Today is World Penguin Day! I’m celebrating by showing this video of Adelie penguins to my classes. You should watch the video before you continue reading.
Now imagine living in a world in which that cuteness was unable to go on. There are only two full-time resident penguin species in Antarctica, the Adelie and the Emperor (of the famed March of the Penguins). Both are threatened by the changing climate.
Since Adelie penguins are my favorites, I’m going to focus on them.
Here’s some alarming data. Between 1975 and 2002 the number of breeding pairs of Adelie penguins decreased by 73% (Smith et al. 2003). During this period, krill density fluctuated up and down but with a general trend towards a decrease. In fact, krill density in the Southern Ocean in 2003 was only 10% of the average density recorded between 1982 and 2003 (Atkinson et al. 2004). The krill decline was in turn correlated with loss of sea ice around Antarctica. In 2001 there sea ice extent around Antarctica was just over 28% less than the average extent between 1980 and 2001 (Palmer LTER archive data). Krill eat algae and algae can only grow on the underside of sea ice during the winter. Adelie penguins eat krill and fish that eat krill. Less results in fewer penguin chicks. Food is not the only problem for Adelie penguins. Warmer water around Antarctica leads to more snow in the winter. This snow melts during the nesting season, inundating chicks with water leading to high death rates due to hypothermia, as they are sitting in frigid water in their nests (Fraser and Patterson 1997).
You may be asking yourself, why does it matter if we lose Antarctic penguins? Well, obviously we’d lose a lot of cuteness from the world. But on a more serious note, a loss of penguins would be a harbinger of much bigger disaster. If penguins disappear, that most likely means that their food has disappeared. Krill, a penguin dietary mainstay, is THE food source for the Antarctic. If organisms don’t eat krill, they eat something else that eats krill. Whales, fishes, seabirds, and seals all ultimately rely on a stable krill population. Krill are also sought after by commercial fisheries for the omega-3 fatty acid industry. So if penguins are gone, krill is probably gone along with many other species.
So...help a penguin out! You can make at least one change in your life to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, here are some easy changes (see also my list in my “Footprints” entry, 3/21):
use less electricity: unplug chargers and appliances you are not using, open up shades
and curtains and just use sunlight (lights are off in my classroom today!),
run dishwasher & laundry when full only
eat fewer animals: it’s easy to plan plant-based meals, try to cut out animal products two
days a week
drive less: plan your errands for the week so that you can get the most done with the least driving
Today I’ve been brainstorming other ways (besides what I listed in my 3/21 “Footprints” entry) that I can reduce my emissions. One thing that I think I can reliably enter into my repertoire is buying grains in bulk. Earlier this month I wrote a lot about reducing my trash output (see 4/3 entry “Composting”). What I’ve noticed lately is that my remaining trash is mostly packaging. As a reminder, it’s important to reduce the amount of material going to landfills because landfills are a big source of methane. Also, plastics are made of oil and take a lot of energy (typically fossil fuels) to make. All grains seem to come in plastic packaging that is not recyclable. Buying grains in bulk will help cut back our trash output even more. I can bring my own bags to put the bulk grains in, and reuse them every time. One more small step in the journey to living as sustainably as I can.
It’s that time of year again. The morning weather report includes a pollen forecast (today we’ll have moderate pollen levels from poplars, junipers, and alders in the Boston area) and I have started a daily regimen of antihistamines with breakfast.
I’m thinking of buying stock in over-the-counter allergy medications as the growing season is ever increasing and pollen counts have been rising, increasing by 32% from 1900 to 2000. By 2060 we are predicted to see 62% higher pollen concentrations than we had in 2000 (https://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/more-co2-more-pollen, see graph below)!
I believe that a lot of the inertia we see in the public for taking personal actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is due to the fact that most people view climate change as something that will affect the future or affect far away places. They don’t understand that climate change is happening now and it’s changing the course of nature everywhere. And nature affects all of us which is very evident during growing season months when a majority of the public has itchy eyes and runny noses. I go through many more tissue boxes in the spring in my classroom than I do through the winter.
The media focuses (rightly) on the “big” stuff around climate change (hurricane intensity, drought, fires, sea level rise) but misses on the less obvious stuff like increasing pollen counts. The message needs to get out there that everyday life is affected by climate change. Then I think people will start to shift from apathy to action.
A couple of days ago one of my students walked into class proudly brandishing his new metal water bottle. Last week we had focused on waste production, harping a bit on single use plastics. Until this week that student had been bringing a single use plastic water bottle to school every day, maybe even more than one. I told him that is a great step, that every little bit counts. And it really does.
On average, the production of a single use plastic water bottle emits 2.19 pounds of carbon dioxide (extrapolated using Gleick and Cooley 2009 and www.carbonfund.org). Imagine that my student has used one single-use bottle every day he has been in high school so far. That’s roughly 674 school days. His choice of using a single use plastic water bottle for all of those days would have resulted in 1,476 pounds of carbon dioxide to have been released into the atmosphere. And that would be for school days only, and during his high school years only. Imagine the lifetime numbers!
Now think about this: roughly 1,000,000 single use plastic bottles are purchased every minute all over the world (The Guardian). That’s 2,190,000 pounds of carbon dioxide just for the bottles purchased in one minute. Humans have developed a terrible addiction to plastic and the climate implications are staggering.
Pile on top of that the fact that most plastics are not recycled. They end up in landfills and the ocean. I could write for DAYS on the effects of plastic on marine ecosystems and human health, so stay tuned for that.
Having your own reusable (preferably ceramic or metal, I like stainless steel) does make a difference and it’s so easy! If you don’t care about environment (which I’m sure is not true if you are taking the time to read this blog) at least think about your health. Harmful compounds leach from plastic into the liquids or foods that they are holding. Even if a bottle says BPA-free, it’s still full of bad stuff. More to come on that later, too.
I’ve been talking about waste, recycling, and composting with my students this week. Every year when I cover this topic I am shocked at the numbers, this year is no different. According to the EPA we collectively generate over 260 million tons of waste every year in the United States. Food waste is 16% of that total and only 0.8% is composted.
Mini-science lesson: When food waste is composted properly it is turned over frequently to provide aeration to bacteria which need oxygen to use the food waste as their own food source. This process creates carbon dioxide (just like we do when we “burn” our food) and fertile soil. When food waste is sent to a landfill it decomposes in a very low oxygen environment (there’s no turning over of a garbage dump). The bacteria that function in a low oxygen environment produce methane instead of carbon dioxide. On a short time scale (20 years), methane traps approximately 85 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (EPA) and on a longer time scale (100 years) methane traps approximately 32 times more heat than carbon dioxide (EPA).
I moved into my house in the summer of 2017. For the previous decade I had just been throwing my food waste into the wooded area behind my condo building, usually early morning before my neighbors were up and able to complain about it (we had lots of wildlife that we were encourage not to feed, so I had to be covert). Without food waste and with recycling lots of things, we ended up throwing one small bag of garbage out every month instead of a bag every week. It was great. When we moved to the house, I wanted to start composting but was a bit intimidated by the work to actually do it right (building a compost bin, turning it over frequently, getting the right balance of materials, etc) and I was already overwhelmed by the move itself, all the things that needed doing around the house, and yard upkeep. I definitely did not want to just throw food waste in a corner of my yard and I’m not a gardener, so compost is not something that I need in my life. Imagine how excited I was to find out that we had inherited participation in a curbside composting pick-up trial our town was running. I was thrilled to start “legit” composting with the town.
This fall the trial ended but service continued seamlessly with a private company. Now we have to pay to compost (but it works out to less than $2 per week) but they take more stuff, like pizza boxes, tissues, hair/pet fur, etc that you can’t recycle and would normally go in the trash. So now, between composting and recycling, we generate a small “kitchen” bag of waste every 3-ish months.
OK. Refer to the mini-science lesson above. Landfills create lots of methane, which traps way more heat than carbon dioxide. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of stuff you send to a landfill will help to reduce methane emissions. Composting is a huge part of that because it makes up a significant percent of waste in landfills. Project Drawdown has identified food waste reduction as one of the top 5 things to work on (along with plant-based diets!) to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This puts reducing food waste ahead of solar and other renewable energy sources as solutions.
Check out if your town/city has curbside composting or a town drop-off site. If you live in the Boston Metro area, check to see if Black Earth Compost picks up in your town, if it doesn’t, approach your town sustainability coordinator or waste management division and encourage them to check it out. Composting actually saves towns money. Sending things to a landfill is much more expensive than composting, which can actually make money because people will pay for compost for their gardens. Like I’ve said before, motivation is often linked to money, which I’m ok with if it encourages people to do the right thing for the environment.
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist