Sustaining Changes

In my efforts to get healthier, I have changed some habits which are having positive results; most notably what and how much I eat.  It is clear that if I sustain these changes, it will continue to benefit me by reducing my likelihood of some diseases, making clothes shopping less depressing, and in aligning me closer to my self-image.  Making these changes has been a challenging endeavor which requires a heightened sense of consciousness to avoid falling in to old habits.  As an example, yesterday I went in to a gas station to say hello to a neighbor who works there and I needed to fight my urge to buy some junk food and a sugary beverage which is exactly what I used to do.  I browsed around the store and ended up buying a small pack of almonds and refilling my stainless steel water bottle.  As I drove home and ate my almonds, I thought they tasted delicious and that is one of the more notable things with my efforts, the foods I am eating taste better than they used to.  Some days I am tempted by unhealthy foods but mostly I do not miss them.  I miss the habits and situations that used to accompany them, so I am making new habits and new associations, ultimately re-training my brain which is an iterative process with it’s up and downs as you can see from my daily weigh ins above.  Some days I take a few steps up the down escalator but most importantly, the escalator has continued in the desired direction.

Today, Earth Day 2017, I was thinking about the importance of sustainable changes like the ones I making towards better health.  The mindset required for making more environmentally conscious decisions also requires a sense of consciousness and will require breaking some old habits.  This can mean different things to different people but what is one sustaining change that you can make to help improve the long term sustainability of our planet?  I am genuinely interested in your ideas and resisting my urge to list a plethora of examples / choices.

Sainted: NHL

Over the past 5 years, the National Hockey League has been steadily increasing their commitment to the environment.  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman summed up some of the concerns of the NHL well when he said “Our game originated on frozen ponds. Many of our players learned to skate on outdoor rinks. For that magnificent tradition to continue through future generations, we need winter weather and, as a League, we are uniquely positioned to promote that message.”  As I have witnessed challenges maintaining my own outdoor rink over the years and with city run neighborhood rinks, the outdoor skating season is shortening and becoming less predictable.  In Canada and other countries, many of the youth leagues rely heavily on outdoor ice and they have seen the season shortened by 20-30%.

 

After hiring a Director of Sustainability and doing a significant amount of analysis of everything that is a part of the NHL, they released their incredibly detailed sustainability report.  The report outlines goals and initiatives, details how each of the 30 teams are doing, information from player perspectives, and much more.  In many other professional sports you will hear or see stories about ad hoc sustainability initiatives like a new kajillion dollar stadium reclaiming irrigation water or similar and while there is some merit, stories like that are often more about publicity than actual sustainability.  This is where the NHL really differentiates itself, they have top down support and are outwardly vocal about this problem and their work towards doing their part to resolve it.  Further, the NHL concedes that while they have made some progress, there is much more to do.  They are an organization that is truly committed to lessening their environmental impact and to helping catalyze a larger movement toward a healthier planet.

 

Collecting data from 30 different clubs and their facilities which use different systems from different suppliers and making sense of it is no trivial task.  The NHL has learned that 75% of their emissions come from electricity consumption, about 20% comes from club travel, and the remaining comes from natural gas and other fuels.  At their Arenas they are focused on improving efficiencies with refrigeration, humidification, concessions, HVAC, lighting, water usage, technical display and audio systems.  They are also focused on deploying alternative energy systems including solar, geothermal, biogas fueled fuel cells, hydro and more.  It is not every organization that has taken the time to calculate how many BTU’s per employee are consumed each year, how many gallons of water are used per attendee at each game, or how many pounds of CO2 emissions happen per square foot at each venue.  The fact that they are measuring everything is incredibly impressive, that is a key component of being able to know where to focus efforts and validate accomplishments.

 
The report outlines the efficiencies to date which include significant improvements in rink lighting, solar installations, fuel cell implementations, concessions changes, and more.  What is more impressive is that each club has created their own sustainability goals.  The MN Wild for example, have already reduced their carbon footprint by 35% as they make their way to their 80% goal.  They also already met their initial goal of reducing trash by more than 50%.  In an era where all we often hear about in professional sports is championships, the agony of defeat, and criminal behavior; it is nice to see the NHL making calculated investments on improving their own sustainability.

Litigious Shenanigans

Anyone who knows me or has read some prior blog posts knows I am a huge fan of Tesla Motors (TSLA) and electric vehicles in general. The math of electric cars is undeniably compelling and will be the subject of a future blog post.

TSLA has been on the receiving end of countless lawsuits in recent years by automobile dealer associations and others. Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Virginia and others have lawsuits in various stages of flight and appeals trying to completely block TSLA from selling to consumers, limiting how many vehicles they can sell, etc. In fact, it is currently illegal in Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas for TSLA to sell directly to consumers. Despite this TSLA has stores in many states (see map above) including those that block the direct sale, where consumers can get more information, see and drive the car, and then go home and order online. The core argument of this litigation is that the direct sales model TSLA has violates state automotive franchise rules and that the TSLA sales model would set a precedent that ‘threatens the way independent franchises have sold and serviced vehicles for eight decades’.

This type of argument is so monolithic and predictable, with obvious$ motivations. It is unclear to me how this is a different approach than a local grocery store trying to block a farmers market or girl scout from selling cookies. It was not too many years ago when the big three sat with their hands out asking for a bailout simply because they were unable to adapt to the changing needs of consumers and watched competitors like Toyota make record profits by selling efficient and reliable cars. You would think that the auto industry would be watching the success TSLA is having and implementing options for adapting their sales model and products to compete, similar to what big box retailers had to do to compete with Amazon. The auto industry should also be reveling in the fact that TSLA recently made their patents public.

In his “All Our Patent Are Belong To You” blog post, CEO of TSLA Elon Musk wrote: “Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.” Of course the release of the patents initially scared Wall Street who thought perhaps Elon was having a Tony Stark (Ironman) like moment but despite all of the obstacles and naysayers, TSLA stock has had over 1000% growth in a few short years. At a time where numerous other companies are fleeing for tax inversion benefits or cheap overseas labor, it appears as though later today TSLA will officially announce that Nevada will be the site of the new 5 billion dollar battery factory which will create 6,500 jobs in northern Nevada. Seeing a CEO with the passion, vision, and ethical fiber to put environmental stewardship in high regard is refreshing and I look forward to the continued innovation.

Tainted: North Dakota

First, I feel it is important to say that I have friends and family in North Dakota (ND) and I am confident that there are plenty of good people in the state doing good things. Hopefully tainting ND does not get me uninvited to an upcoming wedding. However, the way the fossil fuel industry is running portions of the state is not in humanity’s best interest. A recent L.A. Times article outlined the volume of natural gas flaring currently being done in ND. The picture above illustrates this well; in the Williston Basin where the Bakken oil fields are there is not a major metropolitan area and yet a picture from outer space depicts a different story, simply from all of the natural gas flares being burned and wasted. Currently $1 billion worth of natural gas is flared each year in ND, about 30% of total production. There are not too many industries where you can ‘throw away’ 30% of your product and still be highly profitable. But natural gas flaring and wasted energy are just the tip of the iceberg in Western ND. Portions of the state are neck deep in an “oil boom” which has helped lead to an incredibly low unemployment rate but has brought on numerous unintended consequences. ND has failed to get ahead of the needs surrounding infrastructure, crime prevention, and governance. This has led to overuse and erosion of infrastructure, a wave of illegal waste dumping and other crime, and disputes over land and mineral rights. There are examples where it appears as though the fossil fuel industry has politicians bought and paid for or perhaps have just been allowed to conduct business to make the most profit with little regard for the long term economic and environmental consequences. ND produces over a million barrels of oil per day and has 17,500 miles of pipelines. In September 2013 a spill released over 20k barrels and was only reported to the public after an Associated Press inquiry. It is a relief to know that while oil covered over 7 acres, officials stated no wildlife was harmed and no groundwater was contaminated <sarcasm>. Cleanup crews opted to burn oil on the surface and later dug ditches to collect and vacuum what remained. Starting oil on fire as a cleanup procedure is an interesting approach, let’s hope they do not begin doing that at local car repair shops. Further research revealed that there have been over 300 spills since January 2012 that were never reported to the public. Jim Fuglie, a ND native and former governor appointed Director of Tourism has a great blog outlining more of the issues here. If the oil ever does run out, ND has the single largest known deposit of lignite (coal) in the world and may choose to move from exporting one dirty fuel source to another. And a few final statistics on ND; the state’s energy consumption per capita is the 4th highest in the US, 79% of all electricity generation comes from coal, and wind farms have taken a back seat to oil despite the state being ranked 6th highest in wind energy potential with average wind speeds of 10-13 mph.

Sainted and Tainted: Cruise Lines

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Sainted: Disney Cruise Lines – While sailing the seas on a cruise ship is far from carbon neutral, Disney Cruise Lines (DCL) started working towards being better stewards of the environment years ago and now routinely score higher than their competitors on environmental sustainability issues. The core of their efforts have taken a simple approach; reducing consumption and waste, obtaining power from cleaner sources, and purchasing offsets. Lots of hotels (and floating hotels) can claim they are being ‘green’ by offering not to wash guest towels daily but DCL has taken this a step further and actually uses the condensation from the air conditioning units to provide their laundry and deck cleaning water supply. Excess heat is used to power evaporators that turn 1,200 tons of seawater in to potable water every day. In addition, they have installed low flow shower heads and toilets, installed high efficiency commercial washing machines, and upgraded waste water purification systems. DCL also attaches to shore based power when in port, sorts all garbage and recyclables, works with vendors to reduce packaging, and has environmental education programs for crew and passengers alike led by an on board environmental officer. To increase efficiency, they have implemented a new non-toxic hull coating which reduces resistance in open water and have adjusted shipping routes to increase efficiency. In staterooms, HVAC systems self-adjust for efficiency and return to guest preferences upon their return. According to the Friends of Earth Cruise Ship Report Card, DCL is the most environmentally responsible cruise line and the first line to score an A on the annual report card.

 

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Tainted: Carnival Cruise Lines – Carnival has the world’s largest fleet of ships (23) and only 2 have advanced sewage treatment capabilities. Carnival also owns other brands of lines, many referenced in the above report card (Seabourn, Cunard, Holland America, Princess Cruises, P&O, and Costa). The remainder of the Carnival fleet take advantage of the law which allows for untreated sewage to be dumped directly in to the ocean when more than 3 nautical miles from shore. The EPA says an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage each day. In addition, each ship generates and dumps about eight times that much gray water from sinks, showers and baths. Generally, anytime a company’s environmental stewardship policy references adhering to laws and regulations, it is clear they are likely more interested in profit than being a good citizen of the planet. This point was further illustrated in the NY Times by Carnival’s tax status and ability to avoid paying most taxes by leveraging numerous loopholes. Consider that of the 500 big companies on Standard and Poor’s stock index, 115 paid the corporate tax rate of 35% and only 39 of those 500 companies paid a rate of less than 10%. Of the 11.3 billion in profits Carnival makes, they paid 1.1% in taxes. Despite Carnival executives sitting in Miami, they takes advantage of a provision which allows shipping companies to legally incorporate overseas and Panama is a great choice from a tax perspective. When faced with new air quality standards in Baltimore, Carnival acted like a bully and threatened to leave port for good unless concessions were made. Carnival did end up leaving Baltimore and months later after announced a plan to install exhaust cleaning technology on their aging ships to reduce emissions and reached an agreement with the EPA that would allow them to return to Baltimore. This will help mitigate the effects of the dirty ‘bunker fuel’ which is 2,000 times dirtier and more pollutant than diesel fuel sold at everyday gas stations. While there are sites you can go to and send Carnival feedback, the best course of action here is to vote with your dollar and if looking for a cruise vacation, choose a cruise line with tangible environmental principals as opposed to one who does the bare minimum and uses the ocean as their personal sewage plant.

Confessions of a (Palm) Tree Hugger

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My family and I recently returned home from a Caribbean vacation where we faced a 100 degree temperature swing upon our arrival home.  Our family was overdue for a break from everything and in deciding where to go we chose some place warm and that would guarantee a fun time for the kids, Bahamas Atlantis Resort.  I had rationalized the carbon footprint of our flights and various other environmental costs of taking a trip like this and we did a great job of ensuring our house used minimal energy while we were gone.  At the recommendation of a friend, we even packed lots of dried goods to avoid significant costs for food while in the Bahamas since our suite had a full kitchen.

One thing I was unprepared for and unfortunately had not researched at all was a total and complete lack of recycling.  Imagine a resort with 2400+ rooms, water parks, restaurants, a golf course, and more that does not have a single recycle bin for guests on its property.  Now add in that the tap water has an undesirable taste and color, so bottled water is bought and sold in enormous quantities.  Then add in the normal things like aluminum cans, bottles, cardboard boxes, paper, etc.  Every single item has no potential to be recycled on the grounds.  I was mildly disturbed and had taken the ability to recycle for granted.

After inquiring with the resort staff, resort management company, and doing some additional research I learned a few things; the most important is that the Bahamas does not have any significant infrastructure for recycling.  An island nation that prides itself on tourism and natural beauty lacks a fundamental way to separate waste from recyclables…  The country is working on developing its recycling program and one of the local waste providers is just starting a recycling program.  There are also discussions about piloting a project to collect and ship recyclables to the U.S. and determine if that is an economically viable option.

Other items I learned which offered some hope are that the Atlantis Bahamas delivers their unused food to Hands for Hunger to help feed the needy and eliminate food waste.  The resort also self-treats all toilet and shower water and reuses it for irrigation, is switching to green cleaning products that have zero toxicity, uses CFL’s and has various other efforts in place to reduce electricity usage.

Despite those efforts, seeing countless recyclable containers be thrown in to the trash day after day was troubling.  Moving forward I will be more diligent in researching destinations and continue to use my voice when there are things that should be fundamentally improved.