Thursday, June 25, 2015

ENVS 400 Independent Study - Daniel Woods - "Thinking In Systems" Chapters 1 & 2 Responses

Chapter 1: The Basics

The book starts with the statement that everything is a system, and that systems have parts that have interconnections that can either be physical or intangible, i.e., information. I can see that humanity is a system where the parts are individual people. There are a seemingly infinite number of systems that connect people; endless sets if physical and information connections between people. One of the great interconnections of all people is food. There are people that grow it, people that process it, people that package it, distribute it, and we all consume it. All the food that every person eats comes in containers of some sort, unless it is fresh from the farm. Even if you are eating at a restaurant, the ingredients they use came in a package, unless they came straight from the farm, of course. Because the system of food distribution is so integral to humanity, and also tied to containers, it logically follows that food containers are another system that is shared by all people. What happens to those containers can be one of three things: they become trash, they are re-used, or they are recycled. The first step in the system of recycling is for the person who has recyclables to sort them properly with other recyclables. This sorting is a physical interconnection between the person and the recycling facility.

A system created by people works because of the information that people pass to each other. For the physical interconnection of recycling to happen between a person and a recycling facility, the information has to travel from the facility to the people.

Donella writes that "An important function of almost every system is to ensure its own perpetuation." This is true of why systems of sustainability and resource conservation are present in the human system. At the most basic level, every human is born with the ability to reproduce more humans. But to make that happen, there are a lot of resources a human needs along the way; food is one - and so, containers for food are another. Recycling is a system that has the purpose of perpetuating our continued existence.

Chapter Two: A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo

This chapter explains how several kinds of one-stock systems work. In one-stock systems, there are always two forces acting on the stock. The one stock system of the temperature in a house is a system governed by two equalizing forces: the temperature of the thermostat and the outside temperature. This leads into the important role of feedback delays in a system like this that cause oscillations. In the house analogy, the temperature in the house over time would oscillate up and down around the thermostat's setting because the thermostat can't tell what the temperature is in the whole house. In any system of two equalizing forces, oscillations will be present because of the feedback delay. I saw this feedback delay at the liquor store all the time; an obscure drink becomes popular seemingly overnight, and the orders for new product can't catch up to demand fast enough. Then when the order for the liquor has come, the fad has faded and the store is left with extra cases of a product.

A human population system in an industrialized economy is another one-stock system with one equalizing loop, but the other loop is reinforcing. The equalizing force is the death rate - it always pulls toward zero. The reinforcing loop is fertility - the growth of the population takes on an exponential curve as it increases in an environment of abundant resources. It would logically follow that resource consumption would also take an exponential curve upwards as well. In our society, the reinforcing loop of wealth accumulation leading to resource depletion has been stronger than the equalizing force of the limited amount of resources available. The world has a limited amount of oil and ore to support the reinforcing loop of gas-powered automobiles, and yet thousands of such vehicles are sold every year. The oil extraction industry (part of the reinforcing loop) seems to have more power to find new places to drill, such as in the newly melted arctic ocean, than environmental activists, who see the looming power of the equalization loop that will take effect when the oil is all gone, have to stop it. The oscillations that come with a system of two equalizing forces can be drastic in a system with an equalizing loop and reinforcing loop. In the book, the shift in balance between two forces system dominance. Oscillations in the system with two equalizing forces are smaller and more frequent than in the system with a reinforcing loop. For me, the whole point of pursuing sustainability is to avoid the violent transition from growth to decline of the human race if we deplete any resource too fast.

The important concept of flow is revisited later in the chapter when the system of a fishing economy is described. The use of a renewable resource like fish can go on indefinitely as long as the flow of fish from their habitat to human use is kept at the same level as the reproduction of the fish. Fishing can actually increase the reproduction rate of fish if the fish are at such a high population that there is not quite enough food for all of them. Flow seems to be important for the use of all resources. Take electricity. The amount of electricity we can harvest sustainably is only limited to how many solar panels and wind turbines we can build. While sustainable electricity generation can be produced in great quantity, there is a limit to how quickly it is generated, or how fast its flow is. However, the amount of electricity we use can be unleashed faster and faster. It is hard to tell if a fully electric vehicle fleet in America could be supplied by only renewable energy, but it seems unlikely to me. In the terms of systems thinking, what I am saying is that the flow out of the stock of electricity is always going to be faster than the flow into the stock.

Monday, June 22, 2015

SRO Adventures

          This past week working for SRO has been a busy one. I had the privilege of helping out with a joint experiment that was being held at the Colorado State University ARDEC farms. These are the agricultural fields where much of the USDA experiments are done in conjunction with the CSU campus. This specific study was used in order to determine if the electrobiocide would be a suitable candidate for the field decon of agricultural equipment. Dr. Craig Ramsey was the head of the study who is the direct link between the university and the USDA. Myself along with John mixed different concentrations of the biocide to be used for the study. These concentrations were then sprayed onto different farming equipment that was infected with Bacillus subtilis, a very hardy bacteria closely related to Bacillus anthracis or anthrax. The biocide was sprayed in different concentrations from different distances onto surfaces containing the bacteria. This test was then done with other anti-bacterial products in order to determine the effectiveness of each. 
           These three days were interesting and eye opening to how USDA experimentation is conducted and to be honest I was a little disappointed. I guess I expected that experiments such as this would be performed by top notch scientists all wearing specialized white suits like the ones used to take ET in the movie. Instead I was confronted with seemingly normal guys in a cornfield pressure washing tractors. Besides how the experiment appeared that data collected will be able to be sent to lab and the effectiveness of the biocide in this type of application will be determined. This was a very interesting experience and I am looking forward to many more.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

Strategic Resource Optimization

           I am now two weeks into my internship with the SRO Inc. For this post I will be giving a company overview and what exactly I will be working on throughout the summer. SRO Inc is run by a couple of individuals but John Breedlove, who is in charge of the agricultural aspect of SRO, will be my boss throughout the summer. To begin SRO stands for strategic resource optimization and is the company who invented a product known as elctrobiocide. This electrobiocide is a very potent environmentaly friendly chlorine dioxide solution that has numerous applications in both agriculture as well as health care. The unique elctrochemical processes used to create the solution is what makes electrobiocide so special. This "sauce" has been tested and proved to eradicate bacteria and viruses as well as all commonly used household cleaners and, as I stated before, is completely environmentally friendly as well as EPA registered. The solution is so non toxic that it can literally be drank with no adverse side effects.
          Now how does a solution that disinfects play any kind of role in the agricultural world. Well in many commercial greenhouses across the U.S. as well as in outdoor farms, it is a constant struggle to keep molds and other microbial plant parasites from spreading and destroying entire crops. When the elctrobiocide is sprayed onto the crops any form of malicious microbe will be destroyed, thus saving the destruction of the crops. The interesting part is that the solution has no harmful side effects on the plant itself or on anyone who consumes the plants. This is what I will be working on and learning more about over the course of the next few months. The biocide seems to have a positive interaction with plants that causes them to grow up to 30% larger than without the biocide, yet this has not been officially proven. I will be working on an experiment that will test this fact and will be looking into why this increased productivity occurs, as well as seeing if the non-toxic biocide has any alteration on the taste of non-legume type crops such as lettuce. Besides working on this experiment I will be shown around by John who will teach me how the biocide is created and processes involved as well as meeting some of his work associates who are conducting their own experiments at the CSU farm. I am extremely excited about this opportunity to help out with and be a part of such a cutting edge product and will be writing about my adventure as it unfolds.

Monday, March 2, 2015

I'll Take A Whiskey Ginger...Hold The Straw

     This weekend was the ultimate test to see if waste-free was sustainable for all different walks and ways of life. Is waste free living for the stay-at-home wife and mother who pinterests all day and has time to make her own mascara? or can young, mobile, and let's not forget poor, individuals do it too without wallowing in misery and self defeat? my answer is.....YES! but you must plan ahead. However, planning can be fun and it doesn't have to take long either.
     This weekend, my best friend, Brooke, and I attended Winter Wondergrass Festival in Avon, Colorado. It is a three day outdoor festival which we decided to car camp February. The weather has been unusually warm, but of course it decided to finally snow the one weekend I didn't want it to. Bringing my waste free lifestyle on the road didn't prove as hard as I thought, but it did add to my waste jar at a faster rate than previous. I began preparing for my trip the day before. As my beans were soaking, I roasted up some sweet potato to take with me. The next morning I got up extra early, cooked beans, quinoa, and tons of vegetables to last the entire weekend. The one thing I forgot was a kitchen towel or cloth napkin because I ended up just wiping my hands on my clothes. we car camped in style and enjoyed many meals in the back of Brooke's subaru.
                                        (Car Eatin'! The bag of chips are Brooke's, I swear!)

        I invested in an awesome set of bamboo utensils that come in a heavy duty cloth container with a carabiner so I can attach it to my backpack and never lose it. The thing i struggled with the most was to resist the temptation of the the little things. I'm a sucker for sweets and Brooke brought along a bag of ginger chews. It's easy at home to not give in because I just don't buy them, but there there were just taunting me. I ended up having one and keeping the wrapper in my pocket to put in my jar for later. I figured it was a little gift I could accept from a friend and accept the small consequence.
      The festival itself did a really good job of trying to make less waste. Every ticket holder got an awesome stainless steel mug and discounted drinks when used all weekend. It was at the late night shows that I had to remember to say "No Straw!" or "No Lime!" I received some pretty weird looks, but they obliged. I did have to put my wristbands from the festival and the late night shows into my jar, but there was no way i could have avoided it if I wanted to attend.
       The weekend was amazing and fast-paced and because I planned one day ahead, being waste-free flowed right in where I rarely had to think about it. It was an awesome test to see if waste-free can be mobile.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Routine and a Tribute to Ignaz Semmelweis

Last weekend I made another trip down to Bear Creek. This time, Rich walked me through his usual routine (performed every 2-4 days in the winter) and I recorded everything as we went. First we went to the lower well and had to change the six filters that the water runs through right after in is pumped from the ground. The water runs through three ultra-fine filters followed by three fine filters. This process took about 20 minutes as we had to shut off the pump, close the valves, drain some of the water from the filter casings, change each filter individually (and carefully), and turn the pump back on (also very carefully). It is important to easy the valve open after the pump is turned back on so that you do not get a "knocking" effect from the water rushing back in and compressing the air that is in the system. This can damage the pipes greatly and cause huge problems in the system. The filters are changed after a certain amount of water is pumped through them to maintain a specific turbidity level which is monitored by a computer in the pump house. If the turbidity or chlorine meter exceeds a certain threshold, this is considered a violation and must be reported to the state water board.

Next we recorded these levels as well as the total water that had been pumped and then went up to the upper well. At the upper well, we had to record the same data as well as take a sample to test the chlorine level using a colorimeter to test the actual chlorine level and refill the SeaQuest tank. Then we went back down to the lower well to test the chlorine level there now that the water had been running through the new filters for a sufficient amount of time. Finally before we left we took a water sample to drop of at the Sangre De Cristo Lab in Alamosa to verify that the water was safe for distribution. When taking the sample, we had to be extremely careful not to get a contaminated sample. If the sample was contaminated by some outside source before the time it got tested, the water in the system would be contaminated which could lead to fines as well as other complications. There is more finesse to the regular duties of a water operator than one might imagine!

As an interesting side note, when we were driving down to Bear Creek, Rich told me an interesting story about a man named Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. In the mid 1800s perpetual fever that often resulted in death was common in hospitals, in fact it almost seemed as if more people were getting sick from hospitals than were being healed. Semmelweis accidentally stumbled upon chlorine solution as a cleaning agent for doctors and their tools. It turned out that for some reason, the use of a chlorinated lime solution reduced the sickness and infections that were the result of medical procedures greatly. He had discovered chlorine as the ultimate disinfectant but he could not make this connection between the reduced mortality and the use of chlorine. He eventually published a book on his findings. But alas, Semmelwies' findings contradicted the prominent scientific and medical opinions of the time and pointed to the doctors as the culprits (when unknowingly, they were) and he was declared insane.  He was committed to an insane asylum and died at the age of 47 after being beaten by the guards. After his death the significance of his findings was realized and continues to save millions of lives around the world to this day and even held to distribute safe drinkable water. Thanks Ignaz!

An engraved portrait of Semmelweis: a mustachioed, balding man in formal attire, pictured from the chest up.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelwies (1860)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Entering the Water World

I am a few weeks into my internship now and finally getting to the blogging aspect. It's been a busy semester already! I am interning with the Bear Creek Land Owners Association for whom my dad, Richard Basinger, is the water operator and will be my internship supervisor. The area is about three hours South and slightly East of Gunnison in the beautiful Conejos Canyon down near the Colorado New Mexico Border. As an environmental studies student with a water emphasis I have always been fascinated with all aspects of water. Whether it is the ecological, political, physical, distributional, or recreational aspect I can never learn enough!. During my internship, I plan to travel down to Bear Creek about once every two weeks and learn all the necessary skills required of a water operator. Also, in the time that I am not down in the canyon, I will be updating system operating procedures, evaluating necessary upcoming changes to the system to address recommendations by the Colorado Department of Public Health, and studying for the class D water operator certification exam.

I made the trip down for the first time about two weeks ago. It was quite the exciting drive down as I drove through some of the thickest fog I've ever been in and almost hit an elk. But I made it safely and it is always a beautiful drive down to the area. When I made it down, Rich explained to me what exactly he does (or more like what exactly I will be doing) and gave me a general overview of the water system. It is a community public water system. The operator is required to have a Class C water treatment certification as well as a Class D distribution certification (a sewage treatment cert. is not required because the cabins that are served have individual septic systems). The system currently serves 87 households and distributes approximately 2 million gallons of finished water per year. There are two wells. The first well is located right by the Conejos River and is designated as a ground water under direct influence of surface water sight. This well pumps around 35-60 gal/minute. The other is a groundwater well which is up the hill a ways from the lower well. This well is drilled straight into the bedrock but was not drilled in a very good place and only pumps 1 gal/minute. Water from both wells is pumped into two 5,000 gallon storage tanks which distribute the water to the households using gravity. Two insure that the water is safe to drink two chemicals are added to it as soon as it comes out of the well. Sodium Chloride (a liquid) is added as a disinfectant and a solution called SeaQuest (NaBSHEPZBO85 also a liquid) which is used for pipe corrosion control.

Well, That is a basic overview of what I will be doing throughout the course of the semester. I am looking forward to developing the skills I will need for my upcoming career in the water field and thanks to Rich Basinger, Jeff Sellen, WSCU, and the Bear Creek Land Owners Association for this opportunity!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Composting Fingernails, Homemade Toothpaste, and Other Fun New Things...

Well, I made it through week one, can I get a hallelujah! After 8 days of having to consciously think about waste before every decision, I have found some semblance of a routine that works for me. Bea Johnson, waste-free goddess and blogger at zero waste home(here), and her family of four have managed to end up with only a quart of waste every year. Let me repeat myself; ONE. QUART. EVERY. YEAR. It's incredible and it's also taken her years of trial and error to perfect. As I realize there is no truly 'zero waste' of any sort in any system, I've decided to strive for a quart of trash per month. It is more reasonable and de-stresses the pressure of analyzing every piece of food or product that comes my way. I have gone from this ugly waste full trash can
to this! A beautiful, simple, small mason jar. If I could only figure out what to do with receipts!

My very first piece of trash happened on the very first day at 7 in the morning. Really off to a great start, huh? I woke up feeling nervous and excited and began to boil water for tea. I happily reached into my tea canister and pulled out a tea bag in an individually wrapper bag. The instant I heard the rip as I tore away the packaging, I realized my mistake! I guiltily drank the tea and placed the bag into my new trash jar. Luckily, I saved the tea bag and was able to put it into my new compost bucket! The food has been by far the challenging aspect. Since I'm so mobile, I have to prepare to bring jars full of snacks and food to tide me over until I return home for dinner. I've even become quite the suzy homemaker, with little far. I presoaked dried black beans overnight, which never fully got soft even after 8 hours of cooking! How did I mess up beans?! I also tried to make homemade all bulk ingredient Corn Tortillas. I'm too embarrassed to post pictures of those, but trust me it wasn't pretty. I will say my food has stretched so much farther and I have spent significantly less on groceries. It also looks very pretty:
You can really see your food for what it is. It isn't hidden behind shiny packaging like the picture below. 

The bathroom has also gone under the knife so to speak. I now wash my hair with shampoo out of a jar (No conditioner, eek!!) and use my own concoction of baking soda and coconut oil to brush my teeth. It really doesn't taste too bad at all! Q-tips are a thing of the past and my fingernails now go in the compost instead of down the drain. It's been highly entertaining trying to explain my project to other which leads to some great stores. Next blog post, I'l begin to discuss how my waste-free life works away from the home, because after all, zero waste begins outside the house!