Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

A New Language

January 31, 2017

book-graphic Sustainability can pop up in the most surprising places. The latest example I have found of this is a chapter in a textbook that my wife is using to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) this semester. I knew that more and more universities had been offering courses on different aspects of sustainability; but I had no idea that other unrelated courses would include it in their textbooks as well.

This course did. There is actually a whole chapter called “What is sustainable living?”. The chapter opens with 15 ideas of how to incorporate sustainability into one’s daily life. Some of the ideas were joining a community garden, using the car less, reading and playing more games, planning your errands to make a loop instead of crossing travel paths, and reducing, reusing, and recycling, etc. This section became the reading comprehension part of the chapter.

The remainder of the chapter featured a common pattern of reinforcement exercises supporting the key concepts—in this case, having to do with  sustainability. The questions forced the students to think beyond the initial readings. Not only was this a good way to practice vocabulary, it simultaneously taught the students more about how to incorporate sustainability into their  everyday lives.  After this was a section featuring some pie charts and bar graphs, which provided different means to understand sustainability.

My favorite part of the chapter was the last section, which described NASA’s Sustainability Base. This is a new NASA building built with the intention of essentially leaving zero environmental footprint. Since NASA has been designing optimal environments in space for decades (according to the reading in the textbook), why not design an environment (building) that is the same for the earth? Good question…and I hope that the chapter led the students in my wife’s class to think more about how they can include more aspects of sustainability into their daily routines.

The book is Reading for Today (5th Edition), Lorraine C. Smith and Nancy Nici Mare, 2016, National Geographic/Cengage Learning

Getting To Zero Landfill

December 14, 2015

yellowstone mded

The National Parks have had a long-standing interest in implementing sustainability initiatives. In previous years, for example, the parks put into the place the “Healthy and Sustainable Food Initiative” by increasing the amount of locally sourced food at its concessionaires. In 2015, the Park Service decided to address a different sustainability challenge–the 100 million pounds of trash generated each year by park visitors. They have done this by cooperating with several organizations to make the National Parks Zero Landfill spaces. These organizations include Subaru, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the National Parks Foundation (I donate to the latter 2). Subaru is a logical partner for this effort due to its experience with its zero landfill factory in Lafayette, Indiana.

The program has begun with pilot projects at 3 iconic parks: Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Denali. These three parks alone account for 16.6 million pounds of waste annually. Of this amount, about 6.9 million pounds are diverted from the landfill–the question is how to keep the other 9.7 million pounds out of the landfill as well. The first step is for the National Parks Conservation Association to review the current practices in these parks in terms of recycling, composting, and waste reduction efforts. Subaru’s factory experts on “zero-landfill processes” will also visit these parks. The insight from these assessments will give the park service insights on how to reduce the amount of waste that needs to be landfilled, with the goal of zero waste at all being landfilled.

That is the goal, at least. Whether this effort will truly result in absolutely zero materials being sent to the landfill is an open question; however in all cases, the idea is to have the National Park Service send nothing, or almost nothing, to any landfill–first at these 3 parks, and then hopefully at all of the nearly 300 units in the National Park system.

The NPS Zero Landfill Program

What The Park Visitor Can Do

Subaru’s Zero Landfill Factory

Healthy and Sustainable Food at the National Parks






Pennsylvania’s State Forests–A New Plan

November 23, 2015


Pennsylvania is also known as Penn’s Woods. There are, in fact, about 17 million  acres of forests in Pennsylvania, of which just shy of 15% are actually State Forests, run by the state’s Bureau of Forestry. This year the Bureau has released its 2015 updated State Forest Management Plan (the first update since 2007). This plan is open for public comment until November 30, 2015. The main website (with instruction on whom to email comments and a survey on the plan, is here:

The Plan attempts to deal with many issues currently affecting Pennsylvania State Forests. A sampling of these includes (but is not limited to): the increase in fracking for natural gas, more public attention to sustainable forest management, climate change, recreational uses, new disease threats, the importance of social media, long-term timber production, cultural and historic resources, and a forest inventory.

Before I read through this, I had no idea that almost all of today’s state forests were barren land a century ago, or that the state forests are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (and audited every 5 years). Nor did I know that the state works with Penn State to develop an optimization model to balance near term wood product harvesting demand with long term forest vibrancy. In fact, one of the original purposes of creating state forests was to enable a long term supply of various wood products from Pennsylvania. This certainly implies that long term sustainability of that supply is a top concern.

On the other hand, extraction industries (coal, oil, and natural gas, especially fracking) are not operated with the goal of maintaining environmental health; they often need an environmental mitigation component. Naturally, the less of these in the forests in the first place, the less environmental mitigation required. One of Gov. Wolf’s first actions in office was to put an immediate stop to new leases for Marcellus Shale gas–but many remain active on the books.

As an avid hiker, the main thing I think about in terms of the (state) forest is the network of trails. That is “recreation” in the forest for me. Surprisingly, a major recreational use of the state forests is simply taking a scenic drive. Hunting, camping, canoeing, kayaking are on the list as well. I had no idea how dynamic the state forests truly are.

This dynamism comes out in the plan. It is worth taking some time to become educated on what is going on in the forest(s).

Summary page for the State Forest Management Plan

Playing with Water

October 28, 2014

Playing with Water

FaucetThe last week of October is one of those rare weeks where all four major professional sports leagues are in action. Tonight is Game 6 of MLB’s World Series, this past Sunday was Week 8 for the NFL, the NHL began its 2014-15 regular season a couple of weeks ago and the NBA season starts as well this week. For this last week in October, all 4 leagues have in common that they are in action.

Beyond this one common week of meaningful games in October, the 4 leagues also have in common an increasing interest in sustainability. Many stadia and arenas have some combination of extensive recycling programs, renewable energy programs, various LEED certifications from the US Green Building Council, environmental promotions for fans, reclaimed building materials, etc.

A growing manifestation of sustainability in action in these stadiums (especially in the West) is the conservation of water. The New York TImes had a phenomenal article about this a couple of weeks ago. The article (Water Waste: Going, Going…..) outlines some of the many ways teams are saving water. These range from simple things like low-flush toilets and sensor activated faucets to more sophisticated techniques like monitoring the moisture levels of the field of play. In at least one case (Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco), the (vast) majority–85% of the water used in the stadium is actually recycled.

These off the field water saving techniques are very interesting, but it is now time to get back to watching Game 6 of the World Series. I am not sure what I like more–the increasing use of sustainable facilities management in sports stadiums, or the great play at third I just saw on TV.

New York TImes Water Waste: Going, Gone…. article–


Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field


Faster, yet Lighter

September 23, 2012

I’ve noticed a couple of fascinating blurbs from Popular Mechanics recently about cutting edge technology in automobile fuels and Formula 1 (F1) race car design. The best thing about both of them is that the technology either has the financing to be developed (Green Crude) or has been developed (Delta Wing). “Green Crude” is about algae being converted to an oil-like substance, while the Delta Wing is a F1 class car that raced at the 24 Hours of LeMans earlier this year.

Green Crude

Sapphire Energy grows algae to make oil molecularly similar to light sweet crude oil that can be processed by refineries making gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Expected price by 2014–$85 barrel. Supported by $144 million in recent investment (Popular Mechanics October 2012). The expected volume of production is 1.5 million gallons.

The Delta Wing F1 Car
Half the Weight, Half the Fuel, All the Speed!

An Almost Pleasant Lawnmower Experience

June 24, 2012

I am happy to say that my new lawnmower is actually almost pleasant to use. The combination of “pleasant” and lawnmower must be taken with a grain of salt—as my experiences with my old lawnmower were never pleasant. After two previous repairs, when the side discharge guard came off, it was time for the old mower to go. I was able to find someone in the neighborhood who valued the engine enough to pay me $10 for the thing. At least I did not have to send it out in bulk trash, so I was somewhat happy about that. It was out of my shed and out of my life.

As I was researching mowers, I discovered that there have been some significant improvements in the emissions standards for small engines such as those on lawnmowers. Conveniently, the last of these standards went into effect for the 2012 model year, precisely when I was looking for a new mower. California led the way (no surprise) and the EPA followed with their own standards based upon the California rules. Probably the best thing I saw in all my research was the “complies with California Emissions Standards’ sticker plastered on the Murray mower in Walmart.

I figured if a mower met California standards, and also the EPA’s, the emissions (and probably noise) were as good as they could be. I learned that this meant I needed to look for a mower eligible to be sold in all 50 states. At Sears and Home Depot I saw some perfectly good mowers—and then I saw another mower—same models, but these were labeled California-compliant. In this case 50 (states) is really much better than 49 (states). As an added bonus, the particular Briggs and Stratton engine I got (550ex) was built in the United States.

I ended up buying a California compliant Craftsman 21 inch 140cc mower. I am pleased to report that I am very happy with it. First, it started out of the box on the first pull. The other mower often took at least 3 or 4 pulls. It is lighter and much more maneuverable than my old one—I can even steer it with one hand! And, I have yet to detect a single speck of black smoke emanating from the mower. With the old one, if I did not see the black smoke, it wasn’t working. The old mower’s engine liked to backfire a lot also. I guess it just wanted to provide me a counterpoint serenade in case I did not like the tonality of the engine’s whine as I mowed away. But I really prefer the relative lack of volume from my new mower.

Ready for Mowing

I am actually glad my old mower broke down again. Admittedly, I am not real happy about spending the money for the new mower, but at least I can breathe better when I mow now than before. The new mower is also far quieter than the old one. The newer less powerful mower is also actually easier to use than the older self-propelled one. The 20 missing pounds makes a huge difference—and I’ve learned did not really need the extra power the old one had anyways. So for about $200, I managed to reduce my environmental impact while cutting my grass in a quieter fashion than before. That was money very well spent.

Buses and Trains and Trolleys—Oh My!

May 23, 2012

The presence of a public transit network as extensive as SEPTA’s is considered a key part of the Delaware Valley’s sustainability strategy. However, SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) is itself a large organization with many employees, assets, and responsibilities. In early 2011, SEPTA officially adopted a Sustainability Plan—formally accepting sustainability as one of its responsibilities. Part of this includes a determination to look for ways to incorporate sustainability across its operations to the greatest extent possible.

Like many other organizations, SEPTA defines sustainability to include the aspects of People, Planet and Profit –in its plans these are labeled Social, Environmental, and Economic, respective. Each section has several goals, with targets established for each. Where possible, the goals are expressed in terms of standard SEPTA metrics such as VMT (Vehicle Miles–VM, Revenue Vehicle Hours–RVH, and Passenger Miles Traveled-PMT). For a goal such as increasing the number of farmer’s market on SEPTA property these metrics won’t apply, but goals such as improving water use and pollutant discharge perfomance and operating expense can be and are measured using these metrics.

One of the interesting aspects about SEPTA’s program is that it includes a formal environmental policy statement. This is closely tied to the fact that SEPTA is implementing the ISO 14001 standard for environmental manangement, including the Plan-Do-Check-Act method. Plan-Do-Check-Act establishes goals, tracks progress to these goals, and calls for a continuous improvement mindset—in this case for environmental aspects of operational issues. (The International Standards Organization is a worldwide organization whose standards in many areas are recognized and implemented all over the world).

Water usage and stormwater runoff are examples of areas where an environmental challenge has morphed into a financial issue. In addition to paying for the water it uses, SEPTA is now assessed a fee for the stormwater runoff impacts of its impervious surfaces—including parking lots which have no metered water whatsoever. So any strategy that SEPTA can come up with reduce stormwater runoff can have a positive fiscal impact very quickly. For example, Instead of going into the sewers, rainwater from the renovated 46th and Market El stations is now captured. It is distributed (via a solar battery pump) to the Walnut Hill Farm located directly below the Market Frankford Line tracks.

Other areas (amongst many) of working sustainability into operations are buildings and rolling stock. One great example of buildings is the new Fox Chase Regional Rail station. This station was renovated last year, and has achieved LEED Silver certification. LEED is a well known green building certification program of the United States Green Building Council. Among other features, the building used reflective surfaces to reflect sunlight and reduce heating load. About 95% of the materials from the old station were reused and recycled.

In addition to regional rail trains that service the new Fox Chase station, SETPA also runs subway/elevated trains in the City of Philadelphia. The Market Frankford El is utilizing regenerative braking technology (like in a Toyota Prius) which essentially takes the excess energy used in slowing down the train and sells it back to the electric grid if it is profitable to do so. Think of it also analogous to “recycling” the electricity that is not needed by that particular train. In this case, the “recycled” electricity is being sold if possible and redistributed to other purposes if not. Another instance of “recycled” electricity in SEPTA’s fleet is the collection of nearly 500 hybrid buses the Authority has placed into revenue service.

This is really quite an array of activities. However, as impressive as SEPTA’s internal efforts at sustainability are, perhaps its greatest contribution to sustainability in a regional context is totality of the thousands of daily passengers it carries. These passengers are not creating demand for gasoline by taking their cars, nor are they spewing emissions into the air. I’m glad I live near public transportation routes that I can use on some of my trips. I can’t use SEPTA all the time, but when I can, I love the fact that I can get where I want to go in an environmentally friendly manner—and often at pretty close to the same amount of time driving would take me. Similar service levels, environmentally friendly—that sounds really good to me!

SEPTA’s Sustainability Program:

Let There Be Light!

February 6, 2012

Sunlight Pours In

I left work today at about 5:30 pm, and I noticed something as I stepped outside—light. The days are now noticeably longer. This is actually one of the few things I like about the month of February—more time for sunlight. I recently came across a renovated 4-story wool mill in Norristown, PA whose owners (Corbett, Inc.) obviously share my affinity for sunlight. How do I know this? I went inside and was practically flooded with the natural light. In fact, on a recent tour I took there I learned that no employee is more than 15 feet from a source of natural light. I happen to be on the sun side of my office building, but at Corbett, every side is a sun side.

The Washington Woolen Mill building (the home of Corbett, Inc.) was built in 1817. In the 1820s, mills were 4 stories, with supply deliveries and natural light coming in through big doors and windows on the top floor. Then product moved down each floor through various manufacturing processes to the bottom floor, from which finished product was delivered. When Corbett bought the building in 1979, the company overlaid modern technology and extensive re-use to renovate the property. The main element they re-used was the architecture—especially the strong stone walls and large upper-level door and window openings. The original stone walls were repointed, and the original window glass (when present) was re-glazed. (Some of the windows had been boarded up in the 1970s—those got new glass. The frames are the old ones.

An "Outer" workspace

In a clever design touch, the employees in the office the most get the work spaces along the outer walls—that is, with the most natural light. One of the critical issues in managing the light (the current term is “daylight harvesting”) is making sure that each employee has the correct amount of light at all times. To ensure this, Corbett installed a very clever light management system that features automatic shades and dimmable overheard ballasts. As the sun travels around the building, the shades go up and down depending upon the sunlight level. At the same time, nearby dimmable ballasts are sensing how much sunlight is coming into the space, and dimming themselves accordingly. The system is so sensitive that single dimmable fixture (the longer ones) can have 2 distinct dim settings working simultaneously.

Conference Room

I’m glad there was so much light inside the building, because I still had a lot of building to see. Looking around, I noticed the very thick support and cross beams—original. I looked down and noticed the beautiful floors—reglazed, but also the original wood. Other spots had carpeting—and this was all both recyclable and made from recycled materials (not unlike the carpet I had bought a few years ago). I looked up, and saw the sprinkler system—re-purposed from the 1970s installation. What I did not see was much (or any) drywall. I saw modular glass walls (panels of glass) that allowed for privacy and the long open sight lines that made the space very pleasant. These panels also allow the light to travel a long way vs. getting blocked by drywall. These modules impressed me; they also impressed a Corbett client who came in for something else, saw the walls, and essentially bought them on the spot.

The Windows Really Do Open

Even the heating system partially uses the sunlight. First, the allowing the natural light and warmth to come in can only help with heating costs. The property features 2 connected buildings—Corbett’s office in the 4 story section and another company (Kay and Sons) in a connected 2 story annex. Both sections feature exposed ductwork at the ceiling above the cross beams mentioned earlier. The Kay and Sons folks have an extra benefit of a 2-story atrium with the original lever and pulley system intact for opening the upper windows. I was assured that they use the pulley system at every possible opportunity to bring in fresh air, providing yet another modern use for the original design.

Sunlight Delivered

When the mill was built in 1817, the architects utilized the sun and surroundings for heat and light because they had to—the technology did not exist and electricity had not been harnessed yet. Now, creators of sustainable buildings and design are looking for techniques and methods for buildings to work more with their surrounding environment for the comfort of the occupants. The occupants of the old Washington Woolen Mill (ie, Corbett, Inc., Kay and Sons) are certainly benefiting from the combination of the original design and modern technology. They don’t have to go outside to get some sunlight (and fresh air)—the renovated building’s design delivers it to them.

A Previous Post on Carpets

A Previous Post on Drywall

(Election) Signs of the Times

November 9, 2011

The election has come and gone, but thousands of its remnants remain. These would be the political signs that covered Montgomery County, Pennsylvania during the campaign. I am not against the signs per se, especially since I had four of them on my lawn. Approximately 24 seconds after the election ended (give or take a few seconds) these signs morphed into lawn clutter. Many years ago I used to throw them out. A couple of years ago I started putting the metal frames into my township provided recycling can.

This year, the county’s Recycling Office, both political parties, several townships, ReCommunity Recycling, and Sullivan’s Scrap Metals have put together a new program to recycle these election signs–frames and all. There were an estimated 200,000 of these signs throughout the county, which would be a huge amount of landfill waste (if they actually got to the landfill). So if you live or work anywhere in Montgomery County, take the sustainable route to getting rid of those now worthless election signs—recycle them!

They want your signs!

All the Details:

Montgomery County Recycling Office,a,3,q,82083.asp

The (Electricity) Meter is Running

October 30, 2011

Energy efficiency is very important to me. I have always been somewhat of a fanatic about turning off my lights. I just do not want to use any more electricity than is absolutely necessary. A few years ago I had a new air heat pump system installed. I used less electricity and immediately saved a full one-third off my electric bill. This summer we installed new windows. The house was cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter (at least during the October snowstorm we had yesterday that I am counting as “winter”.). Based on a couple of bills, I estimate that the new windows have saved 10% off of my electric bills.

My house is all-electric, including electric heat. I am very oriented to ways I can be energy efficient. Additionally, Pennsylvania has PA Power Switch. This means that my electricity rates reflect the market price, not a cap enforced by the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC). It also means I have to make a choice whether to switch my electricity supplier from my local utility (PECO) to someone else. For residential customers like me, this started back in January 2011. For many businesses, this need to make a “power switch” as to their electric power supplier started several years ago.

Businesses have a couple of options to reduce their electricity usage and bills. They can either lower their overall electricity demand, and/or, they can lower their demand for electricity at specific times during the day. This latter option can be a little tricky because it involves reducing your electricity usage when everyone else is increasing theirs, like on a hot summer day with the humidity over 90%.

The first option is basically implementing various energy efficiency measures. Lighting is often a highly effective way to achieve savings—mostly because it tends to cost less than other options. Something as simple as replacing incandescent bulbs in EXIT signs can have a very positive effect. In fact, a school district near me did a comprehensive lighting retrofit a couple of summers ago and reported a savings of over $250,000! HVAC systems are often more capital cost intensive—but they can have great benefits also. I recently read a case study of a local hospital that saved almost a half-million (500,000) kilowatt-hours per year with their upgrades (and they got rid of the cold spots, also).

The other option is adjusting your electricity usage to the demand in the overall market. This demand response works best when a company has the ability to actually lessen demand at certain times of the day—the times when electricity costs the most. Contrary to widespread popular belief, the wholesale price of electricity varies during the day, similar to stocks. In fact, many electricity suppliers base part of their rates on how much a given business uses during peak system demand times as well as how much they use overall.

So if a business can actually figure out when these high system demand times will be and adjust accordingly, they can receive cash payments immediately and benefit from lower rates year round. This requires a detailed knowledge of both energy usage as well as how their business operations can potentially be rescheduled during the day. Focusing on late afternoon during the hottest days of the year is a good place to start.

I actually participated in a demand response program this summer. I agreed to allow PECO to curtail my air conditioner’s cooling ability for 15 minutes at a time when demand on their system was the highest (the fan still ran). In return, their Smart A/C Saver paid me $30 monthly for 4 summer months to do so. Given my bills, this is real money.

Like myself, the school district, and the hospital, many entities implementing energy efficiency initiatives are saving significant funds by doing so. Energy efficiency is a classic case where being good to the environment can also have very good economic benefits. As the Economist says, it is not particularly glamorous but it works really, really well from a variety of perspectives.

The Economist article:

PUC PA Power Switch site:

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