On The Radio- Preparing for flood season


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Photo from the 2008 June floods (christina rutz/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| April 29, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how towns along the Mississippi are preparing for flood season. 

Transcript: 

As flood season begins, mayors of towns along the Mississippi prepare for potential disaster. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

It’s not easy maintaining a city or town along the Mississippi. The river—one of the largest in the world—is especially susceptible to floods during spring, when rain and melting snow cause the water levels to rise significantly.

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative is a collection of 88 mayors spanning 10 states that work together to find solutions for flooding. They’ve been setting safety measures in place for this coming flood season, one that’s predicted to be especially disastrous.  

In late March, the group talked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out some preventative measures. Previously, they gathered in Washington DC to work out a nearly eight billion dollar deal to help reinforce existing infrastructure. Midwestern states have sustained billions in flood damages just this year, and supposedly once-in-a-lifetime floods have hit St. Louis on three different occasions since 2011.

These previously rare weather events have been happening more and more frequently, and the coalition is amping up their defenses to beat back the oncoming waves. 

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org. 

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E Mason. 

Beware “greenwashing” this Earth Day


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Watch out! Consumerism can be made to appear “green” (flickr). 

Julia Poska| April 22, 2019

“Earth Day deals to save money and help the planet,” one headline reads. “10 products that will help you buy less this Earth Day,” says another. Other articles advertise “clean” beauty products or “green” technology.

Don’t fall for it; buying anything, especially anything you don’t need, ultimately contributes to fossil fuel emissions, resource consumption and the planet’s pervasive trash problem.

“Greenwashing” occurs when an institution puts more resources and effort into marketing itself as eco-friendly than it does actually minimizing its environmental impact. This doesn’t only happen on Earth Day, of course. Many companies, public figures and organizations  feature “sustainability missions” on their websites year long,  making vague claims about their “zero-waste journey” or “environmental stewardship,” with little concrete information about the implementation or outcomes of such initiatives.

Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter for Mother Jones, wrote today that she “hates” Earth Day, mostly because it has devolved from a day of protest and activism to a day when anyone can claim to care. Every April, her inbox floods with PR pitches promoting  Earth Day news from companies that she knows are less-than-sustainable 364 days of the year.

“Earth Day provides a fine opportunity to showcase how [a company’s] generally negligible corporate gestures demonstrate their commitment to ‘going green,'” she said.

Reducing consumption by fully utilizing what we already own or sharing with others is far better for the planet than consuming new products, even if those products are well-intended.  So think critically about the messages you come across. Use up all your shampoo before you invest in that more natural version, buy a used shirt instead of a brand new “organic” tee and forego using a straw at all over buying a metal one.

And if you want to absolutely minimize your carbon footprint today, Quartz writer Ephrat Livni makes the case for “sitting perfectly still” at home with the lights and air conditioning turned off, so that “ever-so-briefly you are not contributing to climate change.”

 

 

Celebrate Earth Day in Iowa!


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The Earth is worth celebrating! 

Julia Poska| April 18, 2019

On April 22, people around the world celebrate Earth Day, spending time cleaning, greening and appreciating the life-giving planet we too often take for granted.

Iowa, of course, will join in on the party. Read below about Earth Day events cities in Iowa will host next week, as well as some activities you can do individually to make a difference.

Des Moines: Festivities in the state capital will begin this weekend. On Friday, Des Moines Parks and Recreation will host an Earth Day Trash Bash, where registered teams will pick up trash around the city. Everyone is welcome to join in on the kick-off party and several other events hosted Friday and Saturday as part of the bash, including a Downtown Earth Day Tour through the science center, botanical garden and riverwalk. A number of other events  on Saturday and Monday include wildlife restoration, crafting and stream cleanup.

Cedar Rapids: The city’s 10th annual EcoFest will be on Saturday, April 20. The day’s events include performances, presentations, hands-on activities, tours, awards and more. Last year over 4,000 people attended!

Dubuque: The Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium will participate in a nationwide Party for the Planet event Saturday. Visitors attend presentations, meet animals and do hands-on activities to learn about environmental conservation. Participation in the celebration will be included with general admission and free for children 3 and under.

Davenport: Visit the Freight House Farmer’s Market Saturday morning for speakers, demonstrations, music and activities to learn about problems facing the planet and how you can help fight them. 

Iowa City: You can celebrate for days on end in Iowa City! On Monday, compete in Earth Day Eco Trivia at the East Side Recycling Center. Tuesday, celebrate the 100 Grannies for a Livable Future 7th anniversary. Plant trees at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area Wednesday, and on Friday talk to UI scientists at the Sciences Library. Saturday join Parks and Rec for an Earth Day festival.

University of Iowa student organizations have been hosting Earth Month events for weeks, and still have more to come. Consider visiting the Student Garden Open House Saturday, April 27 for food and DIY Chia Pets with the UI Gardeners and attending an environmental benefit concert the following night with the UI Environmental Coalition.

If you’d like to celebrate on your own or with friends consider these activities:

  • Picking up trash in your neighborhood or at a local park
  • Planting something yummy
  • Starting a home compost pile
  • Going for a nature walk
  • Attempting to make zero-waste for one whole day
  • Cooking a plant-based meal

 

 

Iowa passes new bill on advanced plastic recycling


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Pyrolysis technology can recycle the bottles inside these bags AND the bags (flickr).

Julia Poska| April 12, 2019

The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.

The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly.  Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.

There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.

Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.

Burning plastics releases carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, albeit at fairly low rates  according to industry experts. Michigan State University Extension says gasoline and diesel produced from plastic appear to contain more energy and less carbon that traditional fossil fuels, too.

Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.

Presidential hopefuls discuss sustainable ag at last weekend’s Heartland Forum


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Photo by Julia Poska, 2019. 

Julia Poska | April 4, 2019

Last weekend, four 2020 presidential candidates and one likely contender gathered in Storm Lake, Iowa to discuss their visions for struggling rural America at the Heartland Forum. Here’s what each said about sustainability and agriculture:

Julián Castro: The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama was asked a question about promoting eco-friendly family food farmers for economic, social and environmental resiliency.

“Our family farms help feed America—and the world, really—so we need to make sure that they can succeed, and also that people in these rural areas and rural communities can have clean air and water. Number one, I would appoint people to the EPA who actually believe in environmental protection,” he said. He specifically discussed boosting funds to enforce the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD): Delaney’s “Heartland Fair Deal,” which he discussed at the forum, lays out plans for investing in negative emissions technology and focusing on climate resiliency and flooding.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): Klobuchar said she would re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement on her first day in the White House. She also discussed her experience on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“What we’ve learned over time, is that [if] we’re going to get [the Farm Bill] passed… we need to have a coalition of people who care about nutrition, people who care about farming and people who care about conservation,” she said.

She said she wants to keep Farm Bill conservation programs strong.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH): Hailing from the industrial “Rust Belt,” Ryan has little experience with rural areas, but he said he believes the two regions face many of the same issues and should come together politically. He spoke to opportunity in the clean energy and electric vehicle industries, which he would like to see driven into “distressed rural areas” to replace lost manufacturing jobs.

He also spoke about Farm Bill conservation programs; “These are the kind of programs we need to ‘beef up,’ no pun intended,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Senator Warren did not speak about sustainability directly. Her platform mainly focused on addressing monopolies in agribusiness to support small, family farmers. One of her proposals is to break up the Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto, a merger that was heavily criticized by environmentalists. 

The Heartland Forum was moderated by Pulitzer prize-winner Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, and two reporters from HuffPost. Those news organizations organized the event alongside Open Markets Institute and the Iowa Farmers Union.

 

Biofuel: a battleground


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Biofuel has its issues as well as its benefits | Photo by SplitShire on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 3rd, 2019

A surprisingly high amount of biofuel is produced in Iowa, but the products that fall under this category and the ways in which they are produced spark frequent controversy and debate.

To begin, let’s break down what “biofuels” actually are. Defined by National Geographic as “plant-based solutions to the Earth’s growing energy problems“, biofuels are sourced from plant matter instead of petroleum. Gasoline and diesel are technically also biofuels, being made from decomposed and fossilized plants, but they emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere–causing a number of dangerous effects that heavily contribute towards climate change. Biofuels are more specifically made from living plant matter.

Ethanol is an example of a common biofuel produced worldwide, and Iowa is a top producer. Ethanol can be made through fermentation and a breakdown of sugars and starches, making corn an ideal component. An increase in biofuel use, theoretically, should reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

There is some debate about the effectiveness of biofuels when taking into account everything required to harvest and process the crops needed for this form of energy, however, with many pointing out that despite its benefits, the production of ethanol leaves a large carbon footprint anyway. With Iowa being a major producer of ethanol, these arguments tend to converge on our cropland, and farmers are split on the issue, as biofuels provide some significant advantages over fossil fuels.

Setting debates aside, a common ground most debaters find themselves on is the desire to figure out a way to reduce our overall carbon footprint, and this is a journey that we will likely be on for a long, long while.

On The Radio- Crops increasing, biodiversity decreasing


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Corn fields (flickr/ Tom)

Kasey Dresser| March 25, 2019

This weeks segment looks at decreasing biodiversity in crops around the world. 

Transcript:

The number of crops grown around the world has increased, yet crop biodiversity has declined. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Species richness, the number of unique species present in a defined area, often represents true biodiversity poorly. It discounts species evenness, which measures the relative proportion of each species’ population in the whole community. 

Even though 156 crops are grown globally — up from the mid-20th century — overall biodiversity is low because just four types of crops cover about 50 percent of cropland. A new study from the University of Toronto found that corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans dominate industrial agriculture around the world despite differences in climate and culture.

This impacts the affordability and availability of culturally significant foods in certain areas and leaves the global food supply increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases. 

Increasing crop variety will make our food supply more resilient to pests and potentially reduce hunger.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.