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It’s All in the Head: Songbirds With Bigger Brains Have Benefited from the End of Communism

Songbird Picture

ScienceDaily (Sep. 15, 2011) — According to a new study published in Biological Conservation the abundance of songbirds with relatively large brains in Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic has increased since 1989 / 1990. Researchers from German Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) and Czech Charles University in collaboration with “Dachverband Deutscher Avifaunisten” (Federation of German Avifaunists) had compared population trends of bird species in different European regions. The increase in large-brained songbirds is attributed to the better cognitive abilities of the species enabling them better adaption to the socio-economic changes affecting habitats after the end of communism.

Long-term study of 57 species of songbirds 

As part of the study German and Czech scientists investigated the population trends of 57 species of from 1991 to 2007. Data on the abundances of songbird species in Germany was provided by the German “Dachverband Deutscher Avifaunisten” whose volunteers have been operating large-scaling bird monitoring schemes for years. The researchers then tested if individual species’ traits and the change in their habitat had a significant effect on population trends. Traits that were matched to population trends included habitat, dietary and climatic niche, migration strategy and brain size in relation to body size. Furthermore researchers wanted to know whether the effects were only regional or universal. In order to find out three different adjacent regions, North-Western, Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic, were compared.

End of communism favored birds with bigger brains

The scientists thus discovered that regional differences in population trends among songbird species are linked to their brain size. Large brain size was correlated to strong increases of respective songbird species in the Czech Republic since 1989 / 1990, weaker increases in Eastern Germany and had no effect in North-Western Germany. This difference between the former ‘West’ and ‘East’ suggests that this trend was driven by socio-economic changes that took place in the former communist regions. “Relative brain size reflects species’ cognitive abilities. The increase of such songbirds suggests that species with good cognitive abilities might have been better able to adapt to rapid socioeconomic change and make use of the novel opportunities that arose after the end of communism.” Dr. Katrin Boehning-Gaese, researcher at the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) and professor at Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main, explains.

Songbird picture

Better cognitive abilities allow spreading into new habitats

In particular, birds with better cognitive abilities made use of the opportunity to colonize the cities in East Germany and the Czech Republic. After 1989 / 1990 the inner cities saw an increase in green areas and growing volume of parks, whereas at the same time a newly emerging middle class moved away resulting in a housing boom on the outskirts. Large-brained songbird species such as the Common Magpies, Eurasian Jays and Blue and Grey Tits, show a high behavioral flexibility and hence are better able to live near humans. They could rapidly spread into the new habitats such as new urban greens and suburbs and increase in population size. In contrast, smaller-brained songbird species with less cognitive abilities, such as the Whitethroat, were less able to adapt. The housing boom thus decreased habitat availability for behaviorally less flexible species.

Tallest Building in New York Now LEED Certified

Tallest Building in New York Now LEED Certified

The tallest building in New York currently standing is the Empire State Building. It is a beautiful symbol of the greatness of New York, rising 1,250 feet (381 meters) with an antenna spire rising to 1,454 feet (443.2 meters) above bustling midtown Manhattan. It was named one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, amidst the ranks of the Panama Canal, the Channel Tunnel, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Now it can add another notch in its belt, as it has just been awarded LEED Gold certification by the US Green Building Council.

Energy savings from the retrofits are expected to be about 38% by 2013, cutting energy costs by $4.4 million. The retrofits included upgrading windows and insulation, and renovating the cooling plant in the basement. Building manager, Malkin Holdings, are set to purchase 55 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy from retailer, Green Mountain Energy. Overall carbon emissions reductions from building operation and maintenance are expected to be 105,000 metric tons over the next 15 years.

Also, new housekeeping policies are in place to maintain the LEED ranking. These include the use of cleaning products and pest control supplies that are eco-friendly. New recycling programs have been implemented. The paints, floor and wall coverings are all low-VOC and come from sustainable sources. Bathrooms have low flow fixtures installed. Meters will also be installed for each tenant so they can monitor their own individual energy use.

The effort to turn this iconic landmark into the largest eco-friendly building in the country began in 2009. The two-year retrofit program, with a price tag of $100 million, was conducted as part of the much larger Empire State ReBuilding Program, which cost about $550 million. The upgrades were designed and installed by notable engineering firm, Johnson Controls, in conjunction with international real estate firm, Jones Lang LaSalle.

Individual office spaces have also been renovated to achieve their own LEED certification for Commercial Interiors. For example, there is a 3,500 sf space on the 42nd floor that is LEED Platinum.

At the time it was built in 1931, the Empire State Building was the world’s tallest building are remained so for 40 years. It is truly a wonder that an 80 year old, 102-story building can be considered one of the greenest buildings in the city. Its height will eventually be surpassed by the Freedom Tower, currently under construction in lower Manhattan. But future generations will still marvel at her, and know that this old building can still stay ahead of her time.

Magnitude 6.6 quake hits Japan

Magnitude 6.6 quake hits Japan

An earthquake of magnitude 6.6 hit Japan on Saturday 126 km (80 miles) east-southeast of Hachinohe, off the east coast of Honshu island, the USGS reported.

Japan’s NHK state broadcaster said there were no immediate reports of damage and no tsunami warning was issued after the earthquake struck at 1926 GMT.

There have been a raft of earthquakes of a lesser magnitude after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11. The location of this earthquake, in the ocean off the Northeast coast of Japan near Honshu (67 miles from Hachinohe and 356 miles NNE of Tokyo) occurred in an area where earthquakes in the range of 5 to over 6 have been occurring every couple of days or so recently.

They have not been associated with Tsunami’s, fortunately, nor have they been causing reports of serious damage.

Map shows location of this latest earthquake.

Twelve new frog species found in Western Ghats

COORG NIGHT FROG - Nyctibatrachus sanctipalustris

The Western Ghats region in the country, a global biodiversity hotspot, has opened up more of its secrets — this time a dozen species of night frogs hitherto unknown to science.

S.D. Biju of the University of Delhi and researchers from Bombay Natural History Society, Zoological Survey of India and Vrije University in Brussels, published the new finds in the latest issue of the international journal of zoological taxonomy ‘Zootaxa’.

Their paper also announces the rediscovery of three night frogs thought to be extinct for the last several decades.

In a press release on Thursday, the University of Delhi said the rediscovered Coorg Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sanctipalustris) had not been seen by researchers since it was reported 91 years ago. The Kempholey Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus kempholeyensis) and Forest Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sylvaticus), the other two rediscoveries, had eluded sighting since they were reported 75 years ago.

The 12 new species were identified following a revision of the night frog genus Nyctibatrachus from specimens collected from the Western Ghats forests spread along the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra during fieldwork over the last 20 years, the press release said.

The researchers have named the new species as Nyctibatrachus acanthodermis, Nyctibatrachus danieli, Nyctibatrachus devein, Nyctibatrachus gavi, Nyctibatrachus grandis, Nyctibatrachus indraneili, Nyctibatrachus jog, Nyctibatrachus periyar, Nyctibatrachus pillaii, Nyctibatrachus poocha, Nyctibatrachus shiradi and Nyctibatrachus vrijeuni. (The name Nyctibatrachus is composed of two words — ‘nycti’ derived from the Greek ‘nux’ meaning night and ‘batrachus’ meaning frog).

These new discoveries take the number of new species described by herpetologist Dr. Biju and his colleagues over the last eight years from specimens collected from the Western Ghats during two decades of field work to 45. One of the earlier discoveries of the team led by him, a purple burrowing frog given the name Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis belonging to an entirely new family of frogs, was celebrated by the scientific world as a “once in a century find”.

Six of the 12 new species are from unprotected, highly degraded habitats. The night frogs require unique habitats — either fast flowing streams or moist forest floor for breeding and survival. They fertilise and reproduce without physical contact. The paper reporting these finds also describes the reproductive strategy and parental care habits of six of the new species.

Himalayas may become a giant rubbish dump

HIGHLY POLLUTED: At that altitude and in that environment, the rubbish will remain for 1,000 years. Photo: Special Arrangement

There’s nothing like waking up to bright clear skies with spectacular views of the Lhotse and Amu Dablam ranges — and a rubbish dump.

This heap of beer cans, mineral water bottles and other material was just a few minutes’ walk outside the village of Tengboche.

It represents about a season’s rubbish.

The dump is not on the regular trekking trails which are, aside from the stray Fanta and instant noodle wrapper, admirably clean.

And most trekkers have no idea of their impact on the remote Everest landscape, said Alton Byers, who is leading our expedition as director of the Mountain Institute.

But the dump exposes the risks of Nepal’s strategy of lifting itself out of poverty by expanding its tourism industry.

“At this altitude and in this environment, this [rubbish] will be here for 1,000 years,” Byers said.

The government has declared 2011 Nepal tourism year, and has sought to double the number of visitors to 1 million. But can remote communities handle those numbers? Only a fraction of tourists to Nepal make it to the Everest region — about 31,000 last year.

Thirty years ago

“Thirty years ago, there was no garbage. There was no plastic,” said Byers. Now, he said: “we see this in every village all the way up to Everest base camp.” Even the village of Namche Bazaar, the biggest in the region, does not have a waste treatment system.

Sewage from the 45 lodges is dumped directly into a canal, which eventually feeds into the Khosi river, according to Orenlla Puschiasis, a researcher from the University of Paris West-Nanterre, who is working on water quality in the region. “There is nothing sustainable about it,” she said.

“To be sustainable they have to think about the future and manage the waste and the sewage water.”

Trekking companies are supposed to carry their rubbish out with them — but most do not. Lodge operators balk at the idea of paying to cart out beer cans by yak. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

Wayward penguin Happy Feet missing in action

In this August 29, 2011 photo, the wayward emperor penguin known as Happy Feet checks out his new enclosure aboard the research vessel Tangaroa at Burnham Wharf in Wellington, New Zealand. Happy Feet is missing in the Southern Ocean.

The wayward penguin known as “Happy Feet” has gone missing in the ocean south of New Zealand. There’s a slight chance scientists tracking the bird may hear from him again — if he’s still alive — but it could take years.

The emperor penguin’s satellite transmitter went silent on Friday, just five days after experts released the aquatic bird into the Southern Ocean about a quarter of the way down to Antarctica.

Experts tell The Associated Press the most likely scenario is that the transmitter fell off. The small unit was attached to the bird’s feathers with super glue and was designed to fall off early next year.

Other possibilities are that Happy Feet was eaten by an orca or a leopard seal; that he died of natural causes; or that the transmitter malfunctioned.

Another device, a small chip implanted under the bird’s skin, could one day send a signal if it comes close enough to a monitoring site.

Happy Feet became an international celebrity when he was discovered in June on a New Zealand beach 3,200 km from his Antarctic home. The bird became sick from eating sand which he likely mistook for snow, but was nursed back to health over two months at the Wellington Zoo. Veterinarians repeatedly flushed his stomach to remove sand and fattened him up on a diet of fish.

After he was released from the deck of a research vessel, Happy Feet’s satellite tracker showed that he swam in a meandering route, ending up about 120 km southeast of where he began when the last transmission was received Friday morning. Experts say his looping pattern was typical for a penguin chasing fish.

Kevin Lay, a consultant at the company Sirtrack which attached the tracking device, said staff have gone over diagnostics from the tracker and it appears it was functioning well until the last transmission.

Mr. Lay said the tracker needs to be above the water’s surface to transmit. Because penguins surface regularly to breathe, that hadn’t proved a problem until Friday.

“We think the most likely scenario is tag detachment,” Mr. Lay said. “The intention was always that the transmitter would fall off.”

That’s the scenario favoured by Peter Simpson, a programme manager at New Zealand’s department of conservation.

“Who knows? He’s probably swimming along quite happily without a transmitter on his back,” Mr. Simpson said.

“I’m still confident we did the right thing by releasing him back into the wild,” Mr. Simpson added. “He’s a marine bird and he’s designed to swim and he’s designed to live in the ocean.”

Scientists say there’s an outside possibility they may again hear Happy Feet because of a small transponder chip implanted under his skin, similar to those used to identify household cats and dogs. The chip could be activated if the penguin turns up near certain monitored emperor colonies in Antarctica.

Because Happy Feet is believed to be about three years old, it could be a year or two before he would arrive in an Antarctic colony to breed — if he is still alive.

New Zealand penguin expert Colin Miskelly said it’s time to face facts.

“It’s unlikely that we will ever know what caused the transmission to cease,” Mr. Miskelly wrote on his blog. “But it is time to harden up to the reality that the penguin has returned to the anonymity from which he emerged.”

Irene: Obama warns storm still dangerous

Irene has left a trail of damage across several states, including here in Westbrook, Connecticut

US President Barack Obama has warned that flooding and power cuts are still a risk as Tropical Storm Irene moves away north towards Canada.

The storm, downgraded from a hurricane, passed New York on Sunday but Mr Obama said the danger was not yet over as swollen rivers could burst their banks.

More than 300,000 people evacuated from low-lying areas in New York City are being allowed back home.

The storm has killed at least 18 people and caused extensive damage.

More than three million people have been left without power in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.

Manhattan avoided major damage, despite some isolated flooding.

“Many Americans are still at serious risk of power outages and flooding which could get worse in the coming days as rivers swell past their banks,” Mr Obama said in a televised address from Washington.

“I want people to understand that this is not over. Response and recovery efforts will be an ongoing operation and I urge Americans in affected areas to continue to listen for the guidance and direction of their state and local officials.”

President Obama: "The impact of the storm will last for some time"

He added: “I want to underscore that the impacts of this storm will be felt for sometime and the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer.”

On Sunday, Irene’s wind speeds eased to 50mph (80km/h). The storm was expected to drift into Canada later Sunday or early Monday.

The BBC’s Steve Kingstone in New York, said insurance and rebuilding costs would run into billions of dollars.

Although the weekend was not the doomsday scenario that some had feared, Irene is leaving behind deep scars, he adds.

New York City lifted its evacuation order for 370,000 people and said it hoped to have its subway – closed for the first time by a natural disaster – operational again by Monday, although perhaps not early enough for morning commuters.

“All in all we are in pretty good shape,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

The New York Stock Exchange said it would be open for business on Monday and officials at the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center site said they hadn’t lost a single tree.

However, experts said the dire warnings and the evacuations had been justified.

“They knew they had to get people out early – I think absolutely lives were saved,” said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center.

In Philadelphia, officials lifted the city’s first state of emergency since 1986. Several buildings were destroyed by the storm but there were no deaths or injuries.

President Obama: "The impact of the storm will last for some time"

Airlines said about 9,000 flights had been cancelled but services into New York and Boston were due to resume on Monday.

John F Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey will reopen at 06:00 (10:00 GMT), while LaGuardia in New York reopens an hour later, the Federal Aviation Administration said on its website.

Some services on the New York City subway system will resume on Monday.

New Jersey Transit said most rail services would remain suspended on Monday due to damage inflicted by the storm. However, a modified bus and light-rail timetable would be in place on Monday, it added.

Further south in North Carolina, Governor Beverly Perdue said some areas of the state were still unreachable. TV footage showed fallen trees and power lines.

Officials in Virginia began the clear-up but said the damage was not a bad as feared.

The north-eastern seaboard is the most densely populated corridor in the US. More than 65 million people live in major cities from Washington DC in the south to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston further north.

Mr Mayfield said computer models were showing that clouds forming off the coast of Africa could threaten the US east coast in two weeks’ time. The hurricane centre gave it a 40% chance of becoming a named storm over the next two days.

Irene was classified as a category three hurricane, with winds of more than 120mph (192km/h), when it swept through the Caribbean last week.


Subterranean Amazon river ‘is not a river’

The underground flow is nothing like those sometimes found in caves

A subterranean river said to be flowing beneath the Amazon region of Brazil is not a river in the conventional sense, even if its existence is confirmed.

The “river” has been widely reported, after a study on it was presented to a Brazilian science meeting last week.

But the researchers involved told BBC News that water was moving through porous rock at speeds measured in cm, or inches, per year – not flowing.

Another Brazilian expert said the groundwater was known to be very salty.

Valiya Hamza and Elizabeth Tavares Pimentel, from the Brazilian National Observatory, deduced the existence of the “river” by using temperature data from boreholes across the Amazon region.

The holes were dug by the Brazilian oil company Petrobras in the search for new oil and gas fields, and Petrobras has since released its data to the scientific community.

Using mathematical models relating temperature differences to water movement, the scientists inferred that water must be moving downwards through the ground around the holes, and then flowing horizontally at a depth of several km.

“Start Quote

The word ‘river’ should be burned from the work – it’s not a river whatsoever”

Jorge Figueiredo Petrobras geologist

They concluded that this movement had to be from West to East, mimicking the mighty Amazon itself.

A true underground river on this scale – 6,000km (4,000 miles) long – would be the longest of its kind in the world by far.

But Professor Hamza told BBC News that it was not a river in the conventional sense.

“We have used the term ‘river’ in a more generic sense than the popular notion,” he said.

In the Amazon, he said, water was transported by three kinds of “river” – the Amazon itself, as water vapour in atmospheric circulation, and as moving groundwater.

“According to the lithologic sequences representative of Amazon [underground sedimentary] basins, the medium is permeable and the flow is through pores… we assume that the medium has enough permeability to allow for significant subsurface flows.”

Glacial progress

The underground flow could be confirmed with coastal measurements, scientists suggest

The total calculated volume of the flow – about 4,000 cubic metres per second – is significant, although just a few percent of the amount of water transported by the Amazon proper.

But the speed of movement is even slower than glaciers usually display, never mind rivers.

And whether water really is transported right across the region in this way is disputed by Jorge Figueiredo, a geologist with Petrobras.

“First of all, the word ‘river’ should be burned from the work – it’s not a river whatsoever,” he told BBC News.

Water and other fluids could indeed flow through the porous sedimentary rock, he said, but would be unlikely to reach the Atlantic Ocean because the sedimentary basins containing the porous rock were separated by older rock deposits that would form an impermeable barrier.

“But the main problem is that at depths of 4,000m, there is no possibility that we have fresh water – we have direct data that this water is saline,” said Dr Figueiredo.

“My colleagues and I think this work is very arguable – we have a high level of criticism.”

End of the affair?

Press reports suggested Professor Hamza was optimistic about confirming his results over the next few years using more direct methods.

But, he said, this was not the case.

“It is well known that geothermal methods are better suited for determining flows with [such small] velocities,” he said.

“At lower velocities, experimental techniques may pose considerable difficulties.”

It may be possible to examine directly sediments transported into the Atlantic by the subterranean flow, he said, noting that a zone of relatively fresh water extends into the ocean near the mouth of the Amazon.

The research – Indications of an Underground “River” beneath the Amazon River: Inferences from Results of Geothermal Studies – was presented at the 12th International Congress of the Brazilian Geophysical Society in Rio de Janeiro, and has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The team has named the underground flow the “Hamza River”.

White House Timetable Slips for Solar Roof


White House Timetable Slips for Solar Roof

Amid a surge of solar energy industry moves aimed at making installations faster, easier, and more affordable, one of the highest-profile rooftop projects is taking longer than hoped.

The Obama administration missed its planned spring 2011 date for putting solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and a heating system atop the White House—an effort meant to boost the profile of the renewable energy technology by bringing it back to the U.S. presidential residence for the first time in 25 years. (See last fall’s announcement at the Green Gov symposium hosted by our Planet Forward partners here.)

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which is managing the project, attributed the delay to the ordinary deliberate pace of the federal government procurement process. And as is typical once the competitive bid and selection process is under way, officials are tight-lipped about their progress, so no further details were immediately available on the reasons for the holdup.

“We’re working on it and hope to move forward as quickly as possible,” said DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman. The Energy Department last night blogged that it would “be sharing additional details on the timing of the project” once the procurement process is complete.

Underscoring the complexity of a solar system decision—at least for the U.S. federal government—the administration actually released a 104-page solar procurement guide for agency decision makers last fall at the same time it announced it would bring solar back to the White House roof. In addition to the factors that any homeowner has to weigh when considering solar—cost, shade trees, utility interconnection issues—the guide explores the realms that are either unique or uniquely complex for the federal government: historic building requirements, potential for triggering a required-by-law environmental impact analysis, and government “Buy American” goals and requirements.

The last of those may seem to be a particularly tricky area to negotiate when it comes to solar, since only 6 percent of the world’s PV panels were manufactured in the United States in 2010, according to renewable market experts at GTM Research. And GTM gauges that the cost of making the most common PV panels, those based on silicon wafer technology, is 20 to 25 percent higher in the United States than in China, which owns the largest share of the market at 51 percent.

Still, the United States, where solar technology was developed in the 1950s, continues to be the place where newer technologies are being developed and refined, such as the effort to reduce solar costs through use of thin films of photovoltaic material instead of wafers. And DOE’s spokesperson reiterated what the administration said in announcing the White House project: that the goal “is to demonstrate American technology and know-how.” There are at least 40 solar companies that already have U.S. government preapproval to compete for the White House or any other federal project; they are on the U.S. General Services Administration schedule, the list of vendors with a pre-negotiated contracts.

During the 1970s energy crisis, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof. The panels were removed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

The solar industry activists and advocates who campaigned for President Obama to bring solar back to the White House roof remain upbeat about the project, despite the delay. “We shouldn’t belittle the scale and the significance of the project,” says Danny Kennedy, cofounder of the Oakland, California, solar services company, Sungevity, which spearheaded an online campaign that garnered 50,000 signatures in support of a solar White House. “It’s a magnificent heritage building, and we all want to make sure that the project is done properly. As with all things, we wish it could happen sooner, but we are still hearing the right noises.”

And author-activist Bill McKibben, founder of, which also campaigned hard for White House solar, said in an email a couple of weeks ago, “I refuse to give up hope.”

“Home repair is always hard, but they have a big staff, and I know we can arrange large numbers of volunteer electricians and plumbers almost overnight if they’d like them,” he wrote.

While the federal government continues to grapple with the White House solar system decision, one of the most significant developments in the solar industry is a focus on making the solar choice easier for homeowners. Sungevity, which designed a solar system for the presidential residence in the Maldives last year (Related: “Beating the White House to the Solar Punch”), is one of a number of solar service companies that are seeking to make the technology more accessible by using online system design and ordering, and lease-instead-of-buy financing. The sector got a major boost last week when Google announced it was teaming up with Silicon Valley’s SolarCity and creating a $280 million fund to finance such installations—the largest fund ever created for the purpose in the United States. (Related: “Google Creates $280 Million Fund to Finance Solar Energy”) The blog Climate Progress last week ran a good overview of these efforts: “Solar Service Companies Make Solar Affordable and Accessible.”

Eight Ways to Go Green for Back-to-School

Eight Ways to Go Green for Back-to-School

What motivates people to save energy? This year, the Great Energy Challenge launched a project, the 360º Energy Diet, designed in part to tackle this very question. (Another round of the diet begins this fall.) For some people who joined, it was the idea of living a simpler, less wasteful lifestyle. Others liked the idea of losing weight, whether it was literally shedding pounds by switching to less energy-intensive eating habits, or lightening their monthly bills by saving on electricity and other expenses.

A survey released earlier this year by the consulting firms Deloitte and the Harrison Group confirms that financial incentives can motivate changes in energy use. Sixty-eight percent of respondents agreed with the statement “I/Our family took several extra steps to reduce our electric bill as a result of the recession.” Even more striking, 95 percent of those consumers have no plans to go back to their pre-recession spending habits, even if the economy improves.

Operating on this same “green” (i.e. monetary) concept, the company Recyclebank offers consumers in the United States and the United Kingdom discounts and deals in exchange for everyday planet-friendly actions such as recycling electronics or cutting energy use at home. Looking ahead to the school year, when many families are making lots of new purchases and preparing students to participate in many new activities, Recyclebank offers these tips for a less resource-intensive back-to-school season:

Pack waste-free lunches: It’s estimated that Americans go through 100 billion plastic bags a year- this averages to 360 bags per person. Purchase a reusable lunch bag or box for your child, and fill reusable bottles with water or juice. If you do use plastic bags, reuse and recycle them. Clean and dry Ziploc® bags can be recycled at most grocery stores where you drop off plastic shopping bags.

Encourage school cafeterias to buy local: At the next PTA meeting, discuss the topic with other parents and consider connecting with school administrators about bringing local food to the cafeteria for sustainable and healthy lunches. Contact the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service for resources and information on farm-to-school programs.

Conserve paper: Remind your family to only print when truly necessary. If you must print, do it on 100-percent recycled paper, which is often cheaper than paper made from trees. Consider investing in eReaders and tablet computers; your children can use them for school assignments and you forgo buying paper books, newspapers and magazines.

Choose sustainable school supplies: In the United States alone, approximately 11,600 incense-cedar trees are cut down to create the 2 billion pencils made each year. To minimize your environmental footprint, opt for school supplies wrapped in limited packaging and recycle what you can. Seek out greener supplies like recycled or mechanical pencils, refillable pens and paper clips made from recycled steel.

“Upcycle” last year’s supplies: Three-ring binders that are still in great working order can be refurbished at home. Cover the entire exterior of the binder with a sheet of cork contact paper, then trim to size for a clean, modern looking folder.

Recycle old electronics: If you’re upgrading your family’s electronics this year, be mindful of recycling old models (Recyclebank offers rewards for this). Don’t forget to recycle the batteries too.

Green your wardrobe: Shop in vintage or thrift stores to suspend the life of clothing, or even arrange a clothing swap with friends or relatives. When buying new clothes, look for those made with sustainable fabrics like organic cotton and bamboo.

Streamline transportation: Use school or public buses when at all possible to reduce emissions. If you must drive, arrange a carpool. Getting bikes (and helmets) for the whole family is the most efficient way to go – and fun and healthy too.

In order to up the ante on many of these actions, Recyclebank is holding a Green Your School Year Challenge that begins Wednesday and goes through Sept. 30. The highest scorers can win prizes including $2,500 gift cards to Macy’s, electric bicycles and e-readers. No matter what your motivation, the fall season offers a good opportunity to reevaluate some of the choices we make every year, and possibly get some “green” in the process.

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