This #GivingTuesday ‘Color The World’ with The Pulsera Project

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#GivingTuesday is a day for giving back, to write a check to a worthwhile cause or to donate your time and expertise to charity. Today, Tuesday, December 3, 2013, is the second annual #GivingTuesday, where global charities, families, businesses, community centers, students and more have come together to shape a new movement. Join the national celebration and learn more here.

This #GivingTuesday, consider making a global impact with The Pulsera Project.

In 2009, a group of friends traveling in Nicaragua discovered a shelter for ex-street kids in Managua.  The young adults made beautiful woven pulseras (Spanish for bracelets), but had no market to sell their artwork in Nicaragua.  Some of the friends went home, spread the word about the bracelets, sold them at two US schools, and soon The Pulsera Project was born.

Since that fateful trip, US college students are helping to brighten the future of Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, without leaving campus.  Students are selling pulseras made by young adults in Nicaragua to support The Pulsera Project’s community empowerment programs.

Photo Credit: The Pulsera Project

Photo Credit: The Pulsera Project

The Pulsera Project is now a registered 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization that educates, empowers, and connects Nicaraguan and US youth.  To date, volunteers at more than 450 US schools have sold colorful, hand-woven bracelets made by community members in Nicaragua.

These Pulsera Project volunteers have raised over $700,000 to help create a ‘more just and colorful world’ by supporting programs in the fields of education, micro-loans, shelter support, fair trade, workers rights, and environment.

20-something Environmentalist was blown away by The Pulsera Project’s incredible mission and history, but was particularly interested in their partnership with environmental programs.

The Pulsera Project financially supports The Solar Women of Totogalpa, a cooperative of 19 women and two men that work to bring renewable energy to Nicaraguan communities.

Photo Credit: The Pulsera Project

Photo Credit: The Pulsera Project

The group seeks to develop their community sustainably, so that they can “generate dignified employment that promotes renewable energy and protects the environment.”

They “strengthen the self-esteem of female members and create professional development opportunities to encourage leadership and community participation, as well as to raise awareness of the benefits of renewable energy and sustainable life within national and international communities.”

The Solar Women of Totogalpa is a small “off-the-grid” mountain community that is powered entirely by solar energy. Sources like the solar cookers pictured above are the heart and soul of a small restaurant managed by the women in the community. To learn more about this project, click here.

20-something Environmentalist had the privilege of speaking with Colin Crane, Co-Founder of The Pulsera Project, about what continues to motivate him and inspire him four years after deciding to ‘color the world’ for a living.

The Pulsera Project Co-Founder Colin Crane Photo Credit: The Pulsera Project

The Pulsera Project Co-Founder Colin Crane Photo Credit: The Pulsera Project

Mr. Crane said, “It’s been extremely rewarding for us to see not only the impact that pulsera sales have on people in Nicaragua, but on people here in the U.S. as well. The Pulsera Project has shared with tens of thousands of students the idea that people with less money than us can have incredible spiritual and cultural riches to share—things that we don’t normally take into account when using the word “poverty” in a purely economic sense.

“Through the uplifting stories and art of this project, we’ve been able to open students’ eyes to a new way of thinking about poverty and service, one that recognizes that we have just as much to learn from people in other areas of the world as we have to offer them.

“Seeing that idea spread over the last four years has really been one of the most important things for us, and really keeps us motivated to keep working on coloring the world both in Nicaragua and here at home.”

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Please consider The Pulsera Project when making your year-end gifts this #GivingTuesday and throughout the holiday season. Help them Color The World.

To learn how to get involved with The Pulsera Project, click here. Follow The Pulsera Project on social media.  Connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest.

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An Environmentalist’s Responsibility

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Photo Credit: Treehugger.com

Today, I attended a sustainability workshop.  I walked in after signing in at the registration to pick up a bagel for breakfast.  On the table were plastic utensils, individually wrapped containers of cream cheese, Styrofoam cups and plates, various juices in plastic bottles, and my arch nemesis…bottled water.  My first instinct was to scream, but luckily I remained socially appropriate.

I listened during the meeting presentations and quietly posted to my Facebook and Twitter about my annoyance.  One of my friends said that Styrofoam and plastic at a sustainability workshop is “like bringing a concealed weapon to an anti-gun violence seminar. Come on now, they need to get their act together.”  Funny, but true.  And they did need to get their act together.

When it was time for Q&A, I voiced my concern, frustration and disappointment to the entire group.  The workshop organizer quickly scrambled to say that his organization was required to use the food supplier from the community center that the workshop was held in. A representative from the community center was in the audience and took responsibility for the unsustainable products saying it was “their fault.”

BUT I think it is the responsibility of the “sustainability” group who organized the workshop to work with whatever supplier to make sustainability events as…sustainable as possible. AND if that doesn’t work out, they should move to a new location with a supplier that’s more accommodating.  Think asking for pitchers of water and paper cups instead of plastic bottles, or if the center can provide reusable mugs instead of Styrofoam.  Simple changes, not rocket science.

Us environmentalists, sustainability supporters, renewable energy experts, Big Oil opponents, must always remember that we are ambassadors for the rest of the environmental community.  Bringing our thermoses to work, refusing plastic bags while shopping, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and using Brita filters in our homes, all make an impression on our friends, relatives and coworkers.  We have an obligation as environmentalists to commit to these small changes, because if we don’t make the effort, who will?

The Potential for a Sustainable Suburbia

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I’ve been home in Long Valley, New Jersey on spring break from the University of Delaware for a week now.  Long Valley can only be defined as the epitome of Suburbia.  The American Dream at its finest can be found here.  A town 97.6% white, with single family housing sitting on individual plots of land as far as the eye can see.  Each home has at least two cars in the driveway.  The signs of spring are upon Long Valley, flowers blooming, warmer weather and The Great Fertilization of well-manicured lawns…the monoculture grass obviously must continue to thrive and no weeds in sight!

There is no public transportation in Long Valley and hardly anything is within walking distance, besides a few houses of old friends.  There are about 3 gas stations within 2 miles of my own home, enough to keep the often 3 car households fueled up for the long commute down the Interstate to work.  White-tailed Deer, backyard birds, and Eastern Grey Squirrels account for most of the “biodiversity” in Long Valley.  On my daily run (more walking than running occurs) through my neighborhood, all of these tell-tale signs of Suburbia are easy to see.  But as I pass by the stream on Apgar Road, and the few lots of open space not taken from us at the hands of developers, I can’t help but notice how Suburbia has plenty of potential to be pretty sustainable.

Now dependence on the individual automobile (and therefore fossil fuels) is at the heart of Suburbia, along with poor land use planning and a complete surrender to the Interstate Highway system.  I am not denying that Suburbia is unsustainable at its core, but I am advocating for small changes that can make it better.  With a large portion of our nation living in these “Levitt-towns,” shifting the mindset of Suburbia ever so slightly could make a huge difference.

For example, the idea of “keeping up with the Jones'” is a huge part of the culture of Suburbia.  If a neighbor has an expansive lawn that is kept fertilized and pest-free, their neighbor must do the same.  This is what we have defined as the perfect aesthetic in Long Valley.  But what if, what if, a few of our neighbors ripped out their monoculture grass and planted native species.  Native trees, grasses and shrubs.  And then these native species attracted birds and butterflies into their yards.  The town might get together and at first believe this is LUDICROUS and must be stopped.  But then, as the flowers bloom and the hummingbirds and song birds sing, a new aesthetic may be born.  What if this became defined as “pretty” and, most importantly, desirable to other families in the neighborhood?  Soon, keeping up with the Jones’ has taken on a whole new meaning.  Fertilizers and pesticides could be tossed aside (the waterways and ultimately the ocean will thank us for this) and wildlife could begin to thrive again within the native plant species.  Not so bad for Suburbia.

Even as families begin to devote parts of their properties to native species, there is a lot of property still left.  Not to be too stereotypical, but Suburbia is often filled with stay at home moms who find it very important to keep their children healthy.  What if a few moms in the neighborhood decided to use part of their property for a garden?  Now you have support for wildlife with native species and local food systems coming into play.  Suburbia is usually also filled with families with disposable income and a high willingness-to-pay.  Organic farms on the outskirts of town could provide for some of the families’ needs as well.

Many families move to Suburbia for the excellent public school districts that these regions so often provide.  Environmental education can easily be fit into the budget of these schools and taught to the children in the district.  This is a great way to foster an appreciation for nature at an early age that the students will hopefully carry on with them as they become independent.  Along the same vein, value is placed on local politics, where citizens can persuade local officials to create sustainable ordinances.  Instead of ordinances against composting and hanging clothes out to dry in the summer time, why not incentives in favor of these actions?  Why not have a policy against individual household swimming pools and instead have a community pool to increase neighborhood morale and also conserve potable water?  Instead of paving over curb-sides and medians, native grasses could be planted to help manage stormwater runoff.  The citizens of Suburbia usually have access to resources that will allow them to keep up with regional and federal environmental policies, to see that their town is following suit.

If other simple actions are followed; cleaning up after pets, keeping cats inside (to help save songbird populations) and putting out feeders for backyard birds, Suburbia could become a wildlife sanctuary.  While I admit many of these ideas are lofty, you have to admit they are possible.  Perhaps the most lofty is a new way of looking at the overabundance of White-tailed Deer that contributes to motor vehicle accidents.  The problem isn’t so much an overabundance of White-tailed Deer, as it is a lack of abundance of any of their natural predators, like wolves or coyote.  A coyote was seen in Long Valley for about a week before it was “taken care of.”  I think we have to be more open-minded about wildlife-human interaction and inform the general public of how to be safe and coexist with predators, because they can help keep us safe too.

While it is near impossible to reverse the damage Suburbia has done, it is possible to make existing neighborhoods more sustainable for the residents of the town, wildlife, and the planet alike.

Brownfield Redevelopment — A Win-Win for the Economy and the Environment

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Hydrocarbon spillages, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, tributyltins, and asbestos.  These are all typical pollutants found on Brownfield sites, an abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facility available for redevelopment, often times contaminated by the agents above.

The EPA highlights success stories from 16 states across the nation, but perhaps the most well-known area in the U.S. for Brownfield redevelopment is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Copious former steel mill sites have been cleaned up and turned into high-end residential and shopping centers and offices.  Obviously there is risk associated with buying contaminated land, which is why purchasers of Brownfield sites are protected under the federal Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002.  Relief from liability is provided under the Comprehension Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as CERCLA or Superfund.  The Act was amended to promote the cleanup and reuse of Brownfields, provide financial assistance for that cleanup, and reuse and to enhance State response programs.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has an entire office dedicated to Brownfields, the Office of Brownfield Reuse, and offers up to 75% of Brownfield clean up costs through the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund.  Americans from coast to coast are developing on Brownfield sites, because of incentives like these and the environmental, social and economic benefits associated with redevelopment.

We learn at a very early age that to do our part to save the planet we must “reduce, reuse, recycle.”  Brownfield redevelopment is the best example of reusing to preserve the earth and its resources.  Not only does remediating a site eliminate contamination and health and safety hazards associated with that pollution, reusing a site increases the productivity of the land.  For every Brownfield acre redeveloped, a minimum of 4.5 acres would have been required had the same project been located in a Greenfield. A Greenfield is an area where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure, so the project is not constrained by prior work.  By reusing buildings instead of building a new one, rural areas can be preserved, thus making air and water cleaner, providing more open space, and maintaining a high quality of life for locals.  Because Brownfield sites often have greater location efficiency than alternative development scenarios, a 32-57% reduction in vehicle miles traveled and air pollution emissions/greenhouse gases is associated with reused sites.  The same site comparisons showed a 47-62% reduction in stormwater runoff.  Different percentages in reduction account of regional variation in development and travel patterns.

It is easy to see the environmental benefits of reusing buildings and sites, but Brownfield redevelopment also offers social benefits.  Brownfield sites are often found in areas of low income.  Walking down the street and seeing abandoned lots and crumpling factory buildings is a constant reminder for residents of the environmental injustice taking place in their neighborhood.  EPA surveys have indicated a reduction in crime recently after the redevelopment of a site, after these eye sores become a source of pride for residents.  Brownfield redevelopment offers other social benefits as well.  With a Brownfield site comes an opportunity and a way to revitalize a region whether the catalyst for change is a new shopping mall, a park or perhaps a community center.

McDonald’s Restaurant heiress, Joan Kroc, has donated over $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army for Kroc Community Centers all over the nation, but only one Center will be built on a former landfill.  Over $70 million is being utilized for the remediation and construction of the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center in Camden, New Jersey.  On the site of the former Harrison Avenue landfill, the Kroc Center will sprawl across 24 acres near the Delaware and Cooper Rivers as a 120,000 square feet facility.  The sand from bottom of the Delaware River is going on top of a landfill to reclaim the land and reclaim a quality of life for the people of Camden.

Camden is one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a staggering 34% of the nearly 80,000 residents of the City of Camden at or below the poverty line. The new Center will offer hope to a city with 11.5% unemployment rate, by offering not only career and educational services, but child care for those who need it to jumpstart a degree or job.  The Kroc Center will provide aquatic programs, recreational programs, community services, and spiritual and character development for Camden residents.  Without the Salvation Army, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and other key players who have pushed the efforts of Brownfield redevelopment, the Harrison Avenue landfill site would sit untouched and unproductive, instead of transforming into a sanctuary.  The positive impact of the Kroc Center will be felt by all Camden residents, creating over 200 jobs during construction and over 150 jobs during operation, and providing physical, spiritual and intellectual resources for years and years to come.

While the social benefits associated with Brownfield redevelopment, like the Kroc Community Center in Camden, are undeniable, so are the economic advantages.  Tax incentives and labor concentration are among the most valuable.  Reusing an existing building brings new jobs to and investments into the community.  Also, the building’s entire infrastructure is already in place.  The site already has access to transportation infrastructure; no new roads have to be built (and paid for), and purchasers of a Brownfield site do not have to pay to connect water, electricity or phone lines.  Furthermore, a study conducted by the EPA Brownfields Program concluded that residential property values increased between 2 and 3 percent once a nearby Brownfield was assessed or cleaned up.  The study also showed that remediating a Brownfield site can increase overall property values within a one mile radius by $0.5 to $1.5 million.

While many see an inverse relationship associated with environmental benefits and economic growth, Brownfield redevelopment proves to be a model for them both…and then some, with the promise of community revitalization to boot, even in the poorest of cities like Camden, New Jersey.

Don’t Trust the Label

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Stainless steel water bottles, reusable bags, and recycling are frequently associated with “going green” or “sustainability” in U.S. popular culture.  However, if asked to define sustainability, chances are, most Americans would falter.   At the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987, sustainable development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  By the 2005 World Summit, it had been determined that sustainable development requires the collaboration of environmental, social and economic needs, known as the “three pillars” or the “triple bottom line” of sustainability.  The phrase, “going green” is now frowned upon by most sustainability advocates because of its emphasis on environmental sustainability and complete omission of the economic and social aspects.

The three pillars of sustainability are colloquially referred to as the three E’s: environment, economy, equity.  After attending the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Institute on Sustainability in Boulder, Colorado, I learned ACPA describes sustainability as healthy environments, strong economies, and social justice.  Proponents of this interpretation disagree with the common phrase “people, profit, planet” and stress the difference between strong economies and economic growth.  Keith Edwards, Director of Campus Life at Macalester College, proposed that rapid economic growth leads to a cycle of decline, rise, and recession, whereas strong economies exhibit stability, fairness and security.  Only companies that are “too big to fail” have the means to capitalize on the economic highs and lows that come with rapid growth, leaving local business owners at an extreme disadvantage.  Supporting local businesses, especially local farmers, is arguably the most important step toward reducing human impact on the environment, which means that exponential economic growth should be scrutinized.

A term is considered “ambiguous” if vague by accident, but “equivocal” if vague by intent.  The question becomes to what extent are manufacturers able to take advantage of the enigmatic nature of the term ‘sustainability’ to effectively green wash their products?

In a heavily green washed society, we must look past the initial solution towards a solution that is truly beneficial for all involved.  For example, various cosmetics companies boast incorporating “natural” elements in their products.  Sure a seaweed mask sounds organic and earthy, but most transnational cosmetic companies use large machines that completely destroy the ocean floor as they obtain all of the seaweed in the area.  Pangea Organics, an ecocentric body care line, sources the seaweed for its masks from Nature Spirit Herbs in the Pacific Northwest.  These seaweed harvesters hand pick one in four seaweed plants within the area at a sustainable rate of harvest so that the kelp and other organisms can still feed and the ecosystem can still thrive.  Herein lies the issue with the ambiguity of sustainability: consumers must read the fine print.  Sourcing, with transportation and refrigeration costs (both economically and environmentally), contributes to an immense amount of our greenhouse gas emissions, once again showing the importance of local products.  The CEO and founder of Pangea Organics was given the opportunity to immensely expand the company to millions of potential new buyers, but declined the offer because Pangea Organics would no longer be able to source the ingredients for their cosmetics in a truly sustainable way, while still meeting consumer demand.  This business strategy exemplifies the importance of small, local businesses in a society on the cusp of a sustainable movement.

Many earth-conscious consumers look not only for natural cosmetics, but for food that is USDA certified organic.  While this seems initially sustainable, it is important to consider the cost of the USDA organic certification.  In the United States, multi-million dollar agribusinesses comprise only 2.5% of the number of American farms, but make 59% of the total profit of the agricultural sector of the economy (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2007 Census of Agriculture, Vol. 1).  In other words, the majority of the farms in the United States are small farms that make less than $1,000 a year and cannot afford to officially certify their products as organic, even if they are not using pesticides or fertilizers.  USDA Organic certification is a lengthy and expensive process; full of inspections, reports, applicant files, and interviews that are reviewed to ensure compliance with the National Organic Program.  Being environmentally informed is going beyond reading the label, it is visiting local farmers markets, participating in community gardens, and supporting urban farming.

I interpret sustainability as a fusion of environmentalism and humanitarianism that provides a foundation for community renewal.  When sustainability is viewed not as a privilege or an obstacle, but as an opportunity for growth, community ties are strengthened, local economies thrive, and ecosystems are preserved for generations to come.

I blog for MEN