Archive for Environmental Management

Another unusual field trip…

A little more than a week ago, my AP Environmental Science class went on another field trip. The trip, while not as scenic as our adventure at the farm,  was an eye-opening and surprising experience.

We visited a waste water treatment plant.

I know, I know, doesn’t sound pleasant at all. But it really only smelled badly for about 5 minutes of the entire 2 hour field trip.

The plant we visited serves more than 1.4 million people and covers 420 square miles. It transports, treats and reclaims all the wastewater produced by these people.

Our guide took us on a detailed tour of the facility. We passed large sedimentation tanks, bubbling vats of contaminant-eating bacteria, and roaring pumps. And yes, we wrinkled our noses a couple of times. I’ll spare you the details of wastewater treatment process, but if you are interested, click here.

One usually would not think of the technology at a wastewater treatment plant as sophisticated, but that’s exactly what it is – sophisticated. The plant is able to produce many valuable resources from our wastewater. Biosolids extracted from the water are digested by aerobic bacteria at 98 degrees Fahrenheit and used to fertilize forests or composted for use in landscaping and gardening. The digester gas produced by this biosolids digestion process is then cleaned and used as an energy source.

The term “wastewater treatment” is misleading. It makes us think we can flush anything down the toilet or drain anything down the sink, and it will just go away and be cleaned. In truth, wastewater treatment is highly expensive, and many of the costly problems that occur at the plant are due to inappropriate disposal of trash. Putting trash, wipes, grease and hair into the sewer system clogs pipes and can create sewer overflows. This in turn will have a negative impact on the environment.

In the kitchen, it is best to compost your food scraps. Some areas allow you to throw food scraps into your yard waste bin. Or, you can compost your food yourself, either by making a worm composting bin or burying your food scraps. To learn more, click here. Remember, grease, fats, oil, and produce stickers should not go down the kitchen drain!

In the bathroom, if it isn’t toilet paper, put it in the trash can or recycling bin, not the toilet. Many people used to think it was okay to flush expired or unused medications down the toilet. But conventional wastewater treatment is unable to remove all the chemicals found in medications. Scientists have found that this practice is harming aquatic life. More and more male frogs and fish are developing female characteristics, leading to reproductive difficulties.  Keeping medications out of the sewer systems will also protect our drinking water. To properly dispose your old medicine, visit your city’s or county’s hazardous waste site, and see if medicine is listed. Some states, including Washington, also have special medicine take back programs.

This trip made me realize my water doesn’t just go away when I’m done with it. I need to think about what exactly I am putting into it, so it stays clean in the future.


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Not so high-tech

Trash. Garbage. Waste. Refuse.

Whatever you want to call it, we humans produce a lot of it.

Ok, that’s not news at all.  Candy wrappers, paper cups, dirty napkins… We all throw these into the trash every day.

But I’m not here to talk about regular old  trash. I’m here to talk about E-waste.

Every year, companies come out with new electronics – new cellphones, new computers, new TVs… So what happens to our old gadgets after we replace them with new ones?

Well, a lot of it ends up with the rest of our trash – in landfills. But the electronic waste contains toxic heavy metals and other pollutants that can harm the environment.

So what about those great E-waste recycling programs we’re hearing about? Unfortunately, some of these programs aren’t as great as they seem. 

In fact, a large portion of E-waste ends up in gigantic “digital dumping grounds” located in developing countries such as Ghana, China, and India.  

Many recyclers, instead of taking the time and money to make sure the electronic waste is disposed of safely and responsibly, simply ship the waste to these countries.

In Ghana for example, exporters of e-waste took advantage of the people’s desire to advance technologically by calling the tons of old computers they were bringing into the country “donations.” Half of these “donations” did not even work.

This has caused a whole slew of problems. Criminals scour discarded  hard drives for personal information to use in scams. Men, women, and even children, breathe in hazardous and toxic fumes while burning computer parts  to salvage precious metals to make a living.

How do you make sure your old electronics won’t end up in some Third World country? Below are two useful websites.

e-Stewards recyclers must meet high standards of environmental and social responsibility.

Visit to find responsible e-recyclers near you.

The International Association of Electronics Recyclers is also a good resource. Visit

If you would like more in-depth information about electronic waste, you can check out the Frontline video at

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Something’s fishy

It’s mid-January, the time of year when everyone is determined to keep their New Year’s Resolutions. Most people, however, find it terribly difficult to maintain their resolutions for the entire year.

Maybe it’s because the goals are too broad and general. “I want to be a better person.” “I want to be healthier.” So that’s why this year, I’m setting monthly goals for me to focus on, one at a time.

So what is my resolution for this month? To pay more attention to where my seafood comes from.

I used to go to Costco with my mom, and we’d buy our usual seafood favorites – shrimp, tilapia, salmon – without considering whether they were harvested in sustainable and environmentally-friendly ways. This is true for many people. I believe one reason for this is that the global fisheries crisis has not gotten as much coverage as other environmental problems – say, global warming.  And frankly, big-eyed, scaly fish just aren’t as cute as polar bears.

But our fisheries are suffering. Half of the world’s marine fish populations are fully exploited. Fishermen are having to put more time and effort to get the same size catch as before. In 2006, The New York Times reported on a study claiming all ocean species we fish for today will collapse by the year 2048. ( Though there is much debate on how accurate the study was, it still remains clear that many of the world’s fisheries are not managed sustainably. The industrialization of fishing not only exponentially increased catch rates, but it also brought with it many harmful environmental effects. Many fishing practices kill nontarget species and destroy marine communities.

So what are we as consumers to do? The most important thing we can do is support sustainable fishing practices with our dollars. Not all seafood is created equal.

For example, when we go to a grocery store, we  have a choice between farmed Atlantic salmon and wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Which is the better choice?

Some people may think, as I used to, that farmed salmon is better than wild salmon because it does not deplete the wild salmon populations. 

But actually, Pacific salmon in Alaska is among the most intensively managed species in the world, with excellent monitoring of both the fish populations and fishery. It is one of the best choices you can make when buying seafood.

In contrast, most farmed salmon are raised in open pens and cages in coastal waters. Waste form these farms is released directly in to the ocean, harming wild fish swimming near the farms. Farming salmon also requires a vast amount of food. It takes about three pounds of wild fish to grow just one pound of farmed salmon.

What is difficult for us consumers is that this “wild is better than farmed” rule cannot be applied to all seafood. For example, farmed oysters are better than wild oysters.

So how are we supposed to know all this information about what to buy and what we shouldn’t buy? 

Monterey Bay Aquarium has a wonderful resource, sustainable seafood pocket guides that you can print out and slip into your wallet or purse. Whenever you go shopping, you can just take it out and see what the best choices for seafood are. The guides are divided into three sections, Best Choices, Good Alternatives, and Avoid. For instance, US farmed Tilapia is the best choice, Central America farmed tilapia is a good alternative, and Asia farmed tilapia (most frozen tilapia you see in grocery stores are from Asia) are to be avoided.

To download the seafood guide, visit

Or, if you are a technology person, you can download the free application on your iPhone or iTouch. Just visit the App Store and search for seafood guide. I recently downloaded this application, and I love it!

Yesterday, I went to my local grocery store and scoured the seafood section, this time with my pocket guide in hand. I felt great purchasing US wild-caught shrimp instead of the Asia farmed shrimp my family usually buys.

Just by purchasing fish caught or farmed using environmentally friendly practices, we can easily support healthy, abundant oceans.

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Who let the fire out?

Imagine you are skydiving, hurtling through the air, only to land just feet away from a forest fire. Now imagine that this is actually your job.

If you are Mr. Allen that is. He was my AP Biology teacher last year, but for fourteen years, he worked as a smokejumper.

What exactly is a smokejumper?

Smokejumpers are special firefighters who parachute to remote areas and combat wildfires. The idea is to reach the wildfire quickly and contain it, before it gets out of control.

Smokejumping is a dangerous profession due to the risks inherent in parachute jumping, and the lack of resources for firefighting and rescue once on the ground in an isolated location. Firefighters must pay extreme attention to wind direction, as any slight shift can change the fire’s course. A designated area is chosen for retreat in case the fire gets out of hand. This is usually a blackened area that the fire has already passed through and burned down. Fire needs fuel to burn, so where there is no fuel (i.e. trees, branches, shrubs), there is no fire.

Despite safety precautions, accidents still occur. In 1994, 12 firefighters died because they could not get to a safety zone in time.

When I asked what his most frightening moment on the job was, Mr. Allen said it was actually while he was riding the airplane. Wildfires are usually caused by lightning. When smokejumpers receive a call, the skies are often still stormy. Mr. Allen’s most frightening incident was when lightning struck the airplane taking him to the wildfire.

“The sound was deafening, and the entire plane shook violently,” he described.

So why would Mr. Allen choose such a dangerous job? He explained that one summer when he was young, his family’s house was completely burned down by a wildfire.

“The dogs escaped, but the kittens didn’t make it,” he recalls. After that episode, he decided he wanted to help fight wildfires, so other families would not have to suffer the same loss he did.

During the summer wildfire season, Mr. Allen’s smokejumping unit received about 10 calls a day. Once they arrived on location, the goal was not to put out the fire, but to starve it. This is done through strenuous, backbreaking labor. Firefighters create firelines by digging deep into the ground until they reach mineral soil. They also have to remove branches, leaves, shrubs and anything else that could burn. The idea is to contain the fire and wait for it to run out of fuel at the firelines.

Sometimes though, firefighters have to fight fire with fire. They set off a small fire to burn the area in front of an oncoming wildfire, leaving nothing left for the wildfire to feed on.

Years of smokejumping take a heavy toll on a person’s body. Many smokejumpers develop asthma from years of breathing in smoke. The workdays are extremely demanding as well. Smokejumpers spend days at a time in remote areas, living off of whatever was parachuted down from the plane with them. At night, they usually just sleep in the dirt.

For a long time, it was government policy to put out all wildfires. Remember Smoky the Bear? But it turns out, forest wildfires play an important role in maintaining healthy and diverse ecosystems. The fires recycle nutrients from the soil, help tree seeds germinate, and clear out accumulated plant debris. Not allowing small fires to burn actually increases the risk of having a dangerous, destructive wildfire. All the accumulated debris provides a fire with more material to burn.

That’s why we need  people like Mr. Allen, who are willing to jump out of airplane into a fire, in order to keep us safe while also allowing the natural processes in the forests to continue.

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