Sunday, February 22, 2009

Meeting this Wednesday

Hi all. Meeting this Wednesday in 209 Chambers. Now that THON is coming to an end we might get some more members back into the fold.

Alex has some news for us on the water bottle issue and I think we should talk about a teach-in later in the semester that could be paired with a taste test (see the Penn & Teller taste test in the previous post).

Zach has suggested that we discuss the Environmental Education certification curriculum at Penn State. We can look at its components and maybe see what we can learn from it and see if it is something that some of you might want to consider doing. The head of the program, Dr. Murry Nelson, is someone with whom we might want to have some familiarity as well. Should I ask him to meet us sometime?

If you can put the flier at right to good use, print it out and post it. Also, invite your friends.
NOTE AND UPDATE: I met with a woman today who works for the Centre County Youth Service Bureau who has a garden in a local Section 8 housing community. They need help. I think that we can use this as an opportunity for one or more of you looking to get your 80 hours of pre-service work in. Anyway, I invited Ali to come to tomorrow's meeting to talk to us. We can still do all of our other stuff.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I had forgotten about this.

Penn and Teller take on bottled water on Bullshit! It's fantastic. Arsenic!

Mark Schapiro at Penn State

Today Jackie Edmondson and I went to see Mark Schapiro, long-time environmental reporter for The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's (the index is awesome) held at the Penn Stater. He gave a really quite interesting talk on how the United States' lack of environmental regulation is actually causing the U.S. to lag economically. In short, the European Union's comprehensive rigor regarding the natural environment is driving innovation the world over.

The E.U. is the largest single economy in the world. With a population of 500,000,000 people dispersed in 27 nations combined into a single economic and political entity, they have enormous influence. Regulators within it can transform the market by demanding that business and industry change. They do this in a number of ways that, so far as I understand it, fall under the "Precautionary Principle" which assumes that a chemical is guilty until proven innocent. It is a standard in government policy that says that we need to see ample evidence that an action, chemical, or product will not harm humans and, by extension, the government. At Rio in 1992, the "precautionary approach" was worded as follows:

Principle 15

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

This wording is a bit confusing. I'll try to state it more simply:

We want to protect the environment.
We will apply the precautionary approach broadly.
However, it will be enforced according to consituent states' ability to enforce it.
Where threats are serious or irreversible, scientific uncertainty will not postpone cost-effective measures that prevent environmental degradation.

The Wingspread Conference defines the precautionary principle as follows:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.
This is more or less the opposite to what the U.S. has (more on that some other time). In the U.S., we the public have to prove that a chemical is guilty and we carry the burden of its costs, not the originator of the chemical.

Yes. That's crazy.

What does this mean for us in the U.S.? Schapiro illustrated his argument using cosmetics. The E.U. has demanded that cosmetics be safe and free of cancer-causing agents. We do not. Who gets the cancerous lipstick, mascara, etc.? We do. Who gets genetically modified organisms (GMO) to eat? Us.

GMOs may be safe but their effect on the larger environment and agriculture was not considered in the U.S. in 1992. Who eats them? Us. Not Europe in lots of cases. Whose agriculture suffers? Ours. Who can't eat? Lots of people who might otherwise eat American produce. [Note: There is a lot more to this and I don't want to paint industrial agriculture nicely here. But notice that because of GMO's, the American farmer is further blocked from selling his goods and subsidized by the government in a command economy scenario.] There are more examples. Toys. All kinds of plastics.

Suffice it to say that regulators could do a lot more to drive a much more potent green revolution in the U.S. But the whole structure of American capital markets and the government stands in the way, from the Department of Agriculture and its tight relationship with so-called agri-business companies, and members of congress who are in their pockets. The iron triangle there is behind the times and we the people suffer for it. But if we can get good regulation, we can change this. Schapiro paraphrased Anne Marie Slaughter from New World Order: "Regulators are the new diplomats." Let's influence them with sound evidence and good reasoning. Let's change this stuff. I don't want to be a dump and I don't want my kid's world to be a dump.

As educators, I think we need to be activists and not just sit down because the government says so. We are regulated so much that it's painful. Educators are supposed to serve the common good for our common welfare on our common land and in our common water. Surely allowing us, our children, our neighbors, and our food to be poisoned is antithetical to all of those things.

If you are interested in reading more of Schapiro (I am), you can get his book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Update about the Washington University conference call

This past Friday, Washington University in St. Louis organized a conference call about how they were able to go plastic water bottle free. It was very informative, and I think there are some great points that we at Penn State can appreciate as we go forward with our own efforts.

Some background

The ban at Wash. U. started when the university was trying to figure out how to reduce energy costs. It was discovered that much energy was expended on "chillers," or devices used to keep beverages cold. The administration figured that energy use and costs associated with it could be reduced by getting rid of the water bottles.

The administration approached students at Washington University to make sure that such an effort was something that the students would be supportive of. It turns out that some students on campus were already trying to get water bottles banned in St. Louis, so it was a great match of efforts.

Raising campus awareness about bottled water issues

Several attempts were made to raise the campus' awareness about water bottle waste. To raise awareness about the quality of bottled water versus tap water, the students held taste-test events to see if individuals could tell which water was bottled and which was tap. Only one individual, an administrator, was able to tell the difference. The students also held a rally, where a "tower of consumption" constructed of discarded water bottles was built to create a powerful visual of what water bottle waste looks like on a larger scale.

Another more time-consuming effort was an evaluation of every drinking fountain on campus (!). Students tasted water, measured the temperature of it, and tested the fountains to determine how easy it would be to refill a water bottle there. This helped to figure out where any access issues would impede people's ability to easily get tap water.

Impact of water bottle ban

An exciting note from a service standpoint was that the campus dining services was not greatly impacted by a loss of revenue due to the prohibition of water bottle sales. Compared with January 2008, sales of juice went up 4 to 5% in January 2009. Soda sales decreased slightly, and water bottle sales decreased 90% (bottles are still being sold in the campus store until spring break of this year). The decrease in soda consumption might indicate individuals' consciousness of plastic waste in general, not just that of water bottles.

While some money is being lost in on-campus catering, it is being gained in other places because people utilizing catering services have more money to spend on other items now that the cost of water has been eliminated. Catering on campus was willing to take a revenue hit for the greater public good of eliminating water bottles. They do not charge for providing tap water at events.

There were no problems with the university's Coca-Cola contract. In lieu of having bottled water in vending machines, Coca-Cola put vitamin water (personal note: I don't see how vitamin water is an improvement since it is technically still water).

There are few other details that I'll skip here (like bottled water distributed at graduation being phased out by 2010, for example). In total, Washington University will eliminated about 350,000 disposable plastic water bottles each year. When one considers how most bottles end up in landfills, this outright elimination is astounding.

Considerations for Penn State

During and after this conference call, I was thinking about what is different about their situation and that of Penn State. First of all, the ban was something the Wash. U. administration really wanted, not just the students. While we do have some administrators who have expressed an interest in this ban, the fact is that this is clearly not a priority (which it must be). We need to get more administrators on board in our effort. Perhaps we should consider creating a petition that is sponsored by different administrators?

The Wash. U. student representative mentioned that they made significant efforts to get student organizations on board with their efforts. The more support they had from organizations, the easier it was to inform more people about the necessity of a bottle ban.

Students at Wash. U. sold BPA-free plastic bottles as a fundraiser and donated the money raised to a charity in Kenya that works to provide clean drinking water for people there. To raise awareness, we might consider a similar move. So many people in the world don't have access to a tap, let alone drinkable water from one. People should think about that fact each time they reach for a disposable plastic bottle.

Along these lines, if we want to do such a fundraiser, we must consider what kind of bottles we buy. I've done some research into the many companies that sell aluminum and steel water bottles, and all of them make their bottles overseas, mostly in China (except for Sigg, which is in Switzerland). Perhaps BPA-free plastic is the way to go. What are your thoughts on this?

I guess that's it for now. Your comments, thoughts, and suggestions are welcome and encouraged.

Collegian article about our efforts

Water bottles are in the news again.....and so is 3E-COE. Daily Collegian reporter Phenola Lawrence wrote a great article about our efforts to get water bottles banned from Penn State. In this article, Peter, Associate Dean Jackie Edmondson, Professor Madhu Prakash, and I were all quoted about the necessity of such a ban.

It's important for the administration to know that this issue is not something that's going to slip under the radar. Thanks to all involved in supporting this effort- it is easy to fight for a cause like this in numbers. It's important for us to keep up the pressure on this. I welcome any thoughts for another demonstration or activity we might do to raise awareness.

Richard Alley on Global Warming

Penn State's Richard Alley was one of the author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report. He is, then, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. Watch his interviews on Headline Earth on why Greenland matters and on Pennsylvania Inside Out from WPSU.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Evolution:Education and Outreach

Evolution: Education and Outreach is a journal in its second year. Its purpose, according to the National Center for Science Education, is to "promote accurate understanding and comprehensive teaching of evolutionary theory for a wide audience." I strongly encourage any reader to pass it on down the line. I have found numerous helpful articles regarding the state of teaching biological evolution, curricular matters, and work on the state of research.

Some of you our members are future biology teachers who are expected to understand evolution. Evolution is, as the National Science Teachers Association notes in their position statement, "evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be included in the K–12 science education frameworks and curricula. Furthermore, if evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy they need." Evolution is a cornerstone to understanding biology which is itself a cornerstone of ecology and ecological literacy. I contend that it is very difficult to understand ecology and interconnectedness without understanding the relatedness of species and their evolution into the niches they occupy. This journal helps that.

Its tone and style are clear and accessible and deals with broad issues. There are curricular aids, specials on aspects of evolution such as the eye, the work of Darwin, and how to deal with the politics of evolution education and creationism in all of its forms. In my experience so far, the evolution denier is often also a climate change denier and vice versa. This is part of our fight, to show the relationship between systems. This is a great resource for those interested in evolutionary systems.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Trash Conflict

Here's a curriculum resource that I recently stumbled across at Teaching for Change's webstore. It might help satisfy the need of those among our number who want to teach across subject areas and engage students in critical ecological and social justice inquiry.
Trash Conflicts is a curriculum resource that utilizes both science and social studies to "[promote] deeper understanding of the impact of waste production and disposal. It goes beyond awareness and increasing students' appreciation of natural resources [by] initiating critical thinking, decision making, responsibility, and empowerment. The curriculum starts where children are and moves them through a careful analysis of a complex series of interrelated issues, which include technology, economics, power, race, and class" (from Educators for Social Responsibility webstore, at

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Sustainability across the Curriculum: Last Week's Lecture

This is awesome. You can watch last week's Educating for Sustainability workshop. These are two of our Penn State folks who work in the very field we hope to propagate.

I think that we might want to watch this at a future meeting and discuss it. It has some really important discussions. We are all going to have to hash through it and might as well do it together. Let's consider the definition Andy Lau's newly-found definition in contrast to the Brundtland Report's definition. "Sustainability is an ethic...It is the possibility that humans other forms of life will flourish on life forever."

What do you think? How to proceed?

Penn State H20 bottle activism is getting noticed...

Dan Woznica, a reporter for the Washington University newspaper Student Life, wrote a great article about how Wash. U.'s water bottle ban is inspiring action in other places (like Penn State, for example). Even Katie Couric has talked about Washington University's water bottle ban!

Pressure is mounting... we are numerous in this effort!! :)

Monday, February 9, 2009

USDA chooses "green" water bottle brand

Packaging Digest, which also picked up the Collegian article about our water bottle protest, has posted an article about how the USDA has selected Naturally Iowa to provide them with "green" bottled water.

While I don't personally get excited about corn-based bottles, Naturally Iowa claims that their Green Bottle Spring Water is only sold "through partners that agree to collect empty bottles on site in special receptacles to ensure the bottles do not end up in landfills." This is promising, because compostable bottles that end up in landfills are pointless.

I'm impressed that water bottle waste was considered enough of a priority to the USDA for them to research/find a company that adopts sustainable practices. While I could get long-winded here talking about how wasteful corn is, I'll save that for another time and celebrate this small victory instead. I'll also keep quiet on how this is still "spring" water and not tap water.

I'm grateful for baby steps in lieu of crawling...

Penn State recycling pioneer honored

Penn State Live had a great article about how one of the university's pioneers of recycling was honored recently. Mr. Al Matyasovsky, supervisor at the Office of the Physical Plant, was recognized with a Kneebone Award for Extraordinary Volunteerism.

Al is truly an asset to Penn State, and it is wonderful that his efforts were recognized. More info about what he has done to improve the quality of life here is available in the article.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trayless Wastes Way Less

I was first introduced to the idea of trayless dining in the dining commons at 3E-COE's first meeting and it seemed like a great way to save water. Since then I learned that several colleges went trayless, including Susquehanna University which Steve and I visited last semester. Steve did some research and found that ARAMARK, the company that supplies the food to Susquehanna University's dining commons, made a report that supports their decision to go trayless (download the .pdf report). It highlights the many benefits of a tray-free campus:

Trayless dining reduces an institution’s environmental footprint.
It decreases waste, conserves natural resources (namely, energy
and water) and reduces the introduction of polluting detergents,
rinses and drying agents into the water table. Economically, it
reduces the cost of these same inputs (energy, water, cleaning
agents), as well as the fees associated with waste removal. Socially, trayless dining can provide education and awareness about
environmental issues, while also potentially reinforcing
a healthy lifestyle. Collectively, it is a true Triple Bottom Line
initiative, further supporting campus sustainability.

The ARAMARK study of 186,000 meals was completed at 25 colleges and universities. The study found that trayless dining reduced 25 percent to 30 percent of food waste per person. Therefore the University of Maine saved an estimated $57,000 annually by going trayless and the Grand Valley State University saved approximately $79,000. What does this mean for Penn State? Grand Valley State University has about half the population as Penn State (and the University of Maine has only a quarter) so it seems possible that by going trayless Penn State could possibly save over a hundred thousand dollars per year.

If sustainability is not a central reason for our university and others across the nation to make the switch to trayless dining, maybe the other type of green is.

Want to see why I love evolution and ecology so much?

The Tree of Life is one of the most brilliant webtools I have seen that shows our relatedness to other living things. Brilliant.

This video sets it up for us, showing the evolutionary diversification over time. Descent with modification has made our living systems what they are, from the bacteria to the moss to the turtle to us and our cousins the chimpanzee.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

PASA 2009

Hi all. I just want to say that I got to go to the PASA Conference today and had a really positive experience. This weekend I will post a more complete rundown of what I did and a couple of connections that I made. All in all, I think that the world of sustainability is doing well. People are developing consciousness and laying the groundwork for real change. At the institutional and governmental level we have a lot of work to do but I think that we are really in a good place at a good time because things are so bad...if that makes sense. The reality of stepping back and doing more on our own scales is setting in.

Just to show you what I mean, I post here a video by Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International about getting President Obama to put a garden on the White House lawn (something not without precedent):

Teaching Sustainability across the Curriculum Series

The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence is doing a series on Teaching Sustainability Across the Curriculum. There is even one today:

What does "sustainability" mean in pedagogical terms? - Teaching Luncheon

  • Thursday, February 5
  • 11:45 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.

Today's environmental problems are so complex that solutions will almost surely require interdisciplinary knowledge and cooperation. Thus, faculty in all fields of study may want to consider what it would mean to teach sustainability principles and practices in their courses. So how do we come to common and useful definitions that will encourage educating for sustainability across disciplines? Come and discuss this question with panelists, Don Brown and Andy Lau.

I will be at the PASA conference but am going to jet across campus to get to this. Perhaps we can get Brown to come to speak to us.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Drinking fountains in downtown State College?

The Daily Collegian posted a great article about a resident who would like to provide funds for the borough to install two public drinking fountains.

How awesome is that?? This citizen, Joe Banks, has also been "responsible" for some parks in the county. What the author means by responsible, I'm not sure. I wonder if this means that Banks was instrumental in having the parks created or if he oversees them.

Anywho, the article was a nice reminder to the university community that plastic water bottle use is reprehensible. The author included a staggering statistic from the Environmental Defense Fund: "Less than 20% of the 28 billion single serving water bottles are recycled each year." Not surprising, but still shocking.

I'm hoping we can get Mr. Banks to join 3E-COE. Anyone know him?

More updates on the climate policy speaker series

Penn State Live has a nice list of all of the speakers who will be a part of the series called "Climate Policy: Addressing Cross-Disciplinary Challenges and Solutions" happening on campus this spring. To see the list, go here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

PASA Conference

I meant to post this last week but it slid by. This Thursday the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference convenes at the Penn Stater and runs through Saturday. [To read the whole itinerary, click here and get a brochure by clicking here.] I (Peter) will be bringing back as much stuff as I can for 3E-COE to share. I plan on being at the "Advocacy and Regionalism: Organizational and Individual Actions for Policy Change" workshop for most of Thursday and at least 1/2 of Raj Patel's (author of Stuffed and Starved) keynote address on Friday morning (I have to teach at 11:15) and then maybe the luncheon on Saturday.

Next year we can perhaps make this more of a group goal if it seems that it might garner us some training and experience.

Making Climate Change Matter

I just got this from my friend Tim. I think that I will be able to go.
The International Affairs Colloquium for Monday February 9:
Dr. Robert Corell, Heinz Center and American Meteorological Society,
on "Making Climate Change Matter"

10:00 - 11:30 am in 118 Katz (Auditorium). The parking lot by Katz
(the new Law School Building) is an open faculty lot. The campus shuttle
also stops by Katz Building.

The coal ash spill in Tennessee

I watched this report (audio mp3) yesterday on the NewsHour about the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill.
Tom Bearden reports from Tennessee on the lingering effects of one of the largest coal ash spills in the nation's history.
It's an absolute tragedy.

Learn more from some Tennessee environmental defenders, United Mountain Defense.

Community Garden

Alright! The Center for Sustainability and Students for Sustainable Agriculture have posted the call for Community Garden applications (link is currently down).

In conjunction with the Center for Sustainability the club will be starting a community garden group and opening a community garden on April 18th, 2009. The site is located by Beaver Stadium off of Porter Road

Members of the group will recieve a 10X15 ft plots, with access to water, compost, and tools to encourage walking and biking to the site

The site is organic, but we will be offering workshops on organic methods for those not familiar the methods.

I'll be applying stat!

We are in Voices!

This months Voices of Central Pennsylvania has some hot stuff in it. Like what? Like 3E-COE of course (pdf)! They also have a spot on Eco-Action's work to get Penn State out of its contract with Kimberly-Clark at the same link. Heather Simmons also has a piece in about energy saving techniques. Keep up the good work.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sustainability Coalition Meeting

Alex and I attended the Sustainability Coalition's meeting tonight and represented 3E-COE. There was talk about Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences wanting to fund green initiatives on campus, which is something our group may want to look into. It was also mentioned that the club Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) are designing canteen refilling stations with filtered water for the campus. As you probably guessed, the Sustainability Coalition (which also includes EcoAction) fully supports our bottled water project.

We met with a woman in charge of Penn State's Take Charge and My 20 programs. She said she is studying "word-of-mouth" marketing and is planning on having students and RAs with great networking skills to encourage green habits, and then she will observe the effects. She also gave me a contact that may be able to provide us with some free canteens to give out at future 3E-COE events.


I know with the economy headed downhill I should be excited about job creation, but I was a bit disappointed when coming across a Boston Globe article about Poland Spring opening a new bottling plant.

Poland Spring, operated by megacorporation Nestle, spent $60 million dollars to build this new bottling plant in Kingfield, ME. Even the governor is showing up to the opening shindig. It makes me wonder who's really going to benefit from this new operation. No further comment.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Events on campus tomorrow (Monday, Feb. 2)

Hi 3E-COErs!

Hope you had a nice weekend. Wanted to pass on the word about a few things happening tomorrow:

1) From 12pm-4pm, Eco-Action will be holding a demonstration across from the HUB to raise awareness about the use of virgin paper products on campus. They'll be gathering signatures for a petition to present to OPP (asking Penn State to only buy recycled paper products, among other things). If you have a few minutes, it would be great to lend some support to Eco-Action for this event. They've been tremendously supportive of 3E-COE and our causes, and showing our solidarity with them can help all of us achieve great things. Cookies and hot chocolate will be served.

Information on the petition and the event itself here.

2) The Sustainability Coalition will be meeting from 5-6pm tomorrow in 106 HUB. On their agenda is getting support for the water bottle ban here at Penn State (yay!). Come if you can!

3) At 7 pm in 112 Chambers, two sweatshop workers from Honduras will be speaking about their experiences. Sponsored by United Students Against Sweatshops and Student Labor Action Project. More information can be found here.