Opening a vegan can of worms

 As many of you may have heard, the Greenpop office recently pledged to become vegan for 40 days. We are now two weeks into that pledge, and it is high time to share some of our experiences and thought-progressions through the last two weeks. 

 Taking a pledge toward veganism was in line with something we’ve been thinking about for a while at Greenpop, which is that most of our reasons for going vegetarian extend logically to veganism. The environmental impacts of eating meat and animal products are well known in sustainability circles: their accounting for 19% of greenhouse gas emissions only slightly more concerning than the industry’s devastating impact on deforestation and water usage – amongst other effects. Naturally, these problems are not only caused by the production of meat products but also animal products in general – the dairy, eggs and cheese which many vegetarians rely on to substitute meat in their diets. In 2010 the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a report that stated that a move towards a vegan diet (without animal products) was imperative to curb food insecurity and climate change. We felt that taking a challenge to go vegan for 40 days would challenge us to think through the implications of this in a South African context – and the way we purchase food, cook that food, and consume—not just food products, but in all aspects of life.

The day we started our pledge, we posted on Facebook, saying “
We’ve taken a 40-day challenge at Greenpop, starting today, to cut out animal products from our office lunches. Why? We’re taking a conscious decision about the environmental effects which eating animal products entails […] Want to join in? Share, like, comment your ideas on veganism here – let’s start the conversation!” What followed was a flurry of conversation: thoughtful, respectful, and balanced discussion from our followers who engaged with the issue.

In the office, we’ve been engaging with the issues personally and practically every day. A few of us completely committed to veganism, cutting all animal products out of their diet in and out of the office. A few others are giving it their best shot, aiming to cut out animal products as much as possible. Still others—the meat eaters, for the most part—are taking the pledge as literally as possible, and only remained vegan within the boundaries of the office, where peer pressure holds sway!

Our commitment thus generated a lively set of discussions around the lunch table about what our pledge really meant. We initially spoke at great lengths about the various connotations of the word “vegan.” It seemed that many people associate the word with a sort of challenge, and can be taken as an assertion that their own lifestyle by is superior to others. We also discussed in detail the fiscal and equality problems often associated with a vegan lifestyle, which branch out to the organic and fair trade movements as well: that whole foods, organic foods, fair trade foods, and vegan specialty foods form part of a diet which is inaccessible to most of the South African (and African) populous. However, it was also brought up that many foods that can provide a complete set of proteins and are completely free of animal products are actually pretty cheap, and much easier on the environment. According to the National Agricultural Marketing Council’s Food Price Monitor from August 2012, the price of a kilogram each—two Kg total—of beans and rice was R 28.95, while the price of a kilogram of chicken portions would be about R 41.24: almost double the price, for half the food! Whilst it is easy to see that meat is an expensive food option, we are still debating whether eating healthily as a vegan implies a high-cost lifestyle. Mass-market goods high in caloric content and low in nutritional value are far more easily accessible to most South Africans, despite being vegan.


Our debates in the office were paralleled on Facebook, and we gained even more insight into issues thanks to different viewpoints and articles that were posted, including a review of Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth.” In this autobiography, Keith expressed a desire to live a life that didn’t cause senseless death of other living organisms. However, she came to realize that with the path modern industrial agriculture has taken, she realized that even if she committed fully to veganism, every soy burger she ate would have caused the deaths of countless microorganisms that thrive in unplowed, unfertilized soil, and added up led to total environmental destruction, which lead to her advocating a “paleolithic” diet, one which is plant and meat based without refined sugars and grains. Paleo diets cut out grains and agriculture in favor of plants and animals that could literally be gathered or hunted, as an alternate to veganism or vegetarianism. On the other hand, many of our followers cited articles and films that advocate for a plant-based diet, such as Food, Inc. or “Earthlings”. People who have been vegan for a while shared advice and meal suggestions with each other, including experiences – both good and bad – with plant based diets.

The challenge to implement and synergise the views on veganism in our office (full of environmentally-minded individuals) and the lively discussion generated on Facebook is poignant in thinking about the way in which a basic environmental decision could apply to the broader context of Southern Africa. We haven’t come to the answers yet – and don’t expect to soon. For now, we’re embracing eating plant-based foods, considering the impact of food on the environment, and learning a lot along the way.

Flooding: the positive effects

Dave Walker submitted this pic of the floods at Lower Sabie

2012 floods at Lower Sabie. (Image by Dave Walker)

Moving water can be a powerfully destructive force and – when they occur – severe floods put the resilience of the environment to the test. Following the recent floods, the total cost of damages to structures such as roads and bridges as well as gates, camps and picnic spots at Kruger National Park stands at over R153 million. But, with minimal damage to tourism infrastructure, most guest bookings rerouted and almost all of the functionality restored to the Park’s operations, what are the lasting effects of this extreme phenomenon on the natural environment?
As Kruger Park CEO David Mabunda said of the flooding earlier this year in the Park, “It’s not all doom and gloom”. While it’s true that floods can have some devastating consequences, especially for man-made structures, they can also be beneficial to the ecosystem in which they occur. In fact, torrential rains like the ones experienced in 2000, 2012 and again in the beginning of this year can actually have positive effects. Among their commonly observed benefits, floods:
• distribute rich sediment, returning nutrients to the soil and replenishing wetlands and important riparian zones;
• allow new vegetation to grow on eroded river banks;
• provide new habitats to river organisms in the form of natural debris;
• the surrounding soil may receive a boost in fertility allowing new plants to germinate.

Mabunda echoed these positive aspects when he noted the influx of visitors shortly after the dramatic floods in 2000, attributing it to the beauty of a rejuvenated, greener environment. But, more than just opportunities for nature to replenish itself, floods play a key role in some ecosystem functions you may not have even thought about. For instance, they may give many native species a “leg-up” on invasive species which are naturally not evolved to survive in regularly flooded areas.

2012 floods at Crocodile River. (Image by Sharna-Dee Appelcryn)

While it’s important to acknowledge the disruptive and even catastrophic effect of floods on the lives of humans, it’s good to know that they are not only a normal function of natural systems but can be an essential ingredient in their survival.

When do you prefer to visit the Kruger Park: in the dry winter months or in the green summer season?

Motor Vehicle Companies Team Up on Hydrogen Fuel Cell Research

Automakers Ford, Daimler, and Renault-Nissan are joining forces to develop the technology for fuel cell vehicles and to make it more cost effective. Investments in the research will be spread evenly among the companies, who hope their alliance will produce a fuel cell system to power new electric vehicles that can travel further between refuels than the battery electric vehicles currently available on the market. Furthermore, Ford aims to have a hydrogen fuel cell car on the mass market in as little as four years.

Sharing both research and resources, this new partnership gives the trio a chance to do what no single motor vehicle company has done yet: craft a mass market hydrogen-powered vehicle. Costs have been too high so far to make this possible. If they succeed, however, it could be a step forward in reducing our dependence on oil to fuel our travels. The hydrogen fuel cell technology also promises less pollution than fossil fuels produce, as hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles only emit heat and water vapor.

The companies have a combined 60 years of experience working on this technology, and their test vehicles have gone over 6.2 million miles. The engineering work ahead for the partnership will be spread throughout their worldwide facilities. The companies will also work to develop other parts for fuel-cell powered vehicles, in addition to the individual fuel cell development, in order to reduce costs further.

image: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Lars Plougmann

via: Huffington Post

Support for Continued Use of LEED in US Military

The LEED green building certification program created by the US Green Building Council has become something of a political football for the past several years. But a recent report from the National Research Council, as well as analysis from the Department of Defense, show that the military should use LEED, despite political pressure opposing it.

Congress has been explicitly hostile to LEED in recent years, with the program specifically called out in the Congressional Prohibition on Use of Funds for LEED Gold or Platinum Certification, which states that “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or otherwise made available for the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2012 may be obligated or expended for achieving any LEED gold or platinum certification.”

According to Building Green, “A long-awaited report from the National Research Council gives the nod to LEED Silver ratings “or equivalent” for military buildings. The report looked at a variety of methods of comparing costs and benefits and ultimately confirmed that LEED Silver certification is the preferred model for limiting costs and maximizing benefits.”

The military is the largest single consumer of energy in the country. It also controls more square footage of buildings than any other organization. So having a cleaner, more efficient military is not a small matter.

Previously on EcoGeek: US Military Embracing Green Energy

image: US Archives

via: Building Green

Best of Both Worlds Power Storage from Graphene Supercapacitors

If UCLA researchers are correct, a new supercharger could transform both the way we power our electronics and recycle their old sources of energy. Bringing together the quick-charging qualities of a capacitor and the energy-holding capacities of a battery, graphene supercapacitors could replace the often toxic batteries we currently use to power our electronics.

Batteries and capacitors are relatively similar devices, functionally speaking. Standard batteries consist of two chemicals that react with each other, separated by a barrier, and have a circuit between them; capacitors are composed of two oppositely charged metal plates, separated by an insulator, with a circuit between them. When electrons flow through the circuits of batteries and capacitors alike they provide electricity. Although capacitors can be charged very quickly, they don’t hold nearly as much energy as batteries.

Graphene supercapacitors would solve the energy holding problem of capacitors. Graphene conducts electricity better than any other common substance, and the one-atom thick material has more going for it than capacity: it’s also thinner, lighter, and can be turned into cheaper energy-holding devices than batteries. Because it’s carbon-based, it’s also biodegradable. Considering the care we need to take when disposing of batteries that are often made of toxic metals, how much would it rock to be able to compost our disposable charge holders instead?

Extremely flexible and stronger than steel, graphene has been notoriously difficult to work with, as the Focus Forward video describes. The researchers who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work with graphene created the substance by carefully peeling graphite with scotch tape–not a method that’s easy or quick to replicate. However, researchers at UCLA claim they have found a better method to craft the substance in a delightfully MacGyver-like way: by using a consumer-grade DVD drive. After pouring graphite oxide onto CDs, popping the CDs into the drive and using the drive’s laser to beam light on the material, the graphite oxide deoxygenates and becomes graphene. Miles ahead of scotch tape, this DVD drive method produces the essentially two-dimensional material easily and quickly. Imagine what could be done with a machine designed to create sheets of graphene on a larger scale.

Graphene supercapacitors have immense potential to revolutionize the efficiency and environmental-friendliness of our electronics. Especially after listening to the researchers discuss graphene’s potential, it’s difficult not to be excited for the future of this technology. Graphene supercapacitors could charge electronic devices, but further research will determine just how much these supercapacitors can charge (are electric car charging stations really a possibility?), and if and when they’ll be available for consumers. In any case, here’s hoping the technology can take off.

image: CC BY-SA 2.0 by CORE-Materials

via: Boing Boing

Cooling Semiconductors with Lasers

Is there anything that lasers can’t do? The latest breakthrough comes from a team of researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who have developed a method for cooling semiconductor material (cadmium sulfide) with lasers. In an article published in Nature, NTU reserachers report on cooling a semiconductor from 20 degrees C (68 degrees F) to -20 degrees C (-4 degrees F) as an initial proof of concept.

Heat is an unwanted side effect of most energy-using devices. In many cases, ranging from portable electronics to medical magnetic resonance imagery equipment to scientific research equipment, the need for keeping the equipment cooled is vital to continued function. At present, equipment such as MRI systems require liquid helium for cooling, but with laser cooling, the system could be made smaller and would not require the extensive cooling hardware that is currently needed.

Cooling gasses with lasers is a known technology, but cooling a solid has not been done previously, although the theory behind it is decades old. “Our initial results published in Nature, have shown that it is possible to laser-cool a semiconductor to liquid nitrogen temperature, so we are aiming to reach an even lower temperature, such as that of liquid helium,” said Prof Xiong Qihua, a member of the NTU team.

Other cooling technologies for computers have been proposed which could lead to significant energy savings. But if laser cooling eventually became widely used for other applications, it would make this even more beneficial. Laser cooled equipment could be more energy efficient, and portable electronic equipment with this technology would also potentially prolong battery life.

In addition to the energy benefits, wide-scale development and application of this technology would also drastically reduce the amount of refrigerants needed in industry and technology. Many of the chemicals used in refrigeration equipment are harmful to the Earth’s ozone layer or have a significant global warming potential (and many are both). Reducing the need for these chemicals would be an added benefit laser cooling might someday offer.

image: CC BY 2.0 by Jeff Keyzer/Wikimedia Commons

via: Science Daily

New Database to Help Increase Environmental Responsibility of Ocean Power

In collaboration with the International Energy Agency, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) recently launched a new database that brings together environmental monitoring and worldwide ocean energy development efforts. Called Tethys, the database will show the interrelationship between processes in nature and ocean power technology, and will function as a resource to help keep environmental responsibility at the forefront of ocean-based energy production projects.

Named after the Greek titaness of the ocean, Tethys will help industry regulators and energy project developers alike identify possible environmental effects of the efforts to gain sustainable, clean energy from the world’s oceans. Tethys offers real-world data that accounts for the interconnectedness of oceanic ecosystems and technology, and offers insight on the interactions between energy-producing machines, marine wildlife, and the physical processes of the ocean. Having all of this data compiled together– from tidal current turbines projects to published studies on offshore wind farms and marine mammals–will allow for a safer expansion of ocean power. According to the DOE’s announcement, the database also has an accompanying report that highlights research on ways to monitor ocean energy projects and possible environmental effects.

The world’s oceans offer immense potential for alternative energy development. As with any alternative energy resource, however, ocean power developers must taken into account any negative environmental impacts from the technology in order for ocean power to be a truly renewable source of energy. As a living document, Thethys will constantly increase our global understanding of the ocean as new projects and new research data arise. In order to expand Tethys’s usefulness for current and future ocean power projects, the DOE encourages researchers to submit their studies to the database.

You can view an interactive map of Tethys here, and check out the technological developments in and environmental research on oceans around the world.

image: CC by 2.0 by Phil Manker

via: US Department of Energy

USDOE Offers Over $50 Million for Innovations in Vehicle Energy Efficiency

If you have an idea on how to make motor vehicles greener, and you’re looking for funding for your research, you may be in luck. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is preparing a funding opportunity for new research projects that will make motor vehicles have less of a negative impact on the environment and an improved fuel efficiency. The Department will invest over $50 million in these new research projects. In addition, the US Army plans to contribute $3.5 million where joint development opportunities arise, as part of the Advanced Vehicle Power Technology Alliance with the Energy Department.

While the solicitation for these new projects is currently in draft form, the DOE seeks public comment on the draft before beginning to accept applications for groundbreaking new motor vehicle technologies. Members of the public may review the draft of the solicitation on vehicle performance and fuel economy and offer thoughts on how to improve the solicitation before the final version is released. As the draft currently stands, project proposals can focus on any of five areas in which motor vehicles can become more energy efficient: advanced lightweighting and propulsion materials, advanced battery development, power electronics, advanced HVAC systems, and fuels and lubricants.

The DOE will accept comments on the draft until Friday February, 15. Those interested in commenting can find more information here, and comments on the Funding Opportunity Announcement may be submitted to the Energy Department at their designated email address. Inventors should wait until the final draft is published as an amendment to the current draft before submitting their research proposals.

image: CC BY 2.0 by Kevin Krejci

via: US Department of Energy