There are wonderful stories from all over the world that Greentech Media comes across in the realm of clean energy and sustainability. On Our Reading List highlights our favorite recent finds.

The holiday season is over; now it’s back to work. During the hustle and bustle of the end of the year, there’s a lot of news that may have slipped through your RSS feed. Here are some sustainability stories from the past weeks that you may have missed:

  • While you were likely finishing up your holiday shopping, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidelines for minimizing fertilizer runoff, a story that National Public Radio reported on. It’s hardly a revolution: in fact, it’s not even mandatory, but the new rules will affect any farm that gets USDA funding. The new USDA document, titled the National Nutrient Management Standard, calls for farms to use less fertilizer and to capture and store excess nutrients. Agriculture is ripe for sustainability practices, from fertilizer to water efficiency. The irony of excessive nutrients is that while phosphorus is bleeding into the Gulf of Mexico and other critical bodies of water, creating dead zones, it is also a scare resource that -- unlike energy -- is not readily replaceable with another resource.  
  • Another critical resource that’s being squandered is water. A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the public water infrastructure in the U.S. is seriously inadequate, according to The New York Times. It’s no secret that the water infrastructure is crumbling, and is often far worse off than the electric grid. The study noted that approximately 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage are discharged each year. The capital funding gap for wastewater and drinking water system projects is growing. The good news is that there are rumblings in the market. The smart water meter market is growing, according to consulting group Capgemini. But neither upgrades to critical infrastructure nor the updating of meters are happening fast enough. 

    Experts often note that municipalities are cash-strapped from Russia to California, so making upgrades to water infrastructure just isn’t happening. Even though that is changing slightly, there is still a long way to go. But startups and large companies are trying to apply low-cost solutions to water infrastructure to grab at the low-hanging fruit -- efficiency. There are firms like WaterSmart, which is looking to be the Opower of the water world. SAP, Siemens, GE, Oracle and Siemens are also making plays in the H2O realm. But all the IT in the world can’t change the fact that there are 100-year-old pipes below many city streets. Even if the infrastructure isn’t tragically outdated, some cities -- like Toronto -- are finding that their systems cannot handle the increasing frequency of “100-year” storms, according to a story in Environmental Health Perspectives. “There’s no denying that in this particular area we’re seeing these extreme storms more frequently than we have in the past,” Michael D’Andrea, director of water infrastructure management for the City of Toronto, told EHP. “It’s basically a call to action.”
  • Although a cold front is now settling in across much of the U.S., temperatures are heating up in the Southern Hemisphere as summer goes into full swing there. As we turn up the heat, Chile’s government is looking for ways to cut back on air conditioning, according to the BBC. The solution is not a technical one, but a behavioral one. It’s not about adjusting the AC during peak days or closing the shades during the day. Instead, the country’s energy minister, Rodrigo Alvarez, is featured in a national ad urging men to go tieless this summer. That’s right, gentlemen! Toss that tie to the side! Japan and Spain have also urged lighter clothing during summer months. In Chile, Alvarez said the initiative could save about $10 million during the summer. Not to be outdone, the BBC also reported that South Korea’s president is turning down his office thermostat this winter and wearing warmer underwear. Maybe he just needs a Nest thermostat.
  • Just before 2012 arrived, The New York Times ran an interesting article about the sustainability of organic food. Not the organic rainbow chard that you buy at your urban farmer’s market that hails from a farm just 30 miles away, but the plastic-wrapped organic fruits and vegetables that are flown in from Mexico and other points south. The story tells of aquifers bled dry by organic farms (not to mention golf courses and hotels that have sprung up in the area) in Mexico, so that some farmers are only using a fraction of the land that is available.

    The problem is partially with the U.S. organic standard, which is lacking in broad sustainability measures and focuses more on the use of fertilizers, hormones and pesticides. Another problem is that while organic was once something that largely meant people would eat more sustainably and locally, it is now just another label used by large, national chains where people expect year-round, fairly priced organic produce (blemish-free, of course). The news might be bad for the local aquifers, but the article notes that it has brought jobs to the area and that the Del Cabo Cooperative helps spread seeds and organic know-how to bring more farmers into the fold. 

    The answer is for the organic standard to be a moving definition that is frequently revisited by the USDA, one that stays true to its roots rather than bowing to industry pressure (no small feat). Another answer may be early childhood education initiatives that teach kids about how fruits and vegetables are grown -- in their own backyards and around the world (as well as teaching them that a little blemish doesn’t make produce bad). That way, when they’re adults shopping in Walmart or Whole Foods, they'll understand that “sustainable” and “organic” are not always synonymous. On the pages of Grist and other environmentally minded websites, the issue of local versus organic has been burning for years. But in the real world, it’s never all or nothing. Still, it’s worth considering what you’re buying and why, every time you step into a farmer’s market or grocery store. Although we can’t buy our way to sustainability, we can start by making every dollar count -- whether it’s the energy we purchase or choosing one bag of tomatoes over another.