Tag Archives: Lawrence

The Business of Bugs

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Businesses Cash in on What Bugs do Naturally

‘Twas the night before Christmas and as Cassandra Ford would soon see, creatures were stirring, especially the pound of worms packaged under her Christmas tree.

For Ford, who heads the composting department for the city, getting worms for Christmas was like bringing her work home. Ford maintains the Lawrence Department of Waste Reduction and Recycling’s set of worms that it uses for vermicomposting — a process where worms break down food scraps into organic fertilizer — in addition to keeping her own vermicomposting worms at home.

“People thought I was crazy,” Ford said, “but now when my parents call, they always ask me how my worms are.”

Although people benefiting from bugs seems unusual, places such as the Department of Waste Reduction exploit the bugs’ natural processes for the businesses’ gain. Different bugs work different jobs, but all bug “employers” profit from the creepy-crawlies.

The vermicomposting worms at the Department of Waste Reduction eat their body weight in food scraps each week, which reduces the department’s waste. The worms produce an organic fertilizer, called worm castings, after three months.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough at the office to feed them, so some people will bring their food scraps from home,” Ford said.

The worms produce something else useful too — more worms. Ford said the department started with one pound of worms (about 1,000) a year ago, but worms produce offspring in just seven weeks.

“The worms will die eventually, but you’ll rarely have to buy worms again,” she said. “You’ll have to take some worms out, if anything.”

Lawrence’s Most Recent Hires: Ladybugs

About a mile down the street from the department’s worm bin, other city employees are working in the old Union Pacific Depot’s flowerbeds. The city purchased these ladybugs to fight off the growing aphid infestation.

“From a natural standpoint, lady beetles are great for feeding on aphids,” Jeff Whitworth, an extension entomologist with Kansas State University, said. “When you have a large aphid population, they are like cows feeding on grass.”

Ladybugs are a natural predator of aphids, but they are the most transient of the bug employees.

“I’ve seen too many people put ladybugs in their garden and then they are gone,” Greg McDonald, owner of Sunrise Garden Center, said. “But they leave because they didn’t have anything to eat.”

Still, the bugs are popular gardening partners. McDonald said he has already sold out of ladybugs for the year.

“Every year, we never have any left over,” he said.

Busy As A…

Unlike ladybugs that leave when the food is gone, other bugs bring the food with them and rely on the keeper to give them a house.

Richard Bean, owner of Blossom Trail Bee Ranch, who has owned bees for more than 30 years, said he had seen an increased interest in beekeeping.

Although no organization tracks the number of beekeepers in the United States, the number and size of beginner beekeeping classes has increased, confirming the trend.

A national beekeeping conference that took place in California in January registered 1,200 participants, up from about 600 the previous year, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

Bean said he hoped to create a basic beekeeping class.

“I like to see more people get started,” he said. “There are getting to be a lot of beekeepers in Douglas County.”

A mysterious disease termed Colony Collapse Disorder may have sparked some of the recent interest in beekeeping. The number of honey-producing bee colonies has fallen from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, causing some people to keep bees in an attempt to be saviors of the food supply. Whitworth said bees pollinate 80 percent of the crops in the United States.

The cause of CCD is unknown, but some attribute it to climate change, mites or even electromagnetic radiation from cell phone towers.

Bean said so far his 100,000 bees have not been affected from CCD. He said he expected about 100 pounds of honey this season, a larger-than-usual supply that he attributed to the tremendous amount of moisture and cool spring.

Like all bug employers, Bean’s business and some of his income is largely based on the temperature.

Bean said a freeze last April was the worst climatic disaster he had ever seen.

“I had a big bee population,” he said, “and then nothing. There was nothing for them to work with.”

Still, that didn’t make Bean nervous.

“The bees are such overachievers that someone has to be there to take care of them,” he said.

Although people have relied on bugs to do work for them for centuries, people today have mostly swatted bugs away until recently.

“We receive a lot of benefits that we don’t realize, like the breaking down of dead organic matter,” Whitworth said. “Willfully or not, we have used insects or been the recipient of beneficial aspects of insects. We have been able to use them where we need to.”

Some bugs are little more than a click away.

“Now you can buy worms on eBay,” composting specialist Cassandra Ford said. “A few years ago, you would think, ‘Who would do that?’ Now you can find them on the Internet and have them shipped to you overnight.”

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How To Green Your Move

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image from evanhamilton

As the last week of this semester begins and the student population of Lawrence moves into new apartments and houses, let’s do something besides get “wasted.” That’s trashy.

In this last week, let’s focus on cutting back our waste.

Moving out is one of the most trash-intensive events of the year, as demonstrated by the industrial-size dumpsters that the University sets in front of the dorms. But the majority of the “trash” that fills these containers isn’t trash at all: It could have been recycled, donated to charity or used by other students. One man’s recyclables are often another man’s living room furniture.

Step 1: Find unwanted items.

Are those sheets, bedspread and kitchen utensils from the dining hall not going to cut it next year? Gather everything you don’t want or can’t use next year, and assess its worth to determine its final destination. Here’s a handy guide:

Your stuff rules: Sell it on eBay.

Your stuff is pretty damn good to moderately good: Sell it on Craigslist or have a garage sale.

Your stuff is useable: Donate it to Goodwill, 2200 W. 31st St., or give it to your friends or neighbors.

Your stuff is pretty much done for: Recycle it.

Your stuff is moldy, broken beyond repair (and you’ve tried), or for some other reason is no longer fit for human interaction: This category should be a last resort.

Even the most unlikely items can be donated or sold. The Lawrence Community Shelter, 214 W. 10th St., accepts food donations, which can be dropped off at the shelter. Don’t forget about resale shops, where you can sell back clothing, furniture or electronics.

Step 2: Green pack

Pack your remaining items with packing materials that you already have, such as towels, plastic containers and old newspapers. Call the produce departments at local grocery stores and ask them to set aside large, sturdy boxes for you. Most will be happy to do this if you pick up the boxes in a few hours.

Step 3: The trip

The fewer trips you make, the more gasoline you’ll save. Depending on the amount of large furniture you have, it may be most cost-effective (and environmentally friendly) to hire a moving service so everything can be moved in one trip.

Step 4: Home, new home

You’re almost done, so keep up the green mantra.

Save old boxes or newspapers to reuse for your next move, or recycle them.

Step 5: Think long-term

If you pack up your life once a year, you have a unique opportunity to step back and look at all the things you own. If packing up is something you dread, simply keep less stuff around.

When buying furniture or anything new for your place, check out resale shops first. These items are usually cheaper than buying new and have more personality than expensive, cookie-cutter new furniture. Plus, if you plan on getting new furniture after college, it would the most economical to spend less on furniture now.

Steer clear of the build-your-own-desk-in-52-easy-steps pieces of furniture that are usually found in big-box stores like Target or Wal-Mart. Even though this furniture is usually cheaper, it is hard to move to a new house and will typically get trashed after a year. It’s also not as sturdy or durable as its pre-built counterparts.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on May 8, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

Don’t Make Holcomb Another Crime Scene

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image from smithy

This tiny town in western Kansas is known by the crimes that have been committed there. It was the location of the Clutter family murders in 1959 that Truman Capote popularized in his work “In Cold Blood.”

Since the book’s 1964 publication, those crimes in the town of Holcomb have mostly faded from the public’s mind. But a new crime is on the verge of being committed, this time by Sunflower Electric, a Hays-based power company that is trying to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants in Holcomb.

Carbon dioxide is one of the main culprits of global warming, and electricity generation from the proposed coal-fired generators in Holcomb would emit 11 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. This much carbon dioxide would negate green initiatives taken by the New England states and make Kansas home to the one of the largest single sources of carbon dioxide west of the Mississippi River.

Despite its crimes, Sunflower Electric hasn’t been stopped dead in its tracks.

Opponents of the plant thought their battle was over when Roderick Bremby, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, rejected Sunflower’s application for air quality permits. He cited concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and relied on the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling that declared carbon dioxide a pollutant.

But supporters of the plant are ready to fight to the death, and they have a nice helping hand from the leaders of the Kansas House and Senate, who are both from Western Kansas. After Bremby rejected the permits, the debate moved to the Legislature, which passed two different bills stripping Bremby of his regulatory authority and allowing the plants to be built.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed both bills, but last week the Senate was able to gather enough votes to override the first veto. Since then, the action has been like watching the most time-consuming game of tennis: The complete override of the first veto failed in the House. The Senate overrode the second veto, which the House is scheduled to vote on Friday. Just this past Tuesday, the Senate passed yet another version of the bill, this time tacking a few more “economic development initiatives” onto it.

Although Western Kansas needs an economic boost, a coal-fired power plant is not the way to bring in money. Instead, the Legislature should be sponsoring initiatives to promote energy conservation or for funding for green energy projects like solar panels or wind turbines. These projects look progressively into the future, instead of forcing Holcomb residents to live in the shadows of an outdated coal plant.

In addition, most of the plant’s electricity would be sent out of state, leaving only 15 percent for Kansas, but the state gets to keep 100 percent of the pollution.

Some argue that if the plant isn’t built here, the project will be moved to a neighboring state. But in the wake of Bremby’s decision, other states and energy companies have been paying close attention to the debate. Bremby said 20 projects to build coal-fired power plants have been canceled, three have been delayed and others have been denied at the state level.

It is horrifying that so many members of the Legislature have supported these bills and are neglecting the long-term needs of the state in terms of environmental protection and economic prosperity, which are not mutually exclusive.

The Kansan editorial board supports Marci Francisco, the state senator from Lawrence, and Barbara Ballard, the area’s state representative, who both voted to uphold Sebelius’ veto and protect the environment and the health of all Kansans.

originally published in The University Daily Kansan, May 8, 2008. Click the link for the print edition.

How To Throw An Earth Day Party

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image from theskywatcher

With the environment gaining more of the limelight than ever before, Earth Day is rising through the holiday party ranks, beating out Arbor Day and Hug An Australian Day for deserving a legit celebration. Earth Day celebrates the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970, and the concept is re-emerging. Earth Day is next Tuesday (but really it’s every day), so here’s how to start planning an eco-friendly Earth Day party.

1. Buy local or organic beverages

By purchasing locally produced or grown products, you are supporting the local economy and reducing the gas burned for the product to be transported to you. Free State Brewery, 636 Massachusetts, sells kegs of its locally produced beer, which start at $96 for a full-size (15 gallon) keg of its standard beer. Smaller kegs and different varieties of beer are also available.

Honor vodka is produced in Lawrence and available in most liquor stores. Several locally grown and produced wines are also available in many stores. Unfortunately, these are not usually separated out from traditional wines and liquors, so read the label to see where the product was grown.

Ace Frazier, who works at Mass Beverage, 3131 Nieder Rd., says local and organic wines are typically about the same price as their traditional counterparts.

2. BYOC—Bring Your Own Cup

You got the booze, but have guests bring their own reusable cups. This reduces the amount of waste generated and cuts back on your party’s dependence on foreign oil. You could also provide reusable, recyclable or compostable cups. Compostable cups are corn-based and will naturally biodegrade when in a composting barrel.

3. Get out

Students spend the majority of their days indoors, so go outside to celebrate. Use available natural light. If going outside isn’t an option, dim the lights inside or condense the party to one area of the house so you need less light. Replace old incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy.

4. Play old games with an environmental twist

Whether it’s Greenhouse Gas Pong or Presidents And Al Gores, have some fun with your environmental knowledge. Also try Environmental Bullshit (“I have one United States and two international treaties.” “Bullshit!”), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report drinking game (drink anytime you read “climate change”) or Ring of Fire (that’s engulfing the planet).

5. Above all, don’t forget the three Rs

Remember the point of Earth Day, and don’t needlessly buy anything that isn’t necessary. If you must buy, try to buy local or organic. It all comes back to reduce, reuse and recycle, even at college parties.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on April 17, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

Snakes on a Plain

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image from Capitan St. Lucifer

Forget Hollywood. Global warming is making horrible movie sequels better than those hotheads in the hills can.

Soon coming to a Midwest near you: An Inconvenient Truth 2: Motherfuckin’ Snakes in the Motherfuckin’ Great Plains.

That’s right. But why exactly are there snakes on this Plain?

According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the python’s habitat is expanding northward with the increase in temperatures caused by global warming. As the Midwest warms up, our grasslands, previously uninhabitable to such snakes, could become home to the 23-foot-long creatures.

“If we had normal, cold winters, that snake probably wouldn’t survive, but we haven’t had winters like that for a long time,” says Joe Collins, a herpetologist with the Kansas Biological Survey.

Researchers first discovered a Burmese Python invasion in Florida in 2003. The Burmese Python, a type of Indian Python, is an invasive species, meaning that it is not native to the United States, and researchers think that the growing python population came from the offspring of a pet that someone released into the wild. The colony of pythons is now self-sustaining.

Climate models for the year 2100 show the python’s potential habitat slithering north and putting a stranglehold on the eastern half of Kansas, including the Lawrence area.

“The Indian Python is loose and breeding in the Everglades,” Collins says. “It could go as far north as Kansas, but that’s a hypothesis based on guesses. We aren’t sure that it’s going to happen.”

The habitable areas for reptiles are always based on temperature because these animals are cold-blooded and must have warm weather to survive.

“Reptiles are temperature-dependent,” Collins says. “If it goes down to freezing, they can die. If we have global warming, the mean annual temperature would increase so that the habitats would creep upwards.”

Collins says he received a call about a year ago from a farmer who lived south of Lawrence who said he had a snake problem. The farmer mailed him the shedded skin of a large snake, which Collins says was that of an Indian Python and was about 11 feet long.

“The farmer said, ‘All of my cats and small dogs are gone. What can I do?’” Collins says.

These snakes typically live underneath buildings and come out during the night.

“As far as I know, that Indian Python is still down there,” Collins says. “The snake could have been a pet that got turned loose or escaped. It’s a good example showing that it’s just not cold enough up here anymore.”

Collins said that other invasive reptile species have already been seen on the KU campus. Species like the Italian Wall Lizard, which can now be found in Lawrence, originally came from Europe.

“There are lots of species that come in through the South, a lot of those from Florida,” Collins says. “There are 64 kinds of invasive species in the U.S., and many have been moving north.”

Collins says Mediterranean Geckos were discovered two years ago in Lenexa. The geckos were crawling under warehouse lights in the business district.

“There is a lot of lumber here from Florida,” he says. “The animals can escape when packages or crates break. Florida has a big, big problem. All kinds of things are loose down there.”

As Kansas’ climate gets warmer, the eastern part of the state would provide a better habitat to animals previously found in wetland-filled areas like Florida.

“It’s more humid here in the eastern part of the state, so we would have more tropical animals,” Collins says. “Desert animals would probably do better in the western part.”

Calling these recently moved-in species invasive is somewhat misleading. At least with amphibians and reptiles, Kansas’ ecosystems have not seen many negative impacts, Collins says.

“There are no problems that we know of,” he says. “We could not find any bacteria or diseases. Many think that the python poses a danger to humans, but I don’t think so. But who knows what will ultimately happen. This definitely changes things.”

originally published in Jayplay magazine on March 27, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

From the Hill to the Landfill

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photo by Lauren Keith

The four Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle, remember this phrase for the rest of eternity) have been drilled into our heads, and it seems Lawrencians are finally learning that one man’s trash is another man’s recycling.

When throwing something away, most people do not usually think about the final destination. Where exactly is “away”?

For most of northeast Kansas, “away” is about 10 miles north of Lawrence, just past the Jefferson County line. Tucked away on 360 acres behind limestone quarries and rows of trees is the Hamm landfill, the final resting place of the University’s trash.

Charlie Sedlock, division manager for Hamm Waste Services, estimates that KU Facilities Operations hauls in about 40 tons per month. He says this number changes seasonally, but this averages out to about 3 pounds of trash per student every month.

Current statistics show that an average American produces a little more than 7 pounds of trash every week.

How could it be that the average American generates a pound of trash daily, but KU students are only producing one-tenth of that?

Enter the ubiquitous blue recycling bins that litter campus.

Sedlock says the amount of trash generated per person has decreased because of recycling. Even though the landfill serves more customers, Sedlock says the amount of waste coming in has plateaued during the last five years.

Even as a waste company, Sedlock says Hamm Waste Services has a vested interest in seeing cost-effective and well reasoned recycling programs succeed.

“Disposal is the cheapest option, but not necessarily the only option,” he says. “It’s more of a philosophical question. If the citizenry that our clients are serving want some sort of recycling program and our client is able to do that in a cost-effective manner, we think it’s a win-win situation. If they aren’t serving their citizens, then multi-national corporations can come in and take control.”

Although many picture the surface of the landfill as a liquefied mess of diapers and yard clippings, the ground is actually hard, and the landfill appears to be filled with discarded paper products. Sedlock says the largest percentage of waste coming in is paper products, such as cardboard.

All paper products can be recycled, and the City of Lawrence is doing a better job of advertising this, but Sedlock says that by the time they get to the landfill, they are beyond being returned to the blue bins.

“It’s not an environment for recycling by the time it gets here,” Sedlock says.

When trash is dumped, the pressure that accumulates from the weight of the trash above does not allow it to break down and biodegrade.

“It becomes mummified trash,” Sedlock says. “I can show you a banana peel from the day you were born or a yellowed newspaper from 1984.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the No. 1 source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Sedlock says waste produces a mixture of gases for about 20 years after it is discarded, peaking like a bell curve in the middle of the life cycle.

He says a fair share of gas passively vents from the landfill, but it is required to meet regulatory EPA thresholds.

However, a promising aspect of methane is the fact that it is one of the few greenhouse gases that can be harnessed to create energy.

Sedlock says Hamm Waste Services will look into converting emitted methane into energy, but the current system lacks a way to transport that energy.

It seems like Lawrence has overcome the hurdle of creating an effective recycling program, but it was disheartening to see that the majority of the waste in the landfill could have been recycled. Residents in the northeastern part of the state have obviously decreased the flow of waste going into the landfill, but the city and the University should look into mandatory recycling programs that would cut this back even more.

We can’t trash-talk recycling any longer. With recycling bins and other trash alternatives available nearly everywhere, there’s no excuse not to clean up your act.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on Feb. 28, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

Challenging the Cash Cow

Switch to Grass-Fed Beef a Painful Lesson in Economics

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No. 68 isn’t lazy, but she hasn’t done much today but eat. Grass stems hang from her slowly chewing mouth, and she seems irritated that the humans have disturbed her in the middle of her all-you-can-eat special.

As the sun sets on her prairie buffet line in Lenexa, the time this black Angus cow has on the open land may be drawing to a close. Joanne Preston, the owner of No. 68 and 74 other cattle, takes some of her cattle to auction, where they are purchased and sent to a feedlot. So far, the cattle have munched mostly on grass for the majority of their lives, but once they hit the feedlot gates, their diet will be switched to a steady stream of corn.

Preston said she feeds her cattle grain in the winter to help them survive the cold, but the high feedlot doses these cattle may soon receive is unnatural — unnatural by nature but necessary for Americans’ demand for a 24/7 supply of beef.

The evils of economics have ensured a steady supply of grain-fed beef in the United States through corn subsidies and a seemingly insatiable appetite for hamburgers, even though grain prices have increased. However, some farmers have seen the benefit — but unfortunately, usually not monetarily — of keeping cattle grass fed their entire lives.

Thanks to federal corn subsidies, the price of corn is about 75 cents less than the cost to grow it. Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writes that because of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps farmers easily dispose of their surplus corn by having animals convert as much of it as possible into protein for people to eat.

Grass-fed calves don’t usually need antibiotics, but after switching to a diet of corn, Pollan said they become prone to sickness.

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“The shift to a ‘hot ration’ of grain can so disturb the cow’s digestive process that it can kill the animal if not managed carefully and accompanied by antibiotics,” Pollan writes in his article “Power Steer.”

But as demand for beef grew after World War II, the then-fledgling beef industry found a powerful tool in corn.

“Compared with grass or hay, corn is a compact and portable foodstuff, making it possible to feed tens of thousands of animals on small plots of land,” Pollan writes. “Without cheap corn, the modern urbanization of livestock would probably never have occurred.”

And neither would have McDonald’s.

“Farmers would optimize grass production to sell cattle at the end of the fall,” Larry Hollis, who specializes in cattle health at Kansas State University, said. “That used to be the way it was sold in the olden days, but that’s not how McDonald’s operates. They sell hamburgers 365 days a year.”

‘The market is all about dollar signs’

Local farmer Joyce Williams raises grass-fed cattle, but, at first, not because she saw the potential negative effects on the cattle.

“We have never fed them grain because we never realized that they needed it,” Williams said. “The cattle looked healthy and tasted good, so why did they need grain?”

Williams, co-owner of MJ Ranch in Lawrence, said the business has never made a lot of money from its grass-fed beef.

“The market is all about dollar signs,” Williams said, “but it’s not the right thing to do for the animals.”

However, market demands have changed, and more consumers look for grass-fed beef.

MJ Ranch has already sold out of its grass-fed beef for the year, the first time this has happened this early in the season.

Hollis estimated about 5 percent of cattle consumed in the United States were entirely grass fed, but said this niche market is developing.

Williams said the ranch has had a lot of visitors.

“People come to us and see that what we’re doing is what we say we are doing,” she said.

The Bottom Line

However, for some farmers, the cost of having more land for grass-fed is far more expensive than spending more money on pricier feed.

“You have to own a lot of grass or buy a lot of feed,” Hollis said. “Feed cost is extremely high, and it has affected the price of owning grazing land. This is driving up the price of grass-fed cattle because we are growing less corn.”

In the end, it boils down to an economic showdown, but the consumer seems to gradually be accepting a cow like No. 68 that is slower grown but more naturally raised.

Most cattle start as grass fed, even if they end up as grain fed.

“The grain gives the cattle the extra energy they need in the winter,” Preston said. “But they get good grass all through the summer.”