The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy
by Susan Holloway | Bio
NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone. EFM Notebook Index
YIKES! Earth Month is almost over!
Can you do one more thing this month to fight climate change?
It will take 10 minutes of your time and likely save you money!
Here's what to do: Switch over to a Community Choice energy program!
What are Community Choice programs?
Community choice programs are administered by local governments to provide a competitive alternative to investor-owned utilities like PG&E. They provide cleaner power and deliver benefits locally rather than to PG&E shareholders.
Residents of Marin are served by a community choice program called MCE. MCE, a not-for-profit public agency, offers renewable power at stable, competitive rates in four Bay Area counties. Started in 2010, it has eliminated 700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and saved customers $68 million to date.
PG&E handles service delivery and billing for MCE customers. All you have to do is sign up!
As an MCE customer, you have choices among programs. For the biggest environmental impact, sign up for Deep Green or Local Sol!!
Renewable sources: bioenergy, geothermal, wind, solar, eligible hydroelectricNonrenewable sources: Coal, large hydroelectric, natural gas, nuclear
READY TO GO GREEN? If you live in Marin, Contra Costa, Solano, or Napa County call MCE at 1 (888) 632-3674
or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Have your PG&E account number handy.
That’s it for this installment of the Environmental Forum of Marin Notebook!
Learn more about EFM and the Notebook at marinefm.org.
Opponents of natural gas stoves are vociferous. “Kill your gas stove” is the headline on a 2020 article in the Atlantic. “It’s bad for you, and the environment.” Not so fast, counters the New York Times in their headline: “Why you don’t need to ditch your gas stove (yet).”
What are the dangers to the environment of powering your home with natural gas? And what about health effects? And given what we have learned, what should you do? Pull money out your child’s college tuition fund and buy an electric stove? Or should you prioritize a new furnace? And what is all this about heat pumps?
I want to dig into the issues, but first let’s go back in time to the days before anyone even had a choice, much less a preference, between natural gas and electricity. In fact, let’s witness the miracle of electrification through the eyes of my grandmother, Mildred Bowles.
Born in 1906, my grandmother lived on a watermelon farm in Missouri with her parents, four brothers, and four sisters. Like most rural families at the time, they had no electric power. When she was a child, one of Mildred’s chores was to check the family’s game traps every morning before school. She used to tell me that she hated that chore because her clothes would get dirty while she was tramping around in the bushes. It was embarrassing to wear dirty clothes to school. But in those days of washing by hand (not to mention pumping water by hand too), she had to wear the same dress, clean or not, for at least a week.
Fun, 1950s style
Life took a turn for the better in the 1920s, when her family moved to Northern California where electricity was already available in most homes. She met and married my grandfather and they settled in Sacramento. My grandparents’ running water, lights, and a radio were conveniences unavailable to her friends and neighbors back in Missouri.
No wonder Mildred was a steadfast proponent of all that modernity had to offer! In the 1950s, cooking newly invented convenience foods on her electric range was part of the fun. She was an early adopter of Jiffy Pop, which was invented in 1958. Jiffy Pop ads claimed it was “as fun to make as it is to eat.” It was all part of happy suburban family life.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, however, the conformist, sexist, and racist values of the 1950s “ideal” life came under scrutiny, especially in the Bay Area. Images of a suburban woman in pearls and high heels smiling over her stovetop were beginning to disappear.
From another angle, some people criticized the 1950s lifestyle as insufficiently sophisticated. Learning to make Crêpes Suzette from Julia Child became more interesting than making Jiffy Pop. Gas stoves, in particular, became — and continue to be — “a coveted kitchen symbol of wealth, discernment, and status.”
Marketing by the natural gas industry (Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club)
During these decades, natural gas became widely appreciated as an inexpensive source of “clean energy” for powering stoves, furnaces, and water heaters. The share of gas stoves, for instance, in newly constructed single-family homes climbed from below 30 percent in the 1970s to around 50 percent in 2019.
But the times they are a-changin’ (again). Realization of the enormous contribution of natural gas to climate change and its toxicity to humans has occasioned a return to electricity. Let’s look at the issues.
Natural Gas Extraction
Like oil and coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel and is non-renewable. A naturally occurring mixture of methane and other gases (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or helium), it is formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth over millions of years.
Methane is released unintentionally in the form of leaks during the extraction, transportation, and storage processes. It is also released intentionally by simply allowing unwanted methane gas to enter the atmosphere during the extraction of coal and crude oil (“venting”) or by burning it (“flaring”).
Natural Gas in Your Home
Burning natural gas in homes releases dangerous toxins including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ultrafine particles. In many homes, this level of air pollution would be illegal if measured outside.
Health risks from inhaling the fumes released by natural gas stoves include asthma, allergies, respiratory disease, and heart disease. Children are particularly at risk; children living in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to have asthma than who are not exposed to natural gas in this way.
And as the California Air Resources Board points out, people spend 87% of their time indoors, so it is particularly important to consider the effects of indoor pollution.
I am convinced to go electric! But I am overwhelmed! What do I do next?
IMPACT OF MCE TO DATE: IMPRESSIVE!!
700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions eliminated since 2010
$68 million+ saved by customers
49 MW new renewable projects built locally
5,000 California jobs supported
You can do it!
Step 1: Sign up for MCE so your electricity is generated from clean renewable sources like wind and solar instead of natural gas, coal, and nuclear.
In many parts of the Bay Area, PG&E customers can opt for MCE, a public, not-for-profit electricity provider that gives them the choice of having 60% or 100% of their electricity supplied from clean, renewable sources (i.e., solar and wind).
Opting for 100% renewable energy is less expensive than the conventional PG&E service, which is based 29% on renewable resources.
It's easy to make the switch. PG&E continues to provide all gas services, electric delivery, billing, and power line maintenance. To get started with MCE give them a call or go to their website.
Unless you have a peculiar love of appliances, it may not sound very fun to go through the transition to electric furnaces and water heaters. But I am here to tell you that you do not have to walk this path alone.
Enter BayREN! Not the most euphonious of names, but a great organization.The Bay Area Regional Energy Network (BayREN) is a coalition of nine counties with the goal of promoting resource efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases at the regional level.
Contact BayREN and speak with a Home Energy Advisor to learn about rebates for switching to electric appliances, get advice on options, and get a referral for a certified contractor. Call them at (866) 878-6008 or contacting them via their website.
For an even more thorough assessment, set up an appointment with a Home Energy Score Assessor for a home inspection walk-through. The assessor will make recommendations on how to improve your home’s energy efficiency.
Then contact one of the certified contractors to do the installation and submit the rebate paperwork for you. Rebates range from $1,000 (for a heat pump water heater) to $300 (for an induction cookstove).
One Crazy Idea: Get a Heat Pump
By far the biggest proportion of home energy goes to air and water heating. To get the biggest bang for your buck, consider getting an integrated heat pump that works for indoor air and water. To warm up your home, it pulls whatever heat it can get from outside and transfers it indoors. To cool down the air indoors, it sucks heat out of the indoor air and releases it outdoors. In addition to heating and cooling indoors, they can heat water for homes or swimming pools, and they can heat the air used in dryers. When the heat pump is doing all of this, it is a very efficient use of electricity.
Artist: Vrinda Manglik for Sierra Club
While switching out existing gas appliances for electric ones is effective and important, the fastest way to remove the threat of methane and carbon dioxide is to ban — or reduce — the use of natural gas in new buildings. The Sierra Club reports that 50 cities and counties in California have committed to such a reduction. And the California Energy Commission recently passed a building code that encourages the use of electric heat pumps for space and water heating in new construction.
Coming Full Circle
My grandmother never switched to a gas stove, and she probably thought anyone who did so was “kinda screwy” (her epithet of choice). She experienced electrification as an all-out win and it is increasingly clear that she was right. Electric stoves (or induction stoves, their spiffed-up cousins) along with electric furnaces and water heaters have significant power to protect the planet as well as our health. So it is up to us consumers to bend the curve in the right direction.
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! Special thanks to Guy Ashcraft for helping me make sense of electricity, and to Annette and Jan Holloway for sharing their memories of Mildred Bowles Holloway.
The western monarch butterfly has been disappearing so fast that extinction has become a real possibility. But recently we have had good news of a resurgence of monarchs overwintering on California’s coast!
Thanks to the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, we know how many western monarchs were overwintering in coastal sites in November of 2021. The Thanksgiving count is a truly great example of community science, with over a hundred volunteers observing in 283 sites from Mendocino to the Mexican border. And we can compare the 2021 numbers to similar counts that have occurred every year since 1997.
The Life and Loves of the Western Monarch
Before getting into the numbers, let’s look at the amazing life of western monarchs. During the winter months they typically find a resting site within 1.5 miles of the ocean or the San Francisco Bay. They seek out dappled sunlight, high humidity, and access to fresh water. No dummies, they don’t like freezing temperatures or high winds. They cluster in dense groups on the branches and leaves of eucalyptus, oak, redwood and other trees, doing relatively little besides sunning and sipping nectar and water.
When the weather warms up in February and March, they head up toward Oregon or east into Nevada and Idaho.
While overwintering monarchs live for months in somnolence, the migrating monarchs don’t have too much time on the planet, just 2-6 weeks. After mating, the female lays her eggs on a milkweed leaf. After hatching, the caterpillars remain on the milkweed plants, devouring the leaves for nutrition. They eventually form a chrysalis and emerge as an adult butterfly.
During the rest of spring and summer, successive generations of butterflies continue their eastward dispersal. In the fall, they head back to the west coast, with the final generation arriving at an overwintering site in September or early October.
Snatched from the Headlines
The Good News! Compared to last year, the number of monarchs observed in overwintering sites in California increased 100-fold! This year’s count of 247,237 butterflies has caused considerable excitement among monarch lovers.
As usual, the majority of this year’s monarchs was found along the central and southern coast from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles counties. The highest count was in Santa Barbara county, where over 95,000 were reported.
Fewer monarchs typically overwinter in the Bay Area, and this year was even more skewed to the south than usual. In all, there were fewer than 600 butterflies counted from Mendocino to San Mateo county.
This chart summarizing data collected since 1997 shows a pattern of sharp and sudden decline between 1997 and 1998, plunging from over 1.2 million to just under 600,000. Between 1999 and 2017, the number remained low but relatively stable, dropping again in 2018 to a mere handful until this past year when the population returned to the place it had been throughout most of the past two decades.
Zooming in on Marin
But what about Marin county in particular? Thanks to the Xerces Society, who made the data public, I was able to see that only 75 monarchs were observed across the Marin county sites.
I graphed the counts obtained at the two most popular overwintering sites in Marin, Chapman Ravine in Stinson Beach and Purple Gate in Bolinas. Due to the limitations of my graphing skill, counts under 100 are not actually visible as a bar. Please use your imagination – there have typically been at least a handful of butterflies at these Marin sites, even in the lean years.
The Marin graph allows us to see “bounciness” as the counts at both sites bumped up and down across the years. For instance, 1999 was quite low compared to 1997, but then the numbers jumped all the way back up in 2000. Counts in 1998, 2004 and 2015 were moderately high, with intervening periods where the monarchs were approaching the “extinction vortex.”
Some Reasons for the Rebound
Monarchs are fertility goddesses. Monarchs in the West produce multiple generations a year and a female monarch can produce 12 adult daughters in ideal conditions, with four or so being typical under normal constraints!
Small in number, rich in resources? When animal populations are small, they are more vulnerable to random fluctuations in the environment such as a bad winter. On the other hand, these reduced populations experience less competition for resources like food and may rebound quickly.
Weather patterns. Monarchs generally prefer mid-range temperatures and it is possible that the warm dry summer and relatively cool winter we experienced in 2021 hit a sweet spot.
Winter breeding monarchs. Native milkweed dies back in the colder months, prompting the monarchs to take off for their overwintering sites. In recent years, urban gardeners have planted large quantities of non-native tropical milkweed, which is evergreen. The abundance of year-round milkweed may have enticed some monarchs to stay longer in the Bay Area, engaging in “extra” winter breeding. (But bear in mind that consuming tropical milkweed also makes monarchs more susceptible to parasites.)
Influx from eastern monarchs. Another proposal is that eastern monarch butterflies that overwintered in Mexico are coming to the western states in spring rather that going back to their original territory.
On the Other Hand…Reasons that Overall Numbers Remain Low
Before we break out the champagne, we should remember that the monarch population remains more than 98% below its size in the 1980s. What are some of the ongoing threats?
Parasite poisoning and predators. During the summer of 2021, local organizations and residents noted that monarch eggs were being laid and larvae are hatching, but then not surviving more than a few days. Predators such as the paper wasp and yellow jacket are among the suspects.
Another theory is that caterpillars were ingesting spores from a common parasite called Ophryocystis elektroschirra (OE). OE spores can fall from an infected adult butterfly onto a milkweed leaf and take up residence in the caterpillar’s gut when the leaf is eaten.
Pesticide poisoning. A persistent risk to monarchs is posed by neonicotonoids (AKA neonics), a class of insecticides applied to mature plants or to seeds. Neonics can live in the environment for months or even years after being applied to plants. They also leach into subsurface water and they contaminate soil which can then be dispersed by wind. When absorbed by plants, neonicotinoids can be present in the leaves that the caterpillars eat as well as on the pollen and nectar ingested by the butterflies.
This year’s [western monarch] total is a step in the right direction, but still indicates a severe population decline. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to double-down on our conservation efforts. Acting quickly to harness the momentum of this upswing is our best chance at preventing western monarchs and other at-risk butterflies from being lost forever.
Isis Howard, Endangered Species Conservation Biologist, Xerces Society
To Learn More…
…about the reasons for the 2021 surge, check out this report from KQED or this one from Nova.
…about the life and loves of the Western Monarch, read this interesting article or check out these Notebook posts: The Disappearing Monarch and Midsummer Monarch Update.
…about neonics and their effects on insects, read this excellent thesis by Kendra Mann.
To Be Completely Amazed…
Watch some videos of monarchs. In this one, witness how a newly emerged monarch inflates its wings with liquid from its abdomen.
To Do More…
Don’t plant tropical milkweed!
Get involved in data collection. Community scientists provide important information about monarch breeding and survival. You don’t have to be an expert to make a big contribution. Check out this Western Monarch Count website to learn how to get involved.
Here’s a good site to learn more about ecologically sound pest management.
Make a spot to splash around. Monarchs can’t land on water or drink from a dripping fountain, but they do need moisture and they obtain important minerals from mud. Channel your inner child and create a little monarch play area in a shallow dish. Just add rocks and a little bit of soil, along with just enough water to keep everything wet.
Keep your eyes peeled. The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge is about to get underway. Running from February 14 (Valentines Day) to April 22 (Earth Day), the challenge is a call to action to report a monarch if you see one. You can even win a prize! Read about it here.
Make some noise! Contact your elected officials and ask them to support the MONARCH Act which would provide critical funding for habitat restoration for the western monarch. Introduced in the House of Representatives in March of 2021 by Jimmy Panetta, it remains in the first stage of the legislative process.
Insects can be amazingly resilient if we give them a chance. Everyone has a role to play, whether that’s adding pollinator plants and avoiding pesticides in your home garden or advocating for monarch-friendly policies within our neighborhoods, public lands and plant nursery and agriculture providers.
Xerces Director Scott Hoffman Black.
What are these tiny black ants doing in my kitchen?
It may come as no surprise to you that, excluding bacteria, there are more ants on this planet than any other animal. Estimates put the number at about ten billion billion (i.e., a one with 18 zeros), compared to seven billion human beings. There are 13,000 species of ants sprinkled across the globe. California is home to more than 270 species. The most common one in urban and suburban areas of Northern California is the non-native Argentine ant, whereas native ants are dominant in wild areas of the state.
Why are some of these billion billion ants trying to gain entry to your house? In the summer, they come inside to find food and water. In the winter, heavy rains such as those we are experiencing may drive them out of their underground nest. They are searching for a place to take shelter. In other words, contrary to the children’s song, the ants are marching out of — not into — the ground to get out of the rain!
This is an ordinary phenomenon, but how do ants actually undertake the monumental task of coordinating a campaign to retrieve bagel crumbs from your kitchen counter, much less that of moving an entire colony after a flood?
Ants: Taking Care of Business
Ants are highly social but have few ways of communicating with each other. They have very poor eyesight and can’t hear, although they can detect vibrations associated with sound. Their superpower is a highly developed sense of smell. Each ant generates chemicals that create an aroma unique to that ant. One ant uses her antennae to sniff the aroma of other ants, which in turn gives her information about what the others are doing.
Ants live in a caste system, so the ants’ responsibilities depend on the caste to which they belong. The queen is the founder of the colony, and her role is to lay eggs. Being the queen may sound good, but she is basically confined to an underground chamber where she does little but lay eggs.
Then there are the male ants, called drones. Male ants have cool wings, but they stay in the nest and do little besides eat, have sex once with the queen, and then die. Their lives are over in as little as one week.
Each type of ant is genetically predisposed to do what is necessary for the nest to function properly. Although, as I have mentioned, they can communicate by smell, no one ant has knowledge of the big picture or acts as a coordinator of the others. How do they get things done? Check out this video in which Dr. Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology at Stanford, answers this important question.
Do Ants Help Anyone Outside Their Own Colony?
One amazing contribution ants make to the plant world is through a special kind of seed dispersal. Some ants are attracted to certain plants whose seeds are connected to a little packet of tasty (to the ants) nutrients. The ants carry the seeds with the packets, called elaisomes, back to the nest. They feed the elaisomes to the ant larvae and toss out the seeds, which then have an opportunity to germinate at some distance from the parent plant. This plant-ant interaction is true mutualism in the sense that it benefits the ants and the plants equally.
A second contribution of ants derives from their attraction to honeydew, a sugary excrement produced by many sap-sucking insects including caterpillars and aphids. Ants defend these insects from their natural enemies in order to protect the delicious honeydew. This “tending” behavior benefits the sap-sucking insects, including the endangered Mission Blue butterfly for example, but can pose a problem for gardeners who don’t want aphids on their plants.
E. O. WILSON: The Ant Man
“I honestly cannot understand why most people don’t study ants.” E.O. Wilson
In terms of research on ants, his most important work was showing through both observational and experimental studies how ants function as an organized community. One of his main findings was that ants communicate through the release of chemicals called pheromones. For instance, ant scouts leave a pheromone trail that leads their foraging friends right to sources of food.
Wilson’s intensive study of the social organization of ant colonies led him to formulate the field of sociobiology, which addresses the biological basis of social behavior in animals. Sociobiology is based on the premise that some behaviors (not just physical traits) are at least partly inherited. Animals whose behavior helps the survival of the group (not just that of the individual) are particularly likely to survive and breed, thus ensuring the continuation of the predisposition to be a team player. Although the theory has been well received with respect to less complex animals like ants, it remains quite controversial when applied to humans.
As an environmentalist, Wilson was an untiring advocate of strategies for addressing climate change and for preserving biodiversity. His 2016 book “Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life” argues for conserving half the land and seas for biodiversity in order to prevent mass extinction at the level last experienced by the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
“If we allow the living part of the environment to disappear, for me, it would be by future generations regarded as one of the most catastrophic, even evil periods in human history, for our descendants to look back and say, they wiped out half or more of all of the rest of life on Earth, the variety of life on Earth.” E.O. Wilson
Some people think ants are disgusting, but I think they are relatively unobjectionable insects. I feel bad wiping them out with a wet sponge as they trudge across my kitchen countertop. I do so anyway, taking some comfort in the scientific consensus that they feel neither pain nor fear.
Other than physically squashing them, how else can we control them in the home? In a recent essay Alison Hermance, a writer affiliated with WildCare, made a strong case against using pesticides and rodenticides, arguing that these poisonous substances always affect animals other than those being targeted.
“Because the thing about rodenticides — and pesticides in general — is that the person using the poison thinks on some level that they are the only ones putting out poison…People don’t realize that every other person has come to the same conclusion, and that in fact, these poisons are everywhere.” Alison Hermance
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Special thanks to Dr. Paul da Silva for his helpful comments and suggestions.
Sufficiently freaked out? Don’t stop reading…help is on the way! Federal, state, and county governments — prodded by advocates — are finally developing a system for regulating these bad boys.
Detlef Knappe and the Cape Fear River
Let’s take a look at one example of how industrial interests, local officials, scientists, and journalists have handled a serious contamination problem in one region. This is the case of the Chemours Chemical Company and the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The Cape Fear River feeds into a watershed that provides drinking water for 1.5 million people.
Nearly 10 years ago, North Carolina State University environmental engineer Detlef Knappe conducted research finding that the Cape Fear River was heavily contaminated with PFAS and other industrial chemicals.
In 2016 he reported these findings in scientific articles and he wrote directly to local and state officials about the problem. But his persistent efforts yielded zero returns until Vaughn Hagerty, a reporter at the Wilmington-Star News, published an article in 2017 on Knappe’s report.
Finally shamed into action, local agencies discovered that the source of the chemicals was a manufacturing plant owned by Chemours, an offshoot of DuPont.
It turns out that Chemours and DuPont had been dumping GenX, a very powerful chemical in the PFAS family, into the river for over 30 years.
"This 'emerging contaminant' GenX has actually been in the water since 1980. It's mystifying why Chemours, and before that DuPont, wasn't more careful in capturing chemicals in waste streams. For Fortune 500 companies, the cost of proper wastewater treatment and air pollution control would not be a big burden." Dr. Detlef Knappe
The state was finally able to pressure Chemours to stop polluting the Cape Fear River, which is great. However, the chemical contamination problem is far from solved for North Carolina water drinkers. Subsequent studies by Knappe and colleagues have identified PFAS and other industrial pollutants in many waterways in the state.
What are the key characteristics of this class of chemicals?
How, specifically, do PFAS get into our bodies? The most common way is through our drinking water.
“Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. Source: Environmental Working Group
We ingest PFAS in other ways besides drinking contaminated water. For instance, PFAS are also used to coat the paper in fast food packaging. The chemicals leach into the hamburger and fries that we then scarf down. We also ingest PFAS when we eat fish that have lived in contaminated water, and when we eat fruits and vegetables irrigated with contaminated water. Children may absorb PFAS by crawling around and playing on PFAS-treated carpet. Nursing mothers exposed to PFAS pass along the chemicals to their infants, although the CDC considers the benefits of breastfeeding to outweigh the hazards of PFAS exposure.
Workers involved in processing PFAS and PFAS-containing materials may be exposed by inhaling them or absorbing them through their skin. Evidence compiled by the CDC found, for example, that a sample of workers at the 3M Company had nearly 1000 times as much PFOA (a very harmful category of PFAS) in their blood than did a community sample.
A major source of PFAS contamination is the firefighting foam often used on military bases and at commercial airports. A Department of Defense report released in March 2020 showed that many bases and surrounding communities are contaminated with PFAS.
Finally, several recent studies have shown a link between COVID-19 and PFAS, suggesting that PFAS exposure may increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Industry response (or lack thereof)
For the past 60 years, chemical manufacturers have covered up evidence of the human and environmental impacts of PFAS. US industries have stopped manufacturing some dangerous kinds of PFAS but they nevertheless remain in the environment and our bodies because they were made and used domestically for decades, and biodegrade at an infinitesimally slow rate. And some products imported from other countries continue to contain them.
Industry scientists have developed replacement PFAS that they claim have improved safety profiles, but emerging studies suggest that replacement PFAS are similarly dangerous, equally persistent, and even more mobile than the older ones.
State governments step up
California has stepped up significantly in the last two years, adopting several PFAS-related policies including the following:
EPA: MIA on PFAS until last month
In contrast to individual states, the federal government has done little to regulate PFAS, sometimes acting with reckless-seeming disregard for public safety. One of the more shocking examples of this? Plans by the Department of Defense (DOD) to incinerate toxic firefighting foam.
“For years DOD used toxic firefighting foams containing PFAS during drills and fires in bases across the country. PFAS from these foams polluted the soil and water of neighboring communities. Facing multiple lawsuits and billions of dollars in potential liability from past releases, DOD chose to incinerate its unused firefighting foam. However, DOD failed to conduct any environmental review before approving this incineration, bringing into new communities the risk of PFAS emissions and other pollution that are proven to harm public health.” Source: Earthjustice
When Earthjustice and other environmental organizations found out about it through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they sued the DOD to put a halt to this lethal practice.
DOD isn't the only problematic agency. The Environmental Protective Agency’s approval requirements for new chemicals are riddled with loopholes, and companies are often allowed skip notification requirements for PFAS.
Finally, however, on Oct. 18 of this year, the EPA announced steps to study and, to some extent, regulate PFAS. In its roadmap, the EPA described a plan to set drinking water limits on some toxic chemicals, require manufacturers to provide detailed reporting, and designate two of the most well-known PFAS as hazardous under Superfund law.
Marin County still working on disposable foodware ban
The Board of Supervisors just closed the public comment period but if you would like to follow the next steps, subscribe for updates!
What can you do?
Be a careful consumer: You can learn a lot more about PFAS in this excellent but rather technical article. In general, avoid items described as “nonstick”; reduce or eliminate fast food; check beauty product labels for the term “fluoro,” which indicates a fluorinated chemical; and use granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filters for your drinking water. Oh, and don’t let any firefighters spray your children with foam!
Get some help from your friends: Why should the onus be on the consumer to avoid being poisoned by everyday products we buy in good faith? This month the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Clean Production Action (CPA) unveiled a new certification standard for disposable foodware. Their certification helps consumers know which disposable plates and bowls do not contain PFAS and other harmful chemicals.
PFAS-laden rugs are not acceptable!
Be a feisty consumer and advocate: Consumers can also contact brands to tell them to stop using PFAS in their products. IKEA, H&M, and Crate & Barrel are already eliminating highly fluorinated chemicals like PFAS from their product lines. Some restaurant chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell have pledged to remove PFAS from their food packaging. Hold their feet to the fire!
Support advocacy groups: As we have seen, we cannot yet depend on the federal government to take action to protect citizens from these life-threatening substances.
That’s why we need advocacy groups like the Center for Environmental Health, the Environmental Working Group, the Green Science Policy Institute, Earthjustice and other organizations to do the research, tell us what is going on, and put pressure on elected officials! Think about their good works when you figure out your year-end giving in December!
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future Notebook topics? Send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.
I have moments when my personal actions to fight climate change seem pathetically ineffectual. I stand in my kitchen wondering whether the top of my plastic spray bottle is recyclable, or is just the bottle itself? Or neither? What difference does it make anyway, if the seas are already awash in plastic?
You may also experience this overwhelmed feeling at times. The challenge of addressing extensive, systemic problems like climate change can leave you feeling worried or hopeless.
How do environmental advocates effectively stimulate hope and commitment to action? I recently learned about the public narrative framework, which uses the power of narratives, or stories, to evoke positive emotions that spur people’s motivation to make things better. Remember the amazing speech then-Senator Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention? That speech is a masterpiece of public narrative! Let’s find out about the framework and then see how Obama and others use it so effectively.
The public narrative framework is the brainchild of Marshall Ganz, an activist, leadership consultant, teacher, and writer. More about his amazing story later…but let’s focus on his ideas first. If you want to read more about his framework, please refer to the articles listed at the end of this post.
Ganz emphasizes the importance of two ways of knowing, the kind with the head and the kind with the heart. No offense to rational, analytic thinking based on evidence but I am going to focus here on what he has to say about emotion!
The main point is this: Narratives engage people in experiencing the emotions that arise during a challenging circumstance, a process that also brings their values into focus and motivates them to meet the challenge with action.
Let’s take an example to illustrate this web of feelings, beliefs, and actions. I feel very sad when I see a picture of a seagull tangled in a plastic fishing line. That strong emotion signals the value I place on the wellbeing of wildlife, as well as my belief that people have a responsibility to help other living creatures. When these emotions and beliefs are activated, I am motivated to do something about plastic pollution, including recycle plastic bottles.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I don’t have any particular response to the trapped seagull. None of my values are particularly called to the fore. So I am unlikely to do anything to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.
Is there a connection between action and other emotions besides sadness? Absolutely! Ganz groups emotions into two categories. Emotions that inhibit action include inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation, and apathy. Those that facilitate action are urgency, hope, the sense that you can make a difference (known by its acronym, UCMAD), solidarity, and anger. The goal for advocacy leadership is to highlight stories that are action motivators.
Why Focus on Narratives?
The challenge presents the characters (pigs, in this case) with an urgent need to pay attention to the danger and choose an action. You probably remember the kind of house each pig decides to build to protect himself from the wolf. The pigs' housing choices signal to the reader their respective values. Only one pig is hardworking enough to put the effort into building a solid house. So that pig’s values (hard work) lead to an action (building a brick house), that leads to a positive outcome (not being eaten).
This tale, which has been around for centuries in various guises, engages the reader’s emotions, and in doing so, it painlessly encourages reflection on how to best survive in a dangerous world!
Enough about pigs! What about the environment?
Ganz describes three kinds of narrative. In a story of self you recount how you have responded to a challenge by making choices to act in a certain way. An effective story of self focuses on choice points, moments when our values become clear to us. In the words of Ganz and his colleagues: “We all have stories of pain, or we wouldn’t think the world needs changing. We all have stories of hope, or we wouldn’t think we could change it.”
The third kind of narrative is the story of now. The story of now focuses on the next action that is required. For instance, you might ask the Supervisor to join you and other residents in the fight against plastic food ware, and urge her to author a bill outlawing its use.
The Story of an Unlikely Hero
The story of Marshall Ganz is inspirational. Born in 1943, Ganz grew up in Bakersfield, the son of a rabbi and a teacher. His family moved to Germany for three years following WW II, where his father served as an army chaplain working with Holocaust survivors. While the young Marshall did not understand the complexity of the war at an intellectual level, he experienced the deep emotional trauma of those survivors who passed through his home.
In the summer of 1964, then a college student at Harvard, Ganz became involved in the Mississippi Summer Project, and stayed on to work for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). As he writes in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins, “Mississippi had taught many of us that it was not an exception, but rather a clearly drawn example of how race, politics, and power work in America.”
Nearly 30 years after dropping out, Ganz return to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree and earn a PhD in sociology. He became a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he developed (and still teaches) courses on the role of public narrative and leadership. Ganz has also contributed his expertise to many initiatives outside the University, including a project addressing leadership in the Sierra Club, and the formation of Camp Obamas to organize volunteers in Barack Obama’s 2007-8 campaign for president.
In his writing, Ganz often sums up his ideas with a quote from Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem during the first century BCE: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”
The Supreme Master of Public Narrative
In the beginning of his speech Obama introduces himself, addressing the ways in which his upbringing is unconventional while also reframing it as actually consistent with the American story. His narrative frames his grandfather and father’s story as an inspiring one of personal effort while also showing how it synchs with the American story of opportunity, linking his story of self with a story of us.
Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack….But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place: America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before…I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
But does Senator Obama allow us to bask in the glow of American awesomeness? No, he continues by describing the urgent need for action to preserve America’s values and commitments, stimulating our emotional responses towards people who have not yet benefited from those commitments.
I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour.
And finally, the story of now! Elect John Kerry, a man who understands and embodies those shared values.
Want to Learn More about Public Narrative?
Read these articles by Ganz and his colleagues:
Comprehensive essay on public narrative
Participant guide to Public Narrative for organizers
Report on the organizational effectiveness of the Sierra Club’s Groups and Chapters
Take a look at two examples of Public Narrative:
Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention
Tom Hank’s op-ed persuading us to make community college tuition-free for two years; did you know that he attended Chabot College?
Check out this fresh take on the Three Little Pigs:
Green Jelly’s weird musical version (not for little children) of the story. It adds an important twist to the story by making the third pig an A student who can afford to study architecture at Harvard because his father is a famous rock star. Kudos to Green Jelly for including the role of resources in responding to the challenge of building a sturdy house.
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! I give special thanks to Trevor Stevenson, whose EFM class on Persuasive Strategies for advocates introduced me to these powerful ideas.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.
In this post I want to change that habit and focus on an inconspicuous and unappreciated plant, the pickleweed, which exists in an underrated ecosystem, the salt marsh. I think the example of the pickleweed can illustrate how every element of an ecosystem is an essential part of an interdependent network. The pickleweed not only illuminates the meaning of biodiversity but also points to ways we can support, protect, and restore the biodiversity of local ecosystems.
The scientific name for the pickleweed is Salicornia. It is a widespread genus of succulent, salt-tolerant plants that grow in salt marshes, on beaches, and among mangroves. Pickleweed is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as well as in southern Africa.
Pickleweed takes salt water up through the roots and stores salt in the top “pickles.” In the fall this part turns red and falls off, ridding the plants of the salt.
What is a salt marsh?
Marsh plants are distributed across different tidal levels depending on their ability to withstand the stress of daily immersion in saltwater. Eelgrass beds often grow in channel bottoms. They are essential in preventing erosion, increasing water clarity and quality, sequestering carbon, and proving food for other marine life.
Other vegetation occurs in at various levels above the mean sea level. For instance, cordgrass is found at the lowest elevations, while pickleweed typically grows on slightly higher ground. Not surprisingly, higher marshes are home to a greater number of plant species than the lower ones. Bay Area salt marshes are also home to the Ridgway’s rail and the California black rail, both endangered.
Why are salt marshes important?
Let’s recall that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a crucial way of slowing climate change. In general, plants are carbon factories. They take CO2 from the air and make it into leaves and roots. It’s magic!
The only hitch is that plants typically release carbon when they decompose. However, certain plants are less problematic in this respect. For instance, large trees like Coastal Redwoods don’t release the carbon ensconced in their deeply buried roots.
Plants living in salt marshes are also great at retaining carbon. Marsh plants like the pickleweed decompose and stay locked in the watery environment of the marsh, where their carbon cannot be released into the atmosphere.
The complex relations linking carbon, the pickleweed, the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, and the Ohlone peoples illustrate a crucial fact about biodiversity.
Bothin Marsh: Restoration in Progress
Over 90% of the Bay Area’s salt marshes have been developed over the last 100 years. However, restoration has become increasingly common as marshy areas are acquired by environmentalist groups and state agencies.
Bothin Marsh is a 106 acre preserve along Richardson Bay between the Highway 101 bridge and the communities of Tam Valley and Almonte. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Marin County Parks are collaborating on a restoration of the marsh, the Evolving Shorelines Project.
A brief glimpse of the history of Bothin Marsh can lend insight into challenges to preserving and restoring a biodiverse ecosystem.
Students waiting for commuter train at the new train stop on the Mill Valley line fronting the high school. November 1908.
Shell middens dating from over 5,000 years ago confirm the longstanding presence of indigenous communities in the marsh area. At that time the marsh was much larger than it is today, extending into what is now Tam Valley. After incursion by the Spanish in the 1700s, the resident indigenous communities were nearly wiped out by widespread disease, forced labor, and other forms of mistreatment. In subsequent years, cattle were introduced to the area, competing for grazing space with deer and elk, which were also hunted by the settlers. Controlled fires, used by Coast Miwoks for fire suppression, were discontinued. And commercial logging began on Mt. Tamalpais. These activities altered the shape of the marsh, changed the tidal patterns, and upset the usual routes through which sedimentation occurred. In turn, these changes diminished the plant and animal life supported by the marsh.
In the 1840s homesteading was established along the marshes, and water was diverted for farms and household use. In the 1870s, a 4,000-foot-long railroad trestle was constructed across Richardson Bay, followed by a second trestle near Coyote Creek. Berms were built to contain fill intended to create space for development. The development never occurred but the berms and fill remain. Additionally, two creeks feeding into the marsh were re-routed into engineered channels, dramatically altering its hydrology. By the 1960s, the marsh was completely disconnected from the tides, and sediment from the watersheds was channeled into Richardson Bay instead of nourishing the marsh.
In recent years, a new threat to the marsh has arisen in the form of sustained sea level rise. Changes in the depth and movement of water in Richardson Bay have caused wave-induced erosion along the edges of the marsh, causing much of it to be inundated during king tides.
The history of Bothin Marsh illustrates what happens when the balance of an ecosystem that evolved and flourished for thousands of years is radically disrupted. In the case of Bothin, the mutually beneficial relationships of human communities with plant and animal life became a casualty of the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants followed by subsequent expansionist goals of developing the land for housing and financial gain.
Restoration in progress
At Bothin Marsh, efforts are underway to address the challenges posed by past alterations of the marsh ecosystem as well as rising sea levels. The project goals are to increase sedimentation to provide habitat for diverse plant and animal life and to prevent the marsh from inundation as the sea level continues to rise. In addition, the plan will preserve and enhance the recreational opportunities afforded by the Bay Trail.
In phase one, trail resurfacing and bridge repairs are in progress to improve access to the existing Bay Trail. Small-scale adaptation measures such as creating marsh mounds are also underway, creating habitat for vegetation in high marsh areas.
The second phase is still in the planning stages. The Bay Trail will either be elevated or moved to the edge of the marsh. Coyote Creek will be “unstraightened” and returned to a natural meandering waterway in order to increase the amount of sedimentation in the marsh. These measures and other are intended to accommodate two to four feet of SLR, currently projected to occur by 2060.
Read the adaptation concepts report for all the project details, including plans for subsequent phases of the restoration project. A second report provides a detailed account of the history of the marsh, including old maps documenting all the changes that have occurred in the past two centuries.
Ecosystem change is inevitable, and we cannot expect the natural world to revert to a prior state. One comfort is that plants, animals (and people) have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions. The pickleweed’s ingenious system for adapting to a salty environment by absorbing salt water into its expendable pickles is a case in point. Sometimes, however, extreme adaptation fails to maintain a balanced and viable ecosystem, necessitating human intervention. Finding this balance is one challenge for restoration efforts at Bothin Marsh.
What Can You Do?
Nobody wants to stay locked in a place of pain. We want to see reconciliation. We want to see a world where we can see our culture uplifted even by institutions in the past haven’t done right by our people.
Support the Cafe Ohlone
Here’s your chance to sample pickleweed! Cafe Ohlone is slated to open in November in the Phoebe A.Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. In addition to sharing the Ohlone culture and storytelling, the cafe will feature dishes using native ingredients like smoked trout with bay laurel-blackberry sauce.
Cafe owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are eager to engage with the campus community, while also acknowledging the irony of locating their restaurant in a building named after a member of the Hearst family, whose acquisition of tremendous wealth in the mid-1800s came at the expense of local indigenous communities.
Support a local organization
Become a member of one of the organizations engaged in the restoration of Bothin Marsh, such as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Parks Conservancy is active in fundraising, community engagement, and co-project management. Some of their projects include restoring the Crissy Field tidal marsh, and extending the trail system in Marin, including at Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands. In addition to the Bothin Marsh restoration they are presently working on a multi-year Redwood Renewal project at Muir Woods.
Learn more about biodiverse regions of South America
Just 5% of the world’s population occupies 24% of the land surface that is home to 80% of global biodiversity. Although biodiversity is primarily supported in lands occupied by indigenous people, they are rarely included in global efforts to protect these fragile areas. This National Geographic article about the indigenous community living in the Yasuni National Park in northeastern Ecuador is particularly informative concerning efforts to support indigenous rights to self-determination, well-being, traditional knowledge, and a healthy environment.
Sign up for EFM classes on biodiversity
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to the participants at the September 9 EFM webinar called Biodiversity and Climate change: David Ackerly, Justin Robinson, and Mark Hertsgaard. Their inspiring presentations shaped the contours of this blog post! Thanks also to the great presentations by Rob LaPorte and Veronica Pearson on the recent EFM fieldtrip to Bothin Marsh. To view the webinar, contact Kim Rago (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Effects of the Drought on Housing for Low-Income Residents
As one of the least affordable and least diverse counties, Marin has been asked by the State to build around 15,000 new affordable residences over the next ten years.
In the MMWD, a controversial proposal to suspend all new water service hookups is on the table. A ban on new water hookups would create major delays for proposed housing developments targeting lower income residents.
Similarly, a 74-unit multifamily complex proposed for Marin City already approved for low- and extremely low-income residents is now in limbo.
Critics of the suspension argue that, while restricting new service connections does reduce water demand, other options may be more effective, including wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and groundwater storage.
Citing the county’s history of exclusionary zoning, some observers have expressed concern that the suspensions are simply a handy excuse to limit unwanted new housing for low-income residents.
The North Marin WD has already enacted a ban on new water hookups in its Novato service area, although it allows for development to move forward if the project does not install landscapes that use drinking water supply.
Housing and Conservation Tensions in Siskiyou County
This tension between housing advocates and water conservation officials in Marin echoes even more serious strife in Siskiyou County between county officials and Hmong American farmers.
During the Vietnam war the US recruited tens of thousands of Hmong to fight against the North Vietnamese in Laos. At the war’s end, many of these fighters and their families moved to the US, including a considerable number who came to California.
Marijuana cultivation in other communities in the county was not similarly targeted, according to the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus, which have filed a brief alleging that county officials have violated the Hmong American residents’ constitutional rights.
What about Effects on Wildlife?
So what is the effect of severe drought on wildlife? The sources I have consulted make three essential points.
First, during a drought, most animals travel farther than usual for food and water. They may venture into backyards to sample the plants, drink from birdbaths, and rummage for insects. To do so, they must often cross roadways, where they are at risk of being hit by cars.
Second, predators tend to do much better than prey animals during a drought. Deer and rodents are quite vulnerable, particularly when they are young, whereas coyotes and raptors benefit from the abundance of weakened prey.
Third, the animals share water sources, which concentrates their populations and increases the risk of competition, conflict, and the spread of illnesses. The concentration of prey at a watering spot also offers a quick meal for predators like coyotes, owls, raptors, and mountain lions.
The drought also has specific effects on particular species. Coho salmon require streams that are cool, oxygenated and flowing. As the streams shrink, young salmon can get trapped in puddles, where they are picked off by predators, and adults may not have enough water to swim to spawning grounds.
For insects, it can be a difficult time, particularly for those that feed on moist plants. Not surprisingly, birds that eat insects are therefore more vulnerable than birds that rely on seeds, such as quail.
What I would call the mud-loving animals usually do OK in a drought. Frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and other amphibians can bury themselves in mud and remain there semi-hibernating for months and, in some cases, even years.
Overall, the diverse reactions of wildlife to extreme changes in their environment reminds us about the power of adaptation.
Should You Set out Water for Wildlife?
Although it is hard to ignore a thirsty or hungry animal, wildlife biologists do not recommend trying to provide them with food and water. For one thing, the food you offer may not be healthy for that animal, and, as noted above, when animals crowd around a source of food or water they are more likely to transmit diseases to each other.
Additionally, some of the animals we help may become dependent on humans and lose the ability to fend for themselves. They may also lose their fear of people and become aggressive. If you are familiar with the Tennessee Valley trail in Mill Valley, you will have seen the signs warning people not to feed the coyotes because they have become aggressive in their demands for food from hikers.
So What Can You Do?
You can donate to Wildcare, a wildlife hospital and educational center in San Rafael. WildCare offers medical care to over 3,500 animals a year. They also offer environmental education for adults and children, as well as community engagement, and effective advocacy for the protection of wildlife. It’s also possible to volunteer for Wildcare, which can be a very rewarding experience.
Learning about a long-undetected
water leak is a shock
To find out, I took advantage of MMWD’s 75% discount on the Flume Smart Home Water Monitor. The system includes an app, a “bridge” that sits in your home and connects to the WiFi, and a second device that attaches to your existing water meter and reads its mind as it sends water to your home. The result is that you get minute-by-minute information about your water use.
I got one recently and can confirm that it really is easy in install. After two weeks of procrastination, I had it up and running in half an hour.
Among other things, I learned that providing my turtle with clean water consumed 11 gallons of water.
Best of all, you can see immediately when you have a leak. This is far better than learning about a leak when your water bill comes and you owe three times the normal amount, as happened to me this spring.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! One more thing…The gubernatorial recall election is exceedingly close. Be sure to vote on or before September 14!
I am not really a battery aficionado per se. Part of me wanted to write about owls or something else that is majestic, cute, or beautiful.
But the serious fact of the matter is that batteries post environmental and health risks. And they are easily capable of igniting a fire, which is the last thing we need right now. The risks are manageable if and only if we dispose of them properly.
What is a Battery?
If you are like me, your answer to this question is, “I am no expert but I know a battery when I see one.” If you want to take your understanding to the next level, here is a one sentence explanation of how batteries work: Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and nickel react with chemical electrolytes inside the battery to produce power.
Now let’s move on to some basics about household batteries. I will be covering car batteries in a separate post.
Why Are Batteries Considered Hazardous?
The EPA defines hazardous waste as any substance with one or more of these characteristics:
Chock full of heavy metals, batteries are both reactive and toxic. If batteries end up in a landfill, the heavy metals can leach out into the surrounding soil and groundwater. If the batteries are incinerated, the heavy metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process.
If you are interested in knowing more about the complex and extremely serious effects of heavy metals on human health, take a look at this review article.
Exploded batteries from e-cigarettes
The lithium batteries in e-cigarettes have been particularly problematic. Here in the US more than 2000 vapers were sent to the hospital with burn injuries between 2015 and 2017 following a battery explosion.
Even when lithium-ion batteries can no longer power a device, they retain a residual charge (i.e., they aren’t dead). If their terminals come into contact with other metals, they can create a spark, which is of course extremely dangerous. When you dispose of nine-volt batteries you should put a piece of tape over both terminals to prevent accidental ignition.
What Happens When Batteries are Reprocessed?
The batteries are sorted and then sent to a processing facility. Batteries containing useful heavy metals are processed at high temperatures in thermal vacuum vaporization units, where the metals are evaporated and condensed.
The recovered materials are used to make new goods. For example, the nickel in nickel-metal hydride batteries is recovered to make steel. It’s a long and costly process.
How are We Doing on Disposing of Batteries?
Quantifying the degree of battery disposal is a challenge, in part because there are many permitted location sites including the battery manufacturers.
According to Kimberly Scheibly, former Director of Compliance & Customer Relations at Marin Sanitary Service, “Past waste characterization studies from Marin show a small percentage of household hazardous waste in the waste stream; however, there really should be none.”
A national analysis of battery collection is conducted every year by Call2Recycle, the country’s largest consumer battery stewardship organization. They obtain data on household battery recycling and then rank the states in terms of amount of collected batteries compared with the state population. For the past couple of years California has come in fifth.
What enables a state to get a high ranking? According to Call2Recycle, top-ranked states are more likely to have municipal governments that actively lead disposal efforts. Municipal governments in lower ranked states do not have the necessary infrastructure and resources to support appropriate disposal, often leaving this important activity to retailers.
Battery disposal has become more complex than it was in the days where most of them were alkaline batteries that we put in our flashlights or in a child’s toy. We no longer expect to remove or replace the batteries in our smart phones, tablets, readers and other devices. When we dispose of these devices along with their batteries, it is more difficult to ensure the separate recycling of those batteries.
The changing face of retail is another factor that is making it harder to recover batteries. Collection efforts have traditionally depended on returning the batteries to local stores. With the rise of internet shopping, many stores have closed or greatly reduced their overall footprint. There isn’t a clear mechanism to support return to retail when the retailer is an internet site.
Exciting Progress in California
In California, there is good news on the horizon. The State Legislature is poised to pass a bill (SB289) to require producers of batteries and product-embedded batteries to develop, finance, and implement a program to recover and reprocess their products. Read more here to find out how you can support passage of this bill.
What You Can Do
The most important thing to remember is never to dispose of your batteries in curbside containers. If possible, take all your dead batteries to the Marin Hazardous Household Waste Facility in San Rafael. They take a lot more than batteries, too, so load up your car with all your old paint, electronics, motor oil, and anything else that is flammable and poisonous. It’s free for Marin residents, so bring some ID. If you have any questions, check out their informative and easy-to-navigate website.
If the Waste Facility location is not convenient for you, you can take your batteries to other permitted drop-off points including fire stations, city offices and police stations, and any number of hardware and grocery stores. Check out this article about locations in Marin and Sonoma, or go to the website for the Battery & Bulb Take Back Program. This program allows Marin residents to dispose of household batteries, fluorescent lamps, and fluorescent tubes by dropping them off at retail locations. No charge!
And again, please keep those batteries out of your curbside containers. They must be disposed of in permitted hazardous household waste locations, not in your curbside recycling or waste container.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook!
This week I would especially like to thank Laura Myers for her generous donation to support dissemination of the Notebook on social media! Kimberly Scheibly, Hilda Borko and Guy Ashcraft provided helpful comments on this post. And thanks also to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image for the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more.
Monarch enjoying a mud puddle
Bad News, Good News about Monarch Butterflies
The bad news is that Monarchs have been disappearing from the West Coast at an alarming rate over the last 40 years. Reasons for their decline include loss of breeding and overwintering habitat, climate change, pesticides, and natural predators.
The Monarch population in California and Baja California has dropped from 4.5 million to 2,000 in 40 years.
The good news is that many individuals and groups have rallied to the cause of saving the Western Monarch from extinction. Two great organizations focused on education, advocacy, and research are the Xerces Society and Monarch Joint Venture. Locally, the Pollinator Posse has been working effectively to educate the public and create habitat for butterflies, as has the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
The movement to recover Western Monarchs is multi-pronged. In Marin, there has been a significant push to encourage residents to plant native milkweed, essential to the survival on Monarch caterpillars, and to stop using insecticide to control garden pests. Read more about these efforts in an earlier Notebook post.
Habitat Improvement in Agricultural Lands
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Monarch Caterpillar
Risk to Monarch Caterpillars from Predators
European paper wasps may also be a factor in the loss of Monarch caterpillars this summer. First reported in North America in the 1970s, these insects are now widespread in urban areas. They have a strong proclivity to nest in sheltered places around buildings. Research suggests that urban gardens with lots of milkweed and pollinator plants may unintentionally create an “ecological trap” in which the congregated butterflies are vulnerable to predation by paper wasps who already inhabit the area. This may be at work in Marin, although we need more evidence to substantiate this hypothesis.
What can you do to mitigate the danger these predators pose to Monarch caterpillars? Yellow jackets are carnivorous, so don’t leave pet food outside and be sure garbage is contained in tightly sealed cans. If you find a wasp or yellow jacket nest, you can try to remove it yourself, or call the Mosquito & Vector Control Association of California at (916) 440-0826 for assistance. For other ideas, take a look at these suggestions from the UC Integrated Pest Management Program
Risk from Parasites and Parasitoids
Perhaps the most-studied parasite of Monarchs is Ophryocystis elektroschirra (OE). OE infections occur when a caterpillar ingests OE spores that have fallen from an infected adult butterfly onto a milkweed leaf. The spores then take up residence in the caterpillar’s gut.
Caterpillars with a particularly high dose of OE parasites are likely to die before reaching the pupa state. Surviving infected adults often have difficulty emerging from their pupal cases and expanding their wings. They are generally smaller and shorter-lived than uninfected adults.
One third of Western Monarchs are heavily infected with OE. Generally, non-migrating Monarchs are much more heavily infected than those that migrate to an overwintering site. Access to non-native tropical milkweed, which flowers throughout the year, reduces the need to migrate, suggesting that it is not a good choice for Bay Area gardens.
One parasitoid that loves Monarch caterpillars is the Tachinid fly, which resembles a large house fly. Female Tachinids lay eggs on Monarch caterpillars. One study of a common Tachinid parasitoid found it in about 13% of wild Monarch caterpillars.
It’s hard to appreciate predators, parasites, and parasitoids when we suspect them of scarfing down Monarch caterpillars. However, these “natural enemies” offer a sustainable way of controlling garden and agricultural pests compared to using pesticides. It is just with respect to the Monarch caterpillar that these creatures are on the wrong side of justice.
Risks from Pesticides
Neonics were initially marketed as being less harmful than other insecticides, but we now know their devastating impacts on pollinators and beneficial insects. Experimental studies as well as those conducted in agricultural settings focusing specifically on Monarch caterpillars show that their growth and survival is adversely affected by exposure to neonics.
Pressure from consumers and conservation organizations has led some large retailers to label plants treated with neonics. But the hope is that they will cease selling this type of plant altogether.
More Ideas for Action
Become a Monarch Parent? Given the high mortality of Monarch caterpillars, it is tempting to gather eggs and bring them inside where you can nurture them throughout their development. Indeed, Monarchs reared in this way are much more likely to survive than those in the wild. However, there are serious drawbacks to captive rearing, and it is not recommended by Xerces or the Monarch Joint Venture. Here’s a good summary of the issue. While they do not endorse large-scale attempts at captive rearing, MJV gives the OK to people interested in rearing them “for enjoyment, education, or community science.”
Teach others. If you work with (or have) elementary-aged children take a look at this great toolkit from the World Wildlife Fund. It is well-written and full of ideas for activities. Journey North also has some great resources for kids.
Plant native milkweed. Ask your local nursery to start supplying native milkweed and pollinator plants that are free of insecticides. Organize a group to collect and propagate milkweed seed. Plant native milkweed and be sure not to get the tropical kind!
Get into puddling. Monarchs obtain moisture and important minerals from mud. Create a puddling area for Monarchs by digging a wide, shallow depression in the ground and lining it with plastic weed barrier or pond liner. Or just use a shallow dish. Then add a 1-2 inch layer of landscape sand mixed with soil, along with just enough water to keep it wet. You can also put in a few rocks to serve as landing and basking places.
Get help! The Pollinator Habitat Help Desk line offers anyone in the United States personal recommendations and answers to your pollinator questions. Give them a call at 833-MILKWEE (833-645-5933) between 9 and 5 PM Central Time, or send an email to email@example.com.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to Mia Monroe, Wynter Vaughn, and Alice Cason for their helpful suggestions on this post. And thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image for the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!
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