J500 Media and the Environment

The Worming Trend

My kitchen trashcan stinks. Fruit and vegetable cores, the food that collects on my floor during haphazard meal prep, dinner leftovers too meager to warrant space in the fridge—they mix and mingle with their discarded packaging, together again. What stinks the most is that it all has energy and nutrients it’s ready to share. Instead of fulfilling any real purpose, however, it ends up in my little white wastebasket.

There is an alternative and it comes in the form of our wiggly, slimy worm friends. Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is a way to compost kitchen scraps quickly and effectively, and can be done inside of your home.

When worms get a hold of kitchen scraps, a highly complex chain of chemical, biochemical and biological interactions and reactions occur. The result is nutrient-rich excrement that is a valuable fertilizer. The worms provide an element that ordinary composting cannot. Worm mucous slows the release of nutrients so they won’t wash away when watering. Your Tylenol comes in time-release capsules, and your fertilizer can, too. The worms are also good little trash compactors, reducing waste volume as much as 60 percent.

While recycling nutrients may be as nature intended, I won’t tell you that inviting a pound of worms into your humble home will feel entirely natural. The set-up includes a worm composting bin of some kind. You can order one online or build your own.

I’m not one to trade one stinky problem for another, so the good news is that the worm bin is practically odor-free. The worms actually eat the odor-causing bacteria (not the food). After digesting the material, the worms produce the nutrient-packed end product, or castings. Although it is just a fancy word for poop, castings smell very much like soil or store-bought fertilizer. Little is known about just what makes worm digestion so fortifying.

Because the worms feast on the bacteria, fungi and protozoans that naturally decompose waste, the process is quicker than ordinary composting and the end product is more sterile. However, vermicomposting can be used in addition to, not as a replacement for backyard composting.

It’s kind of a heart-warming (-worming? Too much?) fairy tale: Rumplestilskin spins straw into gold, worms make trash into useful fertilizer. Even if your garden consists of a single houseplant, it beats sending the food scraps to a landfill, where they can’t breakdown and will live inorganically ever after. For more information on vermicomposting, including how-to’s and troubleshooting, visit BeSmart.org.

Sonya English

Can O WormsCheck out my Podcast featuring an interview with Recycling Specialist Cassandra Ford about her Can O Worms vermicomposter.

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I took this class because Simran was on Oprah
April 29, 2008, 9:24 pm
Filed under: Society + Media | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I first met Simran at a poetry reading. She was wearing a wig and a smile and mentioned her course on the environment. When she walked away, something happened that I’m sure is far more common than Simran would guess. My girlfriend leaned over to me and said quietly, “She’s been on Oprah.”

At the time, I was fighting to get into an honors course on climate change, but a schedule conflict was holding me back. The “J500” listing was only slightly less intimidating than working with Oprah, once removed, was intriguing. I dropped my Strategic Communication class and enrolled in one of the last spots of J500.

Ironic now, looking back to the class I swapped. In my head, looking at what I learned in this class is like a web of ideas, all interlinked, meta tagged and growing among leafy green vines. When I try to untangle all that and find a single root, I see that my takeaway has a great deal to do with strategic communication.

Each week, I squeezed in to take a seat at the table with some amazing Thinkers. My exposure to you all and your questions and ideas has inspired introspection. Early on, I saw that I’m a lousy critical thinker. What an upsetting discovery! Although our group tendency to question everything could be exhausting at times—

Define Sustainability
Communities living with the future in mind
What do you mean by communities?
And what do we mean by living?
Can we define our “future”
Saying “in mind” isn’t action-oriented enough
Why did you utilize “the” in that definition?
What was the question?
Why do you ask??

— I definitely learned how useful it is. I know I believe that we’re all in this together. What I didn’t let that entail is that we can all be learning as we go. Even the author of a cool article in Rolling Stone (Thanks, Travis). Even Oprah. Even the IPCC. Adam Werbach. NBC. Maybe not Adam Bowman. The strategic communication I learned here was about consuming information. Thinking past what I formerly considered to be the endpoint, a claim from a reliable source.

I’m hating how hyperbolic this is coming off, but I’ll risk it to take the opportunity to let you all (my classmates, Simran) know that I gained something from you that I value very much.

The satisfaction I gained from my weekly “a-ha” moments, the wonderful people I had the pleasure of interacting with, and learning a great deal about environmental issues far far far outweighs my disappointment that Oprah was never a digital visitor.

With love,
Sonya English
We'll always have our shortcomings

Where’s My Eco-Friendly Econ?
April 14, 2008, 10:02 pm
Filed under: Business + Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

Eco-aware econ book (Dorforyou.com)

Sunday night: The hours disappeared one by one, slowly ushering my 8 am economics test into my near future.

My tattered economics notebook taught me many things that night. I learned about unemployment and national income accounting. Debt and equity finance. On one page I learned that I forgot about some textbook reading. It was when I opened to the assigned article that I learned the most shocking information of all:

Natural resources are not running out.

Phew! Sorry Sim, the class is a bust. Peak oil? Deforestation? Worry no more- Mankiw says it’s all good.

I would love to include the entire article but I don’t know if that’s legal and I do know that a 2,000-word blog would be a hard sell. It starts by presenting population growth as a potential concern with regards to natural resources. He briefly entertains this viewpoint of “many commentators” and “conservationists” of the past. Then, he acknowledges kindly that “at first, this argument may seem hard to ignore.” And finally, he shows us the light.

It seems that our concern over limited resources stems from our lack of intimacy with the market economy. You see, scarcity is reflected in market prices.

If the world were running out of resources, then the prices of those resources would be rising over time. But in fact, the opposite is more nearly true. The prices of most natural resources (adjusted for overall inflation) are stable or falling. It appears that our ability to conserve these resources is growing more rapidly than their supplies are dwindling. Market prices give no reason to believe that natural resources are a limit to economic growth.

To be fair, my book was copy-written in 2006, so this article came before the price of oil topped $100/barrel.

And he’s not saying resources aren’t limited, he just believes in our ability to conserve.

An optimist?
…Eh, I doubt it. Economists aren’t exactly known for their rose-colored spectacles.

Of course, I do think our class’s ability to meet with shared enthusiasm is a direct result of our belief that we can figure out a way to conserve our way to a sustainable future. However, we see a long road of informing the public and changing public policies. We see transforming a wasteful society as an obstacle.

And Mankiw’s Don’-Worry-Abah-Dit philosophy didn’t strike me as a step in the right direction.

-Sonya English

Note: I am happy to report, there were no questions about cheap’n’easy resources on the test.

Unsolved Mysteries: The Case of Global Warming
March 25, 2008, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Science + Tech | Tags: , , , , , ,


Riddle me this: If, in theory, global warming should affect temperatures in the ocean even more drastically than in the atmosphere, why does recent data show that the oceans have cooled in the last five years?

Be not misled, you will not find the answer to this riddle in this post, nor any Highlights magazine. Scientists are asking the same question after Josh Willis, of NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, distributed a fleet of 3,000 temperature-tracking devices into the oceans, only to record a slight decrease in temperatures over the last four or five years, according to NPR’s Morning Edition.

I bet a scientist who has studied climate change could pick out the flaw in this fairly easily (and please accept this as a personal invitation to do so), but the drop in temperatures fits right into how global warming goes in my head. If enough glaciers are melting to cause a rise in sea level, then wouldn’t there be enough freshly melted ice in the ocean to cool them a touch?

We’ve discussed the need to fight people’s (journalists and consumers of news alike) natural tendency to seek out an endpoint. Scientists are full of maybes, while we look to journalists to deliver conclusive facts. NPR’s update on the Argo system (the fleet’s functioning name) is just one more step in trying to understand our Earth.

However, I was not surprised to find an article or two that took NPR’s reporting and ran with it. I was surprised that the headline wasn’t, “See? Global warming’s not real!”
The only thing these numbers prove is that is that real “proof” is hard to come by. I like reading about the latest findings, but it’s a shame that public perception often equates new information with radical new truths.

Science is a work in progress. It’s an easy thing to know, but it’s difficult to believe.

-Sonya English

One order of waste with a side of pancakes, please

“First Watch on College, this is Sonya, what can I get for you today?”

“Alright, I have a To-Go order of a triple stack of blueberry pancakes, a three cheese omelette and an extra side of potatoes. Would we get you anything else?”

She didn’t even have to ask.

With that order will come disposable styrofoam boxes, disposable plastic silverware, a disposable paper menu, disposable single serving jellies, ketchups and syrups, and plenty of extra paper napkins. It’s all complementary. Complements of your ecosystem.

I know what you’re thinking: this is almost overwhelming.

But don’t you worry– it all comes in a convenient, giant plastic sack. Maybe even two if it’s necessary (and sometimes when it’s not!). We even give you a disposable 3 oz paper cup for your coffee while you wait.

To-Go practices is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when I think of wasteful practices at First Watch. And whether this strikes you as good news or bad news, I can tell you that the company is not evil and not unusual.

It is delicious. Our orange juice is unbeatable. We go through at least five jugs each Sunday. When we finish one off, we toss it in the trash. It joins the glass apple juice jugs, plastic milk cartons and countless other packaging materials that are tossed each and every day.

It will not join the cardboard boxes in which they are delivered.
No, of course. We recycle cardboard.


I would love to see Chris Jordan do a piece on how much waste reduction could result from a nifty, space-saving tower of recycle bins being placed in each First Watch throughout the country. In fact, every restaurant I’ve worked for could use one. Could it become as standard a business practice as the employee hand-washing sign? That guy’s everywhere.

As far as To-Go’s, I would look to “Reduce” before “Recycle” in my triple-R toolbox. I mentioned in a previous post Jason’s Deli’s new practice to include extra resources only upon request. This easily be mimicked by restaurants all over the world and the impact would be colossal.

That covers the supply-side, but until that campaign goes through, here’s what we can do from the demand-side. When ordering To-Go’s, ask the server to skip the plasticware, napkins, condiments and menus.

I don’t know if this discredits me, but in the name of full disclosure, I can’t resist the complementary coffee. I get the feeling that bringing your own mug from home would earn a judging eye or two.

-Sonya English

Why are these Kansans smiling?

This ad ran in newspapers all over Kansas the week after Rod Bremby, Secretary of the Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, denied permits to two coal-power plants on the basis of excessive carbon emissions.

This ad was funded by Kansans for Affordable Energy, a coal-industry-funded advocacy group. This ad warns that Bremby’s decision will make us all the more dependent on foreign powers for our natural gases.

This ad, Bremby pointed out last night when he spoke at the KU Dole Institute of Politics, forgets to mention that Kansas imports 96 percent of its natural gas from Canada (and absolutely none from Russia, Venezuela or Iran).

And that was just one myth that Bremby dispelled to members of the Lawrence community. He was welcomed with a standing ovation and took his time explaining why he made the decision. Perhaps surprising to some, the list did not include an affinity for standing ovations, hugging trees, or Ahmadinejad.

-A great majority of the plant’s energy would go to Oklahoma and Colorado, not Kansas
-The chances that the denied facility would simply rebuild in another location are slim
-The emission levels would reach unprecedented heights, matching the carbon footprints of 628,000 Americans
-This is not just a decision of today, but a forty- or fifty-year decision

And of course, that pesky issue of global warming. I liked that Bremby approached this point from a sensible, not polarizing, point of view. He didn’t aim to convert global warming skeptics, but instead referred back to the goal of the KDHE: to protect the health and environment of all Kansans.

As a bureaucrat, it would be irresponsible for me to ignore contributions of CO2 to climate change and health.

He went on to speak about global efforts to reduce and conserve, then outlined his hopeful view of a new, sustainable economy that must be in our near future. In my opinion, he threw out some overly optimistic and weakly supported figures, but his heart’s in the right place.

He closed with a cartoon that made my pun-loving boyfriend and I struggle to stifle our laughs as to not interrupt his closing words, but I can’t find it online! Instead of scanning in the pathetic replication I sketched in my notebook last night (what can I say, I was inspired), I’ll just describe it.

Picture in your mind’s eye: a potted flower flexing his muscles and the punchline: “Environmentalism: Kansas’ newest power plant.”

Oh Rod, with that you won my heart.

-Sonya English

All in a day’s eats

I kept a food diary for 24 hours and then thought, this is hardly representative of my habits. I haven’t eaten a single m&m, I had three breakfasts (not in place of any meal, either… I’ll get there), and I didn’t eat any snacks between meals. Then I went back 24 hours and decided that I couldn’t ‘fess up to it because it was entirely (and uncharacteristically, I swear) too greasy. I began to log my current 24-hour period and at the time, I was sipping a latte and planning to bring $18 Whole Foods little fruit-topped cheesecake to my mom for her birthday. I decided that diary sounded too snobby.

Conclusion: Upon reflection, food, like trash, is intimate. We are well-accustomed to answering only to ourselves about what is acceptable and have strong beliefs about how our habits define us (or how who we are define our habits). When I write the foods down/take a picture of my trash, I have to come face-to-face with my daily habits, sans my mental justifications.

Dear Diary (Saturday 9am – Sunday 9am)
1 bowl of my cereal mix (All-Bran, Shredded Wheat, Grape Nuts, Granola) and All-Natural Dannon Vanilla yogurt

Another bowl of the same (I was particularly hungry and planning a very active day)

1 mug of coffee w/ cream and sugar

1 PB & J that my man graciously made and brought to the library for me (aka made on his corn-syrupy wheat bread, non-organic partially hydrogenated oils-filled peanut butter and … I think it was all-natural jelly, actually. I know I’m hypocritically inconsistent w/ my organic demands, but I prefer a body-friendly PBJ since it occurs so frequently in my diet.)

1 apple that I found in my backpack from Friday

–hours and hours and hours pass with no snacks and lots of playing outside!–

1 Jason’s Deli salad-bar salad

Delicious Jason’s Deli strawberry shortcake

A second salad

More delicious strawberry shortcake

–No nighttime snacks because I was early to bed. I had breakfast before work @ 7am so it must be included in this 24hr period–

1 bowl of cereal mix and yogurt

1 mug of coffee with cream and sugar

You are what you eat? Today I was many helpings. Looking at what’s in a Happy Meal, it is clear that my m&m addiction, my job at First Watch (where foods must be researched on the sides of many cardboard boxes shipped from who-knows-where) and my residence in the USA promote a lifestyle full of ingredients I can’t pronounce much less predict what they are/where they came from/what they do in my digestive system.

One good thing I can say is that Jason’s Deli promises zero trans-fats, no MSG and an ongoing effort to reduce/eliminate high-fructose corn syrup from menu items. It also take initiative to make lots of cool eco-conscious efforts to reduce its footprint, like foam-free to-go packaging and napkins/plasticware by request only to reduce waste. Through extensive primary research, I’ve also found overwhelming evidence that it is damn delicious, too.

-Sonya English

[Please limit the articles you send me about over-eating and portion control.]