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Digitizing the Environment

I’m getting really excited by all the activity buzzing around alternative energy. This was something I was pushing for as an activist in college, back in the late 80s. Way ahead of my time? You bet. Frustrated? Oh yeah.

We knew it would take more than us do-gooders, even back then. We knew there’s have to be money in it. And, of course, the world has wised up over the last 10 years, especially over the last three. For my part, I’m thrilled to report that we’re going solar at my house! We don’t have the bucks to buy a system, even though our house is very small, but between the government subsidies right now (they’re going fast!), and the ability now to lease a system for a couple decades, the up-front cost is minimal and the whole thing begins to pay for itself within 5 years. We did this with our Takagi tankless hot water heater three years ago. Yes, it cost more to buy and install, but it’s already paying dividends three years down the road. Our heating bills are remarkably lower than our neighbor, who has the same size house but a traditional “on-all-the-time” hot water heater.

I’m going to be live-blogging the install of our solar system in a couple months once it begins, but if anyone who lives in Sungevity’s service range is interested, I can hook you up with a $500 Amex card, in your pocket, just because you read mentalfloss.com! (not shilling, just using our site’s clout to pay it forward).

What I’d really like to do is start getting involved with wind, because that, by my way of thinking, is the most exciting option coming on the grid. Just today, there’s this great piece in the New York Times reporting that Google, Good Energies and a New York financial firm have each agreed to invest heavily in a proposed $5 billion transmission backbone for future offshore wind farms along the Atlantic Seaboard. The 350-mile underwater spine, which could remove some critical obstacles to wind power development, has stirred excitement among investors, government officials and environmentalists who have been briefed on it,” says the piece.

Not sure how many of you have driven through parts of California, Nevada, Arizona or other states where we’ve got lots of wind turbines spinning already, but it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. This video below does it a bit of justice, but you don’t get the true emotional impact as when you’re driving through for real. For me, it’s combination of awe (at the size and engineering feat) and excitement for the future. The clean future.

It's like when I was 13 and recording music on my Tascam 4-track on a cassette tape. After ping-ponging tracks a couple times, there was so much tape hiss, it was sort of pathetic. But we knew, one day, not so far off, digital 4 tracks would come along and clean it all up. It was just a matter of time. And so I feel today this renewed sense of optimism about the environment. It's just a matter of time... and all that activism back in college will one day pay off—is already starting to pay off.

If you're interested in the Sungevity cash-back deal, shoot me an email: david 'at' mentalfloss.com.

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Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
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Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Grass-Fed Beef Is Actually Worse for the Planet, Report Finds
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There are plenty of reasons to reject factory farming, but in the case of beef, your carbon footprint shouldn’t be one of them. According to EcoWatch, new research shows that grazed cattle provide an outsized contribution to greenhouse gasses, as opposed to cattle kept largely indoors and fed on grain.

The report [PDF], released by Oxford’s Food Climate Research Network, aims to provide definitive answers to what has been a heavily debated topic in environmental circles. Some research has found that grazing cattle actually reduces the carbon footprints of beef operations, because all that pasture stores carbon and prevents it from being released into the atmosphere, and because all that chomping stimulates new vegetation growth. Other research has found that the benefits aren’t as great as the grass-fed boosters estimate—especially since the fields of grain used to grow cattle feed for factory farms sequester carbon, too.

The new Oxford research comes down firmly on the side of the latter camp. It finds that while grass-fed operations can help sequester carbon, it’s “only under very specific conditions,” in part since the definition of what a grassland is can vary wildly. There are natural ranges dominated by wild vegetation, there are pastures that are actively maintained and managed by farmers, and there is land that lies somewhere in between. Overgrazing, trampling, and soil conditions can all negatively impact how much carbon the grasses can sequester. And even under the best conditions, the gains can be short-lived. “This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible, and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate,” according to FCRN.

And it seems that even if the vegetation does sequester carbon, grass-fed beef is still an outsized source of greenhouse gasses.

To begin with, all cattle are a huge drain on the environment, no matter how you feed them. The report estimates that the livestock supply chain generates around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle create 65 percent of those livestock emissions. But even compared to cattle in general, grass-fed animals are heavy polluters. Within the global protein supply, grass-fed beef makes up around 1 gram of protein per person, per day, compared to 13 grams from all ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.). But these grazed cattle generate up to a third of all global greenhouse emissions from ruminants. In other words, grass-eating cattle create an outsized cost—emissions-wise—compared to the meat they provide.

And the carbon sequestration doesn't help enough to offset that. The report estimates that the carbon sequestration that might occur from grazing practices would only offset emissions by 20 percent.

There are other reasons to buy grass-fed beef, of course, whether it’s about ethical concerns with factory farming or just a taste preference. But if you’re going to choose grass-fed, your reason shouldn’t be concern for the environment.

[h/t EcoWatch]

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