Carrots in a Ziploc
Grapes in a bag
Sandwich in saran wrap, with a "fresh daily" tag
Water bottle snuggled by an extra pair of socks
Chips to gnaw
Juice in a box
That's an average American kids lunch stuffed in a school bag, with enough plastic packaging to wallpaper the classroom. Once it comes to school lunch, we don't practice what we preach, so let's unpackage what we teach.
There is a hidden curriculum in our schools. In many schools across the U.S. lunch is served on foam polystyrene trays, plastic forks and straws come in little plastic baggies, a plastic cup for fruit cocktail or vegetables sit on that foam tray, and a plastic wrapped Burrito or pizza rounds out the meal. Some schools even serve milk in a plastic pouch, like a water balloon. Yet, open any science textbook and whole chapters spout opposite messaging about what we put in our bodies, what touches our food and how we treat the environment. It makes no sense to teach students environmental ethics and recycling when we turn around and show them in the cafeteria that consuming single-use plastic and throwing it in the garbage can is the way we actually do things. This is the hidden curriculum.
There are also hidden costs. Styrene, the monomer that becomes the long chain polymer "polystyrene," is toxic from the start, from factory worker health to environmental contamination. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services categorizes styrene as "reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen." In the environment, most of us have seen bits of Styrofoam blowing in the wind. Those fragments break down further, and in sunlight UV degradation breaks polystyrene back into the monomer form styrene. Dr. Perry Elizabeth Sheffield, MD, deputy director of Pediatrics and Preventative Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explained, "As experts in children's environmental health, we know that what we do to the environment, we ultimately do to ourselves and to our children. Products like polystyrene create pollution where they are produced, where they are discarded, and inside our bodies. They dirty our air, contaminate our water, and get into the food chain. Because polystyrene threatens human health and cannot be practically recycled, we support a polystyrene ban."
Styrene likely isn't good for our children's bodies either. There are several studies that show styrene can migrate from packaging to food. But what of the multi-year, daily exposures children have to polystyrene products in the cafeteria? Debby Lee Cohen, executive director and founder of Cafeteria Culture, explained "Yet the long term effects of hot food served daily to children, directly onto trays made of the chemical styrene—sometimes 3 times per day and over a 13-year period—has yet to be studied." Hint to future researchers, there's a PhD thesis in evaluating the K-12 styrene exposure experiment underway on millions of U.S. kids.
Debby Lee Cohen envisions zero waste schools, which complements the growing global movement to end the one-way trajectory of plastic from production to the dump, incinerator or middle of the ocean. On a global scale, groups like the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Break Free From Plastic and the 5 Gyres Institute, with their Foam Free campaign, are turning their eyes to upstream to end the single-use throwaway plastic concept, that is rapidly trashing our land and sea. What better place to shift culture than in the classroom?
One classroom took action years ago. Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, California learned about plastic pollution in our oceans in 2012 and looked no further than the hundreds of foam trays they used daily. For one week they collected every Styrofoam tray from lunch room garbage cans, rinsed and stack them up, resulting in a 30 foot tall tower. They punched a rope through the middle and hung it in the tree like a giant rectangular snake. Two years later, the former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, John Deasy, announced in front of cameras on the school grounds that the entire district was going "foam free."
Other similar efforts were happening in other states, and in 2015, the Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of school districts in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale that leverage their combined buying power, found one company that made compostable lunch trays. By giving that one vendor all of their business, they brought the price down to the point where it was economically feasible. They made the switch. By the end of the 2015 school year half a billion foam trays were kept out of landfills, incinerators and student meals across the U.S.
But, as I document in my book Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution, the industries that make plastic are not giving up quietly. Dart, one of the largest companies making foamed polystyrene products, is on the offensive, supporting policies that push recycling. In New York City the legislative bill "Intro 1480" was introduced to promote foam polystyrene recycling. While recycling is a publicly favored concept, the reality is dirty foam is costly to recover and hard to recycle, requiring substantial subsidies in communities willing to foot the bill. Most cities don't want to burden tax payers with these added costs. Bills like this are less about stopping the harm to people and the environment, and more about protecting the market for foamed polystyrene plastic products and packaging. Environmental NGO's countered this bill with "Intro 1596" an outright polystyrene ban, and are working hard to educate policy makers to take their name off of one bill and sign on to the other. This work is the hard won fight toward zero waste.
Therefore, we need to rise from those tiny, one-size-fits all, plastic chairs with the built-in desk and stand up for zero waste schools, and for the healthy mind and bodies we want for our kids. There's a new lesson plan coming to a school near you, with a roadmap for change. Model zero waste schools are popping up in Boulder, Colorado, New York City, Marin, California and Oak Park, Illinois, and dozens of other cities. Cafeteria Culture has launched "Sort2Save," a tool kit for schools to go zero waste, with a step-by-step guide to get it done. Can you hear the school bell ringing? It's time to practice what we teach.
In war, natural disaster and poverty, water is the first relief to arrive alongside the security of life and limb. It is the gift that aids the weary traveler, sits at the table before a meal arrives. The lack of it kills before the lack of food does. It is not a commodity, as in the Bolivian Water Wars that fought the privatization of public wells, but rather it is a human right. So when the United Nations sanctions against Iraq in the 1990's stressed schools and hospitals to the point of disrepair and abandonment of their wells, human rights activists stepped in.
In 1999 a group of veterans, working through Veterans for Peace, founded the Iraq Water Project, with a mission to improve the health prospects of some part of the Iraqi population dependent upon water treatment facilities in desperate need of repair. Once a site is selected, usually a school or clinic, a 3-stage filtration unit, with reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light treatment, is set up to clean incoming water from a river, well or municipal source.
New water filter installed in alAskari shrine in Samarra.
To date, 160 units are in place mostly in schools and clinics across Iraq. We've installed one filter unit in an orphanage, a refugee camp, six prisons, including Abu Ghraib, which is now closed, and the alAskari shrine in Samarra, the one that alQaida bombed back in 2006.
Our partner, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, installed five units in Najaf schools, while Life for Relief and Development, an American Islamic NGO, installed two units in schools in the Diyala Province (east-central Iraq). For reasons of security we cannot name the group we work with in Nassiriya that installed four water treatment units in the new Nassiriya Heart Center and another four in local schools. These organizations are doing the lion's share of the work, taking responsibility for the installation, security and maintenance of the water filter units, providing citizens with a basic human right—access to clean water.
What's come of this investment are positive unintended consequences that have exceed our expectations, both social justice and conservation. By contributing to the relief of someone's suffering, a wonderful sense of humility and joy emerges, especially among the U.S. veterans participating in the project, which I can attest to personally. More importantly, lives are saved, dysentery among small children and water-borne illnesses have been reduced where the water filters are installed. Unexpectedly, the water filters serve not only the schools and clinics, but they become a community hub—a meeting place. The goodwill that emerges from Iraqi organizations managing their own recovery and the relationship that forms between Iraqis and American citizens is invaluable. There is reconciliation and atonement, which are hard to find.
A school in the Therthar village near Falluja.
Interestingly, giving water contributes to solving another problem: plastic pollution. Often when relief aid is sent after a natural disaster or during civil unrest, it comes packaged in stuff that becomes garbage. Water bottles by the millions are strewn across villages in Iraq, reflective of the years of poor waste management, garbage from war and relief aid. American bases established in Iraq employed "burn pits" to incinerate garbage. The same burn and bury strategy exists in villages across the country, sending acrid smoke into communities. Iraq's waste problem contributed to public outbreaks in cholera and dysentery, and roadside bombs found ample trash piles to be concealed within.
Iraqi children scavenging for recyclables in a dump near Najaf.Haidar Hamdan / AFP
One water filter can sustain daily drinking water for 1,000 residents for up to 3 months before filters need to be changed. The same volume would exceed half a million 1 liter plastic water bottles. By providing the "means to fish, rather than the fish itself," access to water becomes seemingly endless. But in today's political climate in Iraq, there are continued challenges to keep these water filter units operational.
Therefore, what continues today is maintenance and new installations of water filter units where they are needed. We recognize that past sanctions, war and poverty, exacerbate suffering, but sharing this gift is contributing to Iraq's recovery in sometimes unpredictable ways. It all begins with water.
When you think of states that have made a heavy investment in solar energy, Virginia may not be at the top of your list. Yet in recent years, Virginians have made a massive amount of progress; in 2019, the state was ranked No. 19 in the country for solar installation, and in 2020 it jumped to No. 4.
But what are the top cities for solar in Virginia? We've done some digging and come up with a comprehensive list.
Top 10 Cities for Solar in Virginia
When narrowing down the top cities for solar in Virginia, EcoWatch took into consideration solar power generation data from the Energy Information Institute, maps on solar irradiance and potential from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, local government websites and Environment America's latest Shining Cities report.
Based on this information, the top cities for solar in Virginia are as follows:
- Virginia Beach
- Newport News
Virginia's capital city ranks first in the state and 49th in the nation for total solar PV installations. According to the Shining Cities report, there are over 22 watts of solar installed per person in Richmond.
2. Virginia Beach
Although Virginia Beach is better-known for its large offshore wind energy farm, the popular tourist destination ranks second in Virginia and 61st in the nation for total solar PV installations. There are currently over five watts installed per person, per the Shining Cities report.
Alexandria earned a SolSmart Gold designation in July 2020, which is the highest designation given by the program. The city also boasts an impressive portfolio of new and promising renewable energy programs, solar feasibility studies and more.
NREL's Solar for All maps show that Norfolk boasts one of the highest potentials for solar energy generation and roof-mount capacity. Major corporations have already adopted solar in the area — the IKEA store in Norfolk even features a 180,000-square-foot solar array.
In 2012, Roanoke participated in the U.S. Department of Energy's Better Buildings Challenge with the goal of curbing energy use by 20% across 1 million square feet of building space by 2022. In 2018, Roanoke achieved that goal with a 23% energy reduction. The city remains committed to clean energy, as evidenced by its impressive Solarize Roanoke project.
Fairfax has also been designated a SolSmart Gold city and has its own Solarize Fairfax County initiative. This project, which gives residents access to free solar assessments, bulk-purchasing discounts, discounted solar batteries and more, has concluded for the 2021 season but may well return in 2022.
In addition to a city-specific solar tax credit and a Solarize Charlottesville program, the city has started putting solar panels on government buildings. Among the solarized buildings are Charlottesville High School, the City Facilities Maintenance Building and the ecoREMOD Energy House.
8. Newport News
This coastal city receives a lot of sunshine… some 215 days a year, in fact. It's no surprise, then, that NREL maps show a high capacity for rooftop solar and an above-average number of buildings suitable for solar.
According to NREL data, Danville has a high potential for rooftop solar capacity and generation, and the city is doing its part to help residents make the switch to clean energy. It has developed its own net metering program for residential solar installations up to 10 kW, as well as invested in two solar farms that are producing about 10 MW of energy to be used by Danville Utilities customers.
In March of 2014, Blacksburg became the first community in Virginia to launch a Solarize campaign, and NREL maps show it has a high potential for solar generation. This SolSmart Silver city offers many solar-focused resources for residents, including a solar panel installation checklist, information for those interested in solar jobs and guidance on solar access within the state.
Where Solar Panels Work Best
While there are many solar-smart cities in Virginia, some are better suited than others for PV installation. The best cities for solar include those that have:
- Decent sun exposure: Cities that get consistent year-round sunlight tend to be good places to invest in solar, hence the coastal communities we've included on our list.
- High local utility costs: Solar power tends to be more valuable in cities that have high electrical costs. More on that in a moment.
- Local rebates and incentives: Some cities make solar investment more attractive by implementing local net metering programs, tax rebates or other financial incentives.
Average Virginia Electricity Costs
As mentioned, residents in places with higher electricity costs stand to benefit more from installing solar panels. In Virginia, the average monthly electrical consumption is 1,122 kWh, which is roughly on par with nearby states such as South Carolina and West Virginia, though a bit higher than in Maryland or Washington, D.C. The average monthly electric bill is $135.46, which is on the high side compared to most neighboring states.
Virginia Solar Tax Incentives
Homeowners in Virginia can take advantage of a few solar tax exemptions and incentives to help offset the cost of solar panels. For example, there is a property tax exemption, which means that although solar panels will increase the value of a home, they will not increase your property taxes. Virginia also has a state-wide net metering program, which means that any surplus energy generated by solar panels can be fed back into the electric grid in exchange for credits from your utility company.
Federal Solar Tax Credits
Homeowners in Virginia (and anywhere else in the country) can also claim a residential federal tax credit worth 26% of their total solar installation cost. This can offset the initial investment expenditure considerably, but keep in mind that this credit may be phased out by 2023 unless Congress acts swiftly to renew it.
Virginia Solar Regulations
There are a few laws that impact solar adoption in Virginia. Some notable examples include:
- The Solar Rights law protects the rights of homeowners to install solar panels, without being obstructed by their homeowners association or other community association. HOAs do have some leeway to regulate the aesthetics of solar installations, however.
- Virginia's Zero Carbon Bill will create more than 30,000 solar jobs by the year 2030.
- The Virginia Clean Economy Act is set to create a number of new incentives for homeowners to go solar. It also creates robust clean energy standards for utility companies and fines providers unable to meet those standards.
Final Thoughts: Top Cities for Solar in Virginia
Solar energy presents a valuable opportunity for homeowners to lower electric bills, reduce their impact on the environment and become less dependent on traditional utilities. However, in Virginia, some cities are more solar-forward than others. If you didn't see your city on this list (and even if you did), there are plenty of ways individuals can push for more solar power in their areas. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Install solar panels on your home
- Educate your neighbors about the benefits of solar energy
- Reach out to your elected officials and urge them to set strict renewable energy goals