Mountain fresh and plastic free

I had a cute postgrad blog post planned, but today I have something more important–and something more urgent–to say instead. This post is inspired by a Facebook post I saw from multiple people in the past week, three-hour drives to and from Winston Salem, and lots of coffee.

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“Great Barrier Reef dead at 25 Million” reads a New York Post headline from Oct. 2016. 

Snopes says it’s not true… yet. That doesn’t mean that the world’s largest coral reef system isn’t about to flatline in the next few years, especially since 2016 was an especially devastating year for the GBR:

A survey of the extent and severity of coral bleaching between March and June 2016 conducted by the Australian Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and released on 13 October 2016 found that:

22 percent of coral on the Reef died due to the worst mass bleaching event on record. Eighty-five percent of this mortality occurred in the 600 kilometer stretch between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island (Snopes).

Also according to Snopes: “The latest surveys indicate that 93% of the individual reefs in the GBR have suffered some degree of bleaching, with reefs in the north the most severely affected. Australia’s marine biodiversity, and the jobs and economic prosperity that the reef supports, is under grave threat.”

I have three things to say about this situation and one multi-faceted response:

Firstly, prematurely declaring the GBR dead could impact efforts to save it… doomsday thinking is usually more harmful than helpful to environmentalists, as much as we love to talk about thresholds from which we cannot return. I’m reminded of Christian rhetoric in particular that calls us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” a phrase which holds a very different connotation than stewardship, and implies very little respect for the earth. This is specially true when combined with end-times doctrine that perpetuates greedy usage of what’s here now instead of preserving for the future. Understanding the dire nature of a problem is important. But we cannot declare something impossible to save if there’s something left to try (Like, I don’t know…. supporting the Paris Agreement, or recognizing that CO2 is definitely a huge contributor to climate change, or allowing scientists to study climate without censoring them or cutting their programs entirely. Just a few ideas.)

 

Secondly, the visibility of this issue matters… and it should move people to action. I grew up learning about the Great Barrier Reef in school, hearing that coral bleaching was becoming a problem and that an increase in global temperatures was changing the acidity of ocean waters and creating a nearly irreversible trend in bleaching. But many people don’t know about coral reef bleaching at all, much less that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger of succumbing to it. On the one hand, it’s a great thing that so many people are now concerned about the GBR, whether or not they’ve been there. I’m hopeful that the attention it’s getting moves people to make a change, now that they’ve seen what we’re in danger of losing. This is a serious, visible result of climate change… maybe some people will finally be convinced that human actions do have consequences, and that climate change is something to pay attention to instead of ignoring it.

With our current administration denouncing the Paris Agreement (despite more than 343 cities, more than 900 businesses and almost 200 colleges and universities and three states pledging to uphold it anyway), the GBR is seriously threatened. And climate change will have much more direct impacts on our lives than anything that happens to the GBR: coastal cities around the world are more likely to be submerged under rising sea levels… directly impacting more than 40% of the world’s population (40% of the world’s population lives within 100km of the coast as of 2010, and that number has only increased).

 

Thirdly, we have got to stop believing that actions do not have consequences. I don’t understand how the same people who:

  • appreciate mankind’s ability to level mountains and blast through them,
  • clear entire landscapes for development,
  • know what an oil rig looks like and/or enjoy the use of electricity,
  • marvel at engineering achievements such as dams and bridges and highways and industrial agriculture, as well as countless other examples of anthropogenic forces on our globe,
  • fly in airplanes and look down on enormous cities–especially at night–and see how significant they are on the landscape,
  • or understand how rapidly our country has been developed compared to others, and how significantly different our lives have become in the digital age

are the same people who deny that all these actions could possibly have negative impacts somewhere outside the financial statement. Climate change might not have the same, immediate effect on an individual as touching a hot stove, but its larger systemic symptoms are overwhelmingly supported by scientists, and our impact on the globe is worth considering simply due to its rapid (and rapid increase in) pace in the last few centuries alone. We are transforming our planet, and we at once seem to believe that our impact is possible and also not provable. I’m baffled.

 

How will I respond? On one level, by redefining what Christians call “filling and subduing the earth,” and on another level, by “keeping” the Paris Agreement in my own ways. Here are some springboards for action from various aspects of life:

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I saw this on Pinterest once, but today I pulled it from here 

Plastic Free July: In case you missed it, plastic is incredibly hazardous to aquatic ecosystems and there’s actually a trash gyre the size of Texas floating in the Pacific as we speak. Plastic bioaccumulates up the food chain, causing carcasses to be found with stomachs clogged with trash. Plastic Free July is an initiative started in Western Australia, and its goal is to highlight just how much single-use plastic we consume and see how much we can reduce it. The objective? Don’t use any single-use plastic for all of July (or forever, if you get attached to saving the planet). Cut out plastic straws, utensils and flatware, plastic water bottles, shopping bags and cling wrap, and you’ll find that you use a lot more plastic than you thought you did. It’s difficult sometimes, and I’m not great at it, but I’m enjoying the learning experience.

Packaging can throw some kinks in plastic-free shopping for groceries or household products, but the benefit of initiatives like these is they expose how prevalent plastic is in our lives, and the more mindfully we consume, the better. Plus, there’s always recycling. Plastic Free July–and all environmentalism, for that matter–is about participating as able. There’s a really cool list of ways to live plastic free, which you can find here.

One of the cool ways I’m ditching plastic wrap and plastic bags is by using Bee’s Wrap, a plastic free way to package bread, veggies, snacks and food products for storage or transport. I just purchased some and I love it already! I’m also participating in Plastic Free July by bringing cloth bags to the grocery store (especially when buying veggies!) and carrying a reusable water bottle with me instead of purchasing bottled water or sodas in plastic containers. This goes for coffee, too–I can bring my own thermos, or I can do without. Regardless, I can do without plastic straws! I carry my own, reusable utensils around, too–something I started doing during my senior year of college. It feels good to imagine how many times I’ve been able to opt out of plastic since I started!

 

Meat… Less: I love meat, but I don’t eat it every day, and I much prefer to know exactly where it came from. Industrial agriculture has developed a system that relies heavily on corn-fed cattle pumped with antibiotics–an unnatural and water-intensive, highly polluting process that also emit about two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year–more than the entire transportation sector. The less meat we eat, the better off the environment… If you don’t believe me, this list from The Natural Resources Defense Council of the most environmentally destructive foods starts and ends with meat-based products, and to the credit of my vegan friends, contains only one non-animal product. While my personal life choices might not offset the entire American culture of meat at every meal, cultural shifts happen in increments, and I’ll be one of them.

Check out this startling infographic below from CulinarySchools.org, then keep scrolling for more ways I’m combatting climate change in my everyday life.

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Boxed wine: I can hear some of my friends groaning across the internet, but as a person who loves to drink a glass of wine at dinner when I get home from work, it is much more environmentally friendly and economically feasible to drink boxed wine… and I think it’s great. Unfortunately, the wine does live in a plastic bag, but cardboard and plastic are way easier to recycle than glass around here, so I’d say it’s a step in the right direction. And with some boxed wines, there is no bag–it’s like buying a carton of milk, or a juice box… An adult juice box. I’ll drink to that.

 

Coffee: This deserves its own category because I’m a writer and I can’t write without coffee–and whether I’m buying it in a plastic/paper cup at a shop or using a Keurig at home, I’m creating a lot of waste. So when I graduated college I transitioned to making coffee in a French press every morning, eliminating any paper or plastic waste, and using a thermos to keep my coffee hot all day, so I never need to buy an afternoon pick-me-up that comes in a plastic cup or bottle. If I do run out of coffee, I show up to the barista’s counter with my own container. Some places even offer a discount for bringing your own mug–the intern on an intern’s salary loves that!

 

Cosmetics and feminine products: Uh oh… she just went there. Yup, I did. But ladies, there’s a LOT of plastic floating around in our bathroom cabinets, and there are alternatives for everything we currently own, including makeup and cosmetics. Make sure your habits aren’t preventing you from exploring new options, like applicator-less tampons, period panties or diva cups. I’ve also learned to be aware that cosmetics, shampoos and exfoliating scrubs might contain microbeads: tiny pieces of plastic that accumulate in waterways and can bioaccumulate in the seafood we eat later (!!).

150919135201-microbeads-exlarge-169.jpgMicrobeads are almost impossible to clean up, but many cosmetic companies use them in their products because they’re cheap. Skip the microbeads by checking labels for words like Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon… or by using the Beat the Microbead app to scan labels and know what you’re up against.

 

Clothing: Thrift shopping is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to buy clothes, as the clothing industry is notoriously heavy on both natural resource usage and worker exploitation (think sweatshops, which are still totally a thing). Turns out the majority of our clothes are created in developing countries and transported across the globe before reaching retailers–an environmentally negative system in and of itself–but the processes are also less regulated for environmental hazards or workforce welfare. Like most systems in an industrialized world, it’s a non-knowledge system that the consumer isn’t supposed to pay attention to. But buying or donating used clothing and extending its life by even a few months saves precious natural resources, among other environmental benefits. Check out five reasons to thrift shop more often here.

When I do buy clothes new, I try to know as much about the company as possible. Try looking at RankaBrand.org and see where your favorite clothing lines stand on sustainability, including climate change and carbon emissions, environmental policy, working conditions and fair trade. This website can be useful for almost any brand, from technology to food, but I find it particularly helpful when I’m shopping.  If a brand isn’t on the site, you can suggest it, and you can “nudge” companies to better their scores with an easy-to-use pre-formatted email. Capitalism at its finest! 😉

Some companies are even learning how to recycle clothes, such as H&M’s clothing recycling program. If they bring in clothing to be recycled, customers can receive a discount on their purchase. Not only is this a good deal for a young person on a budget like me, but it could spread throughout the entire clothing industry over time, and that’s something I want to support. Any clothes that I don’t want at the end of each season and that wouldn’t sell at thrift shops, I’ll be bringing with me when I go shopping for more work attire. While H&M doesn’t have the best rating on RankaBrand, it’s definitely made improvements in recent years and it’s certainly important to me that these kinds of programs become the norm!

 

Travel: This one is tough for me. I live close to work and my horse, but living in a semi-rural area means there’s no public transportation system I can use, and I end up driving hours at a time when I deliver promotional materials for work. On the bright side, I still drive a minivan instead of a truck, so my MPG is pretty decent and I’m able to carpool with friends whenever possible–and usually I can fit everybody. But it’s something that I’m learning to be more conscious of as I settle into routines and explore my new home.

 

Equestrian activities and products: I did an entire capstone on environmental horsekeeping, and I still find it difficult to make a dent in my habits as a horsewoman. Almost every product I buy for my horse comes in a plastic bottle, box, or bag, and some are even dangerous to aquatic life. Recycling is key, but there are other things I can do, too: I can limit how much water I use by only hosing down my horse when necessary, or using a sponge and bucket instead of a hose; I can sell or donate used equipment instead of trashing them; I can “carpool” when trailering my horse or choose destinations nearby to limit vehicle emissions; I incorporate barn visits with other errands so that I limit my own traveling time; and I purchase environmentally conscious products whenever possible. Equine science is a little behind some other fields, and environmentally focused equine science is even farther behind, so I’m excited to see what products develop in the next few years. In the meantime, the practice of horsekeeping is mostly about mindfulness and intentionality with recycling.

Another challenge in the area of horsekeeping is the fact that I do not manage my own facility and have limited influence of larger-scale practices impacting the landscape, such as manure management, pasture rotation and pest management. In that way, I am somewhat limited. But again, it’s enough to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

 

Recreation: Supporting National Parks is a great way to promote environmentalism, and luckily I’m surrounded by state parks, national parks and outdoor attractions. Plus, hiking does great things for the mind. It’s not just about working out, fighting boredom, or getting a sweet pic for the Insta!

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Photo of Chimney Rock State Park from https://www.visitnc.com/forests-parks-seashores 

That’s all I’ve got in me for this season of my life… or at least until you all give me more ideas! Please please please leave thoughts below if I’ve missed anything you know about. Don’t worry, fam… I’ll post that cutesy, postgrad life blog post another day.

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Falling trees and bleach fumes; the sad story of this week

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It’s so soggy in Spartanburg that a tree fell on campus last night – in a place known for its trees, this is a sad event. Roots can’t hold on to the earth if there is no earth to hold on to, and with soup for an anchor, just one puff of wind can flick the massive oaks past their point of balance and WHACK! Out come the chainsaws and other machines to clear the road. Just a sigh of relief that no buildings were damaged, and then no thought given to the hundreds of trees still left, tottering in the mud.

It’s been this wet all week – raining for longer. I’ve gotten so used to the constant mist and drizzle that I don’t pull my raincoat out of my backpack unless raindrops are running down my forehead into my eyes. Otherwise, I walk through the cloud-like moisture to class, ignoring it. My hair has become its own creature, and I do my best to compromise with the beast.

Hurricane Joaquin may be spinning away from our coast, but he’s spitting some record-breaking storm fronts right back at the South, almost as if to spite us for depriving him of a landfall. Wednesday was beautiful. I got a glove tan line from my hour-long riding lesson – it was hot and sunny for the first time in more than two weeks, not to mention dry enough to work in the arena without worrying about the horses slipping in the soupy footing. It was a beautiful mid-week blessing.

But Thursday, Wofford woke up to the news that businesses bordering our campus (at our feet, almost, buried in the hillside) had been flooded. The roads at the bottom of the hill were covered in mud, and the car salesmen spent all day power-washing their lots and wiping down their cars, which looked more like an army fleet than a colorful inventory of used vehicles. Everything was red clay-tinted, even where the water had receded. It kept drizzling most of Thursday, but nicely, as if the skies were apologizing for the damage they’d inflicted.

A person had died in the Thursday floods, I would learn. Trapped in a vehicle that got swept under a bridge. Multiple bridges were closed underneath, from silting or rapid water currents or maybe even instability – who knows? Somewhere else in the area, a bridge collapsed into the muddy waters below, looking a lot like a sinkhole although none of the reporters called it that explicitly, at least not that I heard. Wofford students were advised to remain on campus – our property is one of the highest points in Spartanburg, which both protects us and makes escape difficult.

I was supposed to go to a clinic in Pendleton today. After the heavy rains Friday night into Saturday morning, there was no safe way for me to get to where I needed to go. Too many dips in the road where I knew the road would be flooded, if not susceptible to collapse. I stayed in bed and pouted.

On Thursday, the dry-cleaning and laundry business that had been filled to the brim with muddy runoff was hosed down – much of that mud and water ended up in the streets, as if it needed any more. On campus, I was shocked to find that the grounds crew (or at least their supervisor) seemed to think it a good idea to power wash the cement outside my dorm – to clean the stone and the bricks that would in a few hours be rained on once again. They used more than a dozen bottles of bleach on maybe thirty yards of sidewalk, for lack of a better term. The bleach-bubbled water ran through the grass and down the walkway to the curb, flowing down into the system that already had too much water in it. Maybe some of the bleach ended up at the laundromat after last night’s rain… it more than likely ended up in Lawson’s Fork Creek or some other system, already overwhelmed.

All day, it smelled like bleach… Bleach, fertilizer, and rain. Why the fertilizer seemed a good idea, I don’t know. A guy on a tractor drove through the play-dough ground, leaving behind muddy tire tracks, shredded grass, and millions of little white pieces of chemicals that often missed the lawn and landed on the sidewalk – or in the puddles in the road. How much of that fertilizer stayed where it was spewed?

I don’t understand. I know there’s some sort of logic behind these decisions, but I can’t find it.

On Friday morning, I noticed six cigarette butts scattered on the covered walkway where the cement had just been bleached. The stone on the walkway, the cement on the sidewalk and the bricks in the courtyard all had a milky white film on them.

One butt lay swollen in the watery crack between two bricks – how far did its owner have to throw the cigarette to deposit it here? This one is a long way away from the covering, where smoke breaks take place right in front of the door so that I have to hold my breath on my way to class. I do so unapologetically – I’m an asthmatic, and smoke is one of my triggers.

Walking to class on Thursday and Friday, it smelled like chemicals more than anything. I inhaled diesel as I walked by workers with leafblowers – quite ineffective when the leaves are stuck to their spots – and I inhaled bleach fumes every time I left or returned to my dorm. I could also smell the fertilizer, even with a severe cold. How alarming.

Wofford gave tours all day Friday. Mentally, as each group passed by my study spot, I apologized for the smell. It’s not always like this. Not always.

As I write this, we have a pool in our courtyard, due to an ineffective drain. I wonder how long it will take for maintenance to bring out the bleach… how many hours after the floodwaters recede will they bring out the blowers? Mow the mud?

As a resident of this gorgeous campus, as a student, as an environmental studies major, as a human – I beg us to slow down. Look up, and watch for falling trees, lest we be in the trajectory as we power wash a sidewalk, adding more broth to the soup.

P.S.: I realize that the list of tasks to be completed by the grounds crew is overwhelmingly long and that there are many unseen factors that go into each decision. I am not trying to accuse anybody of being incompetent. I simply want to share a perspective. We have to be intentional with our maintenance: not despite our high and dry location, but precisely because of it.

What are your thoughts? Comment below!