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When Ms. Sills walked up to the podium to inaugurate Global Issues Network conference in Monterrey, Mexico, and declare that it was the best place to be in the planet, I suddenly started feeling nostalgic, remembering that she said the exact same thing in GIN Peru 2011, and in GIN Costa Rica 2013. Even more, when she started calling all of the country delegations to stand up, leaving as always, the host country, for last.
I couldn’t believe that I had only been 11 years old the first time I had attended a GIN Conference, and 13 the last time I went to one. I guessed it was just a coincidence that I came to one every 2 years. The first day of the conference was nerve-wrecking, especially since I was presenting in the first session of the conference, on the expansion of renewable energy in Peru. I knew that I had rehearsed the presentation more than enough times, but my throat still went dry every time I thought about it.
During my presentation, my audience consisted of student leaders and teachers across Central and South America. In those 45 minutes that my team and I presented, I enjoyed every minute of it—from answering the audience’s questions to doing an activity to identify the potential of renewable energy in each region.
The second day of GIN was as nerve-wrecking as the first. It was the day I gave my TED talk style presentation to the Middle School of ASFM. And even though it was a talk I had rehearsed and done a couple of times, I still forgot how to breath when I stood in front of the audience. The first 30 seconds of the talk were dreadful, I was panting in the inside, and felt that I would mess up any moment. However, after that,  I calmed down, and delivered the talk with ease; because after all, it was my own story. Hearing the audience clap loudly after those 15 minutes gave me a sense of satisfaction, and I secretly hoped that I would inspire at least 1 person in the room.
The third and final day of the conference was sad like any other. It was hard saying goodbye to the strangers who were now friends, recalling the best moments in the past 3 days. However, like any other GIN Conference, we also started talking of the future projects each of us wanted to lead in the future, based on the inspiration we got from the conference, from each other. And while a friend was telling me about her plans to expand her e-waste project into other communities, I realized then, that indeed—it was the best place to be on the planet.
Conference video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaXzdb1mjKY
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It’s here. It’s finally spring break, and for the typical high school junior that means college touring. Well, at least that’s what I wound up doing. Last weekend my dad and I took the Amtrak to Washington University in St. Louis and went on a number of tours, including one of their engineering school. It was your basic tour, nothing crazy, but one thing that caught my attention was their huge, maybe three story environmental engineering lab with all sorts of complex machinery and lights. Our tour guide stopped us in front of the lab’s enormous glass windows and pointed out the towering, lit, transparent, sheet-like walls in the middle of the room. They were flat like doors but inside the glass sheets were hundreds of lit red and white bulbs with blue-green algae growing up from the bottom to cover nearly the entire lower half of each massive wall. Our guide summarized the project for us. In short, the blue-green algae converts waste to fuel and thus minimizes the university’s carbon footprint. Simple enough, right? But surely there’s more to it right? So I did some research.

So it turns out that the algae used in the lab is actually a microscopic organism called cyanobacterium, whose only carbon source is carbon dioxide. It fixates the CO2 and converts it into chemicals that can act as substitute energy sources for less eco-friendly fuels such as diesel, thus helping to tame global warming. In addition, once the engineered cyanobacteria start to grow all they need are water, basic salts, and carbon dioxide. In order to put these microbes into serious application however, WashU must find a way to make this form of energy production both efficient and economical, since currently the efficiency of the algae is too low to make its technology economically viable.

To do this, the engineers are attempting to alter the algae in a number of different ways. One way is by turning the bacterium’s microbes into microfactories. These microfactories would produce the bacterium’s product chemicals more efficiently than the microbes do and can be engineered to turn the fixed carbon dioxide into metabolies that through designed biosynthetic pathways can further be converted to fuels and other chemicals. This would be a much more eco-friendly approach to producing such chemicals, which traditionally have required high temperatures and pressures as well as large amounts of chemical solvents. Other ways that the WashU engineers are working to enhance the microbe’s efficiency are by controlling the production of the proteins that create the desired chemicals within the bacteria and altering what they call the bacterium’s circadian rhythms, which are the times at which an organism uses certain metabolisms. For instance, the amount of time per day that an organism uses photosynthesis to produce and store energy (typically during the day) and the amount it spends using a separate set of metabolisms (typically at night) to consume that stored energy. The engineers want to someday produce organisms that can work around the clock making biofuels or chemicals, which would be a huge step toward implementing organisms such as blue-green algae as viable energy source alternatives.

Today, I stumbled across a Science Alert article announcing that the country of Costa Rica has hit the 75 day mark on their streak of running on solely renewable energy.

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The Costa Rican Electricity Institute announced that its success could be attributed to a combination of luck and action: the nation had set a zero-emission goal for 2015, and there was a significant increase at rainfall at four hydropower facilities.

As the article explains, Costa Rica is a relatively small nation, about half the size of Kentucky and with a population of 4.8 million. The Costa Rican government does an excellent job of using this to their advantage and promoting renewable energy. 80% of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower, and 13% from geothermal. Other sources include wind, biomass, and solar energy.

This investment pays off. Eco-tourism and agriculture are the country’s main industries, both of which stress the importance of and encourage the protection of the environment. Therefore, the switch to renewable energy is having tangible benefits in the country’s economy.

This past summer at SC3, there was a guest speaker who basically boiled her message down to this: it’s all going to come back to business; our world runs on money. If it’s not economically feasible now; it’s not going to happen. However, Costa Rica’s 75-day renewable energy streak is just an example that Sustainability is both economically feasible and stimulating.

The eco-capitalist believes that capital exists in nature on which all wealth depends, so government policy should be used to protect the environment and resolve its issues. Maybe this viewpoint is not extremely prevalent in the world today, but Costa Rica’s success is just a reminder that we are one step closer to achieving a healthy, sustainable relationship between man and nature.

Amitola Nox

Iris, now nocturnal,
Prances through the sky,
Her colors only visible,
Through the inhuman eye.

Sailing through the stars
She twirls, leaps, and bounds,
To the music of the Earth,
Above and beyond that of human sounds.

Her scarf, the finest fiber,
Stolen from the sun,
Trails behind, leaving light,
Longer with each run.

The stars try to join,
In their twinkling array,
But no one can compete
With this queen, night or day.

The moon, now bashful,
Is dark in the starry sky,
As Iris climbs higher,
Before things go awry.

Suddenly stopped,
Mid-step she slowly begins to fade.
The stars merely watch,
Calling her past vibrance a charade.

Desolate and disconsolate,
Not knowing what to do,
Those of us bound to Earth,
Turn away in ones and twos.

Soon only one child,
Remains far behind,
Hoping beyond hope,
To see her rise, not demise.

With these eyes urging forth,
The fallen one in disarray,
Iris begins to stop,
Her imminent decay.

Eyes open wide in awe,
The sky alight anew,
Colors fill the frosty air,
From red, to green, to blue.

Thus Iris continues,
On her merry way,
Dancing and prancing,
Sallying forth to another day.

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Some of you guys reading this might have previously heard of the Trash on Your Back campaign. Up until last Tuesday, I had no idea what this campaign was, or what impact it might have on me. One of my friends brought it up in a webinar that we had (you know who you are) and said that I might like participating in it. This is when I went on Google and started researching the campaign more for myself.

To sum up the whole point of the campaign shortly, it’s a personal, 5-day challenge whose mission is to make you more aware of what kind of impact your trash has on the environment. It’s supposed to get you closer to a zero-waste lifestyle, where you will have no trash and no long-term impact on the environment. You can join people all across the globe by taking part in the Trash on Your Back challenge any day of the week.

In America, we, as the general populace, generate 1.3 billion pounds of trash each day and spend approximately $12 billion dollars annually on waste management. Breaking it down, this means that, on average, each American produces about 4.4 pounds of trash each day. According to the folks at Trash on Your Back, however, people who participated in the Trash on Your Back campaign were able to reduce this number to only 0.8 pounds per day (Trash on Your Back website). By each looking at our trash and reducing how much waste we each produce on a daily basis, it will lower the stress that we’re putting on our oceans and landfills bigtime! This is why, I am challenging whoever is reading this to participate in the Trash on Your Back campaign ASAP!  

My Experience participating in the Trash on Your Back campaign:

*** In this section, I will share with you daily pictures that I took of my trash, a picture of the final amount of trash that I’d collected after the 5-day campaign was completed, some diary entries I wrote about my experience participating in this campaign, and the daily weights of all of my garbage***

Dear Journal, March 11th, 2015 (DAY ONE)

Today was a very insightful day. I learned a lot today. Carrying my trash with me today was not only educational, but it also felt good to be making a change. I knew that by participating in this “Trash on Your Back” campaign, I would be making myself an environmental leader, activist, and educator in my community. At first, however, to be honest, I was a little bit nervous about hauling my trash around all day long– especially at school. I was worried that people might judge me or view me as weird when I told them what I was doing. This is why, unlike you’re supposed to do in the campaign, I didn’t use a clear plastic bag to haul my trash around in. I concealed my trash in a regular shopping bag, then also put inside of a reusable shopping bag. I thought that this was a good idea at the time, as then less people would be able to see what I was doing and therefore less of them would be able to judge me. By the time I got home, I realized that I had been wrong for thinking this way and by concealing my trash, I was defeating the whole purpose of participating in the campaign. Instead of being afraid of letting people see me haul around my garbage, I should have instead showed off myself carrying around my garbage, as then more people would get hit with the message that I’m trying to spread in the world, and then they themselves would hopefully begin questioning their own garbage habits. This is why, tomorrow, I am going to travel with my garbage in a clear, plastic bag, and I’m going to show off myself carrying around my garbage. Instead of worrying about people judging me, I am going to let myself be free with my actions, showing off my garbage. If somebody really wants to judge you, they’ll find a way to do it no matter what, so why not just enjoy yourself and be yourself in the first place?

Sincerely, Katie

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Total Weight of Trash: 13.1 ounces

Compostables: 5.1 ounces

Plastics: 4.2 ounces

Paper Products: 3.2 ounces

Other (actual trash): 0.6 ounces  

Dear Diary, March 12th, 2015 (DAY 2)

I wanted to, once again, tell you about my day’s experiences carrying my clear plastic trash bag around with me all day. First off, a lot more people noticed that I was carrying around my trash than yesterday. This was (1) because I had more trash today than I did yesterday (your trash is accumulative in this campaign) and (2) they could now see my trash bag, along with the campaign’s logo that I taped to the side of it. With more people noticing what I was doing, there were also then more opinions that came with this added attention. Some of this attention was negative, but a surprising amount of it was also positive. The most negative thing that I heard all day was in one of my school classes, a kid told me, “I don’t want your stinky garbage next to me all of class”. I thought that this was understandable, but also very hypocritical of him to say. I responded by asking him why it was that he felt okay sending off his garbage into other people’s backyards (landfills) where it would sit for hundreds of years, but wasn’t okay having my garbage next to him for the 40 minute class period. Having no good response, he didn’t answer to my comment. Also, the other negative thing that happened to me were the stares and weird looks that people gave me and my trash bag, especially as I was getting on the NYC public bus to go home. Everybody stared at me and my bag of trash as if they’d never seen a person carrying around their garbage before. On the other hand, however, a lot of my friends and teachers at school told me that they thought what I was doing was cool. They thought that it was inspiring. Of course, they had a natural amount of apprehension, but that’s to be expected when you’re going against society in this way. Also, I was surprised when I was allowed to take my trash into my local grocery store today. I went in to get a snack, expecting for one of the workers or managers to say something, but none of them did. Overall, today was a very successful, educational day.

Sincerely, Katie :)

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Total: 1 lb, 0.3 ounces

Plastic: 0.9 ounces

Compostables: 11.5 ounces

Paper Products: 2.6 ounces

Other (trash): 1.3 ounces  

March 13th, 2015 (DAY 3)

Total: 5.1 ounces

Plastic: 1.1 ounces

Compostables: 1.0 ounces

Paper Products: 1.8 ounces

Other (trash): 1.2 ounces

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March 14th, 2015 (DAY 4)

Total: 1 lb 2.9 ounces

Plastic: 1.5 ounces

Compostables: 6.0 ounces

Glass: 9.9 ounces

Paper Products: 0.7 ounces

Other (trash): 0.8 ounces

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March 15th, 2015 (DAY 5)

Total: 11.8 ounces

Plastic: 1.3 ounces

Compostables: 9.1 ounces

Paper Products: 1.3 ounces

Other (trash): 0.1 ounces

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Dear Diary, March 16th, 2015

Overall, I think that this “Trash on Your Back” campaign was a wonderful experience for me. It really helped me discover the real amount of trash that I produce and what amount of each type of trash that my trash consists of (recycling, compostables, landfill-bound). Also, it helped me feel more close with the environment. Doing something beneficial for our world gave me such an invigorating feeling, too. It reminded me of what my true purpose in life is– to help save the environment and to better the world around me. During this campaign, I am also proud of myself for bringing more attention to this dear cause. I could tell by the way that people looked at me while I was carrying around my trash bag that I was sparking some thought within their minds. After all, it only takes one thought in one person’s mind to start a revolution. I want to get some other people in my school and in my community to participate in this campaign. I think that this will help them understand more about their effects on the environment and that it will possibly help them reduce their waste, too. Also, it will obviously get them more involved in their environment, so this might have a bigger, more long-term impact on their activities. Maybe some of them will even start participating in the environment more often, too. I would suggest this campaign to anybody that I know.

Sincerely, Katie

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Many people don’t know what the big deal is about deforestation — what’s so bad about cutting down a few trees if we can just plant more? The issue isn’t that people can’t plant more trees, but that they aren’t doing it, and this leads us to the question of why these trees are being cut down in the first place.

In many countries, people are running out of land on which to farm, build, and make room for cattle and other animals. In addition, paper is a valuable commodity, some of which comes from those trees. The solution that is often used to gain more land is to simply cut down or burn all of the trees in an area of forest, so that there is fertile, flat land available. The problem with this is that cutting down these trees is harmful to both wildlife that live in the forest, and to the environment. Natural habitats are destroyed, as well as carbon dioxide is trapped in the atmosphere. Trees and other plants rely on carbon dioxide intake to photosynthesize, which is a process that uses sunlight to produce energy and glucose. When trees are cut down or burned, there are fewer left to breathe in that CO2, and as a result it is stuck in the atmosphere, causing climate change.

However, the people who are using this available forest aren’t concerned with the environmental impact of deforestation. Brazil is one of the leading countries in deforestation, as over 200,000 square miles of tropical rainforest have already been destroyed. Brazil’s economy relies heavily on their exports of soy beans, sugar, and rice, and they are running out of farming land. So, their next logical steps are to burn down their forests, right? Wrong. In fact, Brazil’s constant export of goods is creating an unequal supply and demand ratio, with the supply starting to exceed the demand, causing a drop in profit for the country. In addition, they risk genetic diseases like that of the potato famine ravaging their crops. However, they still maintain that agriculture is the most important part of the economy, because it brings in wealth and can keep jobs for middle and lower class citizens.

There are a few different solutions to deforestation in a place like Brazil. The first is that the government needs to start shifting its economy away from so much agriculture, and find ways to create new jobs in Brazil’s urban areas and in the industrial sector. Once they become less dependent on food product exports, they won’t need as much farmland. Second, if farmers can vary the crops they grow within each plot of land, it will help lessen he environmental impact because they won’t have to cut down as many trees. Finally, people who are seeking jobs can be hired as tree planters, as a way to restore both the environment and help the economy.

You can learn more about deforestation here.

Die Grüne Welle 

This month I’m doing an exchange in Germany, I spent one week in Hamburg (northern Germany) a couple days in Berlin and for the next 2 weeks I will be in Munich. It’s really interesting to be in another country and to see how people are very similar but also very different. In my head I’ve always accredited the amount of environmental consciousness in Europe to the fact that Europe is much older than America. That because people have lived here so long they figured out what they need to do to keep it beautiful, and if America would just speed up that process then we could be doing the same thing as them. However, in my time here I’ve realized that that’s not really a valid reason for it. As far as I can tell the Germans are in a totally different mindset, maybe even all the Europeans. They seem to all understand the notion of quality over quantity, that things to tend to cost a little more but then they can last longer. Also, it seems like they understand a thing or two about simplicity that just isn’t a part of American culture. It’s very hard to explain why all these things seem to happen here but I think part of the reason is that here everything is closer, you have a 5 minute walk to the local grocery store, 15 minutes to the next town over, everything connected by a huge public transportation network and lots of people biking and walking to get around. The United States of America itself is huge, Europe can fit one and a half times in America and I think that’s part of the reason Americans tend to think bigger is better. 

It’s hard to think about all these reasons why people are the way they are just based on geographic location but as always it’s eye opening to see how people and places are different. In my time here in Germany I have ridden the U-bahn a lot (the German underground metro) and seen a lot of old churches and monuments. Enjoy the pictures! 



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