Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Zero Delivery on Zero Waste Promise at the Sochi Olympics

Let's start off with some good news. According to the Economist/YouGov Poll posted February 19, the number of Americans willing to declare the Games "successful" has jumped from 36 to 49 percent since the opening ceremony. Congratulations, Sochi!

We know you're sick of hearing about all the failures of the Sochi Olympics. From the jokes spurred by the Olympic ring incident at the opening ceremony, to the compilations of photos displaying unwelcoming hotel conditions, the U.S. media has done little but blast the Russians with criticism. Many of the Sochi mishaps are forgivable, but the Russian government's failure to uphold their promise for Zero Waste Olympic Games is one #SochiProblem that is truly deplorable.

The promise for a Zero Waste Olympics-- the cleanest Olympics the world has ever seen-- was a centerpiece in Russia's bid for holding the Winter 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Sochi presented the International Olympic Committee with an ambitious sustainability plan. They promised the construction of new facilities for waste-to-building materials and waste-to-energy conversion, and claimed a desire to showcase the economic practicality of sustainability.

Russia also specified that they would refrain from dumping construction waste and rely on only reusable materials. Perhaps this is why construction waste disposal is not accounted for in the $51 billion budget for the Olympics. But in October of last year, construction waste from Sochi was found being illegally dumped just outside Sochi, in a landfill located within a water protection zone.

Aside from breaking their Zero Waste Promise, Russia's illicit waste disposal activities raise larger questions of health, safety, and sustainability in Sochi. Dumping of industrial waste is banned at this site because the site is located in close enough proximity to potentially contaminate the Mzymta River, which provides about half of Sochi's water supply. In response to complaints from villagers and activists in the surrounding community, Russia's Environmental Protection Agency issued a $3,000 fine to the multibillion dollar company Russian Railways. The EPA did not require the waste be removed from the site.

Other environmental concerns have addressed the impact of the the Olympic games on Sochi's habitat and biodiversity. According to Salon magazine, the construction of the Olympic village affected over 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Environmental regulations were relaxed to accommodate the games, resulting in the degradation of sensitive ecosystems.

In response to criticism of Russia's dedication to sustainable practice at the Sochi Olympics, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reminds critics that Sochi will hold the first carbon neutral Games in Olympic history. Russia will be partnering with Dow Chemical, who will invest in low-carbon technologies to offset emissions, including travel, from the games. Putin also touts the government's agreement to invest in restoration of the endangered Persian leopard population. So the games may not end up being "zero waste" but they aren't "zero effort" either.

The International Olympic Committee has noted that the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are the first to take environmental concerns into consideration. They are not, however, the first to recognize the intersection between sports and sustainability. Here at University of Michigan, our student group M-SAS (Michigan Student Athletes for Sustainability) has brought together student athletes with concern for the environment since 2012. Click here to learn some helpful sustainability tips from our very own athletes and here to let our athletes tell you more about the U-M hybrid buses.

This post would not be complete without a shout out to the University of Michigan athletes participating in this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi. For more information on U-M's representation in Sochi, visit:


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Natural Burial Is the Right Way to Go... literally

When you die and you're buried, your body decomposes, and within a few years, you're back in the Earth. Just like composting! All-natural, right? Well, not exactly... 

In the U.S., the most common modern burial process starts with embalming, in which a formaldehyde-based chemical solution is used to preserve and disinfect the body. Next, the body is placed in a steel-lined wooden casket which is then placed inside a concrete vault. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a conventional funeral is $6,500 with many running over $10,000, a steep price to pay for a service nature provides all other animals for free. 

Conventional burial practices are also extremely costly to the environment. At burial sites across the U.S., 1.6 million tons of concrete, 827,060 tons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, 90,000 tons of steel, and 30 million tons of hardwood are buried each year! Formaldehyde is a carcinogen known to pose health risks in funeral homes, and has been banned for use in embalming in the E.U. for this reason. Manufacturing and transporting steel is an energy-intensive process, as is the manufacture of concrete which is usually made with coal-fired energy. In the past few years, a number of organizations have begun to address environmental concerns surrounding the burial industry, and a new sector has emerged: natural burial.

The Green Burial Council was founded in 2002, spearheading a movement for ecologically responsible deathcare. On their website, GBC outlines their vision:
  • We believe end-of-life rituals are meant to let us honor the dead, heal the living and invite the divine.
  • We believe burial is "green" only when it furthers legitimate environmental aims such as protecting worker health, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and preserving habitat.
  • We believe the field of funeral service needs to embrace a new ethic for a new era.
  • We believe death can and should connect to life.
GBC engages in advocacy efforts to spread the word on green burial, provides training and technical assistance at educational seminars, and has created the world's first eco-certification program for cemeteries, funeral homes, and burial products. GBC offers three levels of certification for cemeteries-- Hybrid Burial Grounds, Natural Burial Grounds, and Conservation Burial Grounds. The state of Michigan has two "Natural" and one "Hybrid" cemetery, as well as 14 three-leaf-rated funeral homes!

In natural burial, no chemical preservatives or disinfectants are used. The body is not embalmed (or if it is, only approved, nontoxic chemicals are used) and is shrouded in cloth or buried in a natural casket made from biodegradable materials such as cardboard, wicker, or pine. Concrete burial vaults are not used, and some cemeteries have even started using GPS coordinates or trees and shrubs to mark graves, rather than headstones.

Other alternatives to conventional burial exist as well. Cremation is a popular option, but not necessarily a "greener" one. Cremated bodies are still embalmed and the burning process releases the carcinogenic embalming chemicals into the air. A single cremation requires temperatures of between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and emits about 573 pounds of carbon dioxide, as well as other fossil fuels including hydrofluoric acid, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and dioxin. 
Some crematoriums have begun to reduce their ecological footprint by participating in carbon-offset programs. Other green minds have begun to think up eco-friendly uses for cremated ashes. In 2011, an industrial design student from France introduced Poetree, a funeral urn-gravestone-tree planter combo that allows new life to sprout from the ashes of your loved one. Another innovative business, Great Burial Reef, allows cremated remains to be incorporated into natural concrete urns which are placed on the ocean floor to become part of an artificial reef, attracting and fostering marine plant and animal life in a federally-protected marine sanctuary.

A lesser-known alternative to conventional burial is a process called "promession." In this process, a body is frozen to -196 degrees Celcius in liquid nitrogen and then placed on a vibrating mat allowing it to disintegrate into powder. After any metal parts are removed by magnet, the remains are packaged and placed in a shallow grave to be reincorporated into the ecosystem. Susanne Wiigh-Masak, the Swedish marine biologist who developed the process, envisions "prematoria" to replace crematoria as an eco-friendly alternative to body disposal.

Innovative minds around the world are churning out new ideas and alternatives to conventional burial and cremation practices that better maintain the intimate connection between life and death. Many of these ideas are quite new and have yet to catch on in the mainstream, but perhaps it won't be long before the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" will be followed by, "What do you want to be when you die?"