The NY Times reported that American science is becoming increasingly funded by philanthropic donors, for better or for worse. Supporters of philanthropy cite accomplishments such as medical advances and meeting scientific funding needs in the face of government budget cuts. Others, such as the authors of a Nature editorial, note that philanthropic funding is skewed towards “fashionable” fields such as health, space, and the environment, and is disproportionately allocated to well-known universities.
Signaling a larger shift towards more applied research topics, philanthropists and the government alike are putting less money into basic science. Basic science, the mystery-solving that is fundamental to many scientific disciplines but lacks direct real world applications, may be underfunded because the benefits are often only realized in hindsight. In 2009, the government budget for basic science was $40 billion compared to $30 billion today. Similarly, 3.6% of philanthropic donations went to basic research in 1999, but the donors allocated only 2.9% in 2006. While the funding may be going to more relevant topics, the Nature editorial warns that cutting basic research may undermine long-term efforts and the foundational research needed for future advances.
As science is becoming more privatized, a separate movement has been taking shape to democratize science. While citizen science groups span the board from the government funded (e.g. Project BudBurst, a Chicago-based initiative that studies climate change by looking at the timing of seasonal changes in plants) to nonprofits (e.g. the Public Lab, an open-source platform that focuses on DIY techniques for research), both types seek volunteers to contribute to the collection of scientific data and to shape research questions. This volunteer effort allows scientists to collect large data sets that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive or difficult and to involve the public in the research process.
The research questions addressed by citizen scientists are somewhat different from those that philanthropists or the government pursue; citizen-driven research tends to employ non-traditional tools and grassroots research techniques, which inherently blend disciplines. It is unlikely that citizen scientists are executing the type of large-capital projects now funded by philanthropists such as space exploration or large particle reactors. And because the research questions in citizen science are often, though not always, generated by the citizens, these projects will inherently be informed by social conditions.
At a site like Freshkills Park, with a diverse set of ecological conditions over 2,200 acres, science research can be conducted at multiple levels and in partnership with different constituencies. In addition to institution-run projects, a new citizen science project is beginning to take shape under the direction of Nicholas Johnson, a member of the Public Lab and a recent graduate from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Find out more about this project in our upcoming Fresh Perspectives newsletter.
The City of San Francisco recently announced that it would ban the sale of bottled water in containers less than 21 oz on city property. San Francisco will be the first major city in the US to enact such a ban, though Concord, Massachusetts and Grand Canyon National Park have already replaced bottled water with water bottle filling stations. With a unanimous vote from the SF board of supervisors, elected officials expressed their support for the bill because of the benefits to the environment.
Critics of the new bill claim that water bottles cause a negligible environmental impact because they are made of recyclable plastic. However, even the International Bottled Water Association, a group that represents the bottled water industry, acknowledges that only 38% of water bottles are recycled. The environmental advocacy group Ban the Bottle purports that in fact, a mere 23% are recycled, which reflects the total percentage of plastic recycling nationwide. However, focusing on the landfill versus recycling equation distracts from another environmental cost of bottled water – the production and transport of the bottles. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President, David Chiu, illustrated this point with a water bottle one-quarter full of oil – the amount of fuel it takes to produce and transport one 1.5-pound bottle.
Each year, 9.82 billion plastic water bottles are purchased and 17,677 tons of discarded bottles end up in the waste stream in New York City alone, according to the Department of Sanitation. Since NYC started paying $91 per ton to ship waste out-of-state in 2009, and those costs are expected to rise, that amounts to at least $1.6 million a year spent on the disposal of plastic water bottles. While there are certainly more pressing waste issues in NYC at the moment, such as composting organic waste, San Francisco provides a precedent for waste reduction and environmental sustainability.
The silver lining to the recent unrelenting cold snap is that many types of invasive insects can’t survive the frigid conditions. These invasive insects include the emerald ash bore, known for killing millions of trees in the last decade, and the gypsy moth, which eats the leaves of trees, such as those used to grow agricultural crops. All told, the damage by these tiny pests costs the US government and homeowners billions of dollars in damages each year. The good news is that reports show that the recent cold snap may have eliminated 80-100% of some of these pests in certain areas.
Unfortunately, there is also, of course, some bad news. The same climatic changes that have contributed to the polar vortex are also predicted to ultimately cause milder winters in the eastern United States, so the insects’ geographical range will expand further north from where it was once restricted by colder temperatures. The cold may also be killing parasitoid wasps, one of the few predators for the emerald ash bore. This means that when temperatures rise again this spring, the emerald ash bore may be able to bounce back in even greater numbers. Ecological systems are complex and highly interdependent, so it is rare that something will change just one piece of the system; the response to climate change by these invasive insects may have additional unpredicted results because of unidentified feedbacks (for instance, how might climate change affect their food sources or the other insects with whom they are in direct competition?).
Climatic changes won’t just affect invasive insects, but will also influence invasive plants, like the phragmites, or common reed, which we often encounter at Freshkills Park. Recent studies indicate that phragmites will thrive under increased carbon dioxide levels, meaning that the plant overgrowth will become even more of a problem as climate change progresses. While we have taken some steps to control the ever-present phragmites at Freshkills Park, even using goats in one restoration project, the interaction of climate change with these invasive species will pose a challenge for years to come and demand the ecosystem to adapt.
In a bold piece of legislation, New York City will reduce its waste by one third by requiring that, by 2015, restaurants, grocery stores, and other commercial food generators send all of their organic waste, including food scraps, to either a compost facility or an anaerobic digester. The 1.2 million tons of organic waste diverted each year under this new program is no drop in the bucket, it is more than the annual waste produced in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and D.C. and it will contribute to the goal to double the city’s current recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017. “All eyes are on New York,” said Samantha MacBride, the city’s former deputy director of recycling and now assistant public policy professor at Baruch College. Organic waste recycling, she said, is the “holy grail of sustainable waste management in my view,” as reported by Gotham Gazette.
New York City has a head start on this program with a pilot program that converts residential and school food waste and organics into clean renewable energy at the anaerobic digester in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The new bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Deborah Rose of Staten Island, provides the scale necessary to make this process cost effective for businesses and motivate private development of organics processing infrastructure for the New York metropolitan area. After its start as a pilot project in 90 public schools, the organic waste recycling program is now being tested with city agencies, single family homes in the Westerleigh section of Staten Island (where, after only a few months, participation rates are above 50 percent) and in two Manhattan high-rise developments.
“We spend over $85 million a year sending food waste to landfills, so there’s a major cost,” said Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, who heads up the composting program. He told Yale environment360 that so far the program is collecting at a pace on the order of “tens of thousands” of tons per year. “It’s growing every day,” said Gonen. “We’re going to continue to expand, in all five boroughs.” By 2014 the program will cover around 100,000 households. In addition to the food waste recycling pilot, the city has partnered with our friends at GrowNYC to begin food scrap collection at green markets throughout the five boroughs. Interested households who are not in the pilot areas for collection can bring their food waste to sites across the city for composting at community gardens and other environmental programs.
By the bill’s extension to the commercial sector, the City expects the residential sector to be better served, lowering disposal fees by circumventing landfills and providing local clean renewable energy generation, local jobs and environmental protection.
Learn more about tours of the Newtown Creek Digester Eggs through Openhousenewyork!
A bill was recently passed to ban Polystyrene Foam (also known as Styrofoam) in New York City’s food service, joining cities like Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Seattle; and Amherst, Massachusetts. Most recycling programs, including New York City’s, do not accept Foam Plastics for recycling because the material necessitates separate processing and must be kept exceptionally clean. Furthermore, when it is mistakenly put into the recycling or organics stream, it renders that stream contaminated and the entire stream therefore ends up in the landfill, at a higher cost to taxpayers. The bill reinforces public understanding of Styrofoam as damaging to the environment, and the expense associated with its disposal. Taxpayers end up paying to have their Styrofoam dumped in landfills or worse, our water supply, and both fates threaten our environment and our health.
The bill to ban Styrofoam is a call to New York City residents to take responsibility for their waste. By way of eliminating non-recyclables from the city’s food service, consumers are more directly confronted with their waste when prompted to separate recycling from garbage destined for the landfill. If New York City residents collectively made a conscious effort to minimize waste on an individual level, our landfills would diminish and our water would be cleaner, positively affecting our parks and their cleanliness. Styrofoam constitutes 0.5% of the weight of all waste and 0.64% of household hazardous waste, as defined by the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling of the NYC Department of Sanitation. Although small in mass and volume, Styrofoam takes over one million years to decompose and the decision to ban the packaging product is a strong step in the direction of a more sustainable future of waste disposal and recycling. As the largest economy and market in North America, New York City sets a precedent in ceasing and banning the production and sale of consumer goods and packaging that is not recyclable.
A recent study at the University of Exeter Medical School found that happiness may actually be influenced by the amount of greenspace in one’s community. This study focused on changes in happiness in the two years prior to moving to a community with more greenspace, as well as the three years following that move. In the three years after the move, the researchers found that not only were individuals happier than they were before they moved, but on average, they retained that same level of happiness.
One of the researchers, Dr. Ian Alcock, believes that happiness levels are sustained after a move because greener urban areas have a lasting impact on one’s mental health. Dr. Alcock contrasts the increase in one’s happiness levels to getting married. While the initial jump into marriage feels incredible, after some time, one’s happiness levels inevitably sink back to normal again. However, Dr. Alcock claims that greenspace may have the effects of getting married without the predictable plummet of happiness. In some ways, moving to a greener community might be the best mental health decision one can make!
After performing this five year-long study involving 1,000 participants, and analyzing the results of the British Household Panel Survey, researchers recommend that people choose to live in an urban community filled with abundant greenspace. These communities have cleaner air, more aesthetically pleasing sites, and most importantly, happier residents! Living in close proximity to greenspace is an invaluable luxury, that hopefully every New Yorker will experience as part of PlaNYC’s initiative. Moving into neighborhoods bordering Freshkills Park can benefit from the radical change of the site into beautiful greenspace. While yellow might have been the color associated with happiness in the past (most notably, the “smiley face”), the future color of happiness is green.
The number of people who choose to live in cities is on the rise, with 80% of the US population living in urban areas as of the 2010 census. While living in cities like New York reduces our individual environmental impact, it also causes the displacement of wildlife. But, as we all know, the city is not devoid of wildlife, so what types of creatures live here?
Just as the people from New York come from many different areas, the wildlife that inhabits the city often has origins in other places. For example, the Monk Parrot, a bright green tropical bird from Argentina, has established a breeding colony in NYC. This city-dwelling wildlife, whether native or not, faces unique challenges that have prompted some interesting animal adaptations. Like their human counterparts, city-dwelling animals have adapted to denser populations, smaller territories, changes in breeding patterns, and different diets.
Wildlife in the city often finds refuge in the city’s ~29,000 acres of parkland. While Freshkills has not formally been mapped as parkland yet, the wildlife has already recognized the resources that the landscape can provide and has been flocking back to the site. Inhabiting the rolling grassy hills that were once landfill mounds swarming with gulls are foxes, bald eagles, and coyotes. If you’d like to observe the transformation of Freshkills for yourself, join us for one of our spring tours or field trips.
It might be easy to imagine designating a bottle or a newspaper for recycling or reuse – but food? That is the purview of former Mayor Bloomberg’s Food Waste Challenge. Over 100 New York City restaurants have made a commitment to divert at least 50% of their food waste. Of the diverted food waste, a quarter of it is reused: the leftover stir-fry or the day-old bread is sent to shelters and food pantries where it can feed the hungry. The remaining 75% of the food waste, containing things like banana peels and egg shells, is recycled: by composting the food waste, the nutrients can be used to grow more food instead of taking up space in a landfill. In the first six months of the successful program, these 100 restaurants were able to divert 2,500 tons of food waste, which already represent the city’s largest single stream of food waste diversion.
One common hurdle in making food donation programs successful is connecting the restaurants with food banks and non-profits that can pick up the food in a timely fashion. The city has partnered with MintScraps to develop cloud-based software that will allow restaurants to post leftover opportunities and those in need to capitalize on them. Hopefully, businesses will also save money by reducing their waste.
The Food Waste Challenge has gained momentum with support from private business like the Yankee Stadium, JetBlue, and InterContinental New York Barclay. City leaders have already passed the next ambitious step in food waste reduction, passing legislation that would require large commercial food waste producers to send their waste to a compost facility or anaerobic digester. Targeting the top 5% of waste producers would help divert 30% of the cities organic waste, or 250,000 tons annually.
The snowy owl, a bird made increasingly famous by its title role as Hedwig in the Harry Potter movies, was spotted at Freshkills Park last week. As its name suggests, the bird can be recognized by its snowy white color, though they have varied amounts of black and brown markings on their wings and chest. The females tend to have darker barring, while the males get whiter with age. The owl spotted at Freshkills has intermediate markings, so it is difficult to tell its sex, but because of the long white bib, our best guess is that it is an immature male. Interestingly for Harry Potter fans, despite Hedwig’s role as a female owl, she was actually portrayed by a male snowy owl in the films because they have whiter markings.
The snowy owl travels all the way from its summer breading spot in the treeless arctic tundra where it takes advantage of 24 hours of daylight to hunt small birds, waterfowl, and small mammals like the lemming. One snowy owl can consume over 1,600 lemmings a year; in fact, they are so dependent on lemming as a food source in the arctic that in years when the lemming population booms, the snowy owl is able to hatch more chicks. Unlike most owls, the snowy hunts during the day in large open areas like fields or shorelines. For a vantage point in these wide open spaces, the owls often find a conspicuous perch like a fence post, or in the case of the one spotted at Freshkills, a landfill gas pipe where DSNY Director of Landfill Engineering Ted Nabavi photographed him.
Snowy owls are only spotted in the winter in the Northern United States, but there have been a number of sightings in the area recently. If you’d like to try to spot these magnificent owls, you can try Great Kills Park (on the south west shore of Staten Island), Jamaica Bay Park (in Queens), or check ebird for the latest sightings near you. Happy birding!
Information via All About Birds
Imagine warming your hands at a campfire that is also lighting up a Christmas tree in DUMBO.
What’s going on here?
Have you ever felt a regular light bulb after it has been on for a while? It’s hot because a side effect of using electricity is that some of the energy is wasted as heat. Unless the heat produced is hot enough to boil water, producing steam that can turn turbines, it is typically wasted. However, an innovative technology called a Peltier Junction can use the difference in temperature between two surfaces to create an electric current. It is this technology that’s used in the Biolite stoves to generate electricity with which you can charge your phone or power Christmas lights.
What implications does this technology have?
Fuel Reduction: Transforming waste heat into electricity allows a more sustainable combustion of wood. The electricity produced powers a fan that improves combustion, reducing the fuel needs by 40%. Increasing fuel efficiency represents a needed innovation because one of the major issues with using wood as a renewable resource is overharvesting. At Freshkills we have embraced other forms of renewable energy by transforming the landfill gas produced into methane that heats ~22,000 Staten Island homes and by planning to install the city’s largest solar array.
Human Health: The stove produces 90% less smoke, which can improve air quality and decrease health risks. By using profits from their camp stove to subsidize low-cost home stoves, the Brooklyn-based company has started to make this off the grid technology available in several developing countries. Imagine the impact this could have in places where woman have to walk miles to gather wood, wood burning is often done in enclosed huts, and there is limited access to electricity.