Category Archives: Environment

The Five Takeaways of Gardening: Genie Gratto

Some of the best things in life happen by accident.  This was the case of Genie Gratto’s foray into the world of gardening.

“When I lived in the DC area, I tried to grow things and hadn’t been very successful.  My husband bought me an herb kit that had seeds, tools, pots, and an herb dryer.  I didn’t get anywhere close to having anything good that could even be dried!  Stuff sprouted up but couldn’t be used,” she sighs.

Gratto did not take up gardening again until she moved to Iowa City, a place described as having some of the best soil in the country.  Gratto put in a garden in 2006 and became fascinated with the idea of growing food.

“Gardening is a little bit miraculous to me – it amazes me that you can throw some stuff into the ground and have no idea what you’re doing, and then things, edible things, just grow out of there,” she says.

Gratto now lives in the Bay Area, and chronicles her adventures and misadventures in gardening in her blog, The Inadvertent Gardener. Below, are five takeaways gathered in conversation with Gratto.

1.  Gardening requires only a few basic tools.

Beyond the basics of seeds, soil, light and water, Gratto recommends a couple other tools.

“You need some kind of tool to dig.  It can vary based on the scale and size of your garden – for example a trowel for small containers, or a big shovel so you can move dirt around,” she explains.

“The other thing I recommend is having a sprinkly attachment for a hose or a watering can.  I thought they were silly at first, but I realized that if you pour a giant pitcher of water on a plant, it displaces the dirt.  You should sprinkle the water instead, let it soak into the ground, rather than creating runoff,” she says.

“If you want to get really fancy, a hoe is good to have to weed easily,” Gratto recommends.

2.  When planning a garden, remember that plants need their space.

“When you have a garden, you need to have a modicum of planning.  When you plant seeds into the ground, it’s easy to think ‘these plants will be small and cute,’” explains Gratto.

“However, most of the time, you don’t realize how big plants actually get.  For example, I had no idea how big zucchini plants would get. Artichokes are the same – they are these huge thistle-y plants that support one tiny artichoke, and they completely take over the space they’re in.  They consistently shade out the other guys,” she warns.

3.  Beware the guilt and heavy lifting of gardening.

Gardening, despite its geriatric and gentle connotations, has some minor hazards.

The first is a moral hazard.

“There is always that fear that you are killing things when you garden, and of course, guilt ensues,” says Gratto.

In one particular inadvertent gardening mishap, Gratto planted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants under a tree that she hadn’t realized was poisonous – a black walnut tree.

“I had no idea how poisonous it was… I had never heard of this tree!  What happened was, as rain would run off the tree, the poison would run off with the rain and fall on the plants, and the plants were dying as a result.  This led to a transplant operation on a July 4th weekend – five tomato plants and two pepper plants were moved, but I left the eggplants under the tree,” she says guiltily.

On a more positive note, the post about the mishap ended up being one of the most popular storylines to ever hit her blog.

Transplanting operations also lead to the second hazard – that of physical hazards.

“There are standard physical things to be cautious of when gardening – remembering to lift from your knees and not your back, like when you’re hauling around piles of dirt or transplanting tomato plants.  There’s also a lot of resting on your hands and knees, so you need to remember to cushion all of that,” she recommends.

4.  Growing your food is the only way you can control what goes into it.

“One thing I do not understand is why someone would use something non-organic or synthetic in their garden.  Actually, a few years ago I caught my dad red-handed with a couple bags of Miracle-Gro, so I of course yelled at him.  This is your one opportunity to completely control what’s going in your food, without having to worry about government certification or about food miles.  This is the closest you’re going to get to your food source – why sully that?” exclaims Gratto emphatically.

5. After gardening for awhile, you begin to notice that plants have their own set of idiosyncrasies.

Michael Pollan discusses in his book The Botany of Desire, amongst other things, how certain plants have evolved in tandem with humans, how we both rely on each other for survival, and how some plants are quirky for a reason.  Gratto, while gardening, has noticed some of these quirks.

“One example is that of marigolds – if you plant them near tomatoes, it keeps the nasty bugs away.  There are also these flowers called Four O’ Clocks, which are both pretty and funny.  They have the name because they allegedly open at 4PM in the afternoon and after 12 hours, close again.  I planted them, and thought they were the lamest flower ever.  I would walk outside at 4PM and they were always closed.  However, one night when I walked out into the garden, they were actually open, and I thought to myself ‘how weird!  What kind of purpose does this have?  What kind of pollinating insects does it attract, how did it evolve into such a plant?’” explains Gratto.

There are certain things we will never answer, however Gratto nails on the head what it is that is so great about plants and gardening – that simple sense of wonder of caring for something and watching it grow.

Gratto’s The Inadvertent Gardener can be found at


Filed under Curiosities, Environment, Food, Hobbies

The Five Takeaways of Bees: Dennis VanEngelsdorp

Bees have an aura of mystery and beauty to them.  The way that they work as a collective.  The reported health benefits of royal jelly and bee pollen, yet the harsh prick of a bee stinger.  The delectable sweetener known as honey that has been used for centuries, appearing in hieroglyphics and French cave drawings.  The strange phenomenon of colony collapse disorder.  The odd looking beekeeping outfits, and even the beautiful hexagonal honeycombs.

This brought me to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a leading apiarist at Penn State University.

vanEngelsdorp stumbled upon beekeeping by accident during his undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph.

“I took a beekeeping course while I studied horticulture… and I bought some hives and did possibly everything wrong with them,” he laughs, remembering.

“So I went to go see the professor for help, ended up getting better at working with hives, and that’s when I became really interested in the work.  So much so that I ended up doing a Masters with that professor,”   says vanEngelsdorp.

The rest is history.

“Once you get stung, it’s in your blood, and you’re a beekeeper forever,” laughs vanEngelsdorp. Below, vanEngelsdorp provides his five takeaways of bees.

1. Be(e) relaxed and gentle with bees, because they know if you’re not.

“I can actually think of nothing more relaxing than working with bees – when you work with them you get into ‘the zone’.  Actually, when you use the smoker and open the hive you absolutely have to be calm – they always know if you’re not calm,” says vanEngelsdorp wisely.

“For awhile I worked in the Caribbean with boys who were in reform school, who were extremely troubled and had anger management issues.  Working with bees seemed to have a calming effect on them,” he explains.

2.  Hives are a female run affair – and not necessarily by the queen.

“It’s interesting to see how our understanding of the queen changed.  When Aristotle started looking at queens, he thought that the leader must be male.  During the French Revolution, the lead bee was called the ‘General Bee’ – probably because of the Napoleon connection.  It took scientists a long time to find out that the queen bee was in fact female.  In addition, people thought of the queen bee as a dictator, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The queen bee is essentially an egg laying machine.  She releases pheromones that controls the behaviour of workers, but otherwise is fed and pushed around by her worker bees.  They also choose whether or not to abort her young,” he explains.

“Also, all the worker bees are female.  Males play very little role in the hive. Drones, or male honey bees, are only produced at certain times of the year.  Their only role is to mate.  They fly out of the colony around noon, fly around 40 feet high into the ‘drone congregation area’, where they mate with the queen bees.  After they mate, they die, with their reproductive organs ripped out.  The ones that don’t mate are driven out of the hive in the fall,” says vanEngelsdorp.

Bees seem to take emasculation to a whole new level.

3. Bee beards can be a thoroughly uncomfortable situation.

Seeing someone with a bee beard is enough to make anyone shudder in fright.  This is when someone “wears” hundreds or thousands of bees on their face and neck, and sometimes other parts of the body, depending on their level of daring.  I asked vanEngelsdorp if he’d ever done it, and if so, how it worked.

“I did this while I was still at Guelph pursuing my Masters degree.  It was July, and I rented a Santa Claus outfit for fun.  They made me stuff cotton balls up my nose to protect it from any bees going in – actually what was disappointing was that they didn’t tell me that there was a cotton ball hanging out of my nose when the photograph was taken!” he laughs.

“How you do it though, is that you have to catch a queen and put her in a cage and tie her around your neck.  Then, you put the worker bees in a plastic sheet.  The queen bee releases her pheromones and attracts the rest of the hive.  It’s the weirdest sensation ever – can you imagine, these thousands of feet grabbing at you, with three to four pounds of bees on your face?  It gets very hot very fast,” explains vanEngelsdorp.

4.  Many honeybee species have gone extinct without us even knowing it.

“In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 400 species of native bees.  The ones that have been studied most are the honeybees that were brought over from Europe, which we need for New World crops such as apples.  Farmers like to use honeybees because they are efficient pollinators – typically they will be moved in for two weeks and then they are moved to another farm.  A study done at UCDavis said that the most successful farms, measured by the quality of the fruit set, have been those that have the presence of both native and European honey bees,” he explains.

“That being said, the most important thing is that we don’t know much about these other 399 species of bees and the many others in the world – and they are disappearing.  Three species of bumble bee have gone extinct in the last three years.  For instance, in Pennsylvania, 17% of bees that we have a record of, we haven’t seen them since 1940,” says vanEngelsdorp chillingly.

5.  There have been many conspiracy theories about colony collapse disorder but very few verifiable answers.

vanEngelsdorp is renowned for his research in the area of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is a phenomenon where worker bees disappear suddenly from a hive.

“It’s really important to realize that honeybees have been in trouble in the US for a long time – since the 1940s, a number of colonies have been in steep decline, but there has been a recent loss because of parasitic mites.  These were introduced in the 1980s, and have spread viruses and other things.  Colonies that die in America die from known causes.  Yet there are others that are dying away from the hive, leaving large sheets of brood, or baby bees.  This symptoms based condition kills a minority of bees every year.  Altogether, CCD and all the other things killing bees adds up to about 1 in every 3 colonies dying every winter for the last 3 winters.  That’s a lot of bees!  However, why it is so significant is that it poses a huge risk to large scale beekeepers, who are responsible for a lot of agriculture in the US.  They move bees from state to state, and we are highly dependent on them,” says vanEngelsdorp.

I ask Van Engelsdorp what he thinks the cause is for CCD.

“The past three years when all this information broke about CCD – there were a lot of suggestions why this was happening.  Alien abduction, The Rapture, imported Russian bees with a gene that Russian spies could beam satellites through….. another one that caught on was cell phones.  German scientists did a study on cordless phones and it somehow got translated into cell phones – we don’t think it’s that.  We have to concentrate efforts into known areas.  Unfortunately, we can’t test the hypothesis that CCD is caused because aliens are coming back in 2012.  Our hypotheses need to be things we can test, so we have concentrated on three basic areas – first, new or newly mutated pathogens, potentially an introduction of a virus.  The second area is pesticides, and the third are environmental factors – things such as the genetic diversity in bees, changing weather patterns, whether or not bees are getting enough food.  Some of our findings were not what we expected,” says Van Engelsdorp.

“What is interesting about this is that maybe 4 years ago, I would’ve thought that there was only one cause and one solution – but it’s more complicated than that.  There’s a lot of things killing bees, and it’s a complicated network that we are still trying to understand,” explains vanEngelsdorp.

For more information on Dennis vanEngelsdorp’s research at


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The Five Takeaways of Waste: Tom Szaky

The words “waste” and “garbage” have always had such negative connotations.  “You’re a waste of space.”  Schoolyard taunts about smelling like a garbage picker.  The phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” which refers to something made with low quality materials that will also yield a low quality final product.

Tom Szaky, the 28 year old CEO of Terracycle, sees waste differently.  While he has brought garbage into his company, it seems that the outputs have been nothing short of valuable.  Szaky started Terracycle as a 19 year old Princeton student.  His idea?  Taking food waste from Princeton’s cafeterias, having worms digest it, and producing fertilizer on the other end.  The products were contained in old soda bottles.  After nearly going broke, he was helped out by an investor, which led to the company getting orders into two major retailers.

The worm poop became so popular that even some of the big guys began to feel threatened.  Terracycle was sued by Scotts Miracle Gro in 2007, of which Terracycle won the lawsuit.  In recent years, Terracycle has been focusing on aggregating various forms of waste from consumer packaged goods companies as raw materials, and selling them to different manufacturers to be upcycled.  Items such as juice pouches have been turned into bags, wrappers have been turned into kites, and the company has even been considering what product to turn cigarette butts into.

“There is no waste that can’t be turned into something else useful,” says Szaky.

Below, Szaky provides his five takeaways of waste.

1.  Waste doesn’t exist in nature.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste.  Let’s take leaves for example – if a leaf fell off the tree, it would fall on to the ground.  Provided that an animal or insect didn’t eat it immediately, the leaf would eventually biodegrade and provide nutrients for the soil, which would then in turn provide nutrients for the tree.  In that whole spiel, everything had a use, and there was no waste.  Contrast that with something like a takeout container.  It would be manufactured, sent to a restaurant, where you use it to take away your dinner for the evening.  Then, depending on the type of plastic it was, it would be thrown away or recycled.  In the throwaway scenario, the waste would be created immediately, perhaps left sitting in a landfill for thousands and thousands of years.  In the recycling scenario, this product would be recycled and recycled until the fibres were too short, and that in turn would turn into waste to be thrown into a landfill.

2.  Waste is something that has only emerged in the past 100 years.

“Waste is something that man created over the last 100 years – with the development of complex polymers, it created something that nature can’t deal with,” explains Szaky.

This explains things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and landfills.

“Excess consumption is also to blame – we consume more than we need to.  100% of waste can be attributed to the fact that we buy too much stuff.  By no means am I anti-consumption, and it will never go away – but we have to start buying more expensive, durable things,” suggests Szaky.

3.  Waste is the only commodity that has negative value.

“Waste is the only thing that we pay people to get rid of.  Why are you paying for something that you have to buy and then pay to haul away?  It makes no sense.  For example, why not turn your yogurt tub into a planting pot?” suggests Szaky.

4.  Ninety-nine percent of what consumers buy gets thrown away right away.

In addition to finding ways to reduce or reuse, what consumers buy gets thrown away very soon after its purchase.  Let’s use a pen for example.  The pen comes in a cardboard backed plastic container, which is thrown out.  You use the pen on paper.  The pen runs out of ink, and then the whole thing is thrown away.

There was also the waste that went into creating the product.  Szaky provides a sobering stat:

“For every pound of garbage, there was 60 pounds of waste used to make it.”

5.  Waste is riddled with systemic issues.

“The first problem with waste is the cultural issue of consuming more than we need to,” he explains.

“Second, recycling is fragmented.  There isn’t a Wal-Mart of recycling – garbage is mixed together, and very few waste streams are collected,” Szaky says.

“There also isn’t a collection system.  It is so fragmented that usually the lowest common denominator, or the lowest value items, aren’t collected,” he says.

“There is also a commoditized marketplace for waste.  For example, recycled plastic is more expensive than virgin plastic, because among other reasons, the demand is higher.  Recycling facilities permanently closed their doors when plastic prices dropped and petroleum went cheap,” explains Szaky.

With capacity reduced, this doesn’t help in the long term sustainability of waste facilities, who depend on revenues for selling the waste they have collected.

“And lastly the incentives to reduce waste are not there – why can’t we do in the US what governments in Europe or countries like Turkey are doing – a packaging tax.  Why not try it here?”

Find out more information about Tom Szaky at Terracycle, Garbage Moguls, and through his book, Revolution in a Bottle.

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The Five Takeaways of Solar Power: Ian Howard

Ian Howard is someone who likes to get his hands dirty.

Before dabbling in solar power, Howard was a paratrooper, then a mountain guide, then a builder of IT infrastructure in Africa.  So, how exactly did he get into solar power?

“I had been interested in renewable energy since I was very young.  Growing up in Northern Ontario, I was, of course, interested in the environment and the outdoors.  However, solar in particular, I became particularly interested in solar while working in Africa, where  we used it to bring telecommunications to rural areas. Solar was a way for us to bring these technologies without burdening these communities with the cost of fuel for generators.”

Solar power is seen to be one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, the latter of which has caused much of the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.  While in the past, solar power was expensive and ineffective, over the past couple of years solar technology has become cost effective and efficient.

Howard now does consulting and as a partner with a solar start-up called Power Panel.  Below he provides his five takeaways of solar power. 

1.  The speed at which solar technology is developing is comparable to that of the microchip.

People often forget that solar technology is just that – technology.

“The most common misconception about solar that I encounter has to do with dated information. Solar is progressing at such a fast speed that the two year old information that is the basis of most preconceptions is really off the mark. Solar is changing almost as fast as microchips, and this is creating opportunities that are smashing down walls decades earlier than anticipated,” says Howard.

2.  Solar energy is a good defensive measure against unpredictable weather and high energy costs.

Solar energy was once the domain of off-grid, patchouli scented hippies.  It turns out, however, that solar power has greater application than most people think.  With the upgrade of electrical networks to “smart grids”, whereby power is distributed and two-way digital technology is used to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers and vice versa, it could potentially be a way to pay very little for electricity.

“With only a few square meters of collectors on a roof, all of the hot water for a home can be heated by the sun. This equipment costs little more than most home entertainment systems, and provides sustainable energy for more than a decade.  It also provides some insurance against those few but painful occasions when the gas, or electric grids go down. I find it astonishing that people in Ontario who endured the ice storm years ago are not convinced of the need for greater resilience and autonomy in our systems,” exclaims Howard.

As it turns out, solar power is good for the environment, wallet, and self sufficiency.  Perhaps the hippies were on to something.


3.  Solar power works in cold climates.

When one sees stock photos of solar panels and solar power, they always seem to contain an array of panels in the middle of a desert.  Should people in cold climates, such as Canada, be using solar power?

“It is another misconception that colder climates are less suitable for solar. Cold is not the issue, but rather sunlight. The further from the equator one goes the less light there is in winter, but photovoltaics perform better when they are cool and the heat generated by solar thermal becomes yet more useful. In fact, the best places on earth for solar are in mountain areas, like in Northern Chile which have low temperatures but plenty of sunlight,” Howard explains.

How about solar panels getting covered in snow?  Wouldn’t that render solar power pointless in cold climates?

“Snow, of course, can block sunlight from getting to the panels. Typically panels are installed on an angle so snow can slide off the glass most of the time. For those cases where this doesn’t happen, there are a few innovations which allow the panel to be heated, melting snow and ice off their surface,” he says.


4.  Although solar is “clean” energy, making panels is quite resource intensive – however, over the life time of the panel, less resources are needed than fossil fuels.

In the creation of new technologies, a shift occurs in resource demand.  For example, with the increase in need for long-term energy storage, the amount of lithium-ion batteries needed is increasing.  As a result, the demand for lithium is also increasing.  Similarly, with the manufacture of solar panels, there will be a need for resources such as silicon, cadmium telluride, plastic, and copper-indium selenide.

“Solar does require materials, so using no energy will always be more environmentally friendly than using solar. Where solar excels, however, is in producing power where it is consumed. This obviates the need to build infrastructure to transport energy great distances such as other energy sources require, and thus has a much lower impact and reduces transmission losses,” explains Howard.

In regards to the increased need for resources, Howard admits that many solar companies are constrained for resources and often don’t think of the longer term implications for sustainable manufacturing.  There is a need to incorporate this thinking into future product designs.

5.  Government incentives for solar power tends to favour the “big guys”.

“At the onset of the recession, the idea of ‘green jobs’ spread faster than a cold in policy circles. Governments quickly inserted green into their economic recovery plans and this created a great boon for renewable energy, particularly in places where industry dominates.  Although there has been very favourable incentives and policy for renewables, this seems to have favoured big players. Government grants often go to the well prepared and staffed big corporations. So, this green policy boon has only strengthened the big players while the small players have been weakened by the credit crunch,” explains Howard.

For now, Howard continues to fight the good fight.

For more information about Ian visit his blog at

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The Five Takeaways of Deconstruction: Buffalo ReUse

Buffalo, like many other cities in America, was a once booming city of industry in the late 19th and early 20th century.  It was a manufacturing powerhouse, located squarely at the western end of the Erie Canal.  Cars, consumer goods, railroad cars, steel, grain storage, were some of the major industries here.

Grand theatres, office buildings, and homes sprung up to accommodate the growing middle class.  At one point, it even rivaled New York City as one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.  Beautiful buildings and parks proliferated all over the city, from such names as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Law Olmsted.  However, after the Depression, industries went out of business and never regenerated.  People fled to the suburbs, or to other cities.  Currently, Buffalo is a city estimated to have 268,900 residents, of which this number is declining.  Approximately 10,000 houses lay empty.

With empty houses comes a number of issues, including blight, crime, vandalism, and a reduction in community.  The city has plans to demolish 5,000 houses in the next couple of years.

Simply demolishing these houses and putting the rubble into a landfill seems to be the easy and quick short term solution.  However, what about the most efficient long term solution?  This is where deconstruction comes in.

“Deconstruction, or ‘green demolition’, is the process of taking down a building in the opposite way it was assembled, so that as much of the building material can be salvaged and reused.  We use a 10,000 pound all-terrain forklift, to complement human labour, and it has proven to be a more efficient, cost-effective, and economically practical approach than hand deconstruction,”  describes Rachel Matthews, Volunteer Coordinator at Buffalo ReUse, a not-for-profit social enterprise in Buffalo, New York.

From a materials perspective, the process of demolition by Buffalo ReUse is incredibly efficient compared to a conventional demolition.

“We can effectively reclaim up to 50% of the tonnage of a house that would have otherwise been discarded – including architectural detail, antique items, and good quality building material that you can’t find in houses today,” she explains.

Caesandra Seawell and Rachel Mathews of Buffalo ReUse provides the five takeaways of deconstruction below.

1.  Cities all over the US are beginning to realize the benefits of deconstruction.

With the ability to recover so many valuable resources from a large stock of old houses, former boomtowns in the Rust Belt have seen the growth of green demolition/salvage social enterprises.

“For example, in Pittsburgh there’s Construction Junction, in New York there’s Sustainable South Bronx, in Washington State there’s New Heights Construction, and in Baltimore there’s The Loading Dock.  Similar programs have also popped up in Portland and Detroit,” explains Mathews.

2.  Construction waste makes up about 20% of landfill waste in the US.

Without so much of a thought, many old buildings are demolished, reduced to a pile of rubble, and a new building is plopped into its place.  Debris is cleared away and dumped in a landfill.  Plenty of this building material is valuable and recyclable, such as wood, metal, concrete, paper and plastic.

3. The economics of demolition differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Seawell explains the costs of deconstruction versus demolition.

“The average two-story house costs between twelve to sixteen thousand dollars to demolish, whether it’s regular demolition or deconstruction.  This yields about 45 tons of rubble.  However, with deconstruction, the difference is that the owner gets a tax deduction for donating the materials that are salvaged and recycled – this is usually around $8,000 or so,” she explains.

“The cost of the deconstruction is based on a couple things – equipment rental, cost of throwing material in the landfill, whether or not there is asbestos in the building, sewing cuts and labour,” says Seawell.

Prices also vary between counties.

“The one challenge we have is the cost of landfill.  In Buffalo, a ton of debris costs about $25 to dispose, which is very cheap compared to other cities on the East Coast such as New York.  In NYC for example, it costs about $110 a ton, so contractors make sure to separate and divert materials.  So, conventional demolition is so popular in Buffalo because it’s so inexpensive and quick.  It costs $1,125.00 to use the landfill and bury a house, while if you were looking at NYC, it would cost $4,950 just to use the landfill.”

4.  Deconstruction is a great way to salvage a piece, or pieces, of history.

Beyond the economic benefits of deconstruction, the simple fact exists that deconstruction yields some really cool stuff.  Visiting ReSOURCE, I came across early 20th century door handles, 1950s light fixtures, stained glass windows, vases, paintings, chandeliers, sinks, and beautiful cabinets, copper ceiling tiles, and a bevy of other bric-a-brac.  Most of these things were constructed during a time where quality was important, and planned obsolescence was not a standard.

5.   Deconstruction is also a way to engage the community.

Buffalo ReUse has found that deconstruction has had a number of knock-on effects.  First, is that deconstruction has helped to remove abandoned houses, which are seen as liabilities in the city.  The organization has also hired and trained local people, many of them youth from low income neighbourhoods.  The store, ReSOURCE, has been able to sell low cost items for people in the neighbourhood.

The organization has also engaged its neighbours in urban planning, envisioning how vacant spaces would take shape in their community.

“Ideally, we want to transform all of the vacant lots in our target area into gardens, parks, safe pass-thrus, greenhouses, and other spaces that benefit and beautify the neighbourhood,” explains Seawell.

“On top of that, we also want to continue to plant trees, hold workshops, empower the community, and promote environmental stewardship,” she adds.

It is clear that Buffalo ReUse has some lofty goals and big ideas.  Like their deconstructions, with a little elbow grease they can make these things happen.

Thanks to Rachel Mathews and Caesandra Seawell in writing this article.  More information about Buffalo ReUse can be found at

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The Five Takeaways of Star Trek: Jonathan Lane

Star Trek has always been there for Jonathan Lane, Trekxpert and Chief of Communications for STARFLEET, Star Trek’s oldest fan club.  The airing of Star Trek’s first episode, “Arena”, took place two days before Lane was born.  He watched Star Trek during dinnertime as a child growing up in the 1970s.  He doodled Starship Enterprises on his science homework.

“I loved the way that the show worked, the fact that it was science-y.  I was, for the most part, a geeky science kid,” he explains.

He’s memorized the plot and title of all Star Trek episodes, from all the series.  And while attending Cornell, he and his roommates would even have Star Trek marathons.

“I can’t even imagine some of the Star Trek marathons these days – with all of the series – you could technically watch four and a half weeks worth of Star Trek episodes without repeating one,” jokes Lane.

“But that wouldn’t be healthy,” he warns.

Lane claims to own six Star Trek uniforms, and even featured a Star Trek groom’s cake at his wedding.  His wife, who is not a Trekkie, was good natured about it.

Below, Lane provides the five takeaways of Star Trek.

1) Star Trek provides a futuristic lens on contemporary social issues.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a lot of social controversy and upheaval in the US – and in the 1960s, television presented a sanitized view of ourselves.  For example, The Andy Griffith Show, Dick Van Dyke, Leave it to Beaver – these television shows were, in a way, utopian versions of society.

“Gene Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to be a mirror of what was going on in contemporary society, and he created other civilizations who encountered similar issues.  There is one particularly famous example, an episode called “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, where an alien was half white and half black – had whiteface makeup on the left side of his face, and was completely midnight black on the right side.  There was a being like him from the same planet, except he was white on the right and black on the left – and they had been hunting and running from each other through the cosmos for thousands of years.  Eventually, the entire planet of the half black and half white beings was destroyed, and because of their deep hatred, the two characters end up killing each other as well, even though they are the last beings on their planet.  This spoke strongly to the civil rights movement,” explains Lane.

“There was another episode where Klingons started arming villagers with primitive flintlock guns to take over an area occupied by mountain people, and Kirk and his crew had to decide whether or not to start arming these mountain people to defend themselves.  It was a perfect metaphor for what was happening in Vietnam,” says Lane.

Similar themes were reflected in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine.

2) Not all Star Trek fans live in their parents’ basements, have never kissed girls before, or have tape in the middle of their glasses.

There are several types of Star Trek fans.  Two commonly heard phrases are “Trekkers” and “Trekkies”.

“The easiest way for me to describe the difference between a Trekker and Trekkie is that a Trekker owns a pair of Spock ears, and a Trekkie is someone who owns them AND wears them.  An alternate explanation is that a Trekker gets angry if you call them a Trekkie.”

Lane goes on in further detail:

“A Trekkie is that typical geek who has no real connection with reality – they live in their mother’s basement, and believe that Star Trek is the be all and end all of everything.  Trekkers are a bit more progressive about Star Trek – they don’t go around giving the Vulcan salute to everyone, and they don’t wear Star Trek uniforms to court.”

Extremely devoted Trekkies are sometimes called “Get-a-lifers”, who represent the typical stereotype of a Star Trek fan.  This was made popular by a Saturday Night Live skit in which William Shatner lambastes Trekkies at a Star Trek convention, telling them, “For Chrissakes, it’s just a TV show!  Get a life!”

However, for the most part, Star Trek fans are a diverse bunch.
“There are all sorts of Star Trek fans out there – one of our officers in STARFLEET is in her 80s or 90s.  We have members who are 10, 11, 12 years old.  There are people in college, professionals, lawyers, doctors, anyone you can imagine.  There are even people who have met their current husband or wife through STARFLEET, or their second or third husband for that matter.  There’s this stereotype that we’re loners – but really, we are people who like being with people – we’re an inclusive bunch you could say,” explains Lane.

3) The oft-mocked Star Trek convention is not a laughing matter.

There are two types of Star Trek conventions – professional ones, and fan-run ones.  The predominant professional one is run by a company called Creation Entertainment, which started in the 1970s and 1980s.  What began as a quick way for a Long Island comic book store to make extra money, has turned into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

“The first Star Trek convention started off as a way to make a quick buck selling merchandise for the store, with the hook of having several Star Trek actors signing autographs.  However, over the past fifteen years, these professional conventions have emerged into huge, monolithic conventions in major American cities, where big (Star Trek and science fiction) stars attend, and spots in autograph lines are sold.  The events are extremely well run and well attended.  They’re very high profile events,” explains Lane.

On the other hand, the fan-run conventions provide a more “personal” feel.

“The fan run conventions are held in smaller towns and cities, and do not have such a large budget – perhaps only two or three Star Trek stars are able to attend.  However, everyone gets together, has room parties, dances, and the like.  And they’re typically not as expensive.  However, as Star Trek fandom waned over the years, as well as the recession, many fan-run conventions have had to be cancelled.  Some conventions have gone from having 2,000 down to 200 registrants, and they haven’t been able to afford doing them anymore,” laments Lane.

Of course, at both types you’ll find people wearing costumes and Spock ears.

4) The rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek could be likened to the cola wars.

I asked Lane about the rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek fans.

“I think the debate between Star Trek and Star Wars is analogous to the debate between Coke and Pepsi.  I enjoy and drink both.  The difference between the two is the ‘trek’ part.  Star Trek is more about exploration, and you aren’t always guaranteed a phaser battle.  I mean, you’ll have them from time to time, and we’ve seen some good battles against the Borg.  But with Star Wars, the ‘wars’ part is guaranteed – you just have to wait a few minutes for the next battle to happen.”

Lane describes how Star Trek is changing.

“However, if you look at the most recent Star Trek movie – Kirk on an ice planet running from a giant scorpion, Sulu with his collapsible sword – there is a feeling that JJ Abrams is pulling Star Trek more in line with Star WarsStar Wars is the more successful franchise, from a mainstream acceptance standpoint, although both franchises still have incredibly strong fan bases.”

5)  The technologies on Star Trek can best be described as art imitating life imitating art.

When creating technologies for the show, Gene Roddenberry conducted painstaking research to ensure that things were accurate.  In some cases, Roddenberry would work with NASA to find out what some up-and-coming gadgets were.

Many gadgets have already materialized in one form or another

“One doesn’t have to look further than the communicator – which we now see as a cell phone.  I wonder if Captain Kirk knew that, one day, we would even be taking pictures with these communicators!” laughs Lane.

“In many of the original 1960s episodes, there were these small, hard, square-shaped objects that could be placed into computers and read – years before the floppy disk.  And now, forty years later, some technology has even leapfrogged over Star Trek—as you won’t find many floppy disks around anymore,” explains Lane.

And in some cases, NASA was inspired by Star Trek.

“One of the technologies that the USS Enterprise had, the impulse engine, was run by something called ion propulsion.  It’s where people go through space, pick up some stray hydrogen, process it, and as you pick up speed, you pick up more hydrogen and accelerate.  This is something that NASA is working on right now, no doubt in part because of Star Trek,” says Lane.

And of course, the one technology that came from Star Trek that Lane is keeping his hopes up for?

“Teleportation,” he jokes.

Only time will tell.

More information can be found about STARFLEET at


Filed under Curiosities, Environment

The Five Takeaways of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Captain Charles Moore

In the movie Wall-E, the title character spends his days dutifully compacting trash that generations of humans have left behind.  Much of it has barely degraded – things like shoes, toys, appliances, plastic fodder.  Today, far out in the Pacific Ocean, a similar landscape exists.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be the size of two states of Texas, filled with plastic garbage.  The flotsam and jetsam in the area are a concoction of trash thrown off of boats, garbage from the West coast of the US, and from the Asian Pacific rim.  It is a veritable graveyard of nets, plastic bottles, caps, dolls, syringes, boots, laundry detergent containers, balls, and practically anything else you could imagine.  There are also little pieces of plastic floating in between, chewed up by the power of the currents.

How did it all end up there?  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was not intentionally created.  It happens that The Great Pacific Gyre, a large high pressure system the size of Africa, circulates currents between the Pacific coasts, creating a vortex effect.  Debris accumulates and gets sucked into the centre of the Pacific Ocean.  The majority of the debris is made up of human created waste that doesn’t biodegrade – plastic.

Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has been studying this growing garbage patch for the past couple of years.  A Long Beach native, he grew up with the ocean in his backyard.

At first, it wasn’t the garbage he wanted to research – it was bacteria.  After a surfing accident where his arm was almost amputated from an infection from flesh eating bacteria in the ocean, he knew he had to do something about the imbalance in the water.   However, lacking the equipment to study the bacteria, he decided to tackle a more visible issue.  Since the 1950s, he had seen pieces of plastic debris washing up on the beach in increasing numbers.

Moore decided to get more involved in the marine research effort beyond the citizen’s monitoring team he had been involved in, and started studying the debris in the Pacific Ocean, with the help of some prominent scientists in the area.

Moore describes the technique he has used to conduct his research:

“What we do is drag a net across the area to catch zooplankton – we have a net with mesh a third of a millimetre thick, and we drag it a few inches deep into the water.  This area is called the sea surface microlayer, where the sea surface meets the atmosphere.  There are certain animals who go down half a mile during the day and come back to the surface at night to feed – we wanted to see the effect of plastic particles on this life.”

Over the many years of study, Moore provides below some of the five takeaways he has realized about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

1.  The garbage patch keeps growing.

Moore can no longer place an estimate on the size of the patch – some people estimated it was the size of France – some say it’s the size of two states of Texas.

“We went 10,000 miles and all we saw was plastic.  We sailed 2/3 of the way to Japan and there was plastic coming from all directions – it was like a disgusting plastic cesspool.  No one really has a handle on the boundary, or what it might even mean.”

All that to say, that given our current rates of consumption of products encased in plastic, or made of plastic, this patch will only grow bigger.

2.  The ocean is becoming more and more dangerous to navigate through.

In the ten years that Moore has been studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it has gotten so muddled with plastic waste that you can’t safely go into the ocean.

“At night, I have to scuba dive under our boat to cut debris off of the motors so we can keep going – this involves risking the lives of my crew members, which is not what I want to do.  It’s becoming too dangerous to navigate over millions of square miles of the North Pacific.”

3.  Animals have started ingesting the plastic pieces.

“We have found that virtually every creature could be eating this plastic – we looked at seven or eight species of fish, several types of invertebrates, and some birds – they were all eating it.  It didn’t matter if it was a small or a large animal – all of the animals were on some kind of strange, plastic diet directly or indirectly.”  Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it might just so happen that the plastic container that we’re eating food from may actually one day be in the food we’re eating.  If it’s not already.

4.  The garbage patch is one of many things contributing to death in the oceans.

Already, there have been stories in the news of entire coral reefs dying out, marine pollution, and massive overfishing.  The garbage patch only makes things worse.

Larger species of fish, such as tuna, or large mammals, such as whales, already have high levels of mercury and PCBs concentrated in their bodies.  On top of this, the plastic pieces tend to concentrate these chemicals, so when animals swallow these plastic pieces, this adds to the chemical concentrations in their bodies.  This is particularly troubling in countries that rely heavily on marine proteins, such as in Japan., where cases of mercury poisoning or Minimata disease seem to be on the rise.

On top of that, the plastic is adding to ocean warming.

“The plastic pieces act as a heat sink – they are like little tiny heaters that block the transpiration of gas, and also concentrate the sunlight.”

Ocean warming is seen as a precursor to dying oceans.

5.  There isn’t an easy way to clean up the garbage patch, but there is a way to slow it down.

Unfortunately, we can’t hire a few barges to vacuum up the mess, since there is now sea life thriving among the garbage patch.  Secondly, the large size and remoteness of the patch makes it difficult to even know where to begin.

However, Moore suggests that there are a couple things we can do to slow the patch from growing, and over several millennia the ocean will have to heal itself.

“First, which is not so easy, is insist on a zero waste philosophy.  In an era of diminishing resources, it’s immoral to use so much when we’re coming to the end of our ability to feed, house and clothe humanity.  From a closer perspective, we should also use less plastic or buy things with less packaging.  Essentially, packaging has a very short shelf life – products only need to be protected from air and moisture for a short period of time.  Plastic as it is currently made, lasts forever – it could very well be that the plastic we make now will last longer than we do.”

Certainly, if we don’t do something, plastic could very well be the artifacts we leave behind for future generations, or for lonely trash compacting robots.

More information on Captain Charles Moore’s research can be found at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation website.


Filed under Environment