The Environment

Backyard Biodiversity and Sustainability

UConn Heron
A heron standing at the edge of UConn’s Swan Lake

As we walk around campus we seldom think about the ecological diversity that surrounds us. Each structure, flowerbed, and field at UConn has a different biodiversity than that of neighboring communities, suburban areas, and the planet as a whole. All of these ecosystems are interdependent and affect our health and livelihood, but it is no secret that we are consuming more natural resources than the earth can sustain. As an Animal Science major with a minor in Wildlife Conservation, I have been able to explore how all species adapt to physical and environmental changes. The biggest threat to biodiversity is habitat loss due to the effects of natural and human-induced factors such as agriculture, over exploitation, and industrial pollution. After taking a course in wildlife management, I learned a lot about the different techniques used to influence the plant and animal species that progress in a given territory. I began to develop a passion for sustainable living and actions that can increase earth’s biodiversity.

The perfect place to begin creating a stronger ecosystem is your very own backyard. It is not crucial to distinguish the specific biological needs of all plants and animals, but there are essential elements for most species. The four basic needs for wildlife include food, water, shelter, and nesting. The first step is making a plan that suits each asset of the yard. Consider potential habitats and water sources for different species. Target species may include animals that are endangered or of special concern. The second step is implementing suitable horticulture practices. Get rid of invasive species and cultivate plants native to the area. Planting trees and shrubs provides sources of food and shelter for wildlife. Allowing them to grow up to different sizes will attract a plethora of species that can Continue reading

Cooking Up A Sustainable Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Day is only two weeks away; a day where families all over the U.S. celebrate all that there is to be thankful for by having a nourishing Thanksgiving feast. Although some families have their own traditions, we all know the staples of this yearly event: dishes like mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and of course, turkey.

If you have you ever thought about the impact of these millions of turkey dinners on the environment, you would be right to feel concerned. Like any other day of the year, a massive amount of carbon is used to transport food to your grocery store from factory farms. At those farms, millions of acres of land are used to raise beef, chicken and turkey. These millions of acres include not only the land where the animals graze, but also the land used to grow food to feed to our livestock. Additionally, billions of gallons of water are used to raise these animals.

Thanksgiving is a meal on a large enough scale that significant planning is required for most families. If you are already putting extra effort into this meal, why not also incorporate sustainability into your meals? There are many things you can do Continue reading

Food Waste – Moving Toward Greater Sustainability by Recovering Perfectly Good Food

One of the greatest challenges facing the world will be how to feed the 9 billion people anticipated to be on Earth by 2050.  There are essentially 3 major approaches that can be used to improve the likelihood that we will be able to meet the most basic of human rights, the right to food:

  1. Increase the productivity per unit of land on a global scale (science has helped accomplish this over the past century but by 2050, this challenge will be too great for this approach).
  2. Increase the quantity of land/space on which agriculture practices can take place (this essentially means deforestation, which has significant negative environmental ramifications).
  3. Reduce the level of food that is currently and unnecessarily wasted (recent awareness of just how much food is wasted nationally and worldwide makes this an option through which significant progress can be made).

Food Recovery HierarchyWithin the United States, 40% of the food produced becomes waste.  This amounts to more than 133 billion pounds of food annually and 97% of this amount ends up in landfills.  This can occur because of over-production, cancelled contracts, poor cold chain management, non-ideal sizes and shapes of fruits/vegetables, failed quality control goals, over-shopping by consumers, confusion resulting from inconsistent date label messages, lack of portion control, and/or lack of creativity in the kitchen. The environmental impact of wasted food is significant as well.  Every item of food that is discarded requires farmland, water, and fertilizer for its production; these resources are lost each time food is wasted.

What Can Be Done?

A significant amount of food that is currently wasted can be recovered to feed hungry people, supplement livestock diets, produce bioenergy, or compost as a soil amendment.  The US Environmental Protection Agency has Continue reading

UConn, Sustainability and the Environment

Environmental GroupsAs a senior, I am constantly looking back at my undergraduate career here at the University of Connecticut. One of the most influential factors was my love for the environment. I had the privilege of being able to serve as the Academic Senator for the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources in the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) here at UConn for the past three years. Along with being a CAHNR College Ambassador, I have always enjoyed interacting with members of my academic college, having the ability to represent my college in a variety of settings and advocating on behalf of my constituency in USG.

Being a representative of CAHNR in a senate body that had little idea or knowledge about the students that were in the college was one of the most interesting experiences I have had. CAHNR is stocked full of students that are environmentally friendly and go through their lives in a way to promote those ideas. CAHNR has majors such as Allied Health, Natural Resources, Resource Economics and Environmental Sciences. With those majors come coursework that emphasize the environment and the movement towards sustainability. Having majors in Resource Economics and Environmental Studies and representing an environmentally minded college lead to my involvement in USG being centered on environmental initiatives and sustainability.

We, as students here at UConn, are extremely fortunate to attend a large university that is devoted to being more environmentally friendly. Our administration has an Office of Environmental Policy (OEP) which is tasked with Continue reading

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Into Your Environment

Pick Your Own StrawberriesIf you had told 10-year-old me that I would spend three summers of my college career working on farms, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. There would be no way to convince me that I would be feeding pumpkins to pigs while rubbing their bellies or teaching little kids which strawberries are the ripe ones and how to pick them, or that I would be identifying weeds for fun. To most, spending hours weeding thousand foot strawberry fields in 90 degree weather in July doesn’t sound like the perfect summer day, but to me it does. Despite the hard work that comes with working on farms, the experiences and knowledge that come from the day-to-day work is expansive and has impacted my life and helped guide the career path I am pursuing.

For the past two summers I have been an Agriculture and Retail Intern at Jones Family Farms in Shelton, CT, a farm that specializes in “Pick Your Own” strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins and Christmas trees. Day in and day out, the work done by interns on the farm is essential to maintain the plants being cultivated throughout the year. This includes mulching baby Christmas trees, weeding strawberry fields, blossom clipping baby strawberry plants, trimming Christmas trees, and harvesting different types of veggies for customers to enjoy. On top of this hard work, interns spend a large amount of time Continue reading

Discovering the American South

Land Between The LakesUsually, my spring breaks are uneventful, involving a lot of sitting around at my house and relaxing by the television. This year, however, I participated in an Alternative Spring Break, in which I went to Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Land Between the Lakes is a park managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and it straddles the line between Kentucky and Tennessee. I had chosen this particular trip among the many that UConn offers because it was environmental themed, an interest of mine.

When I left on the trip, I was hoping to make new friends, spend some time in the sun after a long winter, and see the beautiful Appalachian region of our country. I got all of this and more. There were only twelve students on the trip, plus one student trip leader and a staff member from Community Outreach. This meant that we became very close over the course of spending the week together. As we drove down to Kentucky, I got to know each person, their different personalities, interests, and quirks. We had a wide variety of majors on the trip- from chemical engineering, allied health sciences, and environmental sciences to anthropology and human development and family studies. This variety of people meant that everyone I met was new to me- there was no one I already knew Continue reading

Sustainable Shopping

Like a lot of girls, I love to shop. As a consumer, it is important to be conscious of the impacts of your clothing purchases. It is estimated that over 90% of the clothing purchased in the United States comes from abroad (ABC News). A sweater that you notice hanging on the rack or a pair of shoes you come across at a department store might have traveled thousands of miles, using up energy and polluting the planet with coal on its journey to reach you. The latter motivated me to become the type of consumer who primarily purchases consignment clothing. Investing in this type of consumption particularly interested me as an environmentalist.

What is Consignment?

Ladies Consignment
Flickr: Paul Nicholson

Consignment clothing shops sell clothes that are owned not by the shop’s owner, but by the individual who had given (consigned) the clothes to the shop for the owner to sell. Both the shop owner and the individual who donated the clothing receive a portion of the profit once the clothing items are sold.

Consignment clothing produces a significantly smaller carbon footprint. While the sweater or the pair of shoes might have first come from thousands of miles away, it most likely made itself into the consignment clothing shop after someone in the local community wore it, and then sold or donated it to the shop. The only carbon emissions associated with the sweater or pair of shoes is the fuel that it took the donor and the shopper to drive to the store. The amount of emissions would be significantly less or virtually zero if either person walked, biked, or took public transportation to the consignment clothing store.

Consignment clothing items are tremendously discounted as well. I have always found that $50 at a consignment clothing store will earn me at least three or four times more than spending $50 at a department store. Purchasing discounted items Continue reading

Curiosity Speaks Every Language

At the beginning of the summer I sat with my family at our favorite restaurant in Boston, at the same table we sat at as little kids. We may be 21 and 16 years old now, but my brother and I played tic-tac-toe and hangman on the paper napkins for old time sake, just as we did years ago waiting for our meals. At the table to our right, two little boys were engaged in iPad gaming wars. The table to our left a little girl sat with her princess dress on, with the addition of a pink pair of headphones as she zoned out to the latest Tinkerbell cartoon on mom’s iPhone. I was troubled to see that with the new rise of technology kids seem to be losing their creativity and sense of curiosity. As I started my adventures for the summer, I was curious to see if the pattern held true with kids across the country, and across the continent.

Digging irrigation trenches in Panama
Digging irrigation trenches in Panama

In May I took off for an environmental volunteer trip to the indigenous village of Piriati Embera, Panama, with UConn Global Brigades. For a week we had the incredible opportunity to learn from community members about their methods of sustainable agriculture, and help plant hundreds of seedlings that will hopefully provide the community with a source of income for future generations. We also helped to maintain greenhouses and irrigation trenches, and held workshops teaching the dangers of acid rain and improper waste disposal. The amazing thing about this trip was not just the experience of working in Panama; it was working side by side WITH the community members. We got to hear stories of their families and traditions, and their hopes for their children and grandchildren. Throughout the week the kids who lived in the area would run by the greenhouses as we worked, making silly faces or showing off their tree climbing skills. They made toys out of sticks and pieces of trash along the street. They leapt into the river trying to show off backflips when they thought we weren’t looking. They raced down the road on bikes and on foot. They giggled and teased and chased and smiled, and they did it without mom’s iPhone or iPad gaming wars. They came to ask questions and tell us about what they wanted to do when they grew up. Some wanted to be doctors, some fashion designers, some singers, some professional futbol players. Every kid we talked to was so excited and curious. After an incredible week of laughing and working with the families of Piriati Embera, Panama, it was time to head back home Continue reading

A Land of Milk and Honey: My Experience on a Sustainable Farm

I draw the car to a stop in the gravel drive, eyes wide as I take in my surroundings. The Colorado sun shines down as I pitch my tent. Little waves crash where Thompson Creek meets the irrigation ditch. The breeze whistles through the willow trees, blowing over the open fields. Brook calls the other volunteers and me over. It’s time to bring the calves in from the knee deep alfalfa in the paddocks. My two weeks of volunteering at Sustainable Settings has begun.

Brook takes "Rock" and "Roy" out for a drive in the hay fields.
Brook takes “Rock” and “Roy” out for a drive in the hay fields.

There’s no doubt that sustainability is a critical consideration in agriculture. Our resources are limited and precious. Colorado’s water laws allocate the yearly snowmelt, each landowner taking only one’s designated amount to bring life to his fields, prosperity to his herd, and a flow to his kitchen sink. Some farms opt for state of the art  irrigation systems, but at Sustainable Settings I was able to observe a series of ditches, using only manpower to move water across a hundred acres of hay fields.  This approach is more sustainable, as sprinkler systems deplete the aquifer. One evening we settled in the outdoor kitchen after a powerful lesson in the importance of composting. Brook begins a lesson on biodynamics. We stirred a concoction of crushed quartz, compost, and other material in a handcrafted bucket, preparing the mixture to be spread on the fields. As night fell the tractor came out, its metal arms spreading streams of the preparation across the fields with the moon on our shoulders. We drove  around ditches and grazing cows, spreading the preparation and good intentions.

Morning begins with everyone in the kitchen. Continue reading