Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reusing Toilet Paper?

I was at my friend's apartment the other day and was kind of shocked when I went to use her bathroom. No toilet paper, just a stack of multicolored cloths in a basket that I'm guessing I was supposed to use to wipe myself. (I decided to hold it until I got back to my place.) I'm so grossed out. Are people really doing this? Isn't it unsanitary? I was too embarrassed to ask her...


Yes, people are doing this, though at present the practice of employing reusable cloths in lieu of toilet paper -- euphemistically referred to as family wipes or family cloth -- seems relegated to what marketing gurus would call the "dark green" consumer. (Though there's another color I can think of that might be more appropriate in this case.)

I do find it somewhat ironic that new parents using cloth diapers for their baby are usually met with praise: Oh, wow -- you guys must be really dedicated to the environment. But transfer the concept of reusable bathroom products to adults, and the response is one of universal horror: You're going to do what? With what? Even the crunchiest of my granola friends couldn't stifle a grimace when I asked them if they would consider swapping out disposable toilet paper for the washable kind. I guess the difference is that with cloth diapers, squeamish folks can always employ a diaper service; with family wipes, you're the one doing the washing.

Which brings me to your next question: Is the whole process of collecting and washing these wipes unsanitary? Not if you employ the method used by most family wipe families, which is to use the cloths for urinating only. (This still helps cut down on paper waste, since the majority of bathroom visits are of the first priority.) Since normal urine is sterile, there's little chance of encountering nasty bugs like E. coli later in the laundry room. But using family wipes for ahem, your more serious matters can also be perfectly hygienic, provided you separate them from your other laundry (your kitchen towels, for instance) before washing them in hot water and drying them in the dryer. If your kids are still in diapers of the cloth variety, all the better -- you can save water by washing the wipes and the diapers together.

So is it really worth the effort, from an environmental standpoint? If you're contemplating making the switch from the three-ply, quilted, extra-soft fluffy stuff to tree-free TP, then the benefits are clear: At present, more than 98 percent of the toilet paper sold in the United States is made from virgin wood (note: that statistic will improve soon, thanks to last year's Kimberly-Clark/Greenpeace agreement), which is destroying our forests and contributing to climate change, since forests are the most effective tool we have for sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And while some may argue that washing cloth toilet wipes wastes water, it's nothing compared with the pulp and paper business, which is one of the world's largest industrial consumers of fresh water.

But can't you eliminate a lot of that waste and pollution by switching to 100 percent recycled toilet paper? Yeah, you can, which is the solution I'll be sticking with as long as I live in a one-bathroom apartment (no surprises for guests here!) with a community washer/dryer. It's not a perfect solution, of course; recycled toilet paper still takes energy and resources to produce, not to mention the fuel cost to transport it from factory to store. But perhaps the more compelling case to be made for tossing the TP is an economic one: The average family of four is just flushing away cash, to the tune of $140 a year. A pack of a dozen family wipes from Wallypop will set you back about $11; you can also make your own for free out of old clothing.

If you do decide to take the plunge, mind your Eco Etiquette: Don't try to green toilet train guests (i.e., put regular -- or at least recycled -- toilet paper in the guest bathroom); keep your own toilet area neatly organized by designating a basket for clean cloths and a pail with a lid for dirty ones; and retire especially worn wipes to the compost pile, not the trash can (after washing them, of course). Bottoms up!


Katrina victims seek to sue greenhouse gas emitters

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Victims of Hurricane Katrina are seeking to sue carbon gas-emitting multinationals for helping fuel global warming and boosting the devastating 2005 storm, legal documents showed.

The class action suit brought by residents from southern Mississippi, which was ravaged by hurricane-force winds and driving rains, was first filed just weeks after the August 2005 storm hit.

"The plaintiffs allege that defendants' operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States caused the emission of greenhouse gasses that contributed to global warming," say the documents seen by AFP.

The increase in global surface air and water temperatures "in turn caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which combined to destroy the plaintiffs' private property, as well as public property useful to them." More than 1,200 people died in Hurricane Katrina, which lashed the area, swamping New Orleans in Louisiana when levees gave way under the weight of the waves.

The suit, claiming compensation and punitive damages from multinational companies including Shell, ExxonMobile, BP and Chevron, has already passed several key legal hurdles, after initially being knocked back by the lowest court.

Three federal appeals court judges decided in October 2009 that the case could be heard. But in February the same court decided to re-examine whether it could be heard this time with nine judges.

Other companies named in the suit include Honeywell and American Electric Power, with the residents charging that "the defendants' greenhouse gas emissions caused saltwater, debris, sediment, hazardous substances, and other materials to enter, remain on, and damage plaintiffs' property."

They allege that companies had a duty to "avoid unreasonably endangering the environment, public health, public and private property."

The district court, which initially rejected the case, ruled that it was "a debate which simply has no place in the court." The court argued that Congress first had to enact legislation "which sets appropriate standards by which this court can measure conduct."

Mississippi residents must now wait for the appeals court to fix a new hearing, in principle within the next three months.

A decision would then be due by the end of 2010, and both sides could also then take the case to the Supreme Court.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Powering Planes with the Sun

It doesn’t make good business sense, physics sense, or much of any kind of sense, to try to fly an airplane on solar power. Not yet. With the state of the technology, and how relatively young the solar sector still is, such an endeavor would be considered quixotic today—let alone in 2003, when Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founders of Solar Impulse, announced they would design a solar-powered aircraft and fly it around the world. It would be a statement, they said, about our global dependence on fossil fuels and the untapped promise of burgeoning green technologies. The Swiss pilot-entrepreneurs were after "perpetual flight": a plane that could climb to 9,000 feet and fly on the sun's energy by day, then descend below cloud cover to lower altitudes, where it would cruise on stored battery power by night.

It was a long shot. And yet seven years of innovation later, the 70-person Solar Impulse team is nearing its goal. “We were intrigued by this notion of perpetual flight,” said Borschberg when visited in September in Solar Impulse’s massive hangar, situated smack in the middle of Düendorf Airfield, a Swiss military zone. “We wanted to be totally independent of any fuel.” Forget hybrid planes, or the biofuels fixating most of the sustainable aviation sector today; Piccard and Borschberg are purists. “No fuel, no CO2, no pollution. It could fly almost forever, assuming good weather,” Borschberg said of their invention.

By November of last year, test pilot Markus Scherdel—formerly of DLR German Aerospace, the NASA of Germany—was climbing into the cockpit of the coleted prototype to taxi down the Dübendorf runway for the first time. Soon after that, Scherde was back in the cockpit, this time guiding the plane not just down the runway but up into the air for a series of successful “flea-hop” mini-flights over the tarmac. (You can watch a film of the event on YouTube.)

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA, as it is officially named, is a strange sight to behold. Resting under the sky-high ceiling of its hangar at Dubendorf, it looks fragile to the point of breakable. And no wonder: HB-SIA, comprised of a carbon skeleton covered in a flexible polycarbonate “skin,” weighs only about 1.5 tons, about as much as a small car. Its wings are so light that a single person can carry them. And when I tested both the pilot's parachute and the detached nosepiece of a second prototype of the plane for weight, the parachute was heavier.

The HB-SIA carries a minuscule, one-person cockpit, and its generous 64-meter wingspan (which is comparable to that of an Airbus) makes it aerodynamically efficient and affords it a low sink rate, so that it needs very little energy to continue flying horizontally. This greater wingspan also creates maximum surface area for the aircraft’s 650 square feet of crystalline solar cells—all of which provide a maximum of about 40 kilowatts, or the power of a small scooter or motorcycle, and should get HB-SIA up to speeds of 45 miles per hour on sunny days.

While 45 miles per hour is practically the speed of light for a vehicle powered exclusively by the sun, it’s slow as molasses by today’s aviation standards (the average commercial plane cruises about 12 times faster), so each leg of HB-SIA’s transcontinental journey will take a full five days and five nights. Piccard and Borschberg still haven’t quite figured out how they’ll manage to take turns living in a one-man cockpit for such lengths; they’ve hired a yogi and a sleep specialist to help troubleshoot few human details like how not to fall asleep at the throttle, pass out from boredom, or die of thrombosis between takeoff and landing. As for energy storage, HB-SIA’s lithium batteries, which make up one quarter of the plane’s total weight, are two times lighter (but twice as efficient) as the batteries used in most computers, and have the storage capacity to power HB-SIA through eight hours of darkness each night.

Every last nut and bold in the plane, from its electric engines to it batteries to its solar cells, has been designed specifically for Solar Impulse, and that innovation has come at a price. Of Solar Impulse’s $100 million budget, about $55 million has been spent so far, primarily on technology development and salaries. Most of that funding has come in via principle partnerships with three corporations: Solvay, an international chemical and pharmaceutical group; Swiss watchmaker Omega; and Deutsche Bank.

Currently, HB-SIA is being dismantled at Dübendorf Airfield and prepared for transport to Payerne, where it will be reassembled and readied to execute a 36-hour, day-and-night test flight sometime this summer. That flight will put Piccard and Borschberg one step closer to their ultimate goal, a round-the-world-flight, which they hope to complete by 2012.
It’s an enormous undertaking, but Piccard and Borschberg are the right men for the job. Piccard grew up attending Apollo 7 launches and hanging out with NASA astronauts. It’s nNo surprise that he went on to become a European champion in hang-glider aerobatics, be a part of the first- ever (two-man) team to balloon around the world, a lecturer at the Swiss Society for Medical Hypnosis, and ultimately decided to harness the power of the sun with Solar Impulse.

Borschberg, for his part, is an MIT graduate, an alumnus of the consulting firm McKinsey, and an entrepreneur. Biceps bulging from his company polo shirt, hair slicked back, he looks as though someone built him for maximum efficiency, just as he himself has built HB-SIA. “There is no space for doubt; there is just time in fact to be focused,” he told me flatly when I asked if he ever thought their mission might be a little audacious.

Confident and tenacious though they might be, Borschberg and Piccard are in no rush to make solar aviation commercially feasible. For now, they say, Solar Impulse’s flight around the world should be viewed like the Wright Brothers’ or Lindbergh’s first flights; the pioneers of aviation didn’t set out to deliver 150 tourists and business travelers from New York to India, but merely to show that it was possible to fly. “The first step is to demonstrate that this is possible, then we can open up and develop applications,” said Borschberg. “For us it’s important to show what we can do with this technology, so it’s more a first step. It’s more a symbol than an end product.”

The aviation industry seems to agree that the future of solar technology in commercial airplanes does not look bright, at least not in the near term. Not a single member of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association is currently researching or developing solar technology for planes. Boeing, highly active on the sustainable aviation scene, has several staffers in top positions at the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative and is a driving force behind innovation in fuel cell technology for airplanes. But even they are leaving solar-powered flight alone, for now. “Solar isn't something we're actively pursuing for commercial air travel—the energy density we would need from the solar cells simply isn't there, and the trade-offs are too great,” said Boeing press officer Terrance Scott.

Today, almost everyone who is looking forward to the aviation fuel of tomorrow is looking not up at the sun, but down at the ground, to biofuels. Nate Brown, deputy director of CAAFI and policy analyst for the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of Environment and Energy, says that fuels made from plants like jatropha (related to castor oil, it thrives even in tough, dry environments and may prove critical in places like India and Africa), camelina, salicornia, and algae look most promising from where he’s standing today, but the jury is still out as to which biofuels will prove most feasible, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and safest for airplanes.

Carl Burleson, acting deputy assistant administrator for the FAA’s Department of Policy, Planning and Environment, goes further. He says that even within the biofuel sector, the industry is really only looking at “drop-in fuels,” or fuels that could theoretically be poured straight into the engines of today’s fleet, with no modifications required. “Early on we looked at the idea of hydrogen, the idea of ethanol, various things that would involve redesigning today’s fleet, and just decided it wasn’t a very viable approach because you have such a large embedded capital cost right now in today’s fleet,” said Burleson. “If you were going to design a hydrogen aircraft, if it were viable, they would be substantially different in design, so even if you get it right you’re talking 30-40 years to change over the fleet.”

Several airlines have already run test flights on biofuel; the advances have been minimal, but a great deal of manpower and funding are currently pouring into research and development. Meanwhile, as the aviation industry (which knows it will eventually need to graduate from fossil fuels, for both economic and environmental reasons) considers biofuels the first step,  Borschberg and Piccard are already leaping headlong several steps past that. Borschberg says the biggest lesson that he and Piccard have learned from the pioneers of aviation—the Wright brothers and Lindbergh—is that “if you don’t try, you’ll never succeed.”

“There were people in the U.S. who were able to demonstrate in 1903 that it was impossible to fly,” Borschberg likes to point out. “We prefer to spend time to make it possible rather than spending time trying to demonstrate that it’s not possible. It’s more interesting.”

Huffington Post

Woolly Mammoths Resurfacing In Siberia

A fantastic LA Times article details the recent proliferation of woolly mammoth bones in Siberia. As permafrost in the region thaws, entire villages subsist on trade in mammoth bones -- so much so that a new word has been coined: "mamontit, or "to mammoth" -- meaning, to go out in search of bones."
The article has some wonderful details on the art and science of finding the bones:
"You need to have luck to find bones," said Fyodor Romanenko, a geologist at Moscow State University. "I don't look for bones. I find them. They find me."
At HuffPost Green, we've been keeping track, not only of resurfacing mammoth bones, but the possibility of mammoth resurrection.
Just last year, using only a few clumps of woolly mammoth hair, scientists at Penn State were able to extract enough DNA fragments to figure out most of its genetic sequence, making the woolly mammoth the first extinct animal to have its genome decoded.


Cash For Caulkers Rebates: Obama Announces $6 Billion For Homestar Program

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Sounding a familiar clean-energy theme, President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced details of a proposed energy rebate program he hopes will spur demand for insulation and water heaters – and jobs for hurting Americans.

Obama said the administration's "HOMESTAR" program would reward people who buy energy-saving equipment with an on-the-spot rebate of $1,000 or more. He cast the idea as one that would save people money on utility bills, boost the economy and reduce American dependence on oil.
The plan would take the approval of Congress.

"When it comes to domestic policy, I have no more important job as president than seeing to it that every American that wants to work and is able to work can find a job," Obama said at Savannah Technical College, in a state where the unemployment rate tops the national average of 9.7 percent.

"That was my focus last year and that is my focus this year," he said, "to lay a foundation for economic growth that creates jobs." He appeared in Georgia three days before the government releases the February unemployment report.
Speaking to the many people looking for jobs, Obama said he knows "it's tough out there."

The administration is hoping the energy rebate plan could become as popular as last year's Cash for Clunkers money-back program for autos. Consumers would collect immediate rebates for buying insulation, water heaters or other equipment to make their homes burn energy more efficiently.
Various vendors, ranging from small, independent contractors to national home improvement chains, would promote the rebates, give the money to consumers and then be reimbursed by the federal government.
Some details of the program, including how long it will run and its total cost, remain to be worked out with Congress, administration officials said.

The price tag could be in the range of $6 billion. Obama said the upfront costs would be worth it, just as homeowners must put money into their homes to improve them and save costs in the long term.

Appealing to Congress, Obama said: "I just hope Washington stands along side me in making sure we've got the kind of energy future that we need." Congress has stalled several of Obama's legislative efforts, including overhauling the health care system, addressing climate change and giving the government a bigger role in providing student loans.

Cash for Clunkers was a $3 billion program that ran for about a month last year, from July 27 to Aug. 25.
The latest proposal has two levels of rebates.

Under the first level of energy rebates, to be called Silver Star, consumers would be eligible for rebates between $1,000 and $1,500 for a variety of home upgrades, including adding insulation, sealing leaky ducts and replacing water heaters, HVAC units, windows, roofing and doors. There would be a maximum rebate of $3,000 per home.

Under the second level, Gold Star, consumers who get home energy audits and then make changes designed to reduce energy costs by at least 20 percent would be eligible for a $3,000 rebate. Additional rebates would be available for savings above 20 percent.

If the program is enacted, the administration expects millions of households will boost demand for insulation, water heaters and the like – the same way consumers pumped up car and truck sales last year by trading in their gas-guzzling autos with more fuel-efficient models.

Representatives of the construction and home improvement business sectors were invited to Obama's speech.
Howard Feldman, co-owner of Coastal Green Building Solutions in neighboring Ridgeland, S.C., said he hoped an influx of business from homeowners seeking the rebates would allow his small company to bring work back to job-starved contractors his company hires to perform energy-efficiency upgrades.
Feldman said he also suspects the program would have a lasting effect after the government rebate program ends, when people who took advantage of it tell friends and neighbors about the money they save on utility bills. Yet some viewed it differently.

Todd Odom of nearby Guyton, Ga., stood across the street from the college with a group of about 70 Obama supporters and protesters. Odom, a 42-year-old machinist, said the government's already spending too much and "HOMESTAR" would be a wasteful giveaway.

"When is it my responsibility to pay to refurbish somebody's kitchen?" Odom said. "I want the government to fight my wars, build my roads, house our prisoners and leave me alone."
Before heading back to Washington, Obama visited two local businesses – a company that makes custom steel parts and a digital post-production studio that got started with help from some $2 million in loans from the Small Business Administratio


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Southern Company Says No Thanks To Alabama CCS Project

Many are skeptical that Carbon Capture and Sequestration is a solution to climate change. The argument goes that coal can never be clean, and the costs and risks of storing carbon pollution deep underground makes CCS a false solution. The skeptics may now be joined by Southern Co., which is pulling out of an almost $700 million dollar CCS project in Alabama.
The demonstration project was to be cited at Southern's Plant Barry, and it was earmarked for about $295 million in federal stimulus funding through the Energy Department's Clean Coal Power Initiative. Had it been built, it would have captured 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually from a 160-megawatt flue gas stream and then store in underground rock formations.
Southern spokesman Steve Higginbottom told EE News:
"It's really about the efficient deployment of resources. Really, we felt it was in the best interest of our customers and shareholders to not move forward with the expanded CCS project at Plant Barry." He added, "The current economic conditions also factored into the decision."
Southern says it will continue to invest in CCS. President Obama backs CCS, having recently his Administration's goal of bring five to 10 commercial CCS demonstrations online by 2016. It's worth repeating that there are no large scale CCS projects online in the US.



If you think conservatives are freaking out over the growing prospects that health care reform will, in fact, happen, wait until you see the freakout over climate change.
You see, a snowy winter in the northeast United States was supposed to have proved the climate skeptics right, after all. But a funny thing happened while they were celebrating: globally, this is shaping up as the warmest winter on record:
Now, short-term weather fluctuations don’t prove much — but that’s the point the climate scientists have been trying to make; it’s the skeptics who point to an unusually warm year in the recent past and declare “See, the planet is cooling, not warming”.
So what are they gong to do? Not change their minds, of course — what I’ve learned from a decade of punditing is that nobody ever admits they were wrong about anything. No. they’re going to switch arguments completely — before, a cold day meant global warming was a hoax, now a warm year means nothing — hey, weather fluctuates! It’s already happening


Monday, March 1, 2010

Walmart Will Cut 20 Million Tons of Greenhouse Gases From Supply Chain By 2015

NEW YORK – Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants its suppliers to reduce 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2015.
The world's largest retailer's push goes beyond its efforts to date to reduce its own emissions by designing more energy-efficient stores and pursuing alternative fuels for its fleet of trucks.
The goal is equivalent to taking 3.8 million cars off the road for a year, the company said.
Wal-Mart is collaborating with the Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental experts to measure reduction. It said it won't force suppliers to make changes but will work with them on projects that will reduce both emissions and costs.
In the past few years, the company has been working with suppliers to reduce packaging, which has translated into such changes as more concentrated detergent products and toothpaste that's no longer in a box.
Wal-Mart CEO and President Mike Duke said Thursday that the company needs to push for greater efficiency to maintain a competitive edge as it expands globally amid higher energy costs. The 20 million metric tons represents one and a half times the company's estimated global carbon footprint growth as it expands over the next five years.
"To me, this is a big step forward and a big deal," said Dan Lashof, climate center director at The Natural Resources Defense Council.
While it's no substitute for legislation, he said, Wal-Mart's pull with suppliers and massive size can "drive down the cost premiums" for energy-efficient products, putting them in more American homes.
Wal-Mart has more than 100,000 suppliers and generated sales of more than $400 billion last year. Its massive size gives it tremendous influence among makers of all kinds of products — muscle that gives its efforts a chance for wider adoption that other retailers might not have.
A spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Co. said Thursday that the world's largest consumer products company has been working with Wal-Mart on its environmental efforts and P&G's own sustainability plans.
"Those are the kind of projects we've already been working with them on," Rotha Penn said in Cincinnati. "We've been linking with their work."
The move is also about saving costs as energy prices rise.
"We need to continue to build stores and add retail selling space. Yet we know we need to get ready for a world in which energy will only be more expensive and there will only be a greater need to operate with less carbon in the supply chain," Duke said.
Consumers will benefit because reduced costs will translate into lower prices, Duke said.
Wal-Mart's efforts are ahead of climate legislation that is being debated in Congress that would require companies to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Elizabeth Sturcken, managing director and corporate partnership for the Environmental Defense Fund, said she is unsure what Wal-Mart's total supply chain's emissions of greenhouse gases are, only that it's quite bigger than Wal-Mart's own.
"Wal-Mart is doing quite a bit reducing its own emissions." She also said, "It could be doing a lot more."
Wal-Mart said that it has already been working with suppliers of flat-screen TVs and DVDs to cut down emissions but it is now looking at other opportunities like food and clothing. Matt Kistler, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of sustainability, said clothing could be made to be washed in cold water instead of hot water. The company is also looking at produce that is locally grown to reduce transportation costs.
Overall, Wal-Mart is working with those suppliers to reduce emissions from any part of the product's life cycle. That could include sourcing the raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, the use of the product or the disposal.
Thursday's announcement follows Wal-Mart's move, unveiled in July, that it would develop eco-ratings for products it sells.

Huffington Post

Coffee Hit by Global Warming ???

 GUATEMALA CITY—Coffee producers say they are getting hammered by global warming, with higher temperatures forcing growers to move to prized higher ground, putting the cash crop at risk.

“There is already evidence of important changes,” said Nestor Osorio, head of the International Coffee Organization (ICO), which represents 77 countries that export or import the beans. “In the last 25 years, the temperature has risen half a degree in coffee-producing countries, five times more than in the 25 years before,” he said.

Sipped by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, coffee is one of the globe’s most important commodities, and a major mainstay of exports for countries from Brazil to Indonesia.

But producers meeting in Guatemala this week are in a state of panic over the impact of warming on their livelihoods.

While boutique roasters often seek out highland-grown cherries for their subtle tastes, the cooler terroir comes at a premium. And the new race to the top comes amid already increasing demands for resources between farmers and energy firms. “Land and water are being fought over by food and energy producers,” said Osorio. “We need to make an assessment to guarantee the sustainability of and demand for coffee production.”

ICO figures show that production in Latin America dipped last year, largely due to poor weather, and producers say they are struggling to stay afloat.

In Colombia, one of the world’s largest producers, production slumped 30 to 35 percent, while Costa Rica and El Salvador still struggled to recover from poor harvests from 2000 to 2005.

The National Coffee Association of Guatemala—a regional leader—said production in nine Latin American countries was expected to fall 28 percent in the first three months of this season.

Huffington Post