J500 Media and the Environment

Costa Rica: a small country with a big environmental impact by bpirotte

To fight the harsh Kansas winter, my family decided to pack up and leave for sunny, warm Costa Rica. Known around the world as an eco-paradise, this tiny, Central American country has a lot to protect.

Papaya and cocktail shrimp--a meal of local flavor.

Fresh food, especially fruit, is an important part of Costa Rican’s “Pura” lifestyle. At the hotel, shrimp cocktail fills a papaya bowl. The shrimp was caught off Costa Rica’s coast, and the papaya was also grown nearby. Talk about eating local! As a plus for living in this tropical environment, locals pay significantly less for their products. A pound of bananas at a local market only cost 19 colones  (that’s only 3 cents!), compared to the cost in the US of an average around 30-40 cents.  However,  is that the true cost of a banana? Unsustainable practices in Costa Rica’s banana industry include heavy use of pesticides, deforestation, and improper treatment of many banana harvesters.

Tourism is booming in Costa Rica, which claims to be one of the most eco-friendly tourist destinations in the world. However, places like Costa Rica’s North Pacific coast, in the state of Guanacaste, are sometimes trading tourist dollars for safe environmental practices, as resorts and the winter homes of rich migratory North American retirees flood the landscape.

Hotels and resorts in the Guanacaste region could threaten Costa Rica's eco-attitude.

Biodiversity is an incredibly important part of Costa Rica.

A howler monkey hides in a tree in Costa Rica’s rainforest.

Tree root forms interesting shapes in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Comparable to the size of West Virginia, this small tropical country contains five percent of all of earth’s species. However, pressures from population growth and development from tourism are a constant threat to Costa Rica’s abundant wildlife.

An aloe plant blooms in the rainforest.

While there, I learned this tiny country is a big player in environmental sustainability, despite its miniscule size. However, no country is perfect, and Costa Rica is no exception. With the tourism industry booming, and a global desire for a tasty banana, this Central American country has to deal with some difficult choices.

Hopefully the sun isn't setting on Costa Rica's eco-friendly practices.

Photos and text by Ben Pirotte

The Travel Challenge by bpirotte

The cold is driving me nuts.

I’m tired all the time, I don’t ever want to leave the comforts of my warm bed, and class is about the last thing I want to do. But what do you do when you live in Kansas, where the weather sometimes doesn’t even make it above freezing during the winter?

Well, the solution my friend and I came up with is to visit a mutual friend in California,

The warmth of Southern California sounds like heaven in Kansas winter -photo by Ben Pirotte

where the sun is shining and the lows there are still higher than our highs here.

However, the only real way to get to California in a reasonable amount of time (and going for just a few days, trying to miss the least amount of class possible), is to fly. While the ticket price seemed reasonable for going 1,500 miles just to soak up some sun, the question then becomes, is that what it really costs to our environment?

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s online calculator, my friend and I will be dispelling quite a bit of CO2 into the atmosphere. 970.34 kg, or just over a ton, to be exact.

The carbon cost for travel is daunting. But do we have alternatives? Source: http://www.icao.int/

As an avid traveler, my love for exploration will not die anytime soon, but I would also like to lessen my carbon footprint. How will we, as travelers in our society, be able to do this?

A few new ideas have sprung up recently about more efficient airplanes like Boeing’s 787, or a recent flight test conducted by Virgin Atlantic airlines partially powered by palm oil.

While these seem like partial solutions to the problem we face, I think a possibly more efficient and more practical solution is something I learned about on my travels: public transportation.

While the United States at one point was the world leader in train travel with more tracks and more distance covered than any other country in the world, we have fallen short on train travel as an option for passengers. While the freight rail service seems to be thriving, passenger rail in the United States is basically non-existent. Europe, on the other hand, has a thriving passenger rail system, with many rail lines connecting cities throughout the continent, and with new developments in things such as high-speed rail, places like Spain and France have been able to cut the amount of passengers in need of flying down significantly. According to a New York Times article, there is a new link between two of Spain’s major cities, Madrid and Barcelona. In its first year of operation, it was able to snag almost half the passengers that normally fly between the cities!

Not only is taking public transportation economical, but it is also very easy to run on alternative energy, as high speed trains engines are often electric. That electricity can be created easily from wind or solar plants, making the carbon footprint from travel almost at zero.

However, there are many differing opinions held by Americans, and many of them stem from the idea that rail seems impossible in such a large country as ours is. But when I think of rail usage, I don’t expect to take a train to LA, for example. I would love to be able to take a train to Chicago, or to Wichita for the weekend, or even somewhere like Denver. A hub-and-spoke type system would be advantageous here, I think.

With Obama’s new high-speed rail plan, the possibility of passenger rail travel in the United States seems closer than ever, but will Americans be receptive to it? Would you be willing to take a train to get to your next destination?

–Ben P.


I recently returned from the Engineers Without Borders conference on “Sustainable Engineering and Global Health” in Seattle. The flight on Southwest was disappointing to say the least, from an environmental perspective, but the conference was a green dream come true, thanks to a “sustainability coordinator” in charge of making the conference itself as sustainable and carbon neutral as possible.

The first thing that I noticed was the in-room recycle bin at the hotel, shortly followed by the Project Planet door-hanging in the bathroom encouraging me to conserve water and use my towels more than once.

The next morning I discovered it was a mere 10-minute stroll from the hotel to the conference venue on the University of Washington campus. Cool, I thought, no need to waste money on a taxi.

Once at the conference hall, I lost myself in the fairyland of recycle and compost bins, zero paper handouts, and fully compostable beverage cups and napkins. It only got better as I picked up my t-shirt made from 100% fair-trade organic cotton and water-based ink. Lunch came and I found myself relishing the local, organic fare pre-boxed in compostable packaging. I had never been to a conference planned quite like this before – it was exciting!

To top it all off, EWB gave each of us a “Carbon Offset Care Package” complete with two hybrid Poplar tree cuttings to plant when we got home. After all, flying the 3,105 miles from Kansas City to Seattle I had emitted approximately 1,400 lbs. of CO2. I planted them as soon as I got home, because it was going to take the two of them together almost 20 years to offset my emissions from this single trip.

(My cute little Poplar trees are already growing after 1 week!)

The whole experience made me feel good. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m one of only a handful of people recycling or bringing my own cup to the coffee place, but at the conference, there were hundreds of us walking, recycling, composting, and maybe even planting all those trees. I felt like I was a part of something bigger than me and that that something was making a real difference in just one weekend. It was a real green dream come true!

Curious about how you might create a green dream for attendees at your next conference or meeting? See my next post: Wow your stakeholders (AND please eco-critics) with your next business conference.

~ Sarah H

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