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We look at green issues that are affecting our local lifestyle

Suggestions For Eco Friendly Home Improvements

May 14th, 2015

You may think that looking after the environment is some sort of new fad, however it’s just really using your common sense. If you’re looking at different ways of improving your home to make it more appealing and comfortable it makes sense to try and save energy by reducing your energy consumption. The price of energy is ever increasing, so all of us have a reason to try and become green, so in this article we’ll be sharing some tips to help you with this.

Whilst considering what improvements you might make to your home, please take a few minutes to consider some important safety factors. Make sure that your home has a sensible number of WORKING smoke alarms fitted. If you are doing construction work within your home then why not take the opportunity to fit properly constructed fire doors on landings, kitchens etc.

Fire Doors

Modern fire doors, such as those pictured, are available in a wide variety of styles suitable for any home

Modern fire doors have many great designs including glazed and semi-glazed models but much more importantly they all give at least 30 minutes protection from fire and smoke, giving anybody inside the house sufficient time to escape to safety.

Even before it became trendy to be environmentally aware, most people knew that insulation was the key to keeping your home warm and energy efficient. That hasn’t changed, although now the rising cost of oil and electricity has made it even more urgent for us to pay attention to this. If your walls and ceiling aren’t well insulated, you can actually lose about half of your heat. Before you have installed insulation, make sure you know about the R value, which is the measurement of installation. You also have to pay attention to places where heat can escape and the cold can enter, such as gaps under doors. To prevent drafts, seal openings with draft excluders which can be made from almost any type of warm substance, old clothes can even be used! Although windows could be used for decoration and to give light in your house, they are also great for keeping the heat inside and for insulation. Actually, the kind of window you own can play a large part regarding the bills you have for heating your home. It is possible to make your home much more energy efficient by obtaining double or triple paned windows. You can also coat your windows with Low-E (low emissivity) coatings that can reduce heat loss by up to 50%. Consequently, while putting new energy efficient windows can be a high initial expense, it will help you to save money when all is said and done. And you will find the winters more tolerable.

Due to the increase in price of conventional power, lots of folks are researching alternative power sources, like solar heating and wind power. Making your home more energy efficient is a lot easier when using these natural and renewable energy sources. You can have a professional install solar panels or you can buy a kit and do it yourself. You can also use wind turbines to provide your home with power. If you’re serious about making your home greener and more energy efficient, you should seriously consider alternatives such as solar and wind power.

There are a vast number of methods for making your home more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. When you get into this mindset you will discover that thinking up of creative ways of being green is very easy. Not only are a majority of these methods good for helping the environment, they can also help you by saving money.

U.S. Approves First Genetically Engineered Apples

February 21st, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC, February 13, 2015 (ENS) – The first genetically engineered apples were today approved for planting and sale in the United States by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The two approved apple varieties are genetically engineered to resist browning. They were developed by the Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. and will be marketed as the Arctic® Granny and Arctic® Golden.

apple label

Arctic apples will be labeled, but the labels with not state that they are genetically engineered. (Photo courtesy OSF)

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, said it is taking this action based on a final plant pest risk assessment that finds

the genetically engineered apples “are unlikely to pose a plant pest risk to agriculture and other plants in the United States.”

APHIS also completed an environmental assessment to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. The assessment finds that deregulation of these apples “is not likely to have a significant impact on the human environment.”

Under the Plant Protection Act, APHIS is required to evaluate whether a new genetically modified plant, such as these apple varieties, are a plant pest risk to agricultural crops or other plants or plant products. If APHIS finds that a new GMO is unlikely to pose a plant pest risk, then under the law, the agency must deregulate the plant, allowing its sale and planting.

Neal Carter, president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, said this announcement is a monumental occasion for his team. “The commercial approval of Arctic apples, our company’s flagship product, is the biggest milestone yet for us, and we can’t wait until they’re available for consumers.”


British Columbia orchardist Neal Carter, president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, in his orchard. (Screengrab from video courtesy OSF)

Consumers will have to wait a little longer, though, since apple trees take several years to produce quantities of fruit.

“Our focus is working with growers to get trees in the ground. As more trees are planted and they come into commercial production, there will be a slow, but steady market introduction,” Carter explains, estimating Arctic apples will first be available in late 2016 in small, test-market quantities.

Here’s how it works. When you bruise, bite or slice an apple, rupturing its cell walls, a chemical reaction that turns the apple brown occurs between an enzyme in the apple known as polyphenol oxidase, PPO, and antioxidant compounds in the apple called phenolics.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ team turned down the expression of the apple PPO genes in a process called gene silencing, which utilizes low-PPO genes from other apples. In the end, Arctic apples produce too little PPO to brown.

The transformed Arctic apple plantlets are grafted onto rootstock and grow in a tree nursery until they are transplanted to an orchard, just as other commercial apple tree seedlings are propagated.

“No frankenfood here, folks,” says Carter, “just apples, now with suppressed PPO to stop enzymatic browning.”

Some consumers like the idea of non-browning apples. In October 2014, Okanagan Specialty Fruits issued the results of a mall intercept survey in which consumers shared their thoughts on the benefits of non-browning apples.

A cut Arctic apple can be refrigerated in a zip-lock type bag for several days without any noticeable browning, said 86 percent of respondents. Nonbrowning apples save consumers money, since these apples are eaten instead of being thrown away when they turn brown, said 85 percent. Freshcut Arctic apple slices won’t require treatment with lemon juice or chemicals to prevent them from browning, said 84 percent.

But not everyone likes the idea of genetically engineered apples, particularly if they are not labeled as such.

On Thursday, three Democrats – U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon – joined with Chef Tom Colicchio at a press event in the Capitol to introduce the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.


Democrats announce the introduction of the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. From left, Rep. Peter De Fazio, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Chef Tom Colicchio, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Feb 12, 2015 (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Boxer)

The bill would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, to clearly label genetically engineered foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat.

“Consumers have a right to know what is in the foods they eat and parents have a right to know what they are feeding their families,” Senator Boxer said.

“As a consumer and dad, I want to know whether my family is eating food that has been altered artificially in genetics – and the American public wants and deserves to know as well,” Senator Blumenthal said.

“We cannot continue to keep Americans in the dark about the food they eat,” Congressman DeFazio said. “More than 60 other countries make it easy for consumers to choose. Why should the U.S. be any different? If food manufacturers stand by their product and the technology they use to make it, they should have no problem disclosing that information to consumers.”

“The public wants more information about the food they are buying and how it’s grown,” said Tom Colicchio, owner of Craft Restaurants and co-founder of Food Policy Action. “I applaud Senator Boxer and Representative DeFazio for their leadership, and urge their colleagues to join them, and stand up for the 93 percent of Americans who want to know if their food has been genetically modified.”

The FDA currently requires the labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives and processes, including labels for juices made “from concentrate,” but the agency has resisted labels for genetically modified foods since 1992, claiming that these foods were not “materially” different from other foods because the genetic differences could not be recognized by taste, smell or other senses.

The lawmakers and chef Colicchio object that the FDA’s labeling policy has not kept pace with 21st century food technologies that allow for a wide array of genetic and molecular changes to food that cannot be detected by human senses.


Apples for sale in Dupage, Illinois (Photo credit unknown)

According to surveys, more than 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of genetically engineered foods. In fact, many consumers are surprised to learn that genetically engineered foods are not already labeled.

On the other hand, Congressman Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, last year introduced H.R. 4432, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, dubbed by its critics the “DARK [Deny Americans the Right to Know] Act.” This bill would prohibit states from passing their own state-wide GMO labeling laws, and it would continue to allow GMOs to be labeled as “natural.”

This bill would make permanent the voluntary labeling system now in place and prevent the FDA from ever requiring GMO labeling in the future.

H.R. 4432 is backed by Monsanto, Dow Chemical, the Koch Brothers and food companies such as Pepsi. Since 2012, big food and chemical companies have poured more than $100 million into fighting GMO labeling initiatives in California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

Arctic apples will be labeled, but the labels will not say the fruit is genetically engineered.

The company states on its website, “An “Arctic” label provides real information because anyone who doesn’t already know how they differ from conventional apples can easily find out all the specific details they want. A “GMO” label, on the other hand, would be completely useless and fear inducing, just like all these mandatory labeling initiatives.”

Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. is currently engaging in a voluntary food safety assessment consultation with the Food and Drug Administration regarding its Arctic® Apples.

Other nonbrowning Arctic varieties of fruits, such as peaches, are expected to follow. Carter says it will take “many years” before nonbrowning Arctic fruit is widely distributed.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2015. All rights reserved.

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National Academy: There’s a Good and a Bad Way to “Geoengineer” the Planet

February 17th, 2015

Developing the technology to suck planet-warming carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere is an expensive but promising approach that may be necessary to help prevent the worst effects of climate change, according to the first of two reports released this morning by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

But according to the second report, proposals to cool the planet on the cheap by reflecting sunlight are so risky that even serious study of them should be undertaken only in preparation for an emergency.

Together the two reports from the National Research Council (NRC) offer the most comprehensive U.S. examination yet of “geoengineering”–the intentional intervening in the climate system in an attempt to forestall some of the impact of global warming.

“The world is in a very tough situation, and there’s no magic bullet here, unfortunately,” said Paul Falkowski, a biochemistry professor at Rutgers University, who worked on the reports.

An NRC committee of experts from across disciplines was asked by several U.S. government science and intelligence agencies to evaluate geoengineering proposals. The ideas range from anodyne (planting trees to capture CO?) to potentially alarming (injecting sulfate particles or other aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet).

Committee members were blunt in their first recommendation: The world should focus first and foremost on curbing fossil fuel emissions rather than on any kind of geoengineering.

“I think it’s going to be easier and cheaper to avoid making a mess than it will be to make a mess and then try to clean it up later,” said committee member Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science. “If we end up having to build a fix that’s on the scale of our energy system, why not just retool our energy system?”

Six years after a report from the Royal Society in the United Kingdom reached many of the same conclusions, the American scientists decided to issue two reports–to distinguish as forcefully as they could between two very different approaches that for years have been lumped together under the heading “geoengineering.”

The first, CO? removal, the committee characterized as worthy and “almost inevitable.” The second, using aerosols or other means to reflect solar radiation, would be “irrational and irresponsible” if done as anything but a last-ditch effort to prevent a global famine or other emergency.

“We were clearly trying to send a message that we didn’t want to paint CO? removal with the same geoengineering label,” said committee member Steve Fetter, associate provost at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

Picture of a reforestration project in the Andes

A reforestation project in Peru illustrates a more benign approach to geoengineering: removing CO? from the atmosphere by, for example, planting trees.

Photograph by Gabby Salazar, National Geographic Creative

Removing CO?

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggested in its most recent report that CO? removal may become an essential tool. With atmospheric CO? at 400 parts per million and rising, the world seems likely to overshoot the target of 450 parts per million needed to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)–a level many scientists consider a danger threshold.

IPCC scenarios that avoid dangerous climate change typically assume that we’ll reduce CO? emissions to zero and develop a way of reducing atmospheric CO? by the second half of this century.

There are various ideas about how to do that. The simplest is planting forests, which store CO? in wood and soil as they grow. Another is burning wood or other plant matter for energy, then capturing and burying the CO? before it exits the smokestack. A third idea is to develop chemical scrubbers, like the ones used to purify air on submarines, that remove CO? directly from the air.

“I personally think it will be necessary,” Fetter said, meaning CO? removal in general. “CO? concentrations already are too high and increasing, and it’s hard to see a realistic scenario in which we can limit and stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that doesn’t pose a threat without employing some form of CO? removal.”

The problem, he said, is that “all the things we can do that are cheap, like planting trees, are limited in their capacity.”

CO? removal is also not a quick fix. The volume required to make a difference would be enormous–humans now emit more than 36 billion metric tons of CO? a year–and the benefits would take a long time to appear. At the moment, the NRC report concluded, no one approach to CO? removal can be relied upon to make a huge dent without enormous front-end costs.

“You really need to spread your bets over a variety of techniques,” said committee member Scott Doney, a marine geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Another reason that CO? removal would almost certainly become necessary is that some parts of the energy system may use fossil fuels for a long time to come.

“It’s really hard, for example, to make carbon-net-zero airplanes,” said committee member Granger Morgan, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “But if you can scrub CO? out of the atmosphere for a reasonable price, that might be a strategy.”

Blocking the Sun

The second NRC report released today details the far more fraught idea of increasing the planet’s albedo–its reflectivity–so that more sunlight gets bounced back into space.

An example of this approach would be to use high-flying planes to inject sulfate particles into the stratosphere–essentially mimicking the effects of volcanoes such as Mount Pinatubo, whose massive eruption in 1991 cooled the planet by about one degree Fahrenheit.

Though that type of geoengineering would be far cheaper than CO? removal, the NRC report said, it would not address the underlying problem: the accumulation of CO? in the atmosphere. Nor would it stop the oceans from acidifying as they absorb CO?.

What’s more, any scheme to increase Earth’s reflectivity would pose enormous unknown ecological and political risks, the report said. If it were done as an alternative to reducing CO? emissions, it would have to be done forever, since catastrophic global warming might ensue if it were halted.

“It’s not ready for prime time,” said Doney. “The committee strongly recommends not moving forward at this time.”

Still, the committee gingerly recommended taking steps toward doing careful research on the topic, calling for a global discussion on setting research parameters.

In an emergency, such as a massive global famine, some way of cooling the planet quickly might be needed to provide a temporary reprieve. Rogue states might also decide to try doing that on their own, which would require that mainstream scientists understand the potential consequences well enough to recommend a response.

“I’m terrified of the idea,” said committee member and climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago. “But even if we all think it’s a really, really bad idea, there are still good reasons to want to know more.”

“Despair Is Not an Option”

Despite the complexity of the climate problem, several committee members said they remained optimistic.

Falkowski pointed out that technology can, and often has, changed overnight. The time between the drilling of the first oil well and an America with cars and airplanes was only about 60 years, he said, which suggests we’re capable of remaking our energy system again in the next 60 years.

“The way I look at it is, Despair is not an option,” Pierrehumbert said. “It’s going to be really, really hard to avoid 2 degrees of warming. Barring some technological miracle, we’ll probably blow right past it. But the really, really bad things start to happen between 2 and 4 degrees, and we still have a pretty good window of avoiding 4 degrees.

“By doing our very, very best,” Pierrehumbert said, “and if we do manage to get CO? removal going, we might then be able to bring it back down under 2 degrees in a century or so.”

Follow Craig Welch on Twitter.

Your Brain May Want That Bottle Of Soda Because It’s Easy To Pick Up

February 14th, 2015

You want that soda bottle. But it may not be because you crave soda. It might just be that you love the idea of wrapping your fingers around its enticing shape. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ariel Zambelich/NPR

You want that soda bottle. But it may not be because you crave soda. It might just be that you love the idea of wrapping your fingers around its enticing shape.

Ariel Zambelich/NPR

Here at Goats and Soda, we can’t resist a good story about goats. (See our story about how you know if your goat is happy.) The same goes for soda.

So we were intrigued to learn that soda plays a part in a new book called How the Body Knows Its Mind by Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago.

Her book is about the ways in which our bodies affect our brains. To show how, Beilock did a study that sought to answer the question: When you decide whether or not you like an object, might you be making that decision based on how easy it is to pick the object up?

She put two kitchen objects – for example, a spatula and a spoon — in front of 15 undergraduate volunteers. The objects were placed in different positions — say, one with the handle facing the person, one with the handle pointed away.

She asked her volunteers to move the object they liked better into a box. Each person was given 16 tests. Each time, one of the objects was in an easier-to-pick-up position than the other.

You would expect a 50/50 breakdown. But the study, published in the journal Emotion Review, showed that 63 percent of the time people preferred the object that was easiest to grab.

So sure, your brain is making the decision, but the decision may be based not on whether you really like, say, a spoon more than a spatula, but simply on whether it looks easy to pick up.

“This means that subtle changes in the placement or packaging of products can have big effects on people’s desire to buy them,” she observes. And that’s where soda bottles come in.

In 2008, Coke redesigned its two-liter bottle a few years ago to make it curvier and thus, “easier to hold and pour,” in the words of a Coca-Cola representative. And suddenly, Beilock reports, Coke was selling a lot more of its two-liter sodas than archrival Pepsi.

Does this mean Coke knew all about the way the body influences the mind? Beilock says: “My guess is [in tests] people preferred that bottle.”

Based on her research, she believes that the enticing shape of a soda bottle “might push you to buy it even knowing it’s not the right decision.” (Because after all, soda is not good for you. It falls into the category of what she calls “vice products.”)

So the message for soda bottles is that shape matters. Size could matter, too. In December, Coca-Cola introduced a 350-milliter plastic soda bottle — that’s a hair under 12 ounces — in parts of Kenya. The goal, according to Coca-Cola, is “to offer our consumers an affordable ‘on the go’ convenience pack.” It’s called the kashorty, a colloquial Swahili word that means “the short one.”

The kashorty would be especially easy for small hands to pick up. “It could have an effect on kids,” says Beilock. And the effect could be: We want soda!

In the developing world, where the invasion of sugary Western products is contributing to a rise in obesity and diseases associated with being overweight, the kashorty could reinforce the soda company’s 1950s slogan “What you want is a Coke.”

Australia in ‘extinction calamity’

February 10th, 2015

10 February 2015

Last updated at 12:58

By Helen Briggs

Environment Correspondent

Australia has lost one in ten of its native mammals species over the last 200 years in what conservationists describe as an “extinction calamity”.

No other nation has had such a high rate of loss of land mammals over this time period, according to scientists at Charles Darwin University, Australia.

The decline is mainly due to predation by the feral cat and the red fox, which were introduced from Europe, they say.

Large scale fires to manage land are also having an impact.

As an affluent nation with a small population, Australia’s wildlife should be relatively secure from threats such as habitat loss.

But a new survey of Australia’s native mammals, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the scale of the problem is more serious than anticipated.

Since 1788, 11% of 273 native mammals living on land have died out, 21% are threatened and 15% are near threatened, the study found. Marine mammals are faring better.

Shy species

“No other country has had such a high rate and number of mammal extinctions over this period, and the number we report for Australia is substantially higher than previous estimates,” said conservation biologist John Woinarski, who led the research.

“A further 56 Australian land mammals are now threatened, indicating that this extremely high rate of biodiversity loss is likely to continue unless substantial changes are made.

“The extent of the problem has been largely unappreciated until recently because much of the loss involves small, nocturnal, shy species with [little] public profile – few Australians know of these species, let alone have seen them, so their loss has been largely unappreciated by the community.”

In time, iconic species such as the koala will also decline, said the researchers, from Charles Darwin University, Southern Cross University and the Department of Parks and Wildlife in Wanneroo.

The prospects for Australia’s wildlife can be improved but is “a very formidable challenge”, they added.

It is estimated there are between 15 and 23 million wild cats living on the continent.

Practical measures to protect native species include boosting biosecurity on islands off the mainland, which have fewer feral cats and foxes.

The islands could also act as arks for endangered species, while more careful use of fire and control measures to wipe out foxes and feral cats are also being considered.

But the researchers warn that Australians may ultimately need to consider the way they live on the land to stem the loss of natural assets.

Follow Helen on Twitter.