Friday, July 27, 2007

The oil in your water

They actually ship this shit from Fiji.
Flickr photo by strfireblue.
The latest issue of Fast Company has a staggeringly good article about the bottled water fad. The article opens with a tour of the Poland Spring bottling plant in Hollis (just 2 miles away from my alma mater, Bonny Eagle High School), stops by Beverly Hills for some celebrity hype, and winds up in Fiji: the global travel itinerary of a twenty-first century commodity.

Last year, we Americans spent $15 billion on a consumable that most of us can get for free from a tap (in fact, 1/4 of the bottled water market consists of repackaged tap water from municipal sources: Poland Spring, for instance, buys some of its water from the Fryeburg, Maine town water supply). Article author Charles Fishman admits that, compared to indulgences like driving a Hummer, bottled water doesn't seem all that lavish...
"But when a whole industry grows up around supplying us with something we don't need--when a whole industry is built on the packaging and the presentation--it's worth asking how that happened, and what the impact is. And if you do ask, if you trace both the water and the business back to where they came from, you find a story more complicated, more bemusing, and ultimately more sobering than the bottles we tote everywhere suggest."
The resulting article is a natural history of bottled water: an expedition to the various sources of history's most bizarre watershed. What Fishman finds in this article is astounding: 38 billion plastic bottles pitched into landfills every year - an amount of plastic that would be worth $1 billion as a raw recycled commodity - the weekly transport of 1 billion filled bottles moving around by ship, trucks, and trains in the US alone - the equivalent of 37,800 18-wheelers burning lots of diesel fuel in order to duplicate a service already provided by pipes and wells - and finally, the modern bottling plant that produces Fiji Water, in a nation where unsafe water supplies generate regular outbreaks of illnesses like typhoid.

The plasticshed: sources of PET in the Amcor multinational tributary
Most fascinating is the big role of filthy fossil fuels in the production and transport of your pure spring water. For one thing, there's a whole lot of plastic produced. Most water comes in PET #1 plastic bottles, which, incidentally, were first patented by Andrew Wyeth's chemical-engineering brother. PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, which is manufactured from petroleum products in plants all over the world. An Australian-owned corporation called Amcor is one of the bigger PET manufacturers, with dozens of factories on six continents (see map). So this is where the "bottled" in "bottled water" comes from. Funny, but Poland Spring doesn't mention these chemical plants, or the oil fields that supply them, in their marketing campaigns.

San Pellegrino water uses old-fashioned green glass instead of plastic. But a one-liter bottle of glass weighs five times as much as a one-liter bottle of plastic, and since these glass bottles are being shipped across the Atlantic from Italy on diesel-fuel-burning container ships, there are probably even more oil fumes in San Pellegrino's fizz than in Poland Spring's plastic bottles.

Ultimately, all of these petrochemicals are being refined, baked, burned, and ultimately trashed in order to duplicate the function of existing water infrastructure - our perfectly-safe public water supplies, pipes, and wells.

So read the article, and next time you find yourself with a handful of bottled water (which will be soon - they're ubiquitous), try to visualize all of the petroleum byproducts involved in its production floating in there among the pure mineral goodness. It will be good for what ails us.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mapping the urban environment

Last month's Wired magazine had a gee-whiz article about Google Maps mashups and the democratization of cartography. I'm not sure it's such a big deal as Wired makes it out to be, but I do think that this Cartography 2.0 is pretty cool. This blog operates under the general principle that the more we know about our environment and how it works, the better off that environment will be, and the flexibility and interactivity of Google Maps happen to offer some neat ways of illustrating environmental principles at work in our cities.

Here are three Google Maps mash-ups that I particularly admire as interpreters of urban ecology:
  • Green DFW Pollution Maps: This map made by Dallas activists pinpoints a nationwide database of EPA-monitored sites. Type in a zipcode, and this will show you all the Superfund sites, wastewater treatment plants, hazardous waste facilities, and smokestacks within a ten-mile radius.
  • Walk Score: This map locates all of the restaurants, hardware stores, pharmacies, theaters, and grocery stores within walking distance of your home address, and calculates a "Walk Score" depending on how many of these everyday services are within a reasonable walking distance. The methodology isn't perfect - the yuppie housewares shop and the Ace Hardware receive equal credit as "hardware stores," e.g. - but it's generally a good indicator of a neighborhood's livability.
  • The Baltimore Homicide Map is a sobering constellation of pinpoints around the inner city. Never having spent much time in Baltimore, I don't know about any of the context that would make this map more meaningful, but the readers of the Baltimore Sun (which created it) would be able to look at this and make connections between clusters of pinpoints and the quality of neighborhood schools, or poverty, or racial segregation. The clusters of homicides do seem to correlate somewhat with clusters of vacant lots pinpointed on this map.

John Mackey, the price war peacenik

Today, we're debuting a brand-new topic here at the Vigorous North. The "Jackass Environmentalism" tag will be attached to posts that discuss the ways in which elitist jerks abuse the mantle of "environmentalism" to protect their narrow, privileged self-interests, frequently at the expense of the environment. From the Kennedy family's protests over Cape Wind ("but that's where we sail!) to carbon indulgences for SUVs, this topic promises to be riper than your organic mango shipped from Thailand.

Which makes a nice segue to our inaugural jackass environmentalist: John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market (henceforth referred to as "WhoFooMa").

Mackey made the news recently when the Federal Trade Commission revealed that the WhoFooMa CEO had been talking up his company's stock on Yahoo Finance message boards under the pseudonym "rahodeb." The not-so-anonymous-as-he-thought postings reveal Mackey's opinions on Wal-Mart ("I probably admire Wal-Mart more than any other company in the world... I love Wal-Mart!"), unions (almost as bad as trial lawyers), and his own haircut ("I like Mackey’s haircut. I think he looks cute!").

Some WhoFooMa stockholders are wondering why their CEO was spending so much on-the-job time on a backwater internet discussion board. But what this is really all about is Mackey's desire to buy out his closest competitor, Wild Oats Market (WiOMart - pronounced as the past tense of "Wyoming" might be if "Wyoming" were an irregular verb).

A recently-released FTC memorandum quotes Mackey's desire to "avoid nasty price wars in Portland (both Oregon and Maine), Boulder, Nashville, and several other cities which will harm our gross margins and profitability" (page 6 of the memo). What a good liberal peacenik, right? Except what Mackey describes as a "nasty" conflict is actually good for consumers, farmers, and the organic foods industry.

As you may have guessed, I can think of plenty of problems associated with the Whole Oaty Wild Foods Jackass Organic GloboMarts. But the massive transfer of wealth from yuppie credit card accounts to organic food producers has unquestionably provided big benefits to the environment and family farms.

However, if Mackey should acquire his competitor, organic farmers will have one less retailer to whom they can sell their products - and in many markets, WhoFooMa could become the only buyer. Which means that farmers will either have to subject themselves to the prices and whims of WhoFooMa or try their luck at the roadside stand. If there's only one buyer, the whole market for organic food will suffer (in economics, this is called a "monoposony").

The same problem comes up from the consumer's perspective. Having two Jackass Organic GloboMarts in the same neighborhood means that Portlanders, both in Oregon and in Maine, will pay less for soy milk, organic fruit, and (unfortunately) Fijan bottled water, thanks to competition. What Mackey refers to as "avoiding a price war" is what the FTC, you, and I would call "a monopoly."

For the sake of full disclosure, I suppose that I should mention that I worked at the local WhoFooMa for two weeks when they opened here in Portland, ME. I applied based on hearsay that they provide good worker benefits, and while this was the case, the whole place is also pervaded with a creepy celebratory attitude toward conspicuous consumption. If Winnie-the-Pooh sweatpants were somehow able to soothe liberal guilt and stroke their wearers' egos, then WhoFooMa would be Disney World without rides.

I haven't been back since I ran out the door on my last night there, but it's fertile ground for many future Jackass Environmentalism posts - so there's much more to come.

Read Wacky Mackey's posts on Yahoo Finance here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

You can't breathe easy

During the airborne toxic event two weeks ago, I'd noticed that I couldn't take a deep breath without coughing. I thought that I'd outgrown the exercise-induced asthma that I sometimes got when I was a kid, but a day of record-breaking air quality violations brought me a wheezing blast from the past.

An article in today's NY Times doesn't help me feel any better:
[Cardiology professor] Dr. [David] Newby has seen, in action, the effects of [fine particulates] on active people. In 2005, he and his colleagues had 30 healthy volunteers ride exercise bikes inside a laboratory for 30 minutes, while breathing piped-in diesel exhaust at levels approximately those along a city highway at rush hour.

Afterward, the researchers did a “kind of stress test of the blood vessels” in the participants’ forearms, Dr. Newby said, and found that the vessels were abnormally dilated, meaning blood and oxygen could not flow easily to the muscles. At the same time, levels of tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, a naturally-occurring protein that dissolves blood clots, had fallen.

“Those are ideal conditions for a heart attack,” Dr. Newby said.
Those fine particulates also happen to collect heavy metals and other toxics from engines and fuel and deliver them into the bloodstream when we inhale them. Athletes are particularly susceptible because they can take in 10 to 20 times as much air pollutants as sedentary people, although anyone who walks or bikes regularly near automotive traffic is at risk.

Nevertheless, even the doctors who are experts on how unhealthy our air can be warn that exercising still beats the alternative. "The bottom line is that running and cycling are healthy and, over all, good for the heart," says Dr. Newby. "I ride my bike back and forth to work every day," he said. "If everyone else did that, too, we wouldn’t be having this problem at all, would we?"

The Maine State Pier: Sinking Under Its Own Weight

It's been a while since I've written about the Maine State Pier (map), that sinking piece of waterfront real estate that's attracted hundred-million-dollar proposals from local developers.

The "request for proposals" competition for the Pier has devolved into a full-blown circus, complete with profanity in City Hall, a "public" "process" that's being invented on the fly, and name-calling among City Councilors. It's pretty much turns my stomach to think about it, which is why I haven't been giving it much attention here.

But just to recap: last year, this fellow, Bob Baldacci, brother of our Democratic governor, began meeting privately with his buddies in City leadership positions to talk about putting hotels on our Maine State Pier, a vital piece of infrastructure on our working waterfront. After some public outcry, the gang hatched a plan for a "request for proposals," which would have the appearance of a public, competitive process, although the short timeframe and previous negotiations made only one submission likely - Baldacci's.

In February, then, Baldacci and his "Ocean Properties" team turned in a half-assed "proposal" that had more typos and grammatical errors than a chimpanzee's transcription of Hamlet. Presumably they expected it would be good enough for a rubber stamp - quality hardly matters in a monopoly - except for one hitch: the Olympia Companies, a local developer, had submitted a competing proposal. And it was clearly superior in almost every respect.

Since then, Ocean Properties has revised its proposal past deadline several times, swear words have echoed through council chambers, and truckloads of Baldacci-friendly union bosses have been bussed in from out of town to lend City Hall a distinctly Tammany flavor. Through it all, a process that was supposed to have been gin-clear and open has been muddled, contested, and out-and-out botched by the Community Development Committee's chairman, Jim Cloutier.

First, Cloutier allowed Ocean Properties to change its proposal well past the deadline. On the surface, this seemed well and good: Ocean Properties came out with better plans and the city got a better selection to choose from. But the last revision from Ocean Properties came just a little more than a month ago, leaving planning staff and the general public only one meeting in which they could air their concerns (of which there are many).

The rest of the lurid details are best outlined in this lengthy feature article currently in the Bollard. Chris Busby stops short of putting the obvious conclusion in print, so why don't I put it down in writing right here: The Ocean Properties developers used massive out-of-town political influence to corrupt Councilors Jim Cloutier and Jill Duson into subverting public involvement and voting for a proposal that was not in the best interests of the City of Portland and its citizens.

Even if you disagree with the "corrupt" label, there can't be any doubt about how little they have done to avoid the appearance of corruption. At the very least, they're guilty of lousy public service.

Through all of this, Jim Cloutier has been petulantly dismissive of criticism: anyone who questions his authority to make up rules as he goes along is labeled "inexperienced" or naive. In the Bollard's article, Khan Cloutier defends his disregard for public process and opinion by telling Busby, "At a certain point, you have representative government and you live with that."

Well, he's partly right: we're supposed to have a representative government. When the question of Cloutier's reelection comes up in November, I suspect we'll come a bit closer to that ideal.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Red-tailed hawks are awesome

This is a red-tailed hawk that lives in Washington Square Park, in the middle of New York City's Greenwich Village. It is eating a pigeon on top of the New York Daily Photo blogger's air conditioning unit.

Red-tailed hawks are doing quite well in Manhattan: they have nests in Inwood Hill Park at the northern tip of the island (where I worked last summer) and in Bowling Green Park near the Battery, as well as in many places in between. They feast on the city's bounty of fat pigeons and nest either on the ledges of high-rise buildings or in dense tree canopies in city parks.

I had the good luck to witness a red-tailed hawk hunting high above Broadway last summer. I was walking down the street towards the subway station when I heard a red-tail's scream above me. I looked up just in time to see an explosion of feathers burst from the middle of a panicked mob of pigeons, and the burdened hawk coasting out from the middle of it and into the trees in Isham Park.

I've lived in the New Hampshire wilderness, hiked at the edges of the Tibetan plateau, skied down volcanoes, etcetera, etcetera, but watching a red-tail eviscerate a pigeon a hundred feet above Broadway in New York City ranks among the most amazing spectacles of nature I've ever witnessed.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Maine Turnpike Authority resents your legs.

The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) is trying to gain approval for a new headquarters building at the junction of outer Congress St. and the Jetport Connector Road. In the process, they're trying to weasel out of the City requirement that they build sidewalks around the property:
"The Jetport and [sic] Connector Road were [sic] constructed by mutual agreement between the MTA and the City to be without... sidewalks for pedestrians... For safety and efficiency reasons it was therefore agreed that pedestrian use of this area would not be encouraged."
- MTA Request for Reconsideration to the Portland Planning Board, May 17
If it had a sidewalk, the Jetport Connector Road would offer an easily walkable 1/2 mile connection to the nearest bus stop on Western Avenue (on existing sidewalks, it's a less realistic 3/4 mile walk). But at a recent Planning Board meeting, Turnpike Authority officials and transportation engineers made it clear that they had no clue where the nearest bus routes or stops were.

Additionally, the new headquarters building would be surrounded by a four or five acres of parking lots, and they plan to build 50 more parking spaces than are required by Portland's suburban office-park zoning codes. Located in the headwaters of Maine's most polluted watershed (Clarks Pond/Long Creek), these parking lots will soon be sending more oil-soaked runoff downstream towards the Maine Mall.

A cynic would find this only natural - pedestrians, transit riders, and petro-poisoned waterfowl don't pay the tolls that fatten the Authority's political-patronage salaries. But this is an agency that is supposedly governed by a law that requires a focus on "other transportation modes" and "energy-efficient forms of transportation," so its employees' complete ignorance of bus routes is rather striking. And considering the Authority's multi-million dollar annual budget, its strident refusal to build a few yards of sidewalk around its new offices seems as petty as it is shortsighted.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Rx for the Portland Public Market

Neil Takemoto writes one of my favorite blogs, CoolTown Studios, which focuses on how high-quality, vibrant cities and towns attract the creative individuals and businesses that drive the 21st-century economy.

In a recent post, he critiques our own Portland Public Market:
"This is what a public market should look like, but not developed and managed... In the end, it was lack of a public-private partnership, not as much the norm back in the mid 90s as it is today, that simply made the project too costly for the private sector to succeed alone. This is especially the case with new construction - as noble as replacing a parking lot is, private sector new development without public partnerships typically means it must be upscale, and that's simply not what public markets are about."
Guilty as charged - particularly towards the end, the Market felt more like a fancy food court than a place to buy fresh veggies from a local farmer. The following post on CoolTown Studios takes a look at the "grungy" Pike Place Market (the photos at left accompany the post), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary as the longest-running and most-successful public market in the nation.

Seattle's a lot bigger than Portland, but other markets in smaller cities and towns are thriving all over the place. We have a strong food products sector in Portland: in addition to farms and the fishing industry, we've got growing value-added food producers with businesses like Morrison's Chowder and Standard Baking. We also have lots of tourists anxious to import dollars into the local economy, and there's the busy, twice-weekly farmer's market. A truly public Public Market - not a food court - would have clear and measurable benefits for the whole region, if not the entire state.

So who's got the economic development strategy to revitalize the public market - at least the idea, if not the building itself - as a self-sustaining institution that supports local farms and businesses?