EarthTalk® | August 2015

Dear EarthTalk: How have polar bear populations in the Arctic been faring since the U.S. put them on its endangered species list in 2008, and what efforts are underway to protect them? — Melissa Underhill, Bangor, ME

Biologists estimate that as many as 25,000 polar bears roam the far north these days, with two-thirds of them in Canada and most of the remainder in Alaska and northern Russia. Environmentalists cheered in May 2008 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of forecast evidence that circumpolar warming is melting sea ice, the great white carnivore’s primary habitat. This listing represented the first time that climate change effects were officially considered as a cause for a species’ decline, emboldening activists to start calling for stricter regulations on carbon emissions nationwide.

Polar bears have been “protected” in the U.S. since 2008, but only recently has the USFWS released a species management plan. The Draft Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan (CMP) outlines six strategies to manage bear populations, including: limiting global atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases to levels suitable for supporting polar bear recovery and conservation, supporting international protection efforts, managing human-polar bear conflicts, collaboratively managing polar bear hunting by Alaska natives, protecting polar bear denning habitats and minimizing risk of contamination from oil spills.

While saving polar bears is not the only reason to curb greenhouse gases, the CMP prioritizes that public officials start factoring in the “consequences to polar bears and their habitats of the likely effects of the current baseline greenhouse gases scenario” and “prompt the needed actions to maintain and, as needed, restore sea ice habitat by implementing sufficient regulatory, market-driven, or voluntary actions.”

As for supporting international efforts, the USFWS is aligning with Russia to protect denning habitats in Chukotka and on Wrangel Island, where almost all denning for the Chukchi Sea population occurs, and with Canada to support polar bear management efforts in the Canadian Archipelago.

To manage human-polar bear conflicts, FWS is joining communities and industry to develop safety procedures for bear encounters and establish best practices for garbage management and bear-proof food-storage options to reduce food attractants that draw polar bears into human communities. The agency has also committed to expand the scope and improve the effectiveness of community polar bear patrols.

Polar bears are hunted in 15 Alaskan villages for meat or handicrafts like mittens and mukluks, and the USFWS plans to collaborate with the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and others on implementing sustainable hunt management strategies in these villages. The USFWS is also working to minimize development and disturbance on barrier islands, which provide crucial bear habitat.

To reduce the risk of contamination from an oil spill, the USFWS will continue to provide feedback on oil exploration plans and ensure that responders and companies have current information on seasonal bear movements and important habitat areas. Standard operating procedures are in the works for the rescue and handling of oiled bears. The USFWS estimates that implementing the CMP over the next five years will cost almost $13 million. Comments on the plan will be accepted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal (search Docket No. FWS-R7-ES-2014-0060) through August 20, 2015.

CONTACTS: FWS Polar Bear Draft Conservation Management Plan,; Environment Canada’s Conservation of Polar Bears in Canada,; Federal eRulemaking Portal, Photo above: A new plan from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to protect polar bears in the face of vanishing habitat as sea ice becomes a thing of the past across much of the Arctic.

Americans discard about 10 percent of the house paint they purchase — some 65 to 69 million gallons — every year. Credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command
Dear EarthTalk: What is the best way to recycle my old and/or unwanted paint, primer and stains? — Kim Beeler, Lake Oswego, OR

Has one of the many popular shows on HGTV inspired you to renovate your own home? If so, you’re not alone! Home renovations have been on the rise the last few years in the U.S. and Canada, which can mean lots of leftover paint. Extra paint can last for years when properly sealed and stored away from extreme heat and cold, and if unneeded, can be donated to organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Keep America Beautiful. But if paint can no longer be used, what are some safe, environmentally-responsible ways to dispose of it?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 10 percent of the house paint purchased in the United States each year — about 65 to 69 million gallons — is discarded. Leftover and unusable paint wastes causes pollution when disposed of improperly, the EPA warns. Before you can decide how to dispose of old paint, you’ll need to determine what kind of paint it is. There are two types of paint: oil-based and latex; and regulations on disposal of each type of paint vary by location.

In some areas, latex paint can be thrown out with the trash as long as it is completely dried. Keep in mind that some household waste haulers may not pick up latex paint even if it is completely dried, so always check with your local waste disposal service provider on rules and regulations applicable to your area.

Oil-based paints, as well as paint thinners and other paint solvents, are considered hazardous household waste (HHW) and are typically disposed of at HHW facilities. While many communities across the country will hold annual or semi-annual HHW collection days to make paint disposal easy for local residents, the new non-profit PaintCare is allowing residents of California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon, Minnesota and Vermont to have convenient disposal of house paint, primers, stains, sealers and clear coatings year-round. There is no charge for dropping off paint at a PaintCare drop-off site, and Paintcare’s site locator (available on their website and app) allows residents of applicable states to quickly find their closest drop-off location. PaintCare locations can be found at select Sherwin-Williams, True Value, Ace Hardware and other retailers.

“Retailer support of the PaintCare program is not only good business practice, but also an extension of good customer service,” says Scott Cassel, Chief Executive Officer of the Product Stewardship Institute, Inc., a nonprofit that, in partnership with the paint industry, led the national dialogue that laid the foundation for the PaintCare program. “By providing paint drop-off locations, retailers not only encourage more foot traffic, but they also offer an important kind of community service that addresses both environmental protection and convenience.”

PaintCare manages the leftover paint it receives according to a policy of “highest, best use.” Their goal is to recycle as much as possible. Most of the oil-based paint is taken to a cement plant where it is blended into a fuel and burned to recover the energy value. Latex paint that is not rusty, molding or spoiled is sent to recycling companies and reprocessed into new paint. Some paint that the non-profit receives is nearly new and in excellent condition, and is given away at swap shops or to charitable organizations. Paintcare planned to expand its locations into Colorado in July, Maine in August 2015 and the District of Columbia in January 2016.

CONTACTS: EPA Paints & Coatings Program,; Paintcare,

The U.S. Postal Service is working hard to facilitate recycling and reduce carbon emissions. Credit: FlickrCC
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest with the U.S. Postal Service trying to reduce its environmental footprint? Starting delivery of some mail on Sundays doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction. — Kerry Rawlings, Albany, NY

As recent TV ads have been telling us, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has recently started delivering some mail on Sunday in what most chalk up to an effort to stay one step ahead of United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express (Fedex). But while Sunday delivery may be convenient for consumers, environmental leaders worry that adding an extra day causes an unnecessary waste of fuel and carbon emissions. Though this service has been implemented too recently for any concrete statistics on its increase of greenhouse gas emissions, the USPS has several other initiatives already in process that can, at the very least, perhaps help to offset the environmental impact of this new increase.

Recycling, one of the familiar poster-children of the green movement, has become a true priority at the USPS in recent years. In 2012, USPS saved over 250,000 tons of paper, cans and plastic waste. In the lobbies of local post offices are over 22,000 recycling bins for those looking to dispose of any paper products. These same offices also offer eco-friendly envelopes, boxes made from recycled materials, and stamps that make use of a biodegradable adhesive.

Another important environmental initiative of USPS is its Return for Good program which facilitates recycling of stuff besides paper. Under the program, USPS collects expired prescription drugs, small electronics, empty ink cartridges and even fluorescent lamps. This program recovered approximately 172,000 pounds of unused pharmaceuticals in 2012. Recyclers can save themselves a trip to the post office to turn in recycled items by scheduling a pickup from the trucks already driving nearby 6-7 days/week. USPS even offers cash back on some newer electronics devices.

There are also efforts to reduce the impact of the large fleet of postal delivery trucks. According to the article, “Greener Delivery?” in the Harvard Gazette, the USPS has begun the process of replacing 180,000 of its trucks with more eco-friendly alternatives. The recognizable boxy mail trucks seem to be a thing of the past, as a January proposal suggested several design alterations to enhance efficiency and reduce emissions from the current rate of 9 miles per gallon. In addition to changes to the traditional truck, there are already around 42,000 alternative-fuel vehicles in the USPS fleet, most of them using ethanol as a fuel source. There are also electric, natural gas and bio-diesel trucks.

Of course, another way USPS is trying to reduce its environmental impact is to cut out consumers trips — and the emissions entailed — to the post office. Consumers can now print out pre-paid labels to simply attach to packages. By scheduling a pickup from your home, the mailman who passes every day will pick up your package and begin the delivery process.

Two other important programs can help reduce consumers’ environmental footprint. If you are going out of town, go to and put your mail on hold until you return, eliminating unnecessary deliveries to your house. And alerting USPS when you move will also stop extraneous deliveries to your old abode.

While USPS may never be able to be as green as the beast that is killing it, e-mail, at least it is making strides in the right direction, even if you do get packages on Sundays.


Uncharted Play’s Soccket soccer ball doubles as a kinetic energy power source for an integrated high-efficiency 3-LED lamp.
Dear EarthTalk: I recently heard about a cafe in the Netherlands that harvests so-called “kinetic” energy from its revolving door to power its interior lights. Is there potential for “kinetic” energy to provide significant amounts of electricity to help replace fossil fuels? — Doug Mola, Boise, ID

Physicists define “kinetic” energy as the energy of motion (as opposed to potential energy, which represents an object’s stored energy). While there is not much that is practical that we can do with potential energy, kinetic energy is another matter. We can capture energy from all sorts of everyday activities, and entrepreneurs around the world are working hard on ways to make kinetic energy more accessible. But we may be decades from realizing any serious fossil fuel displacement from this age-old energy source, and by then other alternative energy sources may have already made coal, oil and natural gas things of the past.

While the cutting edge revolving door at Natuurcafé La Port in Beerschoten, Netherlands (about 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam) may be one of the best examples of repurposing the kinetic energy that humans generate through their movement into electricity to power their stuff — the door connects the cafe to an adjoining train station and generates some 4600 kWh of electricity annually — it’s far from the only one.

The Soccket is a soccer ball that was designed by Harvard undergraduates for a class project — since incorporated as the company Uncharted Play — that harvests energy when it is kicked around and can then be used to power an included energy efficient 3-LED lamp that runs for up to three hours after just 20 minutes or so of soccer. “The more the ball rolls, the more power that’s generated,” reports Uncharted Play, which got the idea for the ball as a way to help eliminate the use of kerosene. The company also makes the Pulse, a portable, emergency battery charging jump rope designed to promote physical activity and spread awareness about the global energy problem. While the Pulse is a jump rope just like any other, it is also a portable battery charger that can be powered up from a power outlet or, even better, from using it. For every Soccket or Pulse purchased ($99/each), Uncharted Play donates one to a kid in a developing country who might not otherwise have access to electricity to provide a light to read at night.

Another innovative application of kinetic energy is from Pavegen, which produces floor tiles that absorb kinetic energy when people walk on them. The tiles are made with recycled materials and contain small LEDs that light up to show they are working. Meanwhile, KinergyPower is applying the same principal to harnessing the kinetic energy from vehicles through designed road surfaces that turn vehicle motion into electricity.

While kinetic energy shows lots of potential for helping transition away from fossil fuels, it may never become more than a novelty if we continue to focus our energy resources on other proven clean renewables like solar arrays and wind farms. Regardless, get used to seeing more and more kinetic energy harvesting from flooring, sidewalks, soccer balls, jump ropes and who knows what else. Going through a revolving door never felt so good.

CONTACTS: Uncharted Play,; Pavegen,; KinergyPower,



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