Friday, July 23, 2010

Save the Bay. Eat Beans!

We learned today that Harry Reid has hung it up on climate change legislation. Cap-and-Trade is over for this session of Congress. Any how, the economy has faltered so badly that our country’s emissions of GHG, I mean greenhouse gases, have probably come down from the weight of our new impoverishment.

For me this really is a relief, because I found getting really worked up about GHG control hard to do. As for Cap-and-Trade, I had always preferred the even less politically tenable carbon taxation approach.

I am ready for a change. Not change, as in climate change. I mean a change in the focus of attention away from climate-changing gases.

I am ready to focus on what I have for long believed is a more serious environmental issue than the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.

Do you want to hear it?

Mineralized nitrogen, as in ammonia and nitrate nitrogen. Mineralized nitrogen was the key driver for the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico long before the recent oil well fiasco. Mineralized nitrogen is damaging the Chesapeake Bay when washed off of confined animal feed operations. Mineralized impacts local streams when ammonia-laden rainfall drains away. Mineralized nitrogen acidifies forest soils when the ammonia is converted by soil organisms to nitric acid. Mineralized nitrogen contaminates groundwaters, cauing build up to unhealthy level of nitrates that are a health risk to babies.

I have always been fascinated by a few factoids about mineralized nitrogen. First, the catalysis of nitrogen and hydrogen gases into ammonia is a technological invention from the opening of the Twentieth Century of revolutionary scope. Messers Haber and Bosch, in their process of nitrogen mineralization, for which they independently received Nobel Prizes, unleashed the conversion of stable, abundant atmospheric gases into ammonium nitrate for use as explosives for modern warfare and to ammonium nitrate for use as fertilizer for the “green revolution.” In one great miraculous invention, humanity developed the capacity to support precipitous growth in populations through cheap fertilizer and to mow them down with horrendous efficiency with cheap firepower.

But the other fascinating factoid is the tremendous ecological alterations that are underway inexorably as a consequence of the incessant release of ammonia to the air, land and waters, causing permanent changes to the environment. In one article, a reported 90 percent of all of the manufactured mineralized nitrogen produced for agricultural use is dispersed to the environment and never enters into intended crops and animals as nutrients protein.

There are no coincidences… or are there?

The same day I learned that carbon legislation had been shelved in the US Senate I learn that Water Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the International Water Association, had published a science article on an approach to management of nitrogen in watersheds that in my 35 years of environmentalism I had failed to so clearly distinguish.

The new watershed strategy? Vegetarianism! Or, at least greatly reduced meat consumption by a region’s inhabitants.

The journal article is entitled “Considerations on the importance of nutrition habits for the national nitrogen balance of Austria,” by Matthias Zessner, Simon Thaler, Katerina Ruzicka, Stephanie Natho and Helmut Kroiss. It will be published this week (WS&T, Volume 62.1, 2010, pages 21 to 27).

The authors, in their best scientific style, assert in their opening sentence: “The anthropogenic nitrogen turnover of Western societies is highly unbalanced.” This means that modern society releases far more nitrogen to the environment when it grows food than it takes in as protein in the food it eats. The biggest culprits are the high nutrient inputs to the raising of cattle and poultry and the extremely low proportion of mineralized nitrogen that ends up in the animal protein sold at supermarkets.

Their recommendation: “a shift from the actual animal-based nutrition to a “healthier nutrition” (mainly characterised by 2/3 vegetable protein supply) would lead to a reduction of needed nitrogen supply as well as of nitrogen emissions to the environment by about one quarter to one third on a national scale.”

So, here is a thought! Senator Reid has left US EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in a real bind by having her negotiate, without good political cover, the minefield that is carbon dioxide emission regulation. But let’s have Ms. Jackson scrap even the pretense that bold new regulations are going to be promulgated on carbon dioxide.

Carbon management is passé. Nitrogen management is the new thing.

The article in WS&T holds the key. We need to derive our dietary protein from plant, not animal, sources. Ms. Jackson should go to her natural liberal constituents in the vegan/vegetarian communities, join forces with the radical PETA groups, and develop new alliances with certain cliques within the conservative USDA and FDA, and come out with a major campaign promoting vegetarianism as the greatest of all watershed management tools.

So no longer is our heavily meat-laden diet merely an issue of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. It is an issue of even greater importance -- eutrophication of lakes and ponds and dead zones in bays and estuaries.

Now there is an issue that I can get excited about!

The US EPA will finally be able to connect to people in a way that is as immediate as the plate of food on their table. For it, the EPA needs a new slogan.

Ms. Jackson, try out: “Save the Bay. Eat Beans!”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Peacable Kingdom? Think 'colon'!

I have just read a beautiful, reassuring story of a world that is “largely unexplored,” a “microbiome” of organisms living a “settled existence,” in a stable state and in symbiosis with each other.

Where is this world? My colon!

So writes Amy Maxmen, in an online article today, “The gut's 'friendly' viruses revealed,” discussing the work of Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, published in Nature Magazine (Reyes, A. et al. Nature 466, 334-340 (2010).) Maxmen’s article is at

Maxmen reports: “More than 10 trillion bacteria normally inhabit the gastrointestinal tract…. Within and among these bacteria live bacterial viruses, or bacteriophages…. [F]aeces from each individual carried a distinct viral community that varied by less than 5% over the course of a year. The bacterial viruses also appeared to mainly be lying low as 'prophages' rather than multiplying and killing the bacteria they infect.”

Further, “[I]t could be that viruses are the real drivers of the system because of their ability to modify the bacteria that then modify the human host…. Because human nutrition partly depends on the relationship between bacteria and their viruses, understanding the dynamics of that relationship might yield treatments for obesity, allergies and other maladies."

The author ties the nature of the bacteria and viral relationships back to the necessity of encouraging development of a rich “human microbiome.” Maxmen says, “Indeed, the rise in the incidence of food allergies in Western societies has led to hypotheses that extreme hygiene disrupts the ability of microbes to colonize human guts, resulting in a lack of tolerance to usually harmless foods.”

I knew instinctively, even as a small child, that my grandmother was right when she said “you have to eat a pound of dirt before you die,” by which she meant, and I understood her to mean, there is nothing wrong with getting dirt in the mouth.

Since stable colon colonies are a good thing, I am glad I was never persuaded to undergo those colonic irrigations I have seen praised in the alternative health magazines.

Better yet, eat dirt!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Product Stewardship -- phone books and pharmaceuticals

Verizon delivered its white pages and its "superyellowpages" yesterday. Two sets, because I have both residential and business accounts, one to the sunporch door and one to the front door. Go figure. But now I have eleven pounds of paper that will probably remain mostly unused. If I don't remember to put the old books out on recycling day, then my cupboard will overflow with unwieldy hold-overs from the pre-google/yahoo days. I imagine, too, that the official Yellow Pages will come someday soon, adding another 5 to 10 pounds to the heap.

I am not the only one who feels somewhat assaulted by the phone books.

I noticed that the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) had taken on the issue of telephone books in its broad agenda to have producers and users and government create workable approaches to waste reduction. You can review, and download if you wish, PSI's action plan for telephone books at its website:

If I can work it into a conversation, even inappropriately, I will tell people that the PSI is one of the most saintly environmental initiatives of which I know. Setting a stage for the kind of three way dialogue that PSI hosts to work on issues such as "how to reduce distribution of unwanted telephone books and reduce their environmental footprint" is not for the feint-hearted and those without courage, because, if for no other reason, results are SO slow to realize. And, of course, no one solution works for all, and what has worked in North Dakota may not work in Pennsylvania. So there is no one endpoint in the dialogue.

My introduction to PSI was in the arena of the fate of pharmaceuticals and personal care products once their human user had finished with them. PSI has blazed important ground in identifying the options for disposal of unneeded and expired prescription medicines, particularly alternatives to toilet flushing. And, PSI is the right place to talk to manufacturers about the persistence in the environment of chemicals that wash down the drain and get into the public sewers.

Substantial media coverage has been given to the evidence that we have come in an unwelcome circle with our drug disposal practices. Drinking water supplies are showing evidence of trace amounts of pharmaceutical compounds. Wastewater plant effluents apparently alter the gonads of fish near the outfall with the "endocrine disruption" caused by hormones that pass through conventional treatment plants. Many compounds that are active ingredients in soaps and detergents are carried along with the solid particles removed from effluent, but where the solids are recycled, these compounds can be traced to the soil.

The question that we all need to ask ourselves, that is the community of producers, users, regulators and scientists, is "are we comfortable with what we know we know about the fate of these various organic compounds in the environment such that human and environmental health are being protected?"

I have been vigilant in watching for evidence that we are not. I am inclined to be a strong proponent of water reuse and biosolids recycling, but my antenna remain alert to evidence that something may be one day uncovered that calls for a different approach.

Recent science journal articles still hold out mostly comfort in this regard. Gretchen Bruce published a paper in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology that reviewed the occurrence of a wide number of pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water supplied in water-scarce regions of the U.S. and concluded that "adverse effects... are not expected." A paper by Britta Stumpe in the Journal of Environmental Quality on the fate of waste-borne estrogen compounds in agricultural soils documented that a sustained mineralization of estrogen occurred in the soil, effectively degrading these compounds.

So, we still have a thumbs up for biosolids recycling and water reuse.

The Journal of Environmental Science and Technology is putting together a global summary of the fate of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The interesting overarching viewpoint is that primary sources of many POPs have been greatly reduced, as in the emissions of dioxins by incinerators. But the caution is that POPs residing in sinks can be re-released and become the dominant secondary sources.

I understand from my colleagues at the Philadelphia Water Department that a survey of sources of PCBs in the watersheds in and around Philadelphia suggest that PCB-laden sediment behind dams and in buried sediments constitute the larger risk of re-exposure of aquatic organisms, rather than releases from the land. But on whose shoulders will go the burden of managing the proper treatment of POPs that reside in environmentally-significant concentrations in secondary sources such as sediments? We would love to take down some dams on the Schuylkill, but can we safely do so without extraordinary releases of POPs?

This brings me back to the work of the Product Stewardship Institute. We need to be asking the questions among ourselves as to how we can close the loop on the chemicals that we are using daily so that they do not cause problems for people in other places, people down the watershed, people in other countries, or people who are vulnerable. And, not just people, but all of our animal and plant cousins with whom we share planet Earth.

Now, how do I look in the Yellow Pages for help in answering this question?

Friday, July 9, 2010

A virtuous circle for our food.... at last

Miracles abound, and a circle has been completed!

A miracle of public policy was the undoing of a very poor choice for a prison facility at the Camden riverfront with its exquisite views of the Philadelphia skyline. I learned from my compost friend, Dan Vecsi, that he has supplied 7,000 cubic yards of compost for the reclamation of this riverfront property, just upriver of the Ben Franklin Bridge, that formerly housed prisoners.

But the other miracle, almost as astonishing, is the commercial-scale production from food scraps of compost used at the former prison. The compost was made at the Wilmington Organic Recycling Center (WORC), a subsidiary of the Peninsula Compost Group. WORC is itself a miracle, as a waste processing facility sensitively sited in a mixed-use community in Wilmington, close to I-95, and developed without government subsidies. The WORC facility started to receive food scraps in early winter and, after a challenging shakedown period, is now producing a fine compost of the kind that has been unavailable in the Philadelphia metro area, except in relatively small quantities.

Composters, soil lovers, sustainability advocates and greenies of all shades have been cheering the initiative of Peninsula's leader, Nelson Widell, long-known to composters in this part of the country, and they have been eager to see his venture a success.

A major winner, too, will be those organizations, such as the University of Pennsylvania, Starbucks and Wal-Mart, with sustainability commitments, as diversion of organic wastes from landfills help them achieve their goals for a reduced environmental footprint.

The other miracle is the completion of the organic nutrient cycle, as the nutrients and solar energy captured by plants are returned to the soil and made available for future plant growth. Shameful indices of society's wastefulness are the 50% of all U.S. food production that fails to reach the mouth and the over 90% of the wasted food that ends up in landfills, where much of the food energy escapes as methane and where nutrients are locked up forever.

Very nearly a moral imperative is that food scraps be returned to the soil. Composting is one of the best ways of doing so.

We can hope that Peninsula's success will encourage others to embark on similar projects, as the food scrap generation in this region, from both pre and post consumer sources, very likely exceeds 500,000 tons annually.

That can make a lot of compost! Just think of how many gardens and storm runoff detention features could be installed with that compost.