Notes on waste, water, whatever

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Unintended consequences: are neonics –the most commonly used pesticide in the world — harming birds?

Published in Audubon Magazine, this story follows a scientist parsing how these chemicals move from farm fields to prairie potholes, which give life to the insects that sustain grassland birds. It’s painstaking and important work, and it brought me to a spectacularly beautiful place (north of Saskatoon, that is).

March 29, 2017   No Comments

More on food-waste diversion, from NYU’s Scienceline

Interesting story in NYU’s Scienceline, by Eleanor Cummins, on where finished compost ends up — or doesn’t, if you are a small producer in an urban setting. It’s great to support the diversion of food waste from landfills, but then what? Markets, baby, markets.

March 27, 2017   No Comments

What happens to all those food scraps collected on city curbsides?

Find out in my feature for The New York Times Magazine, “The Compost King,” which follows a brash former trash hauler who reinvented himself as a compost tycoon and then — he fervently hopes — into a producer of sustainable energy.

Photograph by Grant Cornett for The New York Times

March 1, 2017   1 Comment

“The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn,” in Harper’s for March

This is a map, by Eymund Diegel, of the former Denton’s Mill Pond, which was the defining geographical feature of Brooklyn’s Gowanus watershed in the 18th century. Today, the pond and its feeder streams lurk beneath Whole Foods, the American Can Factory, and a few other large buildings. My story about Brooklyn’s buried – but hardly forgotten – streams appears in Harper’s for March. It’s behind a paywall for now, but soon I’ll be able to share a link. The story starts like this:

 

1766 Gowanus Marshes Power House and Whole Foods site on top of Dentons Pond map with Buildings

 

“From behind a parapet on the tower of Litchfield Villa, the Italianate mansion that marks the western edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I was barely able to make out — over treetops and tall buildings — a glint of Gowanus Bay, roughly two miles away. Edwin Litchfield, the railroad and real-estate tycoon who built this house in 1857, would have had no trouble seeing the bay and much of his landholdings out of a second-floor window, from the hilly and largely treeless farmland outside his front door all the way down to the grassy banks of Gowanus Creek, which by the late 1860s had been dredged and straightened, at his behest, into a shipping canal.

Situated at the bottom of a topographic bowl, the Gowanus marshlands were once nourished by more than a dozen sparkling streams. Most of these rills and freshets haven’t been seen for 150 years; following modern convention, engineers either buried them or corralled them into pipes as they extended the city’s streets. But one of these waterways, I learned after climbing down from Litchfield’s roof and placing my ear atop a manhole cover, still seemed to be flowing, right under my feet.”

February 28, 2016   1 Comment

Harper’s Instagram post teasing my story, “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn.”

Some folks living in the Gowanus watershed, at Brooklyn's western edge, dream of restoring a bit of the polluted canal’s natural function and softening its edges with vegetation. But those visions give Carl Alderson, who is coordinating the canal’s ecological restoration, bouts of agita. "What we think of as a creek system is gone,” he said. “For a softer edge to be meaningful, folks in the neighborhood will have to do one thing: stop being hip. Land values are too high for anyone to seriously consider relinquishing parcels so that they can be transformed into natural infrastructure. We have just enough room here for a few potted plants." // A kayak excursion on the canal in fall 2013 shaped Alderson’s first impressions of the Gowanus. On that day, the milky green water was stippled with skinless rats, feces, and Coney Island whitefish. When the disgusted scientist clambered out of his boat at trip’s end, he abraded his forearm on a slimy bulkhead. Within a day, the area grew itchy. Then it hardened and turned red. The infection immobilized his arm for nearly four weeks. “What an abomination is the Gowanus," Alderson later wrote me. "This restoration will be the ultimate challenge." —By Elizabeth Royte. // Read Royte's story, "The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn," in the March issue of Harper's: harpers.org (link in bio). #journalism #gowanuscanal #brooklyn #elizabethroyte Photo courtesy of Flickr/Listen Missy!

A photo posted by Harper’s Magazine (@harpersmagazine) on

 

February 26, 2016   1 Comment

What does an effective food-waste campaigner actually do?

Find out by reading my profile, about the efforts and antics of Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback, in this month’s National Geographic. It’s the magazine’s cover story, and it looks like this:

natgeo0316cover-foodwaste

Photo by Brian Finke.

February 23, 2016   No Comments

Recyclers (African vultures, that is) on the brink

vulture-kill-blood-droplet-2-1536Poachers and pastoralists are poisoning African vultures at an alarming rate, with several species in danger of disappearing. What’s the big deal? Before their numbers were decimated, vultures residing in or commuting into the Serengeti ecosystem during the annual migration—when 1.3 million white-bearded wildebeests shuffle between Kenya and Tanzania—consumed more meat than all mammalian carnivores in the Serengeti combined. Lose the vultures and there’d be some ugly knock-on effects. Read all about it in my feature for National Geographic.

Photo by Charlie Hamilton James.

December 14, 2015   2 Comments

A reeking sacrifice zone morphs into a magnet for field biologists

Audubon Magazine has just published, with stupendous photographs by Len Jenshel and Diane Cook, my feature on the transformation of the humongous Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, into a 2,000+ acre nature preserve. I loved reporting this story because I got to spend time outdoors with field biologists — men and women studying birds, bats, and turtles in the former dump, which was formerly a wetland and formerly replete with wild mushrooms, edible plants, freshwater springs, all manner of birds, and fin- and shellfish galore. The new park isn’t exactly restoration — we’re not getting that glorious wetland back — but I think it’s gonna be pretty awesome.

June 29, 2015   No Comments

How much food can a city farm produce?

It depends. For a highly qualified answer, take a look at my latest feature, in Ensia magazine.

Urban farming is booming, but what does it really yield?

City-based agriculture produces 15 to 20 percent of food globally. In the U.S., its benefits go far beyond nutrition.

Carolyn Leadly outside greenhouse at Rising Pheasant Farms

Photo by Marcin Szczepanski
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April 27, 2015   No Comments

Do you really understand the high cost of food waste…

… to your pocketbook, to the environment, to the world’s hungry bellies? Read my latest story for National Geographic — entitled “One Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done” —  by clicking on this word.

If I could legally reproduce on this page the opening photograph, by Robert Clark, I would. It’s spectacular, though a little confounding. Perusing a USDA list of foods wasted in a year by the average American family, the photo team bought all this food shiny and new, in accurate quantities, and arranged it artfully around the Waldt family of New Jersey. The Waldts, by the way, probably waste less than the typical family (that is, less than 1,600 pounds of food a year). They cook most of their meals from scratch, plan meals carefully, dine out infrequently, and re-purpose and eat all their leftovers. (Naturally, they compost their remains.)

Most of the food in the photo was donated to a halfway house after the shoot. But the Waldts grilled most of the big beautiful salmon, cured the rest as ceviche, and used the bones for stock. Their dog, who’s also in the photo, ate the skin.

As some kind soul tweeted about my story: “Come for the photo, stay for the words.”

(Big tip of my hat to food-waste gurus Jonathan Bloom, at www.wastedfood.com, and to Tristram Stuart, at www.feedingthe5k.org, Dana Gunders, at www.nrdc.org, and all the excellent number crunchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service.)

October 20, 2014   2 Comments