Friday, May 30, 2008

Guard that Grease! (And Bird Droppings!)

Ever deep-fried a turkey, or had a tempura party?

Great fun, good food. But what to do with that rancid used oil? We're not supposed to pour it down the drain, and it would kill your compost pile.

Thanks to high fuel prices, you might just leave a container of it by the garbage and hope someone steals it.

The New York Times reports:

"Outside Seattle, cooking oil rustling has become such a problem that the owners of the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Arlington, Wash., are considering using a surveillance camera to keep watch on its 50-gallon grease barrel. Nick Damianidis, an owner (pictured above), said the barrel had been hit seven or eight times since last summer by siphoners who strike in the night.

“Fryer grease has become gold,” Mr. Damianidis said. “And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.”

"Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

"In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon." "

Well, this is one aspect of the restaurant industry that doesn't get much attention! Grease thieves aside, though, there are several outfits that are well aware of this goldmine.

There are specially-outfitted grease collection trucks available for the purpose.

(Cartoon from Mumblings from a Padded Room)

NWPR's Traffic Manager Laura Hartner was once a grease collector. With dreams of making her own biodiesel, she went from fryer to fryer, asking for their used grease, which they were only too happy to give to her. After all, it meant they did not have to pay for the oily (and sometimes stinky) stuff to be removed from their premises! Unfortunately, Laura wasn't able to realize her wishes, so I put her in touch with a friend of mine, who converts the grease into biodiesel in his backyard. He runs a couple of very nice European diesel cars on the stuff!

I wonder if the price of commercial diesel is going to put a crimp in the fuel line of home biodiesel manufacturers.

The price of oil is also affecting the price of fertilizers made from the black stuff. And that's reviving an industry in Peru, for guano. Bird (or bat) droppings.

Also in the New York Times:

"Guano in Peru sells for about $250 a ton while fetching $500 a ton when exported to France, Israel and the United States. While guano is less efficient than urea at releasing nitrates into the soil, its status as an organic fertilizer has increased demand, transforming it into a niche fertilizer sought around the world."

The guano comes from birds such as these guanay cormorants, found on Isla Asia, one of Peru's guano islands (picture from Bill of the Birds)

According to one guano collector:

"There might be 10 years of supplies left, or perhaps 20, and then it will be completely exhausted,” he said, referring to fears that the seabird population could be poised to fall sharply in the years ahead. It is a minor miracle that any guano at all is available here today, reflecting a century-old effort hailed by biologists as a rare example of sustainable exploitation of a resource once so coveted that the United States authorized its citizens to take possession of islands or keys where guano was found.

As a debate rages over whether global oil output has peaked, a parable may exist in the story of guano, with its seafaring treachery, the development of synthetic alternatives in Europe and a desperate effort here to prevent the deposits from being depleted.

“Before there was oil, there was guano, so of course we fought wars over it,” said Pablo Arriola, director of Proabonos, the state company that controls guano production, referring to conflicts like the Chincha Islands War, in which Peru prevented Spain from reasserting control over the guano islands. “Guano is a highly desirous enterprise.”

Little wonder then, that the Peruvian government restricts guano collection, and station armed guards at each of the islands to ward off threats to birds, which produce 12,000 to 15,000 tons of guano a year.

Read the whole article: Peru Guards Its Guano as Demand Soars Again. You can get a close-up look at Peru's guano islands at this blog entry on Bill of the Birds.

And here's the grease story: As Oil Prices Soar, Restaurant Grease Thefts Rise.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Preventing food waste at all-you-can-eat buffets

Here's what many restaurants in Singapore do at their smorgasbords: diners are charged one flat price to indulge as much as they wish, but at the end of the meal, any uneaten food is weighed, and the diners charged accordingly.

From what I hear, one pays a few dollars for every 100 grams (about a quarter pound) of food left uneaten on their plate.

Could that strategy work in the United States?

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

A lot of attention's been given to world food shortages and their soaring prices, but what about the question of food waste?

First, how much food do Americans throw out? Bear in mind, much of this is perfectly edible food.

From the New York Times:

"In 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of edible food in the United States was never eaten. (That's 27 percent! - GC) Fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste. An update is under way.

"The study didn’t account for the explosion of ready-to-eat foods now available at supermarkets, from rotisserie chickens to sandwiches and soups. What do you think happens to that potato salad and meatloaf at the end of the day?

(For cafeterias, restaurants and supermarkets, it [is] just as easy to toss food that wasn’t sold into trash bins than to worry about somebody getting sick from it. And then filing a lawsuit.)

"A more recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted.

"The numbers seem all the more staggering now, given the cost of groceries and the emerging food crisis abroad." (Full article: One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal.)

And that's just the United States. Together with the food wasted in other developed countries, it's mind-boggling.

In the UK, the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that a third of all the apples sold there were tossed. "Besides apples, households are also dumping 5.1 million potatoes a day, 2.8 million tomatoes, 1.6 million bananas, and 1.2 million oranges. These were not scraps or peelings but whole items in good condition.

WRAP revealed before Christmas that about 6.7 million tonnes of food a year is dumped in bins. This represents a third of all food bought for consumption at home and is worth a total of £8 billion, or an average £400 (USD 780)for every household. (Source)

Back to the NY Times article:

And consider this: the rotting food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.

"The federal government tried once before, during the Clinton administration, to get the nation fired up about food waste, but the effort was discontinued by the Bush administration. The secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman, created a program to encourage food recovery and gleaning, which means collecting leftover crops from farm fields.

"He assigned a member of his staff, Mr. Berg, to oversee the program, and Mr. Berg spent the next several years encouraging farmers, schools, hospitals and companies to donate extra crops and food to feeding charities. A Good Samaritan law was passed by Congress that protected food donors from liability for donating food and groceries, spurring more donations.

“We made a dent,” said Mr. Berg, now at the New York City hunger group. “We reduced waste and increased the amount of people being fed. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped.”

With the current food crisis, it seems possible that the issue of food waste might have more traction this time around."

Jonathan Bloom, who writes the blog Wasted Food, said he was encouraged by the increasing Web chatter about saving money on food, something that used to be confined to the “frugal mommy blogs.”

“The fundamental thing that I’m fighting against is, ‘why should I care? I paid for it,’ ” Mr. Bloom said. “The rising prices are really an answer to that.”

Sounds like a very good time to resuscitate that food recovery program, doesn't it?

"Of course, eliminating food waste won’t solve the problems of world hunger and greenhouse-gas pollution. But it could make a dent in this country and wouldn’t require a huge amount of effort or money. The Department of Agriculture estimated that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people."

Here again is that report, One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Blame Game of Rising Food Prices

“When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.”George W. Bush, on India’s burgeoning middle class (May 2, 2008)

If Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, “many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates.” - Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general of the center for international trade, economics and the environment of CUTS International.

Mr. Mehta also said, tongue firmly in cheek, the money spent in the United States on liposuction to get rid of fat from excess consumption could be funneled to feed famine victims.

Indians from the prime minister’s office on down frequently point out that per capita, India uses far lower quantities of commodities and pollutes far less than nations in the West, particularly the United States.

There may be some foundation to Indians’ accusations of hypocrisy by the West. The United States uses — or throws away — 3,770 calories a person each day, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization collected in 2001-3, compared with 2,440 calories per person in India. Americans are also the largest per capita consumers in any major economy of the most energy-intensive common food source, beef, the Agriculture Department says.

So who’s more to blame for rising prices, the US or India? The argument is in today’s New York Times: Indians Find U.S. at Fault in Food Cost.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Earthquakes, Cyclones, Superstition….and Political Change

Today, NPR’s Morning Edition had a very interesting conversation with reporter Frank Langfitt, who spent more than five years in China as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

The subject: the politics of natural disaster in China.

Besides discussing how politics are influencing the response scene, about three and a half minutes into the conversation, Langfitt talked about natural disasters in Chinese political culture.

He explained that in this view, major natural disasters such as floods, famines and earthquakes can signal the end of what’s known as the Mandate of Heaven.

Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, under this concept, the heavens bestow powers to earthly leaders. Should the celestial forces be displeased with the way those leaders are wielding power, they will take those powers away – and can signal this change with a great natural disaster.

Journalist John Pomfret of the Washington Post takes this further in his blog, Pomfret’s China:

“On July 28, 1976 at 3:42 A.M., an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Tangshan, a coal mining town to the east of Beijing. Sixteen hours later another 7.8 trembler rocked Tangshan again. Chinese official sources say 242,000 died, making the Great Tangshan Quake the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century and the third deadliest of all time.

“To the Chinese, however, the Tangshan Quake didn't just spell disaster, it augured change. Six weeks later (on Sept. 2), Chairman Mao died, ending the Cultural Revolution and sparking a battle to change China won ultimately by Deng Xiaoping. Two other major Communist figures had already "gone to meet Marx" that year.

“Natural disasters in China mean more than they do in the West. Many Chinese hold a view that the government is responsible for maintaining the harmony under heaven. If the earth buckles and shakes, it's a harbinger of political or social upheaval.

“China's Communist government spent decades trying to stamp out superstitions and feudal beliefs such as these, but it has failed. The last two decades of economic reform have sparked an explosion of traditional beliefs and a renewed interest in Chinese Buddhist-like sects.”

Today’s Chinese leaders may publicly eschew superstition, but I suspect that Frank Langfitt was rught when he said they this quake has probably rattled them internally, making them ask what it all means under the Mandate of Heaven. (How does I Ching, the Book of Changes, relate to the Mandate of Heaven? Read about it here)

Whether by Mandate of Heaven, Divine Right of Kings or common sense,here’s one florid example of not using power responsibly: we turn our attention to the military government of Myanmar, formerly (and preferably, to many) known as Burma.

Reports from that secretive military state in the wake of Cyclone Nargis have been alternately chilling, repulsive and infuriating. The international community continues to plead with the ruling junta for access to deliver aid to the hundreds of thousands of survivors in dire straits, but are met with one ridiculous rule after another: visas denied to aid workers, demands that all relief supplies be distributed only by the government. Many say that the government is hoarding these relief supplies for itself, while it distributes rotten food to the cyclone survivors. (More from the BBC, World wrestles with Burma aid issue.)

Newsweek’s Melinda Liu notes the Myanmar government is missing in action.

“The 400,000-strong military kept an unusually low profile last week, suggesting serious dysfunction at the top. Sr. Gen. Tan Shwe, the nation's leader, was nowhere to be seen. Buddhist monks and nuns appeared to be spearheading community clean-up campaigns—although state censors instructed the media to report only on military relief efforts. But some troops seemed more concerned with social control than social welfare. Instead of helping emergency services, for example, some soldiers conducted surveillance of local NGO staffers who were offering free funeral services to the bereaved families, according to Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thai-based magazine about Burma.

"Burmese dissidents who planned to sabotage the [constitutional] election (scheduled for May 10th)," he says,"feel the cyclone has done their work for them" by driving ordinary Burmese into the arms of the opposition. Many citizens in this superstitious country seem to believe that the storm represented nothing less than divine retribution—cosmic payback for the violent sacrilege committed by the junta last September, when the military put a bloody end to the "Saffron Revolution." Crowds of monks had taken to the streets with an estimated 100,000 civilians to protest the country's deepening economic hardships, including an abrupt fuel-price hike. The regime responded with fury, beating and imprisoning clerics and laypeople alike and killing as many as 138. Now many Burmese see the monster cyclone as proof that Than Shwe and his junta have lost the "mandate of heaven"—the supernatural right to govern.”

Liu looks to other countries to see what natural disasters can do to regimes.

Mexico City, 1985: “After a massive earthquake hit, the authorities and the country's aloof president, Miguel de la Madrid, went AWOL for days, leaving citizens to organize rescue efforts themselves. When the president finally did appear, he initially announced that Mexico "didn't need outside help." With more than 10,000 estimated dead, survivors had quickly taken to the streets to denounce the government's weak response. These protests energized a new crop of community activists and opposition leaders, lighting a spark that eventually brought down Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) years later.

Tangshan, China, 1976: “By the time that quake hit, killing up to 600,000, the Cultural Revolution was nearing its end, Mao was ailing and moderate leaders were already plotting to oust his most zealous accomplices. When the government then proceeded to badly fumble relief efforts— refusing international aid, among other things—it strengthened the hand of reformers who wanted to end China's isolation. Three months later, Mao was dead, the extremist "Gang of Four" was behind bars and the reins of power were passing to Deng Xiaoping—now famous for his unabashed embrace of capitalism.”

“In each of these cases, the chain of events leading to political change was long and complicated, but the governments' incompetence in the face of great tragedy helped tip the scales.”

"One shouldn't count out Burma's leaders yet. The military has managed to cling to power for 46 years now, despite losing an election in 1990 to the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who's been under house arrest nearly ever since.

And the regime has a ready reply to deny it has now lost its heavenly mandate. In 2005, heeding astrologers' advice, the officers moved the country's capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a hardscrabble town some 250 miles north. This location helped the new capital escape the worst of Nargis's wrath—though of course it's unclear whether this was a sign of blessing or just dumb luck. Still, the generals must know that surviving a cyclone is one thing. Avoiding the human earthquake it provokes is a whole other matter.

Read Melinda Liu’s article Winds of Change

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Does Mom REALLY want a card and roses?



And reposted ahead of Mother's Day 2008 in the U.S.


Sunday, March 18th was Mothering Sunday in the UK, roughly two months before its equivalent in the US: Mother's Day, where it falls on the second Sunday in May. On this occasion, the BBC reports that the woman who invented the celebration spent 40 years of her life fighting the commercialism that sprang up around the day.

Anna Jarvis campaigned for over a decade before President Woodrow Wilson, in 1914, dedicated a day to mothers.

Within a few years, the occasion became commercialized, to Anna's horror.

"Along with her sister Ellsinore, Anna spent the entire family inheritance on trying to undo the damage done to Mother's Day. One of her protests even got her arrested for disturbing the peace. She died in 1948, in poverty and without success.

"In one respect what Ms Jarvis wanted from the day lives on - it has taken on huge significance and is a celebration of motherhood. However, how most people chose to celebrate it would make her turn in her grave."

"Consumers are pressured by advertising and businesses to measure goodwill in terms of presents, says branding expert Jonathan Gabay.

"Mother's Day has become a yearly windfall to business. It's an opportunity to market everything from cut flowers and greetings cards to nostalgic CDs, perfume and beauty products."

The commercialism that accompanies so many holidays in the U.S. truly sickens me. Christmas as it is celebrated today was created by Coca-Cola, Montgomery Ward, Hallmark and other corporations, who saw immense opportunities which I'm sure have far exceeded their early expectations. People have completely caved to advertising and corporate propaganda. How many times have you heard of people going into serious credit card debt over Christmas presents? Did Jesus ever say "be sure to go into debt in My Name"? And yet, here we are. Valentine's and Halloween? Wouldn't be surprised at all to hear Hershey's and other candy companies had a big hand in turning these days into what are now the two biggest sugar high days of the year.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving seems to have escaped most of that commercial frenzy. It's one thing for which I DO give thanks every November.

But back to Mother's Day. I hardly claim to speak for all mothers, but for me a Hallmark card and a dozen roses don't do a thing. Going out to brunch on usually involves a crowded restaurant and waiting, which isn't my cup of tea. As much as chocolate is a lovely gift, it gives me nowhere the pleasure of my children's handmade cards and notes, awkward as they may be. THAT'S a present! I had told the kids to stop buying me stuff, so the handmade cards started coming, along with "Mom's Day Off," and the occasional surprise. One year, my son handed me a little basket of morel mushrooms he'd picked in the woods. He'd heard me say I missed the taste of morels. Three years ago, my daughter gave me a jar with little strips of paper in it, on which she wrote things that she loved about me. She told me to remember to open the jar and read the strips whenever I had a bad day. Really made me tear up.

Hallmark and FTD can't top these.

What do I really want for Mother's Day?

Pretty much what I have with my children every day. Good conversation, honesty, humor and respect. I want what any Mom wants: happy, fulfilled children. I want to look at them and see gentle souls, loving hearts, humor, generosity and good judgement; to know they've been equipped properly to be independent and responsible adults. The best thing my kids could give to me on Mother's Day is to let me know how I'm doing in my efforts to bring them up to be all these things.

Anna Jarvis was right to be horrified at the commercialization of the holiday she championed. Showering Mom with gifts and some pampering one day a year is no compensation for taking her for granted the rest of the year.

More mothers are taking up Anna Jarvis' fight against the commercialization of Mother's Day. The BBC piece quotes Carrie Longton, a founder of Mumsnet (in the UK):

"There is a real movement among mothers at the moment to think about mothers who are less fortunate. We are encouraging people to make a donation to charities that help mothers worldwide rather than buy flowers.

"I will be working on a cake stall on Mother's Day to raise money for HIV mothers in Africa. It costs just £7 to buy the medicine to make sure they don't pass HIV onto their children."

It's this type of action that Ms Jarvis would approve of. Especially as she hated Mother's Day cards, calling them "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write".

Hear, hear!!

Read the whole BBC article here.


UPDATE 2: NPR had a piece on the marketing of Mother's Day, then and now. It aired on Friday, May 11. Listen to the Morning Edition piece here.