Friday, October 16, 2009

We Never Talk About Global Warming Anymore

Yesterday was “Blog Action Day” for climate change topics, whatever that means…

So in the spirit of yesterday, let’s talk about student activism on climate change. Over my three-plus years in college, I’ve witnessed immense progress in how students view their impact on our world. When I came to Georgetown in 2006, global warming was still considered “global warming” for the mainstream folk. This was an age where we actually needed Al Gore to stand in front of a powerpoint in order to even begin considering how our personal, political, and economic choices impact our world. But like I said, that was sooo 2006.

Today, our campus – and I think all campuses – are alive with the spirit of sustainability, all driven by the presence of global warming. The beauty of this movement lies not in what EcoAction has become, but rather in how environmental sustainability has begun to leach into every aspect of life. The speakers that come here are environmental leaders; we have green architecture; we have an energy competition going on (admittedly, it’s woefully underpublicized); the SFS is switching Map of the Modern World to be based around geography more than political lines; the Sustainability Committee continues to make practical improvements to campus footprint; and every b-school student is trying to figure out exactly how to capitalize on all of this energy.

Over this time period, EcoAction has exploded. The organization takes on campaigns from all ranges of the environmentalist landscape, from sustainable food and park cleanups – central tenets for any tree-hugger – to carbon auditing and lobbying. I always expected this of EcoAction. I mean, it’s what we do. We’re an environmental group. But the broader things happening on campuses around the country are more exciting; the mainstream has finally gets it. And here’s where we’re at in terms of climate change activism on college campuses: the point at which it’s hardly anything you need to remind people about. But we still do, and we’re not stopping!

In line with not stopping reminding people about climate change, here’s a cheap, dirty plug for the raddest youth climate change summit this side of the Potomac. Virginia Power Shift is here! It’s happening at George Mason (so I guess it’s not exactly on this side of the Potomac, unless I don’t understand our local geography…) on Oct. 23-25, and Georgetown is sending a big group. Be there!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Here is a blog post from Brad Pollina, who presented this at the EcoAction meeting last night:

The Great Pacific Garbage patch is a swirling mass of plastic debris located in the central North Pacific Ocean. Earth’s ocean currents carry plastic trash from all over the world to this area, known as the North Pacific Gyre. Current estimates of its extent range from the size of Texas to the size of the continental USA. Either way, it’s huge and it’s growing by the minute.

The debris field is composed of about 80 percent trash from land and 20 percent trash from cruiseships, oil rigs, cargo tankers and the like. To give some perspective, humans produce about 200 billion pounds of plastic each year, 20 billion pounds of which wind up in the oceans. Greenpeace estimates that 10 percent of the plastics produced each year ultimately wind up in the Great Pacific Garbate Patch. With that in mind, it becomes clear that a fair portion of plastic thrown away each year winds up in the garbage vortex, resulting in a debris field of about 3.5 million tons of plastic. In most areas, estimates put the depth of the plastic at about 90 feet.

And it doesn’t just sit there. Plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade- it only photodegrades- meaning it gets broken into smaller and smaller pieces without ever actually decomposing. This means once it’s in the ocean, it stays there forever.

Photodegraded plastic poses a constant threat to marine life and gets carried to shore by ocean currents, littering beaches with trash. One of the major problems is also the release and absorption toxins into the water.

Materials like polystyrene, which we know as styrafoam, release harmful chemicals into the water which become absorbed by other types of plastic debris. From there, animals often mistake the contaminated materials for food and thereby introduce these toxins into our food chain.

Estimates hold that 267 animal species worldwide are affected by the garbage patch’s debris and about 1 million die each year by consuming and getting caught up in the trash.

So what can we do?

Remember 80 percent of ocean trash comes from land. Moreover, single use plastics are filling our landfills and much of this waste is winding up in the ocean. That includes plastic water bottles, cutlery, food containers, and plastic bags.

On a personal level, reusing plastics and reducing your personal use will help halt the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This means, for starts, using non-disposable food packaging, shopping with cloth bags, and drinking from reusable water bottles.

Next time you have the option to use something disposable, think twice and spread the word that it could wind up in the ocean.

Influencing policy at the local government level is also a high priority. The direct link between solid waste and the pacific garbage patch can’t be stressed enough, so local ordinance changes outlawing plastic bags, styrafoam, and other non-biodegradable materials represents a step in the right direction.

We need to encourage and pressure our local governments to enact plastic bag and polystyrene bans- it’s already happening around the country and the movement away from plastic disposables is gaining speed. Many towns have even started burning waste in clean energy facilities, which helps ensure these materials can’t wind up in the garbage patch.

On the national level, this issue is roughly where global warming was 10 years ago. It hasn’t received much international attention but what the Project Kaisei team has done is inspiring and should set the trend for handling this issue.

We need to contact our Congress people and the EPA to encourage them to devote funds to studying this. The more exposure we bring to this looming problem, the better. Not many people know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch right now so we need to spread awareness if we expect to ever properly address it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Georgetown: A "B" Student?

The Sustainable Endowments Institute just released the 2009 College Sustainability Report Card today. The good news is that Georgetown's score rose from last year, but the not-as-great news is that we still only have a "B" overall. (Last year, we had a B-). So, how did we get the grade?

The SEI ranks colleges on a number of different components based on survey questions sent out to the included universities. Georgetown's scores ranged from a D in Endowment Transparency (up from the F of last year, at least) to A's in Climate Change, Investment Priorities, and Shareholder Engagement.

We got a B in Administration, Food & Recycling, Green Building, and Student Involvement, and a C in Transportation.

So, what are we going to do to make this better, joining the ranks of Harvard, Yale, Penn, Stanford, and UNC-Chapel Hill? (We beat UNC in basketball--remember that, my fellow seniors? Why should we allow them a victory here?)

The good news is that some new and upcoming changes will probably boost our scores for next year. The advent of the beloved BigBellies and the soon-to-come reforms for residential recyclign will possibly give us some "extra credit" for recycling, and when the GUTS buses switch to biodiesel, our transportation grade will get a speeding ticket because of how fast it will move. (Yes, that was an awful joke, but we all have our moments.)

As for the rest of that energy boost (organic or renewable, depending on interpretation), a lot of it requires action from YOU.

Do you want to see more local and organic food served at Leo's?
Do you want to bring an eye-catching canvas bag instead of taking a plastic bag?
Do you want to save yourself money by using a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water?
Do you want to show that you care about your future, your health, and the future and health of those across the globe?

You are all A-quality students (You got into Georgetown, right?), so let's make this an A-quality school, too.

Image taken from SEI site.