Monday, April 27, 2009

Greener sports

Many will not admit that baseball is a sport. I'm willing to call it a game. If baseball is a game, then I don't know what to call Nascar. By the way, Nascar should be NASCAR, because it is an acronym for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, but all caps are too obnoxious. There are many polluters in Nascar and it just wouldn't be as loud and exciting if they raced with hydrogen cars. As other auto racing circuits have taken steps towards greenery, Nascar has employed a green pace car: the Toyota Camry Hybrid. Next month, the Toyota pace car will make its debut at the Coca-Cola 600. It wasn't easy. The pace car had to pass a performance test of reaching 100mph within a quarter mile.
As for baseball, there is also a growing consciousness for the environment. The perfectly manicured fields of baseball should never be replaced--no matter how much water it needs; but perhaps something can done about depleting and endangering ash wood used for baseball bats. On Earth Day last week, I was proud to attend a day game at the new Yankee stadium to see the Oakland A's. I wrongly assumed that a day game would not be played under bright lights. Since it was cloudy and it drizzled the entire game, they turned on the lights. So much for that. I was surprised to see recycling and compost bins around the park. Judging from the contents thrown inside the receptacles, instructions posted above the bins were desperately needed. Can't expect NY inhabitants to know how to compost, much less rowdy Yankee fans. Plus, New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing garbage men throwing bags of recyclables into garbage trucks every morning. Even Whole Foods provides instructions on composting for its eco-friendly conduits. Without posting instructions, I don't believe the billion-dollar stadium is actually serious about composting.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bicycles helping RFID's poor image

A bicycle can make you a better person:
- it is good for your mental and physical health;
- it can give you a slimmer and more attractive physique; and
- it can make you feel good about yourself and your surrounding environment.
Bicycles can even make unsavory characters like RFID tags cool. Although RFID tags have developed a poor reputation for privacy and environmental concerns, they are being used as helpful devices to combat bicycle theft around the world. The UK, the Netherlands and in Portland, OR, RFID tags are attached to registered bikes to deter bike theft or to track their locations when stolen.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

RFID: more at stake than privacy

RFID, Radio Frequency Identification are those tracking devices that you see on the boxes of products. Sure RFIDs are a great way to run a business more efficiently. Using radio waves, they allow instant tracking for shipping, supply chain management and inventory tracking.
There are many types of RFIDs, but once these things are activated, they send signals and information about the consumer without consent. That's the crux of the privacy issue that it raises. Verdantic certainly appreciates privacy and annoymity.
But, RFIDs are bad for the environment. Researchers aren't sure whether RFIDs can cause cancer or harmful effects to your health. It might be like one of those situations where exposure to small amounts of toxins or BPA are totally safe according to the FDA. RFIDs can be difficult to spot. They usually look like a white padded sticker, but underneath is an integrated circuit with copper wires, an antenna and a battery.
So maybe these things can benefit the environment by enabling businesses to operate more efficiently. How necessary is it? As much stuff as we Americans buy, attaching an RFID to every product creates more waste. Waste of a precious metal and millions of tiny batteries--that should be properly disposed of--end up in our landfills. Unfortunately, you can't see them and they can't be recycled. In fact, they get in the way of recycling boxes. The tags left on cardboard contain metal and inks that complicate recycled feedstock. On steel, the copper can contaminate other metals. When left of glass, the metals can damage glass kilns while being harmful to recyclers and glass blowers. The same can be said for the PET or HDPE recycling process.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Interview: Heather Sperling, Food Writer

V: Heather, welcome to Verdantic. Thanks for contributing to my blog—I really appreciate this.
HS: Happy to help—it's actually quite appropriate as Earth Day so happens to be my birthday AND I've been posting for AND I love the color green.

V: Perfect. Before we begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
HS: Sure, I was an editor of the food website for over 2 years before moving to Chicago, where I currently write for a number of magazines and websites, including the Discovery Channel's green do-it-yourself website, I've always been enamored with food and drink, and I think that the green movement is THE movement of our age, so naturally I get quite excited when the two overlap—which, thankfully, happens quite a lot.

V: How has green movement and sustainability affected trends the food industry?
HS: Sustainability has become, without a doubt, one of the biggest trends in the industry. As far as food is concerned, the green movement is very much a grassroots movement, and chefs, restaurateurs, business owners, and food media have played essential parts in spreading the word and setting the example. Writers like Michael Pollan, chefs like Dan Barber and Alice Watersthey set trends through their restaurants and their writing, and help draw the public's attention to the big issues in sustainable eating. Of course, these are only three names in an astoundingly large network of people and organizations who are making the promotion of sustainable food their mission in life. As public awareness has grown, public expectations have grownand in the food industry this means that diners and consumers are savvier than ever, and expect more from producers, markets, and restaurants. A few years ago, we started hearing about the merits of grass-fed beef and organic milk; today a sustainably minded diner could think: "Sure, your arugula was grown on the roof of your restaurant and you cured this lamb bacon yourself, with no nitrates involved. That's great. But are you composting? Recycling? Serving fair-trade coffee and using eco-friendly cleaning supplies in the kitchen?" In the food world, the ante keeps getting upped.

V: What are some the most innovative concepts and trends that involve sustainable eating and sustainable food?
HS: The Blue Ocean Institute, an organization devoted to sustainable seafood, has a pretty amazing program called FishPhone. You text the name of a fish to a certain number, and you get a text message back with info about whether the fish is a sustainable choice, and if not, what good alternatives are out there. I've never done it, but I love that it exists. And it's a great example of the sustainability movement harnessing fairly innovative technology to make essential information easily accessible. A handful of high-end restaurants across the country (The French Laundry and Per Se) are putting in new water filtration systems that make still and sparkling water in-house. They're eliminate the carbon footprint of their water, while still being able to offer the bottled water that diners want and expect. And I love that restaurants are starting to compost. I was in Seattle a few months ago and over half of the 40-odd restaurants I visited told me that they're composting. Granted, Seattle has always been an uber-green city. But composting—especially in a restaurant—is a bit of a pain, and that's a huge percentage that are making the effort.

V: What is the future of the dining experience, in terms of trends?
HS: That's a big question, man. You mean in terms of sustainability and green stuff, right?

V: You’re totally right. Let’s keep it green.
HS: Sustainability is going to continue to be huge in the restaurant world. Restaurants will keep touting the local and/or sustainable products on their plates, and more chains will follow Chipotle's lead and start serving sustainably raised ingredients. Ordering whole animals and cooking head-to-tail (i.e. using every part of the animal) is a growing trend in restaurant kitchens, and in line with that sustainably minded, artisan approach we're seeing things like homemade charcuterie (made from the trimmings) popping up across the country. In a way, this part of the future of the dining experience is actually quite historical. Ordering a whole pig, breaking it down in-house, curing the jowl to make guanciale, using the fat back for seasoning, turning the head into headcheese—these acts borrow from culinary traditions that are hundreds of years old. Today they're gaining momentum, and are certainly part of the future of many American restaurants.

V: In what ways might energy and transportation affect our food?
HS: In the past year, we watched the prices of eggs, flour, and milk rise as the price of gas rose. The average cost of a slice of New York pizza rose by some crazy amount, and my favorite morning glory muffin at the greenmarket went up 50 cents. This is one basic way that transportation affects our food: when transportation costs fluctuate, food costs fluctuate too. And of course there's the issue of the carbon footprint. Industrial food production has a wildly huge carbon footprint, from factories that process food to the energy that goes into massive cow feedlots (which produce insane amounts of methane gas, by the way. Cow farts are astoundingly bad for the atmosphere).

V: How feasible is the locavore diet and urban farming movement?
HS: It's certainly possible to exist off a diet of predominantly local foods, though some places— like San Francisco and New York—certainly make it easier than others. But it can absolutely be done, especially if you make reasonable exceptions and allow yourself California olive oil or non-local citrus. There are many that would say this is anathema to the true locavore spirit, but I say it's just realistic. There's a good amount of info, support, and interest out there. For her book "Animal Vegetable Miracle" Barbara Kingsolver, and her family, spent a year eating only local foods. The Eat Local Challenge is a network of people and blogs who participated in a challenge to go locavore for a period of time in 2008. As for urban farming, I think it's excellent and essential on a social level—especially when it takes the form of school gardens or community-focused gardens. The Obamas' decision to grow food at the White House is certainly an exciting development. Hell, even people growing a few herbs in a container on a stoop is a step in the right direction, because it means that we're increasingly aware of the quality of our food, and where it comes from. I recently read that 43 million Americans plan to grow vegetables at home this year—7 million more than in 2008. That's huge!

V: What can the FDA or USDA do to help shape sustainable and organic foods?
HS: The USDA has set standards for organic certification (through an organization called the National Organic Standards Board), but they're widely considered to be faulty--or at least less stringent than they could or should be. "Organic" began as a counter-culture movement (counter to industrial agriculture) and grew rapidly in popularity in the last decade. When the government stepped in and regulated "organic," many of the existing practitioners and followers felt that the official standards were too lax, with too many loopholes. But ultimately the government regulation is an undeniably positive first step, and has done wonders for spurring consumer consciousness of organics. There is currently no FDA/UDSA certification for sustainability, but there are a number of NGOs that are totally focused on the subject. There are some great independent organizations dealing with sustainable seafood (which is nearly impossible to classify as organic, because most seafood is wild-caught, and even if its farm-raised, often the feed is made of wild-caught fish), like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, the Seafood Choices Alliance, and the Blue Ocean Institute. The Cool Foods Campaign is devoted to spreading the word about the relationship between food and global warming and promoting eco-friendly, low-carbon-footprint foods. The Green Restaurant Association helps restaurants operate in a more sustainable way. Their certification process has been criticized as being too easy as well, but it's a start! The FDA and USDA have some hefty issues on their plates, what with the recent food safety debacles and the increasing problems with industrial agriculture. For now I think it's going to continue to be NGOs, chefs, writers and activists who really spread the word about sustainability. I should also mention that there are third party sustainable certification: Protected Harvest and Food Alliance are two major organizations that are providing sustainability certification to producers, stores, and restaurants.

V: Thanks again for your help. This content and your expertise are a great addition to my blog.
HS: The blog looks good, and I love that you reference that the A's happened to win the World Series in 1989 before launching into a remembrance of the Exxon Valdez spill. Nice personal touch.

V: Thanks for reading. Happy birthday on Earth Day!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Verdantic book review: Food Matters, by Mark Bittman

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes
Mark Bittman (2009)

✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ 1/2 out of ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

In his new book, Mark Bittman, The New York Times' Minimalist, creates a two part guide to better food consumption. Food Matters, begins by examining the flaws and myths of the modern American diet. In this part of the book, Bittman explores sustainability and environmental issues of our food production, as well as the strategic communications and deception deployed by Big Food--oftentimes in cahoots with government agencies. Bittman spares us from reviewing the obvious problems surrounding animal cruelty or fast foods. Instead, Bittman builds on the confusion from the barrage of ambiguous food pyramids, nutrition facts, food studies, health claims and messages. He provides us with an excellent case of an unclear message from the FDA: reduce saturated fats and keep total fat consumption to less than 30% of your total calories. Rather, he makes it much easier to digest: eat fewer animal products and nutrition-poor (junk) food; and eat more plants.
Unlike authors like Michael Pollan--that refers to himself as a vegetarian in one chapter then eats cheeseburgers at McDonalds in another, then shoots and eats a wild boar at the end of the book--by no means is Bittman promoting or demanding a call to action for vegetarianism. But given the current health and environmental situation, Bittman delivers part 2 of Food Matters: a how-to guide for conscious eating. He proposes a better way to plan for meals--not just for dinner but for each meal over an entire month. What's more, Bittman includes more than 75 delicious recipes. Visit his column, The Minimalist, on the New York Times site, where Bittman has video tutorials on cooking recipes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Starbucks Shared Planet

Have you been in a Starbucks recently? How long has this "Starbucks™ Shared Planet™" signage and hoopla been going on? More importantly, how did I not notice? I searched through Starbucks' press release archive and couldn't find an announcement or explanation. Although I sense that it appeared overnight, it almost seems as if it was always there. It's a lot to handle. The concept is big and it has many leg, even if it may seem simple: You and Starbucks. It's bigger than you.
Shared Planet includes Project (RED). A nickel per purchase on your red plastic Starbucks gift card will save lives in Africa. Project (RED) collects the money for the Global Fund to go off to fight and save lives; but something tells me that while most consumers may know that AIDS is a problem in Africa, they don't know anything about the Global Fund. There's also aid towards rebuilding New Orleans, community involvement, environmental stewardship and ethical sourcing. Putting the onus on customers with, "whatever we do, you do" extends responsibility and awareness. Everyone should know more about what and whom they are supporting when they make purchases. I do believe that the Fair Trade coffee system has many flaws to it. It's a tough club for small farmers to break into. Fixed prices further commoditize coffee beans to the point of over-production. This reminds me of the corn farmers in the U.S. who are barely turning a profit on a market flooded with government subsidized corn. Farmers lose. Big winners are those that can enjoy cheap high fructose corn syrup: Coca-Cola and the fat on your ass. Likewise, Fair Trade coffee would provide overproduced and cheaper coffee for Starbucks. Even as the largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee, Starbucks has now upped the standards on coffee with Shared Planet. Bravo.

GM & Segway PUMA: no winner here

Today on the streets of NYC, GM unveils its collaboration project with Segway on a new 2-wheeler 2-seater vehicle. The PUMA, Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, can reach 35 mph (no highway) and go up to 35 miles on a charge and cost 35 cents to charge.
Clearly, this vehicle has not be thoroughly thought through. Essentially, they're developing a new mode of transportation without a market, a place to travel or a plan for its release. The companies hopes cities or colleges will set up special PUMA travel lanes, like bicycle lanes. Sounds like more congestion to me. Can't blame them for trying and turning over a new leaf, actually this is commendable. This is a complete 180 from their reliance on heavy and large fossil-fuel cars and trucks.
Chris Borroni-Bird, director of the project for GM said, "Pumas might appeal most in densely packed cities in places such as India and China. There they would seem a big step up from bicycles. Americans, who are used to cars, might not take them as seriously." Exactly. He just admitted that this isn't a vehicle that America needs. Let's take look at some quick facts:
Fact #1: GM is running on $13.4 billion tax payer dollars.
Fact #2: Alternative transportation devices make sense since GM's domestic car sales aren't selling--almost down 50% this year.
Fact #3: No one looks cool on a Segway.
Fact #4: It is possible to look cool on a bicycle, unless you ride a folding one or a tandem.
Fact #5: But hey, GM bought out the Specialized bicycle company last year. (I know, I know. Bicycles are not nearly as profitable as EVs or Hummers)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Carbon Footprint Calculators

Brands have engaged us with many free calculators including calorie counters, BMI, credit and get-out-of-debt calculators. A carbon footprint calculator would seem to be unself-serving by discouraging purchases and thus lowering revenue. At first I doubted that any brand would attempt such a disruptive tactic to the point of irony, but I was wrong.
For an online company such as Yahoo!, their service requires a lot energy for its servers. Come to think of it, it could be to their benefit if consumers realized that browsing online or playing Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball is better for the environment, as opposed to carbon intensive activities such as quad biking or hopping on a Caribbean cruise.
Moving along on the spectrum of sensibility, I also found JPMorgan's calculator. There's an angle: they are selling carbon offsets. So actually, they are informing their clients of their environmentally-unfriendly deeds. Of course, we often see guilt being used by advertisers as a motivational device.
I wasn't impressed by HP's calculator. HP kept it pertinent by limiting their calculator for printing and buying HP stuff. I didn't make it through their entire calculator because it froze, but I suspect that they will tell me how much money I'm wasting, how bad my operations are for the planet and how much money and carbon emissions I can save by buying HP products.
Can you blame perspicuously bad companies from trying to look good? BP is trying. They also have a cutesy animated character named Professor B who provides tips on how to save energy and the environment. Each calculator has a specific call to action that results in more consumption, or at the very least, a better way to consume. I suppose a business purpose needs to be defined above all else. If anything, we should be grateful that at least a solution is offered and awareness is being raised.
My favorite calculator was on EarthDay. You get to pick an avatar and walk around the block as you figure out how many planets it would take to sustain your lifestyle. Sadly, it will take 4.6 planets if everyone lived with my consumption habits. I'm ashamed. It's the airplane flights, I tell you.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The zero-carbon activity paradox

It's April and boy is it wet outside. Which is worse: riding a bicycle in the winter and getting covered in salt or riding in the rain with toxic runoff from buildings spraying you in the face? It's time for more green roofs, people. Alas, let's find a new indoor hobby.
For the price of slightly more than a movie ticket, I bought a 4x4 Rubik's Cube. Over the years, the 2x2 and the classic 3x3 have offered me hours of entertainment and I trust that the 4x4 will present a greater challenge and countless hours of low carbon entertainment.
I learned the 2x2 and 3x3 in years prior to my web addiction. Now with the aid of websites and YouTube tutorials, this may only detract from the challenge and my toiling hours. A true geek would never stop after 4x4. The shopkeeper at the game store asked me if I wanted to spring for the 5x5. He added, "the 5x5 can be done with all of the algorithms from the 3x3 and the 4x4. Do you know the Rubik's Parity Theory?"
Ok..., time to leave.
It's not exactly zero-carbon, but neither is walking or bicycling which both require shoes that were made in China. The Rubik's cube is also made in China. It's made almost entirely of petrochemicals, but unless I develop a hatred for the cube, I can take pleasure in the fact it won't go leachating in a landfill any time soon. Surely, kWh's will be needed to power my laptop, my lamp, as I solve the cube. I may decide to play some intellectually stimulating music, perhaps classical!