In the fall of 2012, I took a class entitled “Using Communications to Influence Health and Environmental Policy: Theory and Practice”. The readings and discussions were fascinating, but what really got me excited was the semester project. Working with a group of other students, we were asked to identify an environmental problem on campus, and come up with a detailed plan to fix it. Our group was concerned by the lack of sustainable and recyclable options at the University of Miami’s food court, and focused our project on that issue. Below are modified excerpts from our group’s final project (the full document is approximately 50 pages). Though the class is over, I and others from my group will still be working with the University’s Office of Sustainability to help implement our project in the coming months. We welcome your feedback, suggestions for improvement, and assistance in achieving these goals!
That’s it- only trash cans. There are no recycling bins in the food court.
The University of Miami has made a series of public commitments to campus sustainability, but progress has been extremely slow. One of the most obvious and public examples of waste occurs in the food court. Located in a central area of campus, the UM food court has over 3,000 transactions each day, and serves students, faculty, and visitors alike. Most of the food court restaurants provide packaging materials, plates, cups, and utensils that are not recyclable. Almost 2,000 pounds of plastic wrappers and utensils are thrown away every week, a figure that does not include the national chain restaurants. There aren’t even recycle bins located in (or near) the food court for the few recyclable materials provided by vendors!
The first step was determining what other universities do to reduce waste at their on-campus restaurants. We evaluated reports on this topic by four leading institutions: the Sierra Club, the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the Sustainable Endowment Institute, and the Princeton Review. Interestingly, no schools appeared on all four reports’ lists of the schools with the best sustainable practice, but Oberlin College appeared on 3, and three schools (University of Washington, Cal Tech, and Arizona State) appeared on 2 lists each. No schools located in the state of Florida were on any list, but the (relatively) nearby University of Florida received an overall grade of a B+.
Continue reading Your homework: Find an environmental problem on campus, and fix it! Increasing sustainability at the UM food court
Plastic consumables from a molecular lab. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.
To complement my post earlier today on the need for best practice guidelines to minimize plastic waste in a conservation genetics lab, I asked my labmates to save all of their consumables from a day of molecular benchwork. The above picture (Sharpie for scale) is the result. All told, we produced about 1/2 kilogram of plastic (it’s hard to get a precise weight, since many of the tubes still contain liquid). With only 3 people working a the bench, this was a relatively light day.
I am, among other things, a conservation geneticist. What that means is that I use the tools of molecular ecology and population genetics to make observations about species and populations in at-risk ecosystems, assess the status of anthropogenically disturbed populations, and generate data that has direct applications to conservation and management issues. Essentially, the only difference between what I do and what a population geneticist or molecular ecologist does is the motivation—I select systems to work in that have a high conservation priority.
This motivation leads to a constant intellectual conflict at the bench. The tools of molecular ecology—PCR, gene sequencing, and, more frequently, high-throughput sequencing—are waste intensive. In order to avoid cross-contamination and practice precise, clean, technique, we use thousands of tiny plastic consumables every day. These come in the form of pipette tips, sterile packaging material, micro-centrifuge tubes, and numerous other plastic widgets. Often, because of the biohazard potential, these consumable cannot be recycled.
So we have a problem. As a conservation geneticist, we need these tools to produce the data necessary to make wise conservation and management decisions. As a sustainability minded individual, I find the massive daily accumulation of plastic waste inexcusable. Do we just accept this waste as the cost of conservation genetics? I believe that the answer is no. I think we can and should develop best practices to minimize the amount of plastic waste produced by a molecular lab while maintaining good, sterile technique. I would like to propose four guidelines, based off the principles of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, for minimizing waste in a conservation genetics lab.
Continue reading Establishing Best Practices to Minimize Waste in a Conservation Genetics Lab
Mermaids depicted by a Russian folk artist. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via New York Public Library
Last week, Animal Planet aired a fictional mockumentary about mermaids. From an educational perspective, it was a disaster that was rightfully described as “the rotting carcass of science television” by Brian Switek. As Dr. M on Deep Sea News pointed out, one of the troubling results of this TV special was the discovery that some people believe that mermaids are real.
When I pointed out on Facebook and twitter that mermaids do not exist and that I hoped none of my friends believe otherwise, it inspired a long and interesting discussion. Someone asked why it matters if people believe in mermaids, as they felt that a sense of whimsy among the public is a good thing. Someone pointed out that scientists are discovering amazing new species all the time. More than a few people said “anything is possible.”
Sure, scientists discover new species all the time, but while finding a new species of monkey, orchid, or jellyfish can be interesting, it is not proof that “anything is possible” and it is not the same thing as finding a species of talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies. There’s a big and important difference between enjoying fantasy novels and wishing that certain fantastical creatures exist (i.e. having a sense of whimsy) and genuinely believing that those creatures really do exist.
These people don’t believe that in the vast and unexplored ocean, there may be some bizarre undiscovered species still out there. They believe that talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails on the lower half of their bodies exist and are acknowledged as existing by the scientific community. This displays a troubling lack of awareness of reality that likely is not limited to a belief in mermaids. For the benefit of those who have paid so little attention to what’s going on in the real world that they believe mermaids exist, here are five other things that you should, but likely do not, know about the oceans.
Continue reading Mermaids do not exist, and five other important things people should, but do not, know about the ocean
A significant source of food for me. Of course not everyone can raise their own chickens.
Food is a tricky. For some people, food choice is an essential component of cultural heritage and national identity. For others, food choice is a statement of philosophical or moral principles. For many, being able to reject food is an unobtainable luxury. One thing is certain: food is so central to the human experience that when we question our food choices, when we are forced (or force others) to change them, when we discover that the choices we make are not what we think they are, it is impossible to separate our food ethics from our social structure. Which is why seemingly trivial revelations–bugs in your coffee, meat made slime, or a fish by any other name–often result in major outrage and structural changes. Eating is simultaneously a deeply personal experience and one in which, for much of the developed world, we are completely detached from the source.
Continue reading False Fish, Pink Slime, and Dactylopius frappucoccus: food supply, food choices, and establishing a personal food ethic
A rigorous documentation of 24 hours of neck-beard growth, highlighting both the coarseness and density of neck-beard hairs.
I am what most people would consider a “well-bearded” individual. According to this graph, I fall rather appropriately into the category of “Sea Captain”. Despite my proud embeardedness, I also play host to a horrifying parasite frequently referred to as a “neck beard”–a foul nest of bristles with a coarseness and consistency that lies somewhere between steel wool and dermal denticles. This means that, appearances aside, I still need to shave, sometimes twice, daily.
If you’re like most American men, this means using either disposable razors or cartridge razors, both of which result in discarded plastic and steel. Cartridge razors, commonly found with an increasingly horrifying numbers of blades, vibrators, laser pointers, and PEZ dispensers, produce less waste but are also more expensive. The average price for the three-bladed monster at my local pharmacy runs about $4.00 a cartridge, and those things don’t last very long–I’m lucky if I can get 2 weeks out of a single cartridge, often less (although, somehow, the very last cartridge in each pack seems to last 3 times longer than the others). In addition to wasting plastic and steel in the actual cartridges, and plastic and cardboard in the packaging, I’m burning around $100 per year.
There are a few possible ways to reduce shaving associated waste. The most obvious is switching to an electric razor–which is what our other beardly blogger did until recently (he now reports that “My beard used to destroy electrics in less than a year.“)–but the cutting heads need to be replaced and they will, eventually wear out. I’m also not a fan of electric razors, I don’t particularly like the shave I get with them. Next on the list are single-blade safety razors, the classic standard of the 1930′s through 80′s. These have the advantage of no plastic, and allegedly get you a closer, cleaner shave than disposables (though I suspect that has more to do with the brush/lather and spending more time on getting a good shave), but the blades are still disposable. So, it appears as though, if I truly want to eliminate as much waste as possible from my shaving routine, I need to take a more traditional approach.
Continue reading Personal Sustainability Challenge May Edition — ditching the disposable razors
We tend towards waste. As a nation, as a community, and in our personal lives, waste is ubiquitous and often imperceptible. That we can afford to discard is an unfortunate side effect of having a high quality of life. Waste is not always a bad thing, either. We’re comforted by the fact that our doctors use disposable needles, that food can be packaged and preserved, that soiled diapers can be discarded. Disposability is freedom from the tedious chores of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It is access to time that can be spent with our loved ones or engaged in more fruitful pursuits. But there is still plenty of unnecessary waste that exists purely for convenience.
Those of us who consider ourselves environmentalist, good stewards of the earth, are often just as guilty of waste, myself included. Over the next several months, I will be exploring ways to reduce my own waste production. Each month I will identify some aspect of my personal life that generates unnecessary waste and explore solutions. Plastic is my major target, but I will also be looking for other resources drains that could be made more efficient (or, if possible, eliminated).
Continue reading Towards a personal stewardship ethic — monthly sustainability challenge