Working towards a sustainable future

By: Alex Slaymaker

I spent part of my summer working as Georgetown University’s research fellow in the 2013 Ivy Plus Sustainability Research Collaborative.  There were multiple areas of concentration within the Collaborative framework to choose from; however, an exploratory conversation with my supervisor at Georgetown illuminated shared interests. Georgetown is very much interested in exploring organic waste diversion methods utilized in higher education, and I am very passionate about waste minimization and diversion.

Although everyone may not celebrate when they receive news they will be spending the majority of their summer researching organic waste, I was elated. Organic waste intrigues me because it is a comparatively easy problem to solve with known and economically feasible solutions. As with many simple and complex problems, the largest barrier is behavior change.

My first step was to conduct a comprehensive literature review and annotated bibliography on the subject of front-end post-consumer organic source separation. This jargon-dense phrase refers to a type of waste diversion that requires the waste generator to separate organic waste, recyclables and trash into different bins. This research illuminated a gap in the literature, which led to formation of the following research question: What are the most significant enabling factors associated with the successful implementation of front-end post-consumer organics source separation programs on college campuses?

After discussing possible methods of answering this question, my supervisor and I decided an online survey proved the most logical method to gather quantitative and qualitative data from a large number of universities across the nation. I identified the survey population based on specific characteristics such as waste diversion method, length of program, and availability of data. After finalizing the survey based on feedback from a trial, I was confident the content and methods would provide quality data. Unfortunately, my contract ended in August and I had to pass the survey distribution and analysis portion of this research to a group of Georgetown students. At the end of the program, I was able to show my work to my fellow Ivy-Plus researchers through a cyberconference. I was honored to present my work among such talented individuals, but was disappointed I couldn’t see the project to completion.

This summer was very challenging and required me to learn how to do many new tasks without showing my inexperience. My experience allowed me to live with my brother on Andrews Air Force Base and explore Washington, D.C., a city I have grown very fond of. Working in areas related to sustainability can sometimes be disheartening and overwhelming. This summer proved to me that brilliant people are not only identifying problems, but also finding and implementing solutions.  Freshly inspired, I returned to Ohio University excited for my final year and determined to help build a better, cleaner, healthier future.


Saving the Earth one bicycle lane at a time: Active Transportation and the Environment

By: Jeremiah Asaka

Earlier this week I was privileged to attend Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s 2013 Summit on Sustainability and the Environment. The conference was themed “Building resilience for a climate of change. “

The conference was segmented into three tracks: community, business and local government. All the tracks had sessions going on concurrently in the morning, mid morning and afternoon.

In order to get the best out of the conference I attended three sessions — one from each track. At one of the sessions, titled “Pathway to a Resilient, Energy-Efficient Economy,” I was pleased to see the contribution of the Voinovich School in fronting an energy-efficient-economy paradigm recognized by Dr. Fiksel of Ohio State University.  This recognition was done alongside that of Millennium Initiative and Ohio State University.

However, a discussion on active transportation really caught my attention. Active transportation is defined as any means of transport that involves the active involvement of one’s muscles, such as bike riding and walking.  According one of the panelists at the session titled “Active Transportation Is for Everyone,” active transportation has several advantages including, but not limited to, healthy living, reduced risk of obesity and heart disease.  As a panelist described it, “Walking and biking is a significant part of a healthy community.”

While active transportation is not a new phenomenon, its popularity as a central part of transportation has reduced over the years among most communities in the United States who prefer motorized transportation. The discussion at the conference centered on bringing active transportation back to its past glory. A major starting point suggested by one panelist was having every individual reserve short-distance travel for active transportation. For example, it was suggested that going to the neighborhood grocery store should be done either by biking or walking — depending on which one suits the scenario at hand.

Panelists at the discussion also shared experiences from different areas, mainly Chicago, Columbus, and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Compared to Columbus, Chicago was said to be way ahead of the game with the city mayor recently mandating the construction and protection of bike and walkways on nearly all major roads within the city. This, one of the participant said, has attracted major blue chip companies like Motorola to the city because of the convenience such options offer to their employees. The City of Calgary was touted as a better model on which to base future active transportation plans for Columbus..

The session also addressed some of the challenges faced by those already engaging in active transportation. Some the challenges include unprotected walkways, limited walkways and bike lanes, and, as one panelist put it, “motorists who don’t know that cyclists don’t belong to the sidewalks.”

If the discussions that I listened to were anything to go by, there is a lot of opportunity in the realm of active transportation and any community that chooses to make active transportation a big part of its culture stands to gain a lot in this era of living with our means.

Lastly, the conference did not conclude without a stab at the climate change debate. I must say it is a great source of hope for me whenever I see such a huge group of Americans gather to discuss climate change as a real threat to their existence and try to find solutions that can augment their resilience.

One of the speakers at a lunchtime panel discussion on climate change ushered conference attendees into the now highly politicized debate. The speaker, Ben Gelber — an NBC4 metereologist — said, “Climate change debate has been politicized. And that’s unfortunate. We are better than that as a society.” In agreement with Mr. Gelber, I think the politicization of any issue is actually the greatest misdeed that we as individuals can ever proffer upon humanity. The politicization of the cause and threat of climate change is costing humanity and life on earth dearly. The sooner we all realize that the better.

Just to give a glimpse of how much cost we are talking about here, another member of the panel, Kevin Reardon of the American Red Cross, had this to say: “One dollar spent on preparedness equals four dollars spent on response.” Imagine that!

We had all better agree that climate change is costly, real and that we have played a part in propagating it. Planning early enough for any eventuality even as we work on mitigating our impacts on the climate is surely the way to go

Sustainability: Keeping an eye on the big picture

“Sustainability” is an overused term. Depending on the context, it can mean a variety of different things. I refer to it as preserving our resources and planet so future generations can enjoy a quality of life similar to what we have now.

I believe more and more people are realizing we need to fully embrace the principles of sustainability to preserve our planet and ensure we have a future for ourselves and the generations that follow us. I don’t have a scientific study to prove this, but it seems to be a self- evident reality that will only gain acceptance as time goes on.

We are also nearing some tipping points for our natural systems, particularly our climate. Here, I could cite plenty of scientific studies, but I’ll spare my readers. This is particularly relevant after Hurricane Sandy, which may have been exacerbated by climate change. Indeed, science points to a very bleak future if we do not change our ways. Other resource crises we could soon face include a lack of fresh water and depleted fisheries. Managing these resources properly is all part of sustainability.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Across the globe, there are plenty of good things going on. One of my projects at the Voinovich School has been to document some of these initiatives in Ohio. In the industrial heartland, Ohio has become a surprising leader in green jobs, ranking near the top among all states. Consistent with one of our strengths, many of these jobs are in manufacturing.

This newsletter, put together by Brian Kaiser from the nonprofit Ohio Environmental Council, has been my main source.

However, it’s important that we still step back and look at the big picture to ensure we are on the right track. Despite all these initiatives, if the science shows we are not progressing quickly enough, it may be time to fundamentally rethink things we take for granted. Green business and good policy are powerful tools, but we might also have to change our lifestyles and consume fewer resources.

This brings me to a report titled, “Zero-Impact Growth Monitor,” put together by the consulting firm Deloitte. Can business really grow without having an impact on the environment? Could this be the answer? Many people think so. This is the kind of fundamental change needed if we are to rise up to what I believe is the greatest challenge of the 21st century: resource distribution. Around one billion people currently live in poverty and huge countries like China and India are rapidly industrializing, yet we are already over consuming the planet’s resources and approaching various tipping points within earth’s life-supporting ecosystems.

If we continue on our current path and perpetuate “business-as-usual,” it is a recipe for disaster. But if we bravely embrace new ideas like zero-impact growth and embed the principles of sustainability into our way of thinking across all disciplines, we might just get the job done.