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EcoFacts: Toilet to Tap

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsWe spend so much of our time thinking about, and doing our personal acts of consumption – eating and drinking, and with the water we use, washing.

Then there’s the outgo. We are relieved to wash, to pee and poo, but generally choose not to think much about that part, who wants to? But think for one minute and you realize how essential a well designed and maintained infrastructure is for sewage, as much as for drinking water. And with our drought and little to waste, even moreso!

I was privileged recently to have a tour with our Mayor of the El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant. It is where everything that goes through our plumbing – dishwater, garbage disposal sludge, utility sink drainage, shower water, and sewage – ends up, our average 5 bathtubs full per person – 8 million gallons per day!

Here is the process, in short. Wastewater is managed in primary and secondary tanks and systems, solids are filtered and settled out, “digestion” is helped along with aeration and biological processes, accelerating the decomposition that would naturally occur. Final solids get trucked to composting facilities. The wastewater then goes either out to the ocean, or to a tertiary system which further removes contaminants and pollutants for the water to be recylced/reclaimed, and used to water public grounds,. Currently that system is offline while a bigger and better one is being built, expected to begin operation in the early summer.

Toilet-tapI was only able to experience the large open secondary tanks, and probably should be grateful for that, but it was not at all unpleasant. And the tertiary system being built, which will handle more than half of that 8 million gallons per day, is truly impressive looking. I wondered, is toilet to tap in our future, with an even more advanced tertiary (or quaternary) system? Appealing, eh? Would probably cost less than desal. We’ll check in again in 5 years.


Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsI recently met someone who is helping to build another kind of bio-economy, a rural, local economy that employs people and banana fibers to solve an age old problem.

Menstruating girls and women in developing countries who cannot afford access to hygenic methods of dealing with their periods must often miss school or work for days every single month. The alternatives are rags, leaves and/or mud to avoid lost dignity, lost income.

The banana plant is grown in over 100 countries and besides the up and downsides of the commercial growing for exports, on a local scale it has served people well for millennia. Banana fiber is highly absorbent. It can be used for cleaning up oil spills and bioremediation. The fiber is used to make paper and textiles. Banana plants are perennial, the fruit and fiber can be harvested without having to replant. The fruit is a tidy dinner, its leaf makes an excellent plate for a messier one. And now there is another use.

Elizabeth Scharpf is the chief instigating officer of SHE – Sustainable Health Enterprises – which she launched in 2008, determined to empower women both personally and economically in Rwanda. The work resulted in techniques, materials and equipment for manufacturing maxipads locally. Since then, through community initiatives, thousands of people have been educated on menstrual health issues, women and girls have been happily equipped with these pads, hundreds of farmers have more work and small businesses are growing to produce and sell them. Great work, Elizabeth!

EcoFacts: Bioeconomy, Food‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsModern humans rely on about 150 plants for their diet, out of tens of thousands of edible ones (FAO estimates more than a quarter million). Of those, corn rice and wheat make up two thirds of the world’s calories (pdf), and are grown on two thirds of all arable land.

And here is a shocker from the FAO: “Today 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species”. These few plants have been cultivated for highest yield, with intensive inputs – tilling, fertilizer, pesticides – not for adaptabiltity to changes in climate. For example, in 2012, heat and drought in the U.S. had lowered yields of corn by 20% in Iowa, 33% in Illinois.

One of the new realms of the bioeconomy is perennial grains. These, rather than being sown and harvested anew every year, are grown sequestering more carbon, causing little soil erosion and depletion, requiring less farming equipment energy, fertilizers, pesticides, and seed purchase.

Kernza is one of these, developed through selective breeding by the Land Institute in Kansas, an organization devoted to the transformation of agriculture to be as “sustainable as the native ecosystems it displaced, to find a way of growing crops that rewards the farmer and the landscape more than the manufacturers of external inputs.”

Here is a wonderful piece on one journalist’s experience with Kernza and the potato-bean.

EcoFacts: The Bioeconomy, Part 1

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

The Bioeconomy – the fruits of this economy will move us away from synthetic goods whose production and disposal continue to pose risks for us, and will also decrease our need for fossil fuels. This realm encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food (obviously), bio-based products and bioenergy. This goes far beyond the now ridiculous seeming idea of growing food crops to power our vehicles.

Last week’s mention of Yulex, the new natural rubber, is a perfect example of this unseen world of research and development that is beginning to blossom. Here is potential for a model for 21st century manufacturing – resource efficient, bio-based and circular in its nature.

Guayule grows easily in arid and semi-arid regions on marginal land that would otherwise be difficult to grow on. It requires little water …Yulex has identified strains that maximizes yield with minimal or no soil additives. The crop is perennial, and is harvested every 12-24 months, thus helping in dust and topsoil erosion control. Besides being a replacement for latex and synthetic rubbers, a goal of Yulex’s zero waste manufacturing is to derive its own energy from the biomass residues of its own production. Finally, recycle the no longer useable product (most rubber is not recycled) and voila! – you have a perfect cradle to cradle system, regenerative as in nature. Well, big picture anyway, as perfection is by definition, pretty hard to achieve. But some strive for it, thankfully.

EcoFacts: Surfing Sustainability

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Sustainable_Surf_logo_stacked_300x300_400x400Surfers are certainly passionate about the ocean environment, and riding the waves is pretty darn clean fun. But what do they ride? Generally boards made of oil derived chemicals – foam cores, fiberglass and resins – polluting and toxic in their manufacture. And what do they wear? Neoprene wetsuits, also a synthetic petro product, which can be bought from China for a buck a yard. One wonders about the conditions at those factories, like so many others.

The main maker of the boards’ foam cores for decades – Clark Foam – was shut down by the EPA in 2005, being unable to comply with various regulations, including its use of a carcinogenic chemical. Time magazine called it “Surfing’s Sudden Wipeout“, and it began a shift in the production of surfboards, including to more eco-friendly types.

surfNow, with the help of non profits like Sustainable Surf’s Ecoboard Project, some boards, at least, are being made more environmentally sound with recycled foam cores, and bio-resins. Wood boards have also made a come back from the ancient Hawaiian sport, wood being sustainably grown or reclaimed, and with old fashioned finishes such as linseed oil. Among these makers are a local fellow - John Birchim – who builds them lovingly here in SB. A small company in Maine made the NY Times doing the same thing, or you can buy kits from them to make them yourself.
Continue reading…

EcoFacts: MENA, Water & Energy

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

The Middle East – MENA (Middle East North Africa) is a unique region in the world’s energy and water nexus. It is loaded with fossil fuel, holding nearly 60% of the world’s oil reserves, and nearly 45% of its natural gas reserves. Fuel rich and water poor, it is home to 6.3% of the world’s population and has access to only 1.4% of the globe’s fresh water supply. 14 of the world’s 20 most water scarce countries are in this region.

mit_solar_powered_desalination_system_jbq98How, you might wonder, could they be interested in renewable energy, even if it is really sunny there? In fact they are developing solar potential rapidly. Most of their electricity is from petroleum and some of their cities are the most polluted in the world. And then there is the water – these countries generate over half of the desal water on the planet and that water is costly, using more than ten times more energy (and their precious export resource, fossil fuels) than needed for pumping well water, and their aquifers are running dry.

The World Bank has produced a 200 page report on Renewable Energy Desalination in MENA that emphasizes the necessity of this work for future stability of the region. A Spanish energy company is developing the world’s largest solar operated desal plant in Saudi Arabia. This news comes from “b green”, a business publication in the Middle East. Practically all of the renewable energy powered desalination is already in this part of the world, but is currently a very small percentage.

Let’s hope this type of investment in the future spreads to other parched coastal areas, like oh… California, perhaps?

EcoFacts: Rethinking Progress‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Progress is a process that leads to something better.
For a nation, economic growth has always meant progress.

This model has been one of take-make-dispose.
It is linear and finite, like the resources that feed it.
We have progressed to now.
We buy electronic devices, and myriad things in complex packaging,
and then throw them away, out of our vision.
But there is no away. Just here.

The ingredients of all things are natural or technical.
In the natural world the demise of things becomes food for new life.
And so it must be in the next human world, in our circular economy,
where all things will become feedstock for new things.
Based again on nature’s model, we can thrive.
Davos Facade

EcoFacts: The Power of Film

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch (Bill Heller photo)

Our International Film Festival always brings gems from so many realms, literal and figurative.

On one day this past week I was lucky to attend two that were each mind blowing, one from its sheer astonishing beauty, and the other, from the power of its information delivery.

Fabien Cousteau,  Celine Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau,  Mimi dJean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean in 3D uses technology that allow us to see the tiniest and most beautiful forms of marine life and to feel as if we are there under the surface with him. These visceral, multi dimensional images, a wonderful narrative and a compelling soundtrack all coalesced to give us an awe inspiring hour, making me grateful to be alive in this wondrous world.  Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, whose purpose this film expresses with such magnificence, is based in Santa Barbara.

In the Austrian film ENERGIZED, the depths and breadth of global forces of the business of energy production are plumbed to powerful effect. The film is packed with personal stories of people in the crux of these matters, images that speak volumes, and information gushing like oil. I found myself wishing I could see this film again, long before it ended!

From my own perspective I can only wish that others could see these. It seems as if the world would then be a better place. What could be better for our hearts and minds than the awesome beauty of nature and a better understanding of it? It would then follow, of ourselves.

Ecofacts:Climate Change, Both Kinds

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

govactionA poll just out shows that the great majority of Americans support government action to curb global warming.  83%, including 61% of Republicans, agree that global warming will be a serious problem in the future if nothing is done to reduce emissions. Nearly half of Republicans are more likely to support a candidate who will work towards this, also half of Republicans believe that these actions would hurt the economy. Those are the same people who don’t seem to care about all of the jobs alternative energy is creating.

The Keystone Pipeline, just voted for by the Republican controlled Senate would, in Jon Stewart’s carefully chosen words bring us “somewhere between millions of jobs and 35″. (The pipeline construction jobs are temporary, the number remaining after that is in question.) The photovoltaic industry added almost 50% more jobs than oil and gas extraction did last year. Costs of solar power have dropped so much as to be competitive with, or lower than, cheap fracked gas, coal or nuclear.

A nuclear plant coming online at the end of the year in Tennessee will have cost up to $4.5 billion to build for 1150mw, a solar farm going up in Nevada will cost $1 Billion for 250 mw. Do the math and consider: nuclear waste vs. none.

Coal states resist alternative energy, but solar panels on one fifth of Kentucky’s mine scoured mountaintops would supply the whole state with electricity! That’s 190 square miles worth of land that has been stripped of its life.

The times they are a changin’ around here.

EcoFacts: The Economics of Water

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

waterAn email arrived a few days ago announcing the proposed water rate increases in Santa Barbara, the revenue from which would be used to help manage our ever dwindling water supplies, and possibly reactivate a very expensive desalinisation plant that was never put into use. Much has been written on the City’s water situation with Cachuma’s level being around 28% and Gibraltar’s even lower. But, if people are paying an extra $15 or $20 a month (not including Montecito here) will they change their water use ways and conserve considerably more? Still though, water remains one of the lowest utility bills, even as its importance is rising fast due to drought, flooding and climate change. A survey of 30 cities in the U.S. shows that water prices have increased 33% since 2010, even in places where rain is plentiful, but infrastructure maintenance is not. And flooding does not bring water to drink.

Also in this past week at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, global elite have been meeting to discuss the world’s greatest challenges. “For the first time, water crises took the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s 10th global risk report, an annual survey of nearly 900 leaders in politics, business, and civic life about the world’s most critical issues. Water ranked third a year ago.” This was in the Societal Risk category. In the Environmental Risk category, extreme weather events was first.

All to say, that more focus on the subject is needed in the world’s richest places, and in its poorest, where access to clean water can be a day’s work. The comfortable have long taken it for granted because it seemed plentiful, and its price supported that view. It does always seem to end up being about economics.