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Who cares about this red party cup?

red party beer pong
Thai Nguyen

Why make a movie about the red party cup? And why with Grist?

It wasn’t an obvious match at first, because I certainly didn’t start this project with any interest or intentions about “sustainability.” I, Party Cup began with my own curiosity about the design of everyday things -- things that are part of the built world but taken totally for granted, like traffic cones, fastening rivets, doorknobs … and disposable drinking cups. These things are just “around,” but they weren’t always. They were each and all created -- by someone. By definition, any part of the built world has to have a First Mover, a Creator, an Author. That was my assumption, and I wanted to take my best shot at finding out who that person was for this particularly recognizable and yet utterly forgettable, disposable object: the red plastic party cup.

As you’ll see in the film, I ended up questioning my working assumption about Authors. But I did meet three people who were responsible. What does that mean? What’s the difference? And what does that have to do with “sustainability” -- whatever that is?

It all comes down to the question: Who cares?

Read more: Living

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Video premiere: I, Party Cup

Remember when we talked to you about Solo cups? We wanted to know who made this people’s chalice such a ubiquitous part of our disposable world -- and why. Turns out you were curious too: Grist readers were kind enough to help fund this joint Kickstarter with filmmaker John Pavlus.

You came through, and now we're very excited to share the end result. Behold, I, Party Cup:

Read John Pavlus's essay: "Who cares about this red party cup?"

Read more: Living

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The next generation of eco-heroes

Andrew Simon.
Chantal Andrea
Andrew Simon.

When you donate to Grist, you aren't just supporting our high-quality coverage of things like bike news, carbon-intensive habits to kick, and cute animal videos that will stop your morale from going down the tube -- you're helping us create a new generation of eco-heroes.

As the director of Grist’s new fellowship program, I'll be providing guidance to budding young writers and editors, helping them find their voice as storytellers. Our program will churn out environmental journalists dedicated to sounding the alarm on planetary issues whenever and wherever they can. That’s especially important now, with Big Media slashing climate and environmental coverage all the time -- even as the need for information grows more urgent.

Don’t let green journalists go the way of the dodo. We're shooting for 2,500 donations by Dec. 17. Help fund our journalism-conservation efforts and support Grist with a gift today.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Smokestack city: An industrial neighborhood decides it has had enough

stop the incinerator
Brentin Mock

Charles Graham approaches the front porch of a home perched a block up the hill from his school, Benjamin Franklin High, in South Baltimore. From that porch, you can see the school, and in the background, a row of chemical plants and coal transfer stations that provide most of the jobs here. The skyline envisages a school-to-polluting-plant pipeline -- a line Graham hopes to rise above by urging cleaner energy projects in this place he calls home.

The 17-year-old environmental activist knocks on the front door and is greeted by Winston Bower, a longtime resident who looks old enough to be Charles’s grandfather. “Do you know about the incinerator they’re building less than a mile away?” Graham asks him.

Bower says he read about it in a newsletter circulating around the neighborhood and doesn’t approve of it: “It’ll just be polluting us even more than it already is around here.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Why we should raise the gas tax, and why we won’t

patriotic gas pump
Shutterstock

There is perhaps no more vicious, self-reinforcing cycle in American life today than our dependence on automobiles. We subsidize suburban sprawl through favorable tax treatment, we mandate it through zoning codes, and we socialize the costs of the pollution it causes. We then end up with communities segregated into shopping, offices, and homes, so spread out and car-oriented as to make walking impractical.

And so we drive more than any other society on Earth. Currently, Americans drive approximately 3 trillion miles per year. There has been much celebration in urbanist and environmentalist circles over the fact that annual vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. peaked in 2006 and have started to slide downward. But that only came after decades of near-constant increase. We still drive about as much as we did in 2004, and vastly more than we did in 1990, never mind 1980 or 1970.

With so much driving necessary to get anywhere, and far too many SUVs on the road, it's no surprise that Americans are averse to raising taxes on gasoline.

Gas taxes are how we fund federal transportation spending. Currently, the gas tax is just 18.4 cents per gallon, the same as it was in 1993 -- and one-third less once adjusted for inflation. Because we haven't raised it for two decades, we have developed a shortfall for currently authorized spending -- and that doesn't even begin to address the considerably larger amount we should appropriate to fix our crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the leading smart-growth advocate in Congress, has proposed raising the gas tax to 33.4 cents per gallon and pegging it to inflation. This idea is terribly unpopular, as few people who drive everywhere want to spend more on such an essential commodity.

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Turns out those old-fashioned ways of farming were actually pretty smart

Rice paddy
Shutterstock
This worked better in the olden days when fish hung out here too.

Remember those things humans did for thousands of years to feed themselves before we came up with all kinds of newfangled methods? We might want to go back to doing those old-school things.

The United Nations recently formed the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a 115-country group that's trying to bring down skyrocketing rates of species extinction. During meetings in Turkey this week, the group is discussing a strategy that it thinks could help protect biodiversity: a return to indigenous systems of farming and managing land.

One example of a traditional farming technique that the group hopes to resuscitate: the ancient Chinese practice of rearing fish in rice paddies. Adding fish to a paddy helps manage insect pests without the need for pesticides, provides natural fertilizer for the crop, feeds birds and other wildlife, and produces a sustainable meat supply for farming families.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Forsaking GMOs helps some farmers rake in the cheddar

Harvest
keeva999

The Food & Environment Reporting Network has a nice piece by Elizabeth Royte about farmers opting out of genetically engineered seeds to take advantage of emerging non-GMO markets. I’ve covered this ground myself, and like me, Royte had no problem finding farmers who said they could make more money without transgenics.

One new point of interest: It seems that small seed companies are rising to meet the demand. Royte suggests that the large companies protect their investment in GE seed by charging artificially high prices for their non-GE varieties. And that’s buoying upstarts:

Into this breach, smaller companies that specialize in non-GMO seed have leapt. West Des Moines–based eMerge Genetics has averaged 30 percent growth in each of the last five years. Sales at Spectrum Seed Solutions, based in Linden, Indiana, have doubled every year of the four it’s been in business.

Its president, Scott Odle, believes that non-GMO corn could be 20 percent of the market in five years.

It’s worth reading the whole, well-written piece.

Read more: Food

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The U.K. government really, really wants to encourage fracking

anti-fracking protesters in U.K.
Push Europe
Activists are not pleased with the Tory government's fracking plans.

The past week was a topsy-turvy one for the fracking industry in Europe, where leaders and residents are sharply split over whether frackers should be allowed to tap shale reserves for natural gas.

The U.K. government is so anxious to see fracking companies get to work that it confirmed it will offer big tax breaks to help encourage the sector. The country's chief finance minister, George Osborne -- whimsically dubbed the chancellor of the Exchequer -- confirmed during his autumn budget update that the tax breaks would be put in place. He claimed a fracking boom would bring "thousands of jobs" and "billions of pounds of investment." (Memo to the chancellor: Frackers have been known to lie about these things.)

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Seal steals newlyweds’ boat

seal
Joanne Goldby

Eddie Stebbings and Bee Bueche are wildlife wardens on Skomer Island, a seal colony and bird sanctuary off the coast of Britain. Mostly, they hang out with the 400-some seals that live there (including 180 new babies). But occasionally, they like to leave the island, and they've got a small rubber dinghy that takes them to the mainland.

One day, in October, a big bull seal -- "about four times my weight, eight foot long and clearly not worried about people coming close to him," Stebbings told the Telegraph — flopped into the boat and would not move. He stayed there for four whole days, leaving the couple no choice but to stick around the island.

The important detail here is that Stebbings and Bueche had just gotten married.

We think we know what went on here.

Read more: Living

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New York’s High Line is breeding a species of cold-resistant cockroach never seen before in the U.S.

high line
HorsePunchKid

It's never good news to hear that a new breed of cockroaches has invaded your city. And it's even worse when you learn that these cockroaches -- members of a species known for its ability to endure all sorts of privations -- are particularly unkillable.

The Guardian reports:

The High Line, the New York park that turned a dilapidated stretch of elevated railway on Manhattan's West Side into one of the city's newest tourist attractions, may have brought a different kind of visitor: a cockroach never seen before in the US that can withstand the harsh winter cold.

Insect biologists at the city's Rutgers Univeristy, Jessica Ware and Dominic Evangelista, said the species Periplaneta japonica is well-documented in Asia but has never been confirmed in the US – until now.

Most likely, the Guardian says, these cockroaches were living in the soil of an imported, ornamental plant at some nursery, and from there made it to the High Line, the landscape of which was designed "with a focus on native species."

Read more: Living