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Flooding in Carlisle, England. Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

With flood risks and damage from extreme events increasing across Europe, homeowners in areas of greatest risk are still not taking enough measures to protect themselves.

Researchers reported in the journal Risk Analysis their efforts to discover how to motivate people to keep themselves safe and protect their property from flood damage.

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Yale Environment 360

By Dave Levitan

As municipal food composting programs spread across North America and Europe, no city faces a more daunting task than New York. Its Department of Sanitation collects more than 10,000 tons of trash every day, and another 1,700 tons of recyclable materials. A large portion of that waste, though, may soon have a future other than the landfill: Food scraps and other “organics” have long been just a part of New York’s trash pile, but a pilot program in the city is aimed at rolling out collection of that material and composting it, a far more environmentally friendly method.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“It’s the next new thing in terms of municipal waste handling in the 21st century,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York. “Right now ... there are over 150 communities throughout the United States that are collecting organics at curbside. It’s a national trend. It’s revolutionary.”

Many of those programs are still voluntary, and the bulk are in small cities and towns. But larger cities in North America—including San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, Toronto and Portland, OR—are moving rapidly ahead. And municipal composting efforts in many European countries are far advanced and steadily growing. In 2011, the 27 states in the European Union composted on average 15 percent of municipal waste, with Austria composting 34 percent, the Netherlands 28 percent, and countries like France, Spain, and Germany each composting about 18 percent.

In New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address this past February, he called food waste the city’s “final recycling frontier,” which holds true for the rest of the U.S., as well. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country as a whole produced 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2011, and compostable materials—which include yard trimmings, paper and paperboard, as well as food waste—comprised the largest component of that at 56 percent.

The environmental benefits of recycling that material are significant. As it decomposes in landfills, food and other organic waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S., behind industry and agriculture. Shipping waste long distances from cities to landfills produces even more greenhouse gas emissions. Composting, meanwhile, takes that waste and turns it into something usable: fertilizer. If cities like New York want to cut emissions, cut waste and even cut costs, composting is a proven way to go about it.

The good news is that of the 87 million tons of “recovered” waste in the U.S. in 2011—meaning waste that did not end up in a landfill—organic material accounted for the largest component. But most of that material was paper; food waste accounted for only 1.6 percent of the recovered total versus 14.5 percent of the generated total, the EPA says. The U.S. does a reasonably good job of keeping paper out of landfills thanks to recycling programs, but food almost universally still goes where it shouldn’t.

New York is trying to change that with its new program. So far, compost collection is being offered in one neighborhood of Staten Island, and city officials say that after only a few months participation rates are above 40 percent. Contamination rates—meaning, the presence of non-compostable material in the compost bin—are at 1 percent or below. In Manhattan, about 100 city schools are also participating, with a goal of spreading to 400 schools by the end of the year. Two high-rise apartment buildings are included as well, with more to follow this fall.

“We spend over $85 million a year sending food waste to landfills, so there’s a major cost,” said Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, who heads up the composting program. He said so far the program is collecting at a pace on the order of “tens of thousands” of tons per year. “It’s growing every day,” said Gonen. “We’re going to continue to expand, in all five boroughs.” By 2014 the program will cover around 100,000 households.

Goldstein says that if New York demonstrates the economic and logistical viability of its program it could be a “bellwether” in the push to expand composting nationwide. But a few cities—in general, the green, progressive ones you might expect—have already taken the lead over the last decade. San Francisco—the second-densest large city in the U.S. after New York—is considered the frontrunner, thanks to legislation in 2002 that set a goal of diverting 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010 and achieving “zero waste” by 2020.

San Francisco’s composting program began with restaurants and other businesses, and in 2009 an ordinance made it mandatory for all residents to separate organic material for collection. Instead of two bins to set out on the curb for trash and recyclables, there are now three. The green compost bins can include all food scraps, no matter how spoiled, along with vegetation from yards like leaves and flowers, and solid paper products including coffee cups, waxy paper, milk cartons and related items. The city collected its millionth ton of organic waste for composting last fall. Overall, 78 percent of San Francisco’s waste is now diverted from landfills.

Seattle has a similar program, as does Portland; the latter went a step further and scaled back residential garbage pickup to only once every two weeks when the weekly compost pickup began.

Despite some early resistance and confusion—much of it related to every-other-week garbage collection—a survey in Portland found that 66 percent of residents rated the city’s recycling and composting program as “good” or “very good” after one year, with another 20 percent neutral on the issue. Along with the positive reception, there has been clear progress. In the 12-month period prior to the October 2011 start of the composting program, 94,100 tons of garbage were collected. In the following 12 months, that figure fell to 58,300 tons. Meanwhile, collections of compostable material rose from 30,600 tons to 85,400 tons, a figure that includes yard waste.

There were questions early on about vermin, but moving the scraps from the garbage can to the compost bin doesn’t change much, said Bruce Walker, Portland’s solid waste and recycling program manager. The organic material in Portland travels to one of two facilities that are 15 and 90 miles from downtown. Walker said regular garbage gets trucked much farther, about 140 miles from the city, so the environmental savings are compounded. The composting facilities produce fertilizers that are sold to farms, tree nurseries and to the general public.

In Europe, the European Landfill Directive requires European Union member states to reduce “biodegradable municipal waste” sent to landfills to 35 percent of 1995 amounts by 2016. In the EU, 40 percent of waste is now composted or recycled, with 23 percent incinerated and 37 percent landfilled. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Germany now send less than 3 percent of their waste to landfills. Copenhagen, one of the greenest cities in the world, stopped sending organic waste to landfills as far back as 1990.

Other European countries lag far behind, with Greece and eastern European nations such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania doing almost no composting. Still, some of the swiftest progress has come from some former eastern bloc countries like Estonia. The capital city of Talinn has been collecting biodegradable kitchen waste separately since 2007, part of the reason why landfill rates in Estonia have dropped from close to 100 percent 15 years ago to below 60 percent today. Europe is also much farther along than the U.S. in using anaerobic digestion, a process that takes organic waste and turns it into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.

In New York, the question of where to bring collected organic material is unresolved. The city has a request for proposals to build a new composting plant in or close to the city, but until then there aren’t nearby facilities that can handle large amounts. Goldstein, of the NRDC, said that one possibility is to site facilities outside the city or partner with farms in the Catskills—sending the material 75 miles or so is still a huge improvement on the current system, which involves exporting to landfills sometimes many states and hundreds of miles away.

“The city has been really slow in terms of going through this process,” said Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which has worked on composting in New York for two decades. “If we wanted a facility here in New York City we should have started that process a long time ago. For building a facility we’re talking years. I see that as the biggest stumbling block because right now we have very limited capacity.”

Should New York and numerous other U.S. cities and towns establish vibrant composting programs, the environmental benefits will be enormous, advocates say. “Ultimately, there’s going to be very little left in the traditional garbage can,” said Goldstein.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Ronnie Cummins

“The harder they come the harder they fall, one and all.” - Jimmy Cliff, reggae classic.

After enjoying a year of maximum profits, record stock prices, the defeat of a major GMO [genetically modified organisms] labeling campaign in California, pro-industry court decisions and a formidable display of political power in Washington, D.C.—including slipping the controversial Monsanto Protection Act into the Federal Appropriations bill in March—the "Biotech Bully" from St. Louis now finds itself on the defensive.

It is no exaggeration to say that Monsanto has now become the most hated corporation in the world.

Plagued by a growing army of Roundup-resistant superweeds and Bt-resistant superpests spreading across the country, a full 49 percent of American farmers are now frantically trying to kill these superweeds and pests with ever-larger quantities of toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides including glyphosate (Roundup), glufosinate, 2,4-D (Agent Orange), dicamba and neonicotinoids (insecticides linked to massive deaths of honey bees).

Reacting to this dangerous escalation of chemical farming, toxic residues on foods and environmental pollution, over a million consumers and organic farmers have pressed the Obama administration to reject a new generation of GE “Agent Orange” and dicamba-resistant crops, forcing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to postpone commercialization of these crops, at least temporarily.

According to the Trade Press, thousands of U.S. farmers, as well as farmers worldwide, are moving away from biotech crops and searching for non-GMO alternatives. At the same time, U.S. and global market demand for non-GMO organic foods and crops is steadily increasing.

Compounding Monsanto’s superweed and superpest problems, scientific evidence continues to mount that GMO feed and foods, laced with Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] toxins and contaminated with ever-increasing residues of Monsanto’s deadly weedkiller, Roundup, are severely damaging animal and human health.

As the June 24, 2013, issue of Green Medical News puts it:

“... within the scientific community and educated public alike, there is a growing awareness that Roundup herbicide, and its primary ingredient glyphosate, is actually a broad spectrum biocide, in the etymological sense of the word: "bio" (life) and "cide" (kill)—that is, it broadly, without discrimination kills living things, not just plants. Moreover, it does not rapidly biodegrade as widely claimed, and exceedingly small amounts of this chemical—in concentration ranges found in recently sampled rain, air, groundwater and human urine samples—have DNA-damaging and cancer cell proliferation stimulating effects.”

On May 25, two million people from 436 cities, in 52 countries, on six continents took to the streets in a global “March Against Monsanto.” From New York to New Delhi, protestors reaffirmed their determination not only to force the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, as has already been accomplished in the European Union, India and at least 36 other nations, but also to drive all GMOs off the market. That includes GMOs in human food, animal feed, cotton, nutritional supplements, body care products and GMO cotton and biofuels.

The same week as the global March Against Monsanto, The New York Times reported that U.S. food companies, “large and small” are starting to make arrangements to reformulate the ingredients in their processed foods and reorganize their supply lines so to avoid having to admit that their brand name products contain GMOs. Monsanto and its "Junk Food" allies recognize that if the Washington State ballot initiative on mandatory GMO labeling passes on November 5, which now appears likely, their ability to keep food consumers in the dark will be over.

Large processed food and beverage companies, such as Kellogg’s, General Mills, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Unilever, Dean Foods, Wal-Mart and others understand that once labeling is required in one strategic state, such as Washington, they will be forced to label in all 50 states.

The anti-GMO movement in the U.S. has identified Monsanto’s "Achilles Heel"—GMO food labeling at the state level—and has begun to achieve some preliminary victories, both in the marketplace and in the legislative arena. For example, Whole Foods Market and dozens of natural food stores and co-ops, along with restaurants like Chipotle, are, or are planning to, voluntarily label GMOs. And Connecticut and Maine have passed GMO labeling laws.

Our common task now must be to win the all-important Washington State ballot initiative. This will require a tremendous fundraising effort and netroots-grassroots "get out the vote" effort. If you have not already made a donation to this effort, please do so now. If you would like to volunteer, sign up here.

Monsanto’s Minions React

The food industry knows it will be difficult to stop voters in Washington State from bypassing the politicians and the federal government and directly voting into law a mandatory GMO food labeling initiative on November 5. So, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is circling the wagons. Claiming that pro-labeling consumers have created “an unprecedented period of turmoil” for the food industry, the GMA convened a meeting, on July 10, in Washington DC, of large food manufactures and supermarkets. Their agenda? Figure out how to co-opt and neutralize the growing anti-GMO movement.

One of the strategies apparently being put forth by members of the GMA is to ask the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to step in and formulate watered-down federal rules on GMO food labeling. The GMA would like weak labeling laws, similar to those in Japan and other nations, that would contain loopholes, high tolerances and weak enforcement, coupled with a lengthy implementation period, so as to preempt strict state labeling requirements and deflate the growing GMO-Right to Know movement.

On the international level, Monsanto and Big Food, joined by other large corporations concerned about the growing grassroots power of consumer, environmental and Fair Trade networks, are lobbying for fast track passage of new secretly negotiated Free Trade Agreements, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), popularly known as “TAFTA,” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both TAFTA and TPP are basically supercharged versions of the highly unpopular NAFTA and WTO trade agreements.

These “forced trade” agreements would, among other things, lower standards on food safety and environmental protection, including taking away the rights of nations and states to require strict GMO food labeling and safety-testing. Provisions in these trade agreements would allow corporations to sue a nation if pro-consumer or environmental laws interfered with their trade and “expected profits.” Judgments and penalties would be determined by secret trade tribunals, with corporate lawyers serving as judges. Under the TAFTA/TPP regime, the U.S. and other countries would be required to hand over national sovereignty to foreign investors and multinational corporations.

So even as we mobilize for strategic GMO right-to-know victories in Washington, Vermont and other states, we must simultaneously mobilize the public to fight against federal preemption on GMO labeling, and stop the next generation of these secret "forced trade" agreements.

GMO Food Labeling: Just the First Step

Passing I-522, Washington State’s GMO labeling initiative, is a necessary first step toward honest labeling of GMO ingredients in the U.S. But Monsanto has survived mandatory food labeling in the EU and scores of other nations. The biotech giant will likely survive strict labeling requirements by U.S. states, too. What Monsanto can’t survive is mass awareness and rejection of all GMOs, especially GMO cotton and GMO animal feed on factory farms. A successful global boycott of factory-farmed meat and animal products and GMO-tainted cotton, combined with GMO food labeling, will literally drive genetic engineering out of the marketplace.

Eighty percent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain GMOs. Yet if we examine the entire global production and consumption cycle of GMOs, we learn that only 20 percent of GMOs grown worldwide go into human food. The other 80 percent end up in animal feed, cotton production, biofuels, body care products and nutritional supplements.

Even in Europe, where GE foods are rarely sold in grocery stores or restaurants, several billion dollars worth of GE animal feed from North America, Brazil and Argentina are imported every year. Although EU consumers have forced voluntary labeling of GMO-fed non-organic meat and animal products in Germany, France and Austria, and in large chains throughout Europe, there is no mandatory GMO animal feed labeling law in the EU. India is the only major country up until now that requires labels on GMO animal feed. No country yet requires labels on GMO cotton clothing, nutritional supplements, body care products or biofuels.

Almost half of Monsanto’s profits now derive from its sales outside the U.S., especially GMO crops for animal feed.  So if we’re serious about turning back the biotech threat, and building up an alternative food and farming system that is organic, local, climate-friendly and humane, we need to strengthen our international solidarity and cooperation as well as our domestic efforts. Once we take into account the full scope of agricultural biotechnology and its myriad products, we can position ourselves for the next stage of the battle: a comprehensive and global anti-GMO offensive, strategically targeting the entire GMO food, fiber, fuel, supplements and body care industry where they are most vulnerable. This Great GMO Boycott and GMO Right to Know mobilization will require a broader coalition, both domestically and internationally, and an unprecedented mass education effort around the role of GMOs and factory farms in exacerbating our health, environmental, animal welfare and climate crisis.

All Out for Washington State Nov. 5

But first things first. The consumer, farmer and fishing community insurgency that frightens Monsanto and its allies the most is the upcoming ballot initiative (I-522) in Washington State on Nov. 5. As Monsanto and its allies, such as the GMA, understand, this is the most crucial battle against GMOs today. If voters pass mandatory labeling in Washington, reinforced by contingent state labeling laws already passed or in progress in Connecticut, Maine and Vermont, it will mean the end of the road for genetically engineered food in U.S. grocery stores.

As the biotech lobby has readily admitted, GMO food labeling is a “skull and crossbones” that will drive genetically engineered foods off the market in the U.S. and North America. As evidenced by marketplace trends in Europe, the largest agricultural market in the world, once GMOs are labeled, consumers will not buy them, food companies and grocery stores will not sell them and farmers will not grow them. This is why Monsanto and Big Food corporations—hiding behind the façade of their trade association, the GMA—will likely pour up to $20 million into defeating I-522. Pro-labeling forces currently have a commanding lead in the polls in Washington. But we need to raise at least $4 million more (to augment the $4 million we’ve raised already) to buy enough TV and radio time to counter the forthcoming flood of lies that Monsanto and its minions will launch in Washington State. We already know what those lies will look like: Labeling will raise food prices, hurt family farmers and confuse consumers.

The "Road to Victory" means building up our war chest in Washington State for the Nov. 5 ballot initiative. Please spread the word. This is the most important food and farming battle in the world today. If you haven’t already made a donation to the Yes on I-522 campaign, please do so now.

Visit EcoWatch’s GE FOODS pages for more related news on this topic.

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