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Invasive Species and Unintended Consequences

12 Jul 2013

One action begets a reaction and another and another

Before I took off for vacation, I decided to finish reading 1493 which may be the most thought provoking book on invasive species I’ve ever read.  Author Thomas Mann takes a look at the last 500+ years of world history, economics, anthropology and environment and explains using interesting vignettes how the world we live in is not anything like the world of 1491.

He discusses topics like:

  • malaria and its relationship to the US slave trade;
  • sugar, silver and trade with the far east;
  • how South American potatoes and fertilizer revolutionized Europe and;
  • once the “eggs were all in the basket,” how European farming practices made almost inevitable the potato blight that virtually depopulated Ireland in the mid 1800’s.

He raises many interesting questions, some of which are still being asked today, as in this article regarding the popularity of the “superfood” quinoa as “gentrifying” or changing the South American farmers who used to eat it as a subsistance food.

A fascinating book which raises almost as many questions as it answers and shows how human actions – sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, have resulted in ecosystems (as well as economic systems) which are entirely foreign to the lands they occupy today.  We’ve blogged about Asian Carp and many of us are aware of invasive species like kudzu and purple loosestrife. But I never thought of wheat, onions, earthworms, potatoes, sugar, bananas and horses as invasive species.  I highly recommend this book.

Compost Update –

20 Mar 2013

It appears that the winter has slowed down my compost progress – in part because of the cold and in part because I haven’t wanted to stand out in the snow and wind and turn my composters as often as I was before.  I suspect as spring approaches, things will pick up.

In the meantime, a shout out to Envirocycle – the manufacturer of the composters.  I was outside recently on a sunny day and when I turned the composters, the plastic latch on one of them snapped off when the weight of the compost rolled over the door.

I called Envirocycle, explained the situation and they sent me a whole new door with a new and improved metal latch.  I really appreciate it when a company stands behind its products and I look forward to many more years of composting from our kitchen.

“Seinfeld bill” held unconstitutional

7 Jan 2013

In the flurry of year end errands, I failed to report on this.  Many of us remember the episode of Seinfeld, where Kramer and Newman schemed to take New York cans and bottles to Michigan to effect “bottle deposit arbitrage” by getting deposit reimbursements for bottles and cans on which no deposit had been paid.  The scheme didn’t work, but a 1998 study which reported up to $30 Million in such fraud annually and an actual fraud ring inspired the Michigan legislators to amend Michigan’s bottle bill to try to prevent such shenanigans.

In 2008, the bottle bill law was amended, among other things,  to require bottlers to put a “unique mark” on beverage containers sold in Michigan to allow reverse vending machines to determine if a container was from Michigan. Also, such mark could be used only in Michigan “and 1 or more other states that have laws substantially similar to this act.”  “Reverse vending machines” are the automated self-service bottle return devices you see at many supermarkets these days.

This law was challenged as a Michigan intrusion into interstate commerce under the so-called “dormant commerce clause” of the US Constitution.  The Constitution grants the US Congress power to regulate commerce among the States.  The “dormant” part of the dialogue  deals with what happens when Congress has been silent on the topic.  There is a whole body of case law that interestingly has dealt with State and local regulation of solid waste and other activities when Congress hasn’t acted.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the requirement of the unique mark was not discriminatory because it applied to both Michigan and non-Michigan bottlers. But the Court also held that the requirement that the mark could not be used on bottles in other states except with similar bottle laws regulated commerce outside of Michigan and so violated the doctrine against extraterritorial application of laws, rendering it invalid.

One of the Judges, while agreeing, wondered whether the extraterritoriality doctrine should continue to be followed, noting the indirect (and therefore valid) state specific requirements of California (auto emissions), Ohio (milk labels), Vermont (light bulb labels warning of mercury dangers) and so on.

Fewer water bottles – absolutely

10 Dec 2012

Almost two years ago, I blogged about a 3M product that my then 9 year old suggested we buy – A Filtrete Water Station.

While we haven’t completely stopped buying bottled water, I’m pleased to report that we’ve cut our bottled water purchases easily by 90%.  Where we would buy one of those 24 bottle pallets almost weekly, it seems like we buy, at most, a couple of bottles a month and the last pallet we bought is still in the basement and no one can recall when we bought it!

The Filtrete system is still working – we’ve replaced the filter a few times but the biggest issue seems to be that we use these bottles so often that the hinges on the “handles” (which you can see folded down on the bottles in the photo) are starting to wear out. The bottles still look like new. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that anyone sells just the cap assemblies which include the handles and hinges – perhaps 3M will consider that.


Governor Snyder marries energy and environmental policy

28 Nov 2012

Today, Governor Snyder announced his Special Message on Energy and the Environment. True to his nature, he focused on strategic plans and smart decisionmaking with a long term view – something that I agree with.

The Governor focused on three “pillars” relating to energy: (1) reliability; (2) affordability; and (3) environmental protection.  Possibly to the chagrin of  some, he proposed a 2013 legislative dialogue to set goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy, certainly reviving hopes of the people who unsuccessfully  pushed Proposal 3 on the 2012 ballot.  He also bemoaned the lack of a federal energy strategy.

He didn’t discuss every one of the many points of his 19 page message but did talk about the following:

1. expanding the successful Michigan Saves program to help small businesses with energy efficiency;

2. figuring out how to expand development of Michigan’s natural gas resources  (he touted Michigan’s successful fracking practices) and announcing a partnership with UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute to work with industry and environmentalists to ensure that fracking is done safely; and

3. He discussed revamping and strengthening Michigan’s program’s to provide at-risk people maintain utility services.

As to environmental policy, he urged an ecosystem approach and he:

1.  proposed a strategic plan for all of Michigan’s publicly owned lands – building off his blue ribbon parks paneland including a plan for abandoned urban lands and pushed for better methods to aggregate and plan for them;

2. said it was time to resolve the conflict between urban farming and the Right to Farm Act;

3. announced that he was going to co-chair the Great Lakes Governor’s Council and would call a summit to discuss many issues including invasive species (both focusing on prevention and control) – this will likely be a thorny issue particularly in dealing with Illinois on the issue of Asian Carp;

4. asked for a proactive strategy for Michigan’s inland lakes and sustainable water usage; and

5. a surprise to me, he talked about improving recycling programs across the State.

There’s a lot more in there which we will be discussing in the future. But even treating energy and environmental issues as integrally related is a welcome new and dynamic approach.

Recycle electronics this Saturday at the Detroit Zoo

27 Sep 2012

The Detroit Zoo is having a free electronic waste recycling event this Saturday, September 29th (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), in the Zoo’s front parking lot beneath the water tower.  Cell phones, cameras, DVD players, televisions, stereos, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, mixers, hair dryers, holiday lights, microwaves and the like will be accepted.  Items not accepted include large appliances (think refrigerators and air conditioners), light bulbs, household batteries, lithium batteries, VHS cassette tapes, medical equipment and gas cylinders.

The Detroit Zoological Society is dedicated to green efforts in its operations and in the community, and even states environmental leadership as part of its mission.  In addition to its recycling efforts, other green actions taken at the Zoo include installing rain barrels and a planted rain garden, replacing gas-powered golf carts with solar/electric hybrid carts, installing touchless sensor faucets and low-flow toilets in some bathrooms, and replacing traditional hot water heaters with tankless hot water heaters.

At the Zoo’s first-ever electronics recycling event, over 103,000 pounds of electronic waste was collected.

For more on the Zoo’s green initiative visit here.

And you thought Detroit was screwy?

21 Sep 2012

Would you add 40 tons of garbage to this?

From the City of Brotherly Love comes this story of a man who cleaned up 40 tons of garbage from the vacant lot next to him and then improving it at his own expense!  You’d think he’d get the key to the City. Instead, the City is threatening prosecution and demanding “restoration.”

The concept of a property owner taking over a neighboring vacant lot (a sort of adverse possession) has its own new name, “blotting” (vs squatting).  Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing even began his own program of selling vacant lots to neighboring owners for $200 – no questions asked.

However, in Philadelphia, the coffee shop owner, entrepreneur and good Samaritan made the mistake of first asking the City if he could clean the lot – the City had said no – making him an arguable trespasser and proving the old adage that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.