Organics, flooding, plastic bags and climate change (and they’re all related!)

June 9, 2013

The Doctor is in the house–Milo Shammas, a.k.a. Dr. Earth

All you need to know about Dr. Earth products is that Ron Cowgill, host of Mighty House on Chicago’s Progressive Talk, is a huge fan. I introduced the Dr. Earth line to Ron a couple of years ago (partly because they have been a sponsor of The Mike Nowak Show for several years now) and he has never looked back. Regardless of the fact that his favorite gardening tool is a lawn mower (which he uses on perennials and shrubs, too), Ron has learned that the secret to healthy plants is healthy soil.

In fact, why don’t I let Dr. Earth himself–Milo Shammas–explain:

When we feed our plants instead of our soil, we lose all the benefits that microbes contribute. When we say” feed the soil” it means feed the microbes in the soil, because it is the microbes that make nutrients available for the plants. The way you feed microbes is through the addition of organic material. If you feed with a synthetic chemical fertilizer, you are feeding the plant, not the soil, or the microbes. Adding petrochemical synthetic fertilizer also drives up the salt index in the soil and changes the pH, which can have adverse effects on plants.

More importantly, chemical fertilizers only feed for a short period of time; organic fertilizers offer continual feeding because the microbes cannot digest all of the organic fertilizer at once. With chemical fertilizers, we also lose the microbes’ contribution to soil aggregation. Good soil aggregation leads to improvements in tilth, water retention, the rates at which water penetrates the soil, the amount of oxygen in the soil, and the reduction of runoff. All of these desirable soil conditions can be achieved by adding organic material. As you can see, microbes are immeasurably important and essential to the health of all productive soils.

Milo joins us on the show this morning via phone from the Left Coast.

Flooding problems? Don’t get in a snit…Wetrofit!

Regardless of whether the news operations you rely on have any clue, all you need to know about climate change is to look at the difference between Spring 2012 and Spring 2013. Last year, we had record warmth in March, followed by heat and drought. This year, it has been cool weather and flooding.

The Midwest was hit particularly hard by rain at the end of April, but an organization called the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has been studying this problem for awhile. Last fall, I attended the roll out of their Smart Water for Smart Regions Initiative, whick offers a blueprint for the responsible and sustainable utilization of water in the Great Lakes states. One of its publications is People, Water, and the Great Lakes: Ready for Change? which reveals these stunning facts:

Collectively the 55 Great Lakes water supply utilities we surveyed manage 63,000 miles of pipe that are, on average 50 years old and leak an estimated 66.5 billion gallons of water each year. That is enough to cover 318 square miles in water one foot deep.

As if that isn’t bad enough, CNT recently reported that, in urban areas, flooding is chronic and costly–no big surprise. What is a revelation is that they discovered that it makes little difference whether a property is located within a floodplain or not–meaning that our cities have actually been designed to cause flooding. You can find out more about that in a report called of The Prevalence and Cost of Urban Flooding.

So how do you fight bad urban design and planning? One way is something that CNT calls Wetrofit Service— simple, low-cost tools such as building rain gardens, repairing private lateral sewage pipes, installing water permeable paving, even collecting roof runoff in rain barrels.

Which leads us to a gathering–The Gross Gathering–that CNT is having this Wednesday. The idea is that if you have had flooding in your basement or backyard, you can share your experience with others who have gone through the same thing. It gives you an apportunity to vent on their their ‘Soap Box’, meet with contractors and officials, bring your wet basement photos for their montage and Civic Techarette, and even tell your story on camera

It must have struck a nerve, because the first Gross Gathering is booked solid. However, there will be more in the future. Just go to this site to RSVP and CNT will let you know when the next event is scheduled.

I’m pleased to have Ryan Wilson, Stormwater Program Manager for the Wetrofit™ and Sustainable Backyards programs at CNT on the show this morning to talk about this brave new waterworld.

Bring Your Bag Chicago hopes to slow the plastic bag pandemic

In 2008, because of my connection to the Chicago Recycling Coalition, I testified before the Chicago City Council regarding a plastic bag ordinance it was considering. The CRC was called into the process late in the game and our advice–which was to institute a fee on plastic bags–was ignored. The council passed a “plastic bag recycling” bill that was pretty mucn based on the then-current New York City law. In public testimony, I described it as “New York Lite.”

Regardless, the ordinance passed. In the five years since, it has pretty much been ignored and plastic bags continue to be an almost unregulated nuisance–not just in Chicago, but throughout the world. Consider these facts:

  • More than1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide.
  • The U.S. goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags. This costs retailers about $4 billion a year.
  • The average American family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store.
  • Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts (2008).
  • Every square mile of the ocean has about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in it. (UN, 2006)
  • The national recycling rate for plastic bags is no higher than 11% and could be as low as 3% (the EPA reports that paper bags are recycled at a 49% rate).
  • The average length of time that a plastic bag is used by a consumer is 12 minutes.
  • In good circumstances, high-density polyethylene will take more than 20 years to degrade. In less ideal circumstances (land fills or as general refuse), a bag will take more than 1,000 years to degrade.
  • Single-use, disposable plastic bags cost Chicago taxpayers an estimated $27 million dollars a year:

I could go on and on. To see more about the consequences of our addiction to plastic bags–especially in Chicago, check out this video called Plastic Bags: Not an American Beauty.

In an effort to encourage the use of reusable bags, 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, along with six co-signers, has proposed legislation called the Chicago Checkout Bag Ordinance. It would require that Chicago retail establishments larger than 5,000 square feet would no longer be able to provide free single-use plastic bags to customers. This ordinance, which will be introduced in the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection on Tuesday, June 18, encourages a shift away from disposables and towards reusables.

The intitiative is called Bring Your Bag Chicago, and it is the subject of a petition that has already garnered about one thousand signatures. I urge you–whether or not you live in Chicago–to add your name to the list.

If you’re even more inspired (and have the time), email Ashley Craig at with your name and/or name of your organization, your intended petition location, date and time frame, and the names of the volunteers who will be helping out. Then print up this FAQ sheet and paper petition and gather signatures from friends, neighbors and others at public locations. When you’re finished, drop the signed petitions at Alderman Moreno’s office in City Hall before the end of the day Monday, June 17.

Alderman Proco Joe Moreno joins me this morning to discuss the ordinance he will introduce on June 18.

Want to make a difference regarding climate change?

For all you climate enthusiasts out there, Al Gore and team are coming to town in July to train new speakers for The Climate Reality Project . Shortly after “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, Al Gore began training an army of presenters to provide education via The Climate Reality Project.  The mission:  to spread the facts, motivate change and disarm intentionally damaging efforts to create denial and confusion in the public.

Over the past 10 years they have trained over 4,000 speakers worldwide, unleashing a global cultural movement demanding action on the climate crisis. Sadly, despite scientific consensus, the majority of the world does not understand the severity of the issues or necessity for immediate solutions. The Mike Nowak Show contributor Lisa Albrecht was trained in August of last year where she met Jim Sweitzer, one of the first graduates of the program. An astrophysicist and educator, he speaks regularly on Climate among his other responsibilities as owner of Science Communications Consultants where he advises NASA and international planetariums.

Luckily, Chicago is the host city for this years training program  with Al himself on July 3 – August 1st.  Applications are being accepted but the deadline is quickly approaching on June 15th.  The training is free with the commitment of speaking in public 10 times over the next year.

Not your bailiwick but still  interested in learning more on Climate Change?  Lisa will be presenting The Climate Reality Program on June 21st at the  Peoples Church/Preston Bradley Center at 7pm.  Or contact her, albrecht . lisa, if you would like to host a training for your organization–free!