electricity needs.

Germany – This country leads the world in solar PV capacity and meets 78 percent of their electricity demand from renewables. An amazing accomplishment, given this country is quite cloudy. When choosing solar panels for our place of business, we chose the best, a German product. That came as no surprise. In 2008 my daughter had the honor of participating in and presenting the Texas A&M project at the world-wide Solar Decathlon competition at our Capitol Mall.  Germany innovation handily won first place.

Uruguay – After less than 10 years of effort, Uruguay now is 95 percent powered by renewables focusing on wind and solar.

Denmark – Given their high winds, they focused on wind turbines, meeting 42% of their electricity needs in 2015.

China – By 2014 China had the most installed wind energy capacity and the second highest installed solar PV capacity. Besides good economics, China knows renewables reduce pollution.  Their citizens will appreciate fewer air quality “red alerts”; perhaps eventually they won’t have to wear face masks. Never to miss a marketing opportunity, they sell face masks in a variety of colors!  While visiting South Korea last year, I found colorful face masks to be quite common. I was told governmental officials frequently alert their citizens when prevailing winds are bringing in toxic Chinese yellow dust.

Morocco – Capitalizing on their sunny skies, they opened the first phase of the largest concentrated solar plant in the world this year.

Kenya – In 2015, geothermal covered 51 percent of their electricity needs. They are currently building one of Africa’s biggest wind farms to cover 20 percent of their electricity needs; combined efforts 71% total.

United States – In 2014, we ranked fifth place on installed solar capacity globally and second place on wind energy capacity. Renewables accounted for about 13 percent of our electricity generation that year. 2015 totals were not listed.

As I’m reviewing the world’s progress, I’m reminded of the wonders of nature and all it has to offer. Windy countries maximize on wind turbines; sunny ones on solar panels.  With the world in agreement we need to phase out fossil fuels, scientists rise to the occasion; clean energy technology improve and products become more affordable!

Common Wealth

I recently read “A Conservationist Manifesto” by Scott Russell Sanders and found it to be quite profound.   He discusses the concept of common wealth, all “natural and cultural goods” we share including “the air, waters, soils, and oceans; outer space; the electromagnetic spectrum; the human gene pool and the diversity of species; language in all its forms, including mathematics and music; knowledge in all its forms, from art to zoology; all manner of artifacts and machines, from stone scrapers to supercomputers; the practical arts such as cooking, building, herding, and farming; the practice of medicine; the body of law, the structures of democratic government, and the traditions of civil liberty; parks, community gardens, state and national forests, wildlife refuges, and protected wilderness areas; museums, libraries, schools, plazas, and other public spaces.”  He argues these are common wealth because “none of us, as individuals or even as nations, could create these goods from scratch, or replace them if they were lost.”

For years the government has favored giveaways including below-cost timber sales in national forests, patenting of organisms, oil drilling in wildlife refuges, subsidies for the nuclear industry and agribusiness, off-shore tax havens for corporations, and waivers of clean air regulations.  Our common wealth became further at risk in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United.  Now corporations can give anonymous unlimited funds to politicians.

These corporations need consumers so they flood the media with advertising.  According to Sanders, by age 21 the average American has been exposed to 30 million ads.  They convince us “you, the isolated consumer, are the center of the universe; your pleasure, comfort, status, looks, convenience, and distraction are all that matter; you will find happiness and fulfillment through buying this product or service; the entire Earth is a warehouse of raw materials at your service.”  So now the circle is complete – Insatiable consumers take from the common wealth oblivious to the common good.

He suggests we live more lightly.  “We need a dream worthy of grown-ups, one that values simplicity over novelty, conservation over consumption, harmony over competition, community over ego.”

To sum it up, “We are born into the legacy of the common wealth, and we pass it on, either enhanced or diminished, to future generations.”  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Pick up Litter, Use your Voice and Vote wisely.  Future generations will be glad you did.

Environmental Accomplishments

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Any environmentalist is quite concerned about the election results. I am no exception. To lift my spirits, I reviewed the environmental accomplishments over the last eight years.  Given the environment is our life-line, I had wished for more progress, but in retrospect, these accomplishments now appear quite impressive.

— In response to one of our worst financial emergencies in 2008, Congress implemented an economic package that laid the foundation for a clean energy future. Ninety billion dollars were invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency, green jobs and technology. Consequently, solar electricity generation has increased thirty-fold and wind electricity more than three-fold. Research funds granted growth in smart grids, energy efficiency, electric cars, renewable electricity generation, cleaner coal, and biofuels technology.

— The government bailed out the auto industry and required higher efficiencies – 36.6 miles per gallon by 2017 for cars and 54.4 miles per gallon by 2025. Those new standards will reduce tons of carbon pollution and has accelerated transition to electric vehicles; all the while creating a more marketable product and saving us money.

— The Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dioxide as a pollutant in 2009. The Clean Power Plan is on track to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other toxic pollutants from power plants 32 percent by 2030. We are closing down our oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Estimated costs to utilities upgrades is projected at $11 billion, while estimated health benefits are $59 to 140 billion. Tackling pollution makes us healthier!

— The Energy Department creation of new standards for energy efficient appliances and products ranging from refrigerators to light bulbs, impacting all structures from homes to enormous buildings. These new regulations won’t only cut significant greenhouse gas emissions; they will also save Americans billions of dollars.

— Last fall the world came together to tackle the dangers of Climate Change. Leaders from 196 countries developed and signed the ambitious Paris Agreement committed to keep global temperature rise this century well below two degrees.

—Per executive order, twenty-three national monuments were designated protecting 265 million acres of land and 100 miles of waterways. It’s always a victory when pristine public land is set aside for us to enjoy along with future generations.

— Per executive order, all federal agencies are making plans to soften their environmental impacts by 2020. Goals include 30 percent reduction in fleet gasoline use, increase water efficiency by 26%, and considering sustainable practices on all federal contracts. These actions will save our tax dollars!

— Efforts were made to keep fossil fuels in the ground to minimize carbon damage. President Obama stopped the Keystone pipeline. The Department of Interior discontinued extracting coal from public land.

On the flip side, a 40-year ban on US crude oil exports was lifted in exchange for extending clean energy tax credits. And, offshore and Arctic drilling leases were granted. Shell stepped away from Alaskan Arctic drilling efforts, ironically oil now more accessible due to glacier melt from carbon-induced global warming. Fortunately just this week, per executive order, President Obama deemed US owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic Ocean as off limits to future oil and gas leasing and halted the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Now we have a new president elect who has been spouting anti-environmental rhetoric for months. He calls Climate Change “a hoax”. He pledges to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and pursue “clean” coal reserves, the dirtiest fuel on the planet. He promises to disband the Environmental Protection Agency since those regulations “get in the way of business”. And he says he is going to break our pact with the World by withdrawing from the Paris Accord.

There is much to be gained by continuing and expanding our efficiency and clean energy trajectory:

*Efficient energy practices and products save us money.

*Reducing toxins and pollutions makes us healthier.

*Decreased climate change dangers reduce environmental and world instability.

*Pursuing renewables is a huge economic opportunity.

To live is to progress; frankly I’m flummoxed the public wouldn’t always want to build on what we have learned.  We now know this clean energy trajectory not only protects our environment, it saves us money, creates jobs, enhances our health, it’s a huge economic opportunity and it honors world-wide needs and opinions.

To protect our environment, it’ll now be more important than ever to join marches, support environmental organizations and speak up. I remain vigilant fulfilling my moral obligation to be a good steward of our earth, assuring future generations too will revel in this beautiful gift. This year I became a grandmother – this just got real personal!

Yucatan Sightings

Always with my environmental hat in tow, we explored the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico’s last spring. As in past years, there was litter strewn about throughout; although the touristy Playa del Carmen did have a few “litter crews” grooming the beaches and parks, making them much more pleasing. I’m guessing all that retrieved litter is a combination of surf offerings and sloppy beach loungers.

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Playa del Carmen beach, Mexico

While visiting Progreso, a more obscure beach town frequented by Mexicans, litter crews didn’t exist, so we picked up along a mile stretch of the beach. This was obviously not typical of tourists as we received varied responses – stares, thank yous, and a couple children even helped us! Although a valiant effort, we eventually just concentrated on the worst offenders – all things plastic – straws, bottle caps, 6-pack rings, forks, and plastic bags. At least for a period of time, those birds won’t mistake plastic as food along that stretch!

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Progreso, Mexico

Some of the more touristy cities offered public recycling; otherwise, it appeared recycling opportunities were limited.  Although, recycling appears to be happening, as it was common to see older women or men digging through the trash harvesting recyclables. Drinking tap water is questionable, so we always buy bottled water in Mexico. Given the dearth of recycling opportunities, at least while we traveled by car we toted along a returnable 5 gallon container of water, filling our smaller bottles. We also noticed, when beer bottles weren’t twist-offs, those bottles were returned and refilled.

As for wildlife, while it was quite different to not see squirrels, rabbits or deer, other animals filled the void.  We saw our first coatis from the raccoon family, camouflaged iguanas throughout, and many colorful birds. One highlight was boating through the mangroves along the protected bio-reserves where we saw flocks of Caribbean Pink Flamingos – thousands of them! They were even more mesmerizing when I relinquished the camera! We embarked on this amazing experience from Rio Lagartos where many guides await to fill their boats with nature enthusiasts every morning.

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Caribbean Pink Flamingos near Rio Lagartos, Mexico

The bio-reserves boat trip included a chance to experience a Mayan mud bath.  Of course, I was all in.  First we floated a bit in a salty water reserve to open our pours, then we lathered ourselves with mud, and garnished the look with a mud crown and mangrove leaves. I was promised I would then look much younger!!

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Mayan Mud Bath, Yucatan, Mexico

We enjoyed a vast variety of colorful fish along with beautiful sponges, corals and fan while snorkeling off a beach in Cozumel; experiencing the second largest barrier reef system in the world. The Meso-American reef system spans between the Gulf of Mexico and Honduras – almost 175 miles. As for beach walking, the white powdery sand and the clear turquoise waters went on for miles!

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Beach on the East side of Cozumel, Mexico
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Wonderful snorkeling off of the beach at Sky Reef, Cozumel, Mexico

Interestingly, there are no above ground rivers on the Yucatan peninsula since the upper layer is soft limestone.  Instead there is a large web of fresh underground rivers forming caves and cenotes, natural pits or sinkholes formed when the limestone bedrock collapses, making for great swimming holes. Mexico is filled with amazing Maya archaeological sites. While there are many amazing Yucatan archaeological ruins, most notable the largest Chichen Itzas and the beautiful coastal ruin of Tulum, we had already seen them so this year we just visited a small ruin we happened upon the way – Xcambo, a major salt provider for the Mayan Empire.

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Xcambo Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico

While traveling around Mexico, we typically travel by public bus with the locals, but this year we rented a car for a spell so we could take a closer look at the coastline, countryside and colonial villages. Mexican villages always have a local gathering point in the middle of town – the central plaza bordered by a block-long massive ancient church on one side and their municipality building on another. During the evenings, the plaza always buzzes with activity; people watching at it’s finest.

As always, we enjoy sampling local culinary fare. We enjoyed pescado (fish) almost daily, fresh squeezed orange juice, avocados, mangos, lime peanuts, and Mexican pastries.  We always visit the local Central Mercado overflowing with fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, spices, cornmeal, and everything imaginable. While big box stores are slowing gaining a foot-hold throughout Mexico, there are always ample shoppers swarming the Central Mercados and small Tiendas (small corner stores) about. Sadly, once quite common panaderias, neighborhood bakeries, are becoming harder to find. Central plazas and beaches are generally filled with merchants selling a wide variety of food and such. Some balance a tray of goods on their head, while others have carts propelled by muscle power or a small motor. It appears the economy is doing much better as we notice nicer cars and now it’s less common to see small children sell Chiclets for a few Pecos.

Although we enjoy eating outside, at times we retreated inside for air conditioning.  We are thrilled smoke-free dining is becoming common-place all throughout Mexico. While visiting Holbox Island, we thanked a cigarette butt picker-upper, diligently digging through the sand capturing those toxic butts. He proudly, and sadly, showed us several two-liter bottles filled with butts. As it turned out, he had a small restaurant, as in a small shack and modest outside grill, where he whipped up one of our tastiest meals of the trip!

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Wonderful grilled pescado dinner, creation of the chef in the next picture!
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El Changarrito, right on the beach, Holbox Island, Mexico. We saw this guy picking up cigarette butts and enjoyed his wonderful grilled pescado – Give him a visit and thank him!

While Mexico is trying desperately to protect their heritage, corn, there is much pressure to accept GMO corn. Mexico has much to lose as corn originated in Mexico and the Mesoamerican region. At risk is their biodiversity and cross contamination, more than 60 indigenous varieties. Corn is central to Mexican culture; corn tortillas or chips are served with every meal. After two years of 93 appeals from the Biotech Industry, Mexico’s 2013 ruling banning GMO corn was sadly overturned last fall, now in the appeal process. Opponents have many concerns – loss of biodiversity, culture, and health concerns due to pesticide exposure in their air, food and waterways.

Pemex gas stations dot the landscape, Mexico’s state-owned energy provider. While Pemex has been the only company allowed to develop their oil and gas for years, just recently this industry has opened up to private sector investors. Mexico’s goal is to generate 35 percent of their total electricity from clean sources by 2025. Roof-top black passive solar water tanks are quite common, but we didn’t see any windmills and only an occasional solar panel. Perhaps they are conflicted, as I have read Pemex provides one-third of their federal funds.  Given Mexico’s apparent abundance of wind, solar and geothermal potential, renewables could be a boon for the economy, environment and people alike.

Say No to the Straw

straws-wrapped-around-the-world
© The Last Plastic Straw

While I’m sparing everybody the horrible visuals of the unfortunate turtles saddled with wayward straws stuck up their nose, I do want to share this consumption visual – the number of straws used daily in the United States could circle our planet more than two-and-a-half times a day – 500 million straws! While it’s easy to mindlessly take those “free” straws, they come at a high price.  This seemingly innocuous straw has significant environmental impact – Extracting resources, distribution, polluting our oceans and crowding our landfills.

In the early 1900s straws, made of paper and rye, became common due to the fear of polio and tuberculosis being transmitted from shared glasses. In the mid-1950s as cars became popular, fast food restaurants soon graced our roadways. Fast-food restaurants replaced glass with low-cost disposable packaging for meals and made straws commonplace accompanying drinks on the go. By 1960, those renewable paper straws were replaced with plastic, a petroleum product. To gain a strong foothold, straws were heavily marketed as “convenient” and a way to reduce illness exposure from improperly washed containers. With people eating more meals on the go, straws fling into our environment. Now, consider the implications of twenty minutes of convenience.

More demand for straws means more production, more oil and gas extraction, more electricity for production, and more gas to both ship materials to plastic manufacturers and to deliver straws to the consumer. So, more carbon emissions and pollution for a now commonplace product we rarely “need”.

There are also health implications. Like most plastics, those straws contain Bisphenol A (BPA) which mimics the activity of hormones in the body, such as estrogen, linked to many serious health risks.

With all single-use disposable products, comes the disposal end. Plastic straws are rarely recycled; they don’t biodegrade so they stay around and accumulate. According to Ocean Conservancy, straws and stirrers were the fifth most common marine plastic debris found during their 2015 coastal cleanup (cigarette butts #1). Researchers estimate 90% of our marine life and seabirds have now ingested plastics.

Luckily, this is an environmental menace we can easily avoid. If you don’t need a straw, don’t use one. When eating out, simply say “no straw please” or have more of an impact by requesting the restaurant or bar only serve straws upon request. While some restaurants have switched back to paper straws, best case practices is to avoid all unnecessary disposables. If you like straws or have a physical disability requiring one, consider buying reusable  stainless steel, glass, or bamboo straws.  At the very minimum, at least  buy paper straws – yes, they are still out there.

If by chance, my powers of persuasion are lacking, I challenge you to Google “sea turtle plastic straw” and see the consequences of one wayward plastic straw – It’s horrifying. If for no other reason, say “no to the straw” to save our marine life.  With this one single action, we will all enjoy a much cleaner environment – our air, land and oceans.

saveaturtle
Take the no plastic straw pledge – http://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/no-straw-please/