Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Prolonging Landfill Life

Landfills only have a finite amount of space to hold trash and that means they can only last so long. One thing cities are trying to do is prolong the life of landfills.

Traditional landfills compact the trash to get more trash in a limited amount of space. The downside is that this reduces the oxygen in the ground which reduces the decomposition rate of the trash. This means it takes even longer for the trash to decompose. One answer to this problem is the Bioreactor Landfill. The bioreactor speeds up the decomposition rate so that the trash breaks down faster and makes room for more trash in the landfill.

But there are many efforts to keep things out of the landfill in the first place. And that starts with each of us.

#1: Precycling. Become more conscious of waste before we make it. Better than disposable, use re-usable supplies. For example, instead of paper towels and napkins use cloth napkins and towels. Use real dishes and utensils instead of paper plates and plastic cutlery. Basically, think how our grandparents may have done it, before there were disposable items readily available. Bring your own bags to the store.

#2: Recycling or Relifing. Put things back in the supply line, not the landfill. Most everything is recyclable now – plastic (#1-7), aluminum cans, food cans, food boxes, even glass. Or donate these items to an Education Recycling center. Items like 2 –liter bottles and potato chip canisters get a new life in arts & crafts and education projects. This is especially great for businesses that have lots of stuff they can’t use – like old letter head or file folders or containers. Don’t dump them, donate them.

#3: Composting. This is definitely Environmentalism 400. There’s no use putting organic waste in the landfill. Compost it in your kitchen, yard or garden and return those nutrients to the soil. Food scraps, leftovers, egg shells, fruit peelings, bones, fat and grease are all organic food waste. With the help of earthworms, they’ll help you get rid of all of that mess.

Alright, do what you can to help us sustain our urban communities now and for the the future.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Filling up Landfills

Days ago, I introduced you to Landfills – what they are and how they work. Landfills are essentially big holes in the ground that are filled with our daily trash. But think about it. Americans generate millions of tons of trash every year. Wouldn’t we just run out of space? Yes, that is a risk. That’s why reduce-reuse-recycling and composting are encouraged, especially in big cities. If we are thoughtless about our trash, where it goes – then we aren’t thinking about the big picture. How much land are we using up for garbage dumps, which mean we can’t use it for housing, recreation, business or farming.

Landfills only last so long. An aging landfill is one that is reaching its Full Capacity. Once the landfill is full, it is closed. Today many cities are filling up their landfills faster than they expected. This is a big problem. Where do you find the space and place to put a new landfill? Would you want to live near a garbage dump, filled daily with fresh decomposing trash? No, I doubt if anyone would. That’s why they are often set on the outskirts of towns, away from people. But we’ve got to get rid of this trash. It is a big complicated problem.

This means the city stops delivering trash and covers up the landfill often with a layer of concrete or asphalt (to cap off the landfill) and then with layers of dirt. But the city is still responsible for monitoring the landfill for leachate, methane gas and other types of pollution. This means that even when it is closed, the landfill fill can’t be use to build anything on it for many years to come. It just sits there until we are sure (as we can be) that is safe for people and animals.

Here are photos of a closed landfill. It looks like a simple span of ground. It is, but there are no residences nearby and the most that can be done with this land is natural habitat restoration -- planting grasses, plants, and flowers.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In Memorium - Dr. Jerry O. Wolff

Dr. Jerry Wolff, of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, recently passed away. He entered the Canyonlands National Park in Utah on Sunday, May 11, 2008 and did not return. For the last week, the National Park Service has mounted an intense and thorough search. Park rangers, l ocal police, as well as friends and family involved with the search, now presume him to be dead. His death at a healthy andyouthful 65, and at the peak of a prolific and successful career, represents a profound loss.

I met Dr. Wolff while I was in the middle of completing my Master's Degree in Biology at the University of Memphis. He was the new department chair, and like my lab, he also studied the behavioral ecology of microtine rodents. Though not officially on my committee, he was an important contributor to my research and my academic studies while at Memphis. In fact, I credit Jerry, aka Daddy Wolff, Slender Foot, preparing me for my very first presentation at a professional conference. He was a handful - terribly opinionated, smart and quick as hell, and let absolutely no one off the hook. But he lived and worked harder than anyone. This man could complete and write up a research experiment and have it off to press so fast it was amazing.

A few of us (grad students) quipped behind his back that he was "Big Pimping Spending the Cheese" (The Jay-Z and the UGK collaborative) because of his cool casual manner and his tight walk. He could stroll. But really, he just might be the Tupac of Animal Behavior research. He was a prolific writer. I bet he'll have papers being published left and right for the next 3-5 years.

But some authorities think the case seems peculiar and that he may have wanted to disappear, and though I find it awfully hard to believe, some suspect a possible wandering off or suicide. It's wide open now. I can just imagine the number of conference attendees and researchers claiming to have had Elvis-like Jerry Citings in the field.

In accordance with Jerry's wishes, there are no plans for a memorial service. To commemorate his passing, you could make a donation in his name to either the American Society of Mammalogists or to the Animal Behavior Society.

American Society of Mammalogists:
Dr. Thomas Kunz,
Biology Department
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Animal Behavior Society:
Dr. Ira B. Perelle,
Psychology Department
Mercy College
Patterson, NY 12563

Happy Trails, Jerry

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Whales wash up on Senegal Beach

Okay, it's a break from the landfill and waste water theme. Here is some breaking biology and environmental news from Africa.

Thanks to the Sister #1 from the People Could Fly Project for passing on this story. She actually visited this beach before during an international trip.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Make your own model Landfill

Yesterday, I introduced you to landfills and how they are made. As trash breaks down a dangerous byproduct is produced - leacheate. Landfills not only must take care of trash, but it also must not pose other health and environmental threats, too.

Here is how a typical landfill is constructed.

So, a landfill must not let the liquid contaminants seep into the ground water or soil. Therefore, all landfills must be lined with either plastic or clay to prevent leachate pollution.

But which landfill liner is better? Which will successfully prevent leachate pollution? Clay or plastic?

Here's an activity you could do at home or with your youth group.

Supply List:
  • transparent 2-liter soda bottles cut in half with cap
  • 1 bag each of sand, gravel, topsoil, clay dirt
  • plastic wrap
  • food coloring - red or blue or green
  • jug of water


  • tap 3 holes in the bottle cap.
  • replace the bottle cap on the bottle.
  • after cutting the bottle in half place the top half of the bottle, cap-side-down, inside of the bottom half of the bottle.
  • place your liner at the bottom. If plastic - lay it on the bottom and press flat. If clay, pack it down with your fingers.
  • randomly select any or all three of the soils - sand, gravel, topsoil and begin layering the soils. be sure to pack them with your fingers. Or use the materials recommended on the cards.
  • you can layer your soils as thick as you want and as few or many layers as you want.
  • when you're down constructing your land fill, add a few drops of food coloring to your jusg of water. The colored water represents leacheate.
  • pour the colored water into your landfill and watch how fast the water drains.

What happened? Did the leachate leak through?

Repeat the exercise and change your materials or do it with friends. What did others find? How do different landfills compare? Was using clay or a plastic liner the most effective way of preventing leachate pollution?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Throw it Away. Where is Away? Landfills.

What happens to you trash when you throw it away?”

Trash does not simply go away. Trash is taken to municipal landfills or dumps. Each day landfills receive trash, spread it out, and cover it with a layer of soil. Sometimes, the soil is mixed with sludge from sewers. However, the soil and trash layers are routinely compacted so as to use the space most effectively. Within the layers of soil trash is being decomposed. Compacting decreases the rate of decomposition of trash. Decomposition is the chemical breakdown of materials and requires air (oxygen) and water to hasten the process. Leachate and methane are two by-products of decomposition. Both are potentially hazardous and as a result landfills are regulated so as to reduce the negative impacts of these by-products. Leachate can potentially contaminate municipal water sources such as groundwater and aquifers, therefore all landfills must be lined with either plastic or clay to prevent leachate pollution.

Click on the image below to learn more about how landfills work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Quick Tutorial in Urban Sewage Facilities

A great deal of our municipal taxes is dedicated to waste removal – garbage and sewage. And let’s be appreciative, it is one the most important technologies ever is municipal sewage facilities. Municipal sewage handling dates back to the Roman Empire. The Cloaca Maxima was a marvel. Using running water, the Romans were able to wash waste away from public baths and relief spots. Without technologies, societies use latrines or other set aside areas (read outhouse).

Thus sewer facilities are definitely an urban technology, and the most important technology benefiting human-kind. Urban areas, unlike rural or even traditional suburban areas, are densely populated – lots of people and buildings, all stacked up on each other. If we were still using a latrine system the situation would be bad – for us and the native wildlife with which we share this precious space. Thanks to waste handling technologies we have nipped diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery in the bud. Societies with properly functioning waste water handling have virtually no incidences of these horrible diseases that claim countless lives each year. In fact, that’s what the cyclone victims in Burma must now contend with.

Thanks to How Stuff Works, you can read and see for yourself how Urban Wastewater Sewage Systems work.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dealing with Waste & Sewage - the cost of "civilized" living

I'll dedicate the rest of the posts this month to how we deal with waste and how societies, particularly cities, deal with disposal and recycling of waste. Of special interest will be how we handle our own digestive waste and how digestive waste is also an important subtance to people and animals.

So an unofficial theme with month will be "May: it's all about the Poo and Garbage we think we leave behind".

Monday, May 12, 2008

What do we do with all of that Doo Doo?

There are many names for it – poop, manure, sludge, biosolids, compost, or humus, but all of it is the organic waste that’s left over. Especially important for the theme of my page is how do people live and interact with our environment and how do human societies (especially large cities) handle their waste and use our environment responsibly?
Municipalities handle waste water treatment. An important part is separating the solids from the liquids. But there are a lot of solids – called sludge after it has been separated and treated to kill any germs – and what happens with all of this poop? It can be disposed of on a landfill or applied to farm lands. Fertilizing farm lands is not much different than fertilizing gardens or lawns. In fact, the treated poopy water, called recycled water, is sometimes used to water lawns (an effort to save good clean drinking water for people).

The recent events about using sewer sludge in a science study have caused much attention, especially among activists. Based on the majority of reactions, I realize ‘re-using the stinky stuff’ seems to have most people turning up their noses (pun intended). It just seems to me that people are really surprised (and offended) by the ‘re-use’ of waste in this situation. But recycling poop isn’t new, especially to fertilize lawns. In fact, it is the one of the oldest methods of nutrient and energy recycling in nature and in human history.

Classic examples of ‘re-uses’ of poop include:

1. Fuel. Poop is an excellent source of fuel. Genghis Khan and the Western cowboys used ‘cow chips’ for fire fuel. There is no firewood on the grass plains. Cow chips however were abundant. After drying, the manure patty could be easily cut in pieces or slices and carried in pouches. The chips can burn for a long time and provide a more controlled fire. Even now, sludge from sewer treatment plants or manure from large farms and ranches is burned to create electricity and supplied to the power grid.
2. Fertilizer. Manure, from livestock mainly, has always been ‘added back’ to the soil. Humus rich soils are renowned for their ability to yield larger fruits and vegetables with little to no chemicals used. In fact, the whole go organic craze is built on composting and humus - which includes using all usable waste, even human. You can buy humus rich soil or humus products at garden and farm supply stores. Some Super Go Green advocates are even encouraging people to purchase and use composting toilets so that they can shorten the cycle and do it yourself.
3. Animal Bedding. This one was new to me. I was reading a children’s book about Dairy Farms and after the sludge has been treated the left over solids can also be made into animal bedding. Reference: Clarabelle Making Milk and So Much More.

At the very least, this should give us pause. I hope that the next time you flush you think about what happens down the pipe. Farewell to "Flush and Forget" .

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Precycling - Keeping Waste Outputs Low

Purchasing power is Power. A few weeks ago I was formally introduced to this concept of PRECYCLING by Ebony Mommy. In other words, thinking about our choices (food, shopping, travel, etc) before using them. Deciding what we will do and use so as NOT to create any waste, not even recyclable waste.

In today’s disposable-get-it-quick-and-easy-to-replace-for-cheap shopping environment a lot has been taken for granted. Our fore parents (who lived more rurally and closer to the land) were precyclers and recyclers. Nothing was wasted and everything was used. For one it was a matter of affordability. It was cheaper to keep something in working order and replace parts than get something new. Two it was a matter of convenience and sometimes safety. Accumulating trash near your living space was unhealthy and unsafe. But low, plastics and cheap electronics have been sent to make the world a better more enjoyable place. But with also went our great sense of conservation and frugality.

Now, we are faced with having to be more conservative. No where is this important than in our shopping decisions. And along with the option of paper or plastic grocery bags – or better yet, bring your own re-usable bag, now literature publishers are asking the same thing. Would you like that book in paper or plastic? And even for those of us who struggle to be environmentally conscious, it is hard to make the best decisions. My final word to you is to keep trying – keep being conservative, do everything you can to not waste anything – time, paper, water, energy, food – precycle if you can, and recycle everything you can.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Suburban Ecology as a Discipline of Study

The MRGP Center for Applied Suburban Ecology is a project of the Nature Conservancy in the State of New York.

Looks like the fields of Ecology and Conservation are really taking notice of the importance of studying human-ecology interactions in an entirely new way. Though I focus on Urban Ecology, in truth, it is hard to draw the line between urban and suburban areas. Human populations are growing spreading to much and so far that the line is fuzzy. I use the term city or urban areas very loosely, so urban and suburban areas and their ecologies overlap in my head. I'll also admit a lot of what I share can easily be found in suburban areas as well -- maybe you'll find more there, because presumably, there are alot more green spaces, parks, and yards in suburban areas as compared to dense cities. And no matter which side of the academic fence you come from, we all recognize that sustainability is the ultimate goal.
And the Mianus Gorge River Preserve have some suburban ecology internships and assistantships available for students in high school, undergraduate and graduate school.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Urban Wildlife Watch - Wooly Blue Violets

April Showers Bring May Flowers

This is the Wooly Blue Violet or the Viola sororia. It is an understory or ground cover plant that grows well in the shade. It is a native (US plant) grows thoughout many parts of the country - the midwest, out east. If you don't have a "fancy" lawn, then it will grow well on your front or back yard. The stalks of the flower and leaves can get up to 6-7 inches, about the length when most people consider cutting the grass. The flowers are small, about the diameter of a quarter and I can detect no odor. I haven't yet noticed any bees or ants trying to sip nectar from them. But aren't they pretty? Here are two more shots of them. Can't you tell I've been practicing my shots and lighting and such? Also, noticed the heart-shaped leaves of the violet - a signature physical trait.

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