Author Archives: Jess Thompson

When Did the Oceans become Garbage Bins?

There is a growing problem in our oceans that many people don’t know about or don’t think about when they toss a plastic cup or bottle in a trash can and not in a recycling bin. Huge trash vortexes have formed in the oceans major and minor gyres because of negligent human disposal of plastics. Plastic is “ a material designed to last forever, yet used for products that we throw away.”  These non-biodegradable materials are ruining our water systems and hurting marine habitats because people do not realize the consequences of buying products that have plastic packaging and worse, the majority do not even bother to recycle the plastic. People need to become aware of the ever-increasing pollution problem and take measures to alleviate and eventually rid the oceans of this hazardous waste. 4df633_b75aecdb5b8f4a9395a7452f4cdffaf1

Gyres are massive whirlpool-like currents in our oceans that are caused by wind and the earth’s rotation. See the flow of the Pacific gyres here. There are five major oceanic gyres across the world and they are all believed to have piles of plastic trash circling in them because of the water bottles, utensils, plastic bags, and other plastic waste humans dispose of into the environment on a regular basis. The largest one, the North Pacific Gyre, is nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the trash area is approximated to be twice the size of Texas. In the Pacific Ocean alone, it is estimated that 11 million tons of floating plastic covers 5 million square miles between California and Hawaii and those numbers are still increasing. This is just one major trash gyre out of many larger and smaller ones that persist and collect plastic waste worldwide.


5 major gyres

Out of all of the plastic we produce, only five percent of it is recycled, fifty percent goes into landfills, and the other forty-five percent disappears into our water systems and eventually finds its way to these whirlpools of trash. The plastics in these currents resist biological and chemical degradation and some of it has sunk while some floats on the surface. Sunlight causes some of the plastics to break apart into small particles the size of confetti, but they never full degrade and the small plastic pollution is increasingly becoming a danger to the marine wildlife. “A single one-litre bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world.” Plastic pollution now outweighs zooplankton six pounds to one. To make matters worse, there are actually hazardous chemicals that are in these vortexes as well. Gasoline, motor oil, antifreeze, and fertilizers are just a few of the “Persistent Organic Pollutants,” or POPs, that are not only carcinogenic, but they are also absorbing into the insoluble plastic particles in high concentrations.


Plastic particles remain as bird decomposes

The biggest concern with the trash gyres are their effects on the marine animals who mistake the toxic pollution for food. This is causing major problems in the food chain that potentially are cycling all the way back around and contaminating human seafood. Small marine animals mistake the tiny pieces of plastic for phytoplankton and the toxic compounds build up in the organism in a process called bio-accumulation. The plastics cannot be broken down and impact the entire food chain. Larger animals also consume the plastic because they think it is food. Sea turtles and birds are two animals who are largely impacted by the plastic because they consume  the plastic which then is stuck in their digestive systems. The animals starve to death because there is no room left in their stomachs for their normal food and after the carcass decomposes, the intact plastic still remains behind to harm more unsuspecting victims.



The plastic pollution in the water is estimated to take anywhere from 400 to 800 years to break down, but people cannot stand by and wait for that to happen because there is continually more waste being added to the gyres. This is an enormous and growing problem, but that does not mean it cannot be solved through hard work and the changing of human ways. Small-scale efforts are now being made to attempt to clean-up the trash gyre in the Pacific Ocean and people need to be more aware of the issue so that plastic trash can be kept out of the water in the first place. People need to make personal changes in their own lives to reduce their plastic usage, start recycling everything, use non-toxic chemicals in their homes and gardens, and spread awareness about this serious issue. If people are more conscious about the plastic and chemicals they use and dispose of, then maybe the world will see a day when toxic plastic and foam trash doesn’t litter the beaches and marine life will thrive once again.


“Cradle to Cradle” Is Revolutionizing Human Design

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” is a book that was cowritten in 2002 by William McDonough, an architect in sustainable development, and Michael Braungart, a German chemist. Instead of demonizing the human footprint, the book celebrates it saying “humans don’t have a pollution problem, they have a design problem.” The idea is that instead of trying to be “less bad” with design and innovation by reducing carbon output or by limiting chemicals used, humans should just design things better from the start. “Cradle to Cradle” (c2c) is regarded as one of the most influential ecological manifestos since “Silent Spring,” a book written in 1962 by Rachel Carson which exposed the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and led to a nationwide environmental movement in the United States. The ideas in the book “Cradle to Cradle” are quite simple, but truly change the way one thinks about human design.


In the c2c process, the full life cycle of a product is considered starting with the materials out of which it is made, all the way to what happens to the materials after a person is finished using the product. It is a process of “upcycling,” with the optimal goal of endless recycling of all the materials in a product. The phrase ‘cradle to cradle’ came from the idea that many current products go from ‘cradle to grave,’ or they are in a sense “downcycled” from their original purpose. An example of ‘downcycling’ would be recycled plastic bottles that become non-recyclable synthetic fibers, so after their second use the cycle ends and they enter a landfill. McDonough’s philosophy is that design is the first signal of human intention and therefore we must design with an intent to be good to the planet in mind.

The first way to successfully design in the c2c manner is to design using biomimicry, or copy designs presented in nature itself. For example, the authors discus in the sequel to their book “Cradle to Cradle,” called “The Upcycle,” the vision of houses designed like trees, in which they use sunlight for pure energy, clean their own water, and take in carbon dioxide and put out oxygen and McDonough strives to design his buildings in this fashion. The second way to successfully design a product in the c2c manner is to use materials that are also nutrients and the authors describe the two nutrient cycles they invented within their books. The first one is the biological cycle in which organic material can be taken from the earth used in a product and then returned to the earth after its use in an endless cycle. The second one is the technical cycle which consists of non-toxic, synthetic materials that can be endlessly used and reused in products without losing their integrity. An example of a successful technical cycle created using the c2c method is one in which yarn is recycled to carpet, which is then recycled into plastic pellets, and finally back to yarn. Not only do both of these cycles repeat endlessly on their own but they can also combine (and most often do intermix) to create endlessly recyclable products with both technical and biological nutrients. An example of this would be the Nike Considered line. Each shoe is comprised of an infinitely recyclable polyester outside and a biodegradable sole and the line demonstrates the success and possibilities of designing with the c2c design ideology.


Nike Considered Boot


Nike Considered Slip-on

There are five principles that govern whether a product becomes Cradle to Cradle Certified and to what degree it becomes certified. There are five achievable levels ranging from Basic to Platinum (depicted in chart below) depending on how well the product ranks in each of the categories, but the goal of c2c certification process is not for a company to settle for any one ranking, but better yet to continually improve their product and processes. The first requirement is material health meaning the materials used are safe “nutrients.” The second one is material reutilization, so the product should try to achieve the endless cycle of biological and technical nutrients. The third requirement is the use of renewable energy to power all operations. The fourth is water stewardship, meaning it is expected that water is conserved and or cleaned during the production process. The last principle is social fairness because the product should celebrate diversity in nature and in humans and be applicable and effective wherever it is meant to be used.

Scorecard of c2c certification process

Scorecard of c2c certification process

There are to-date over 2000 certified c2c products as well as many companies adopting the c2c methodology in their processes. “The Upcycle” discussed the many ways McDonough and Braungart had put c2c into practice over the last decade and the experiences they had implementing their idea into companies business plans. The c2c design philosophy is one that allows people to envision an attainable and happy green future rather than one full of holding back great designs and tiptoeing around climate change. By always starting at the very core of designs and using the “Cradle to Cradle” ideas, society as a whole can one day surpass the idea of sustainability and thrive harmoniously with nature.

How Can Buildings Be More Sustainable?

With global warming on the rise, many buildings, both commercial and residential, are being constructed using more sustainable and eco-friendly techniques. According to BetterBricks, buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of the total energy used in the United States and about 50% of Carbon Dioxide, or CO2, emissions. Dire statistics like these make it clear why reducing these numbers is imperative to maintaining the well-being of our planet. From rooftop and horizontal gardens on apartment complexes to home solar panels atop of homes, this blog post will examine some of the innovative ways in which buildings are becoming increasingly more sustainable and less harmful to the environment.


Net Zero and Carbon Neutral Buildings

The Net Zero Energy Certification is given to buildings that on an annual basis use as much energy as they produce. In some cases this means produce more energy than they use while other days they may produce less than they use, but over the course of a year their energy intake averages to zero compared to energy produced. This is a quality many sustainable buildings aspire to have because then they are not consuming excess energy produced by utility companies. However, Net Zero Energy buildings are not to be confused with Carbon Neutral buildings because they are not always one and the same. A Carbon Neutral building uses absolutely no fossil fuels to function and releases no greenhouse gas emissions. It uses clean, renewable energy which may or may not be produced on site. If a building uses as much renewable energy as it produces, then that building is likely both Carbon Neutral and Net Zero Energy, but this is not always the case.

Sustainable Building Materials

There are two factors that determine if a building’s materials are sustainable. One factor is if the materials are energy-efficient and they create a “tight envelope,” meaning they don’t let in elements like wind and rain and alternatively they don’t let out heat and air conditioning. The other factor is if the materials themselves are recycled or eco-friendly. One material gaining popularity is using steel as beams instead of wood. According to the Steel Recycling Institute, it takes about 6 scrapped cars to build a 2,000 square-foot house out of recycled steel compared to using 40-50 trees for wood. In addition, recycling steel takes 75% less energy than making new steel. Another material used to conserve energy is concrete molded between two layers of insulation. These concrete walls save about 20% of energy over traditional wood-framed houses. There is also a new plant-based polyurethane rigid foam on the market now called Pacific BioFoam that can be used very effectively for insulation, so it not only is the most eco-friendly urethane foam on the market, but it is also as effective as the others at insulating.


Construction of a straw bale house


The finished straw bale house with plastering







Two surprisingly sustainable and energy efficient building materials are completely natural: straw and mud. These natural materials have long been passed off as being primitive compared to more modern materials, but they  Straw bales, a byproduct of grain, not only adhere well to plaster and stucco walls, but they are also excellent insulators. A straw bale house can reduce energy costs by 75% and they actually provide better fire protection as well as sound and pest insulation than conventional construction (like wood framing) because the bales are so tightly packed. Building with mud has been around for centuries but it is actually a very sustainable building material. Some of the benefits of mud houses are they are very low-cost, extremely durable, and they naturally insulate themselves to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Rammed earth homes are very popular because they can be designed very beautifully at a cheap cost. Rammed earth (which is the compression of mainly sand and clay into dense walls) is a wonderful energy-saving building material for arid climates, like that of New Mexico, and it is extremely fire-resistant, chemical-free, and pest resistant.

Beautiful interior of a rammed earth home

Beautiful interior of a rammed earth home

Energy-Conserving Systems

Many people by now have heard about LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and seen the LEED certification in buildings here and there, but it is a certification that every architect and engineer of buildings should strive for. The LEED Certification is given to buildings in varying degrees depending on how conscious they are of both the environment and humans, meaning how well the buildings provide comfort for their occupants while also limiting their effects on human and environmental health.


Some energy-conserving systems within a building or home are dual-flush toilets which can save up to 80% of toilet water consumption, furnishings and carpets made from recycled materials, EnergyStar certified lightbulbs which use 70% less energy than regular bulbs, and efficient duct and faucet systems with no leaks for air or water.

Looking to the Future

In the future, I think it would be good to see many of these techniques combined to build the most sustainable houses and buildings possible. Buildings need to increasingly produce their own energy though the use of solar panels and wind energy and also need to conserve their energy through the use of sustainable, insulating materials. As an architectural engineering major, I hope to incorporate many of these techniques into home and office design in my future career and construct the greenest buildings of which we’re capable.

House with solar panels

House with solar panels

A Closer Look at Recycling

pet plastic

The commonplace with recycling is that it is thought of as an environmentally-friendly thing to do and the majority of Americans feel that they should recycle. According to Call2Recylcle, 75% of Americans feel better when they recycle. The ideology seems to be if people recycle their plastic, glass, paper, et cetera, then they will be benefiting the environment. Will they? If one was to research the energy and cost of recycling, versus throwing our recyclables in a landfill, would recycling be the more efficient and green option?

Advantages of Recycling

It turns out that Popular Mechanics looked into the value of recycling and, in the end, found that with respect to energy consumption it is better for the environment. The main factor that PM looked at in regards to the environmental benefits of recycling was if recycling a material used more energy than creating the material from scratch. The efficiency of recycling, as one might guess, depends of the material being recycled; however, researchers found that with all the materials they looked at such as aluminum, glass, and plastic bottles, the total energy used to both transport the recyclables and recycle them into new products was still significantly less than the energy required to create entirely new materials of each one.


According to Conserve Energy Future, some of the other big benefits of recycling are that it conserves our natural resources by limiting the need for raw materials from the earth and it creates green jobs in America because people need to run the recycling facilities. Additionally, recycling reduces overall pollution output. Less air pollution is released in the recycling process than in the manufacturing of new materials and waste pollution is reduced because recycling because recycling decreases the amount of waste being put into landfills. This in turn alleviates global warming because there is less carbon dioxide being released into the air and less trash in landfills that will potentially be burned. Another article called Ecofriend lists the products of recycling, like methane, as an advantage because it can be used for cooking purposes and the compost generated can be used as a fertilizer.


Disadvantages of Recycling

Some disadvantages of recycling listed by Conserve Energy Future are that recyclable products are not durable and it is not always the most cost-effective option. Ecofriend states the recycling process could potentially leak methane gas into the air which would contribute to global warming and some materials are more costly and difficult to recycle than they are worth. A commonly listed disadvantage of recycling across the board is that recycling sites are often unsafe and unhygienic because of the harmful chemicals and large amounts of waste dumped there, which can lead to the toxication of bodies of water.


Recycling Facility


There are two issues with recycling that aren’t necessarily disadvantages, but more setbacks. One is when things get “downcycled,” a term PM uses to describe items that, once recycled, can no longer be recycled again. For example, the typical plastic water and sports drink bottles made from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, are one type of recyclable that is “downcycled” into polyester fibers, which are non-recyclable and used in clothing and other textile products. The plastic is being recycled to serve another purpose, but the cycle stops there.

PET bottles

PET bottles

Yoga pants made from recycled PET bottles

Yoga pants made from recycled PET bottles

The other setback of recycling is that it is not a large-scale process, meaning mainly individuals and schools recycle, but most large industries do not. Penn State has a remarkable recycling program in place and makes it very convenient and easy for students to recycle just about anything. Most places, though, do not offer such a convenient method and that seems to be contributing the most to people’s lack of recycling initiative. Even here at Penn State where we have bins for nearly every type of recyclable, it is slightly confusing and takes some extra time to sort things into the correct bin. Only 58% of Americans said they recycle regularly according to a 2011 survey from Call2Recycle and only 30% of all recyclable waste material is actually recycled in the United States according to DoSomething. EnvironmentalLeader says that 17% of Americans say they don’t recycle because it is not convenient or accessible in their area and 25% of Easterners say that it takes too much effort.


Concluding Thoughts

Research has proved that the advantages to recycling outweigh the disadvantages and that it is better for the environment than throwing recyclables away. However, more initiatives definitely need to be taken to improve the process and fix its flaws. While it is the better method, it is not perfect and new technology is imperative. Luckily, it is on the way. PM wrote that in San Francisco, there is a recycling facility that sorts the plastics for the recyclers, which is a step in the right direction because that eliminates some of the confusion that ensues when faced with three different bins for plastics and adds a convenience point to recycling. Seeing as the world is in need of sustainability and green practices, recycling programs will likely become more widespread and large-scale and with the process itself will also improve for the better.