All posts by Matthew Stonecash

Ohio Utilities Seek to Discourage Efficiency

Two Ohio utility companies, DP&L (Dayton Power and Light) and AEP (American Electric Power), have petitioned the Ohio Public Utilities Commission to increase their fixed rate charges. These are the charges on your utility bill that do not vary when you use more or less energy. In the case of DP&L, the charges will increase up to 223%.  Utility companies across the country have made similar proposals in the past few years. It’s easy to guess why. Threats to usage-based revenue loom large on the horizon. Homes have become much more energy efficient in recent years, and the popularity of programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Passivhaus, and the Living Building Challenge  suggest that they could be drastically more efficient in just a few years.

In February, Consumers Union enumerated the problems with fixed-charge increases thusly:

Low-usage and low-income customers are hit hardest by mandatory fixed fee hikes.

Utilities keep pushing for increases in fixed charges, even as utilities commissions often steer away from them.

Fixed charges reduce customer control.

Reduced incentives for energy efficiency and distributed generation can raise costs for all consumers.

The article and link to the full report are available here, and well worth a read. Other strategies, such as inclining block rates, can provide utilities with the necessary operating revenue without burdening the poor or discouraging the forward-thinking.

If you feel the same please write the PUC and voice your opposition to fixed charges:

Public Utilities Commission of Ohio

180 East Broad Street

Columbus, Ohio 43215

Read more about this issue at:

The Rocky Mountain Institute

Ohio Citizen Action

Consumer Reports


Did you miss the March Inning??

Senate bill 192 has been introduced to the Ohio Legislature with the aim of improving bicycle safety by applying the “three-foot” law throughout the state. Recent events have highlighted the need for improving bicycle safety, including the tragic death of Michael Prater after being struck by an impaired motorist. If you are a congressman/congresswoman, please vote “aye”. If not, ask your congresswoman/congressman to do so!

Jeffrey Taylor of the Boy Scouts of America, has announced that the group plans to use a large tract of land, 700 acres(!), in Union, KY as a Leadership Development and Sustainability Center. Mr. Taylor is interested in input from Sierra Club members to help set  goals for the Sustainability Center.  It sounds like a great way to help educate the next generation of Sierrans.

Re-Establishing An Historic Wetland: The Boyer Farm

Brian Jorg, horticulturalist at the Cincinnati Zoo, spoke about the restoration of the Ecohio Farm in Mason, OH. A large farm donated to the zoo was discovered to be a former wetland. In 2012, the restoration project began with the removal of drainage tiles and the construction of dikes to allow water levels to rise. This created vernal pools, which contain water part of the year but dry out in August. The team left islands as habitat for waterfowl, and has planted thousands of native plants.

Initially home to only some salamanders, crayfish, muskrats, and barn swallows; visitors can now see killdeers, wood ducks, mink, green and great blue heron, yellow legs, eagles, bobolinks, red-shouldered hawks, great horned owls, (whew!) turkeys, hummingbirds, yellow warblers, and many many more. Mr. Jorg’s presentation included many examples of his excellent photography of these creatures, see some of them here:  For a first-hand look, sign up for one of the upcoming volunteering opportunities! Tree-planters wanted!

The success of the project proves that even long neglected land can be revived and re-wilded with the right combination of will, ecological know-how, and a lot of hard work! For more about this project and other great ecological restoration projects happening right here in Ohio, check out the Cincinnati Zoo Blog, Groundwork Cincinnati, and the STRIVE laboratory at Ohio State.

Understanding the World’s Forests

Collaborators from across the globe have conducted the most massive survey of trees ever. Their findings were published September 2 in their Nature article Mapping tree density at a global scale. Over 429,000 ground-level measurements were collected and correlated with maps of forest cover in each of the world’s major ecosystems. Interestingly, trees are found almost everywhere- billions of trees live in tundra, grasslands, and desert regions.

There is some very good news in this article; there are actually many more trees than previously thought- over 3 trillion! Linking these density maps with remotely acquired data describing climate, land use, topography and vegetation characteristics yielded more than just a census for trees. The model will lead scientists to a better understanding of how forests interact with the planet; sequestering carbon, filtering water, producing oxygen-and how different types of forests fill these roles differently.

The authors examined the correlation between tree density and several variables. They found that factors that are good for forests in one biome, might be deleterious in another. For example; while increased annual precipitation correlates with increased tree density in a tropical coniferous zone, it has the opposite effect in tundra. Only one factor consistently suppresses tree density in all of the 14 biomes studied: human development.

Using their model, along with a previously-estimated 192,000 square kilometers of forest loss (determined by observations of ground cover over time), researchers estimate that a staggering 15 billion trees are cut down each year, and that populations have declined by 46% since human civilization began. ‘The Billion Tree Campaign” may need to get even more ambitious.

For us, the beginning of human civilization is part of the distant past, but 10,000 years is nothing to trees, who evolved in the late Devonian period, at LEAST 385 million years ago. I was able to find a website with lovely maps from different periods of history. The world looked like this back then. No America, no mammals, no dinosaurs, not much of anything. But there were trees. Ten thousand years is a heartbeat on this scale. Is it any wonder then, that so many who are dependent on trees are struggling to cope with the sudden collapse in their numbers?

The Bengal tiger, western lowland gorilla, mountain gorilla, South China tiger,Javan rhino, saola, Amur leopard, and Sumatra’s tiger, rhino, elephant and orangutan; are all among the critically endangered list published by the IUCN. Many others have gone extinct already. The effects are less obvious on non-forest or ex-forest creatures such as ourselves. But even if we’re not living in them or eating them, I have a feeling we might find life quite difficult without them.

What might the world look like without trees? We might look to the world before trees for clues. Back to the Devonian, then. Amphibians were pretty much the latest and greatest that the world had managed to muster at that point. Amphibians are in much more serious peril than trees, so I think we can count them out. Reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals had not even thought about evolving yet. Would they be able to survive in the low-oxygen environment? I probably sound a bit alarmist, after all we have 3 trillion trees left! However, at 15 billion felled per year, it is well within our grasp to wipe them out.

Trees are cut down, in many cases, to clear land for expanding agriculture. This only makes sense if you believe that we are not growing plenty of food already, and ignore the piles of food that are tossed out or left to rot. Another tree-hungry industry is paper production. However, our government still subsidizes the delivery of some 100 billion pieces of junk mail every year.

Our power to do harm to the planet is racing against our ability to make prudent decisions. Let’s all consider this when we choose leaders and select products.
Today’s blog post is centered around a thought provoking article in Nature, it can be found here: 

T. W. Crowther, H. B. Glick, K.R.Covey et al. “Mapping tree density at a global scale”  Nature September 10, 2015 pp 201-205. Macmillan Publishers.

1913 to 2013 in 13 Miles: Brian Lenihan’s look at Hamilton’s Great Flood

 Cover Page
Imagine your town, at the tail end of a gloomy, rainy winter. The ground at your feet has thawed, but absorbs very little of the  excess water when it suddenly begins to rain again. Very hard. The river swells at an alarming rate. But there’s no siren, no flood warning on the news, and your Twitter feed is silent. It’s 1913, in Hamilton, OH.


In late March of that year over 9.5 inches of rain fell on Hamilton in less than 5 days. The recent rainfall in Greater Cincinnati that many have found so shocking (10.5 inches in thirty days) pales in comparison. All four bridges over the Great Miami were destroyed in just two hours. On March 26th the river reached 34 ft, and 80% of the city was submerged. If you were lucky enough to escape simply drowning you would have threat of disease and supply shortages to contend with. Railroads were impassable, roads turned to mud. Over 200 people lost their lives and thousands more their homes.


And yet Hamilton survived, its people endured. A new book by Miami Group Member Brian Lenihan examines this perseverance, in a very unique way. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with the author. His interest in the 1913 flood started early on with the stories and photos shared by his grandmother, one of these dauntless survivors of the days of the flood. Recently, as the centennial of the flood approached, he began building a collection of photographs – and recreating them! Each photo in 1913-2013 in 13 Miles is one of a pair; one taken in 1913 and the other in 2013, at the same location.


The book is a treasure trove of 360 such photographs in all, assembled over the past two years. Each of its six chapters examines one of the Hamilton neighborhoods affected by the flood along a 13 mile route. On some streets Downtown and in the North End, water levels rose as high as ten feet. It was the most destructive disaster in Ohio History. Seeing the photos is a startling reminder that surroundings we take for granted can change drastically in just a few hours.


I couldn’t help asking if we might see another deluge sometime in the future. Brian tells me that in the decades after the flood, there was a lot of construction work along the riverbanks; a new dam was built, as well as new levees, and the river itself was widened to increase its capacity for runoff. Fortunately, these changes mean we’re unlikely to see a flood on the scale of the 1913 flood anytime soon. The banks could now withstand several times the amount of rain that fell back then. If there was a flood, many lives might be saved simply by the advances that have been made in disaster warning and communications equipment. Still, after seeing all the bizarre weather so far here in 2015, for once I’m glad I live on a hill. Just in case.


Lovers of history, photography, and/or Hamilton can pick up a copy of the new book at Micropressbooks.
Brian Lenihan, Author, Historian, Photographer
Brian Lenihan, Author: 1913 to 2013 in 13 Miles


Bag-It Followup: Those Pesky Recycling Codes Explained

During this month’s screening of “Bag It”, you might recall its main character, Jeb Berrier, remarking that the recycling codes marking different plastic products, do NOT indicate that they are made of recycled products or of materials for which there is a process in place for recycling them. You may wonder, as I did, at the origin of these symbols. It turns out they were placed there by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in the late 80s in order to help recyclers identify the resin used to make a product. Before they can melt it down and turn it into something else, it needs to be sorted. In 2013, the American Society for Testing and Materials revised the standard, replacing the chasing arrows logo with a less confusing equilateral triangle:

Resin ID Code Triangles - Edited


SPI advises manufacturers that these codes should be hidden from the consumer, but I suggest you take a look anyway!

The resin identification code can help you understand what went into the product you’re considering buying, how recyclable it is, and what additives may be included.
1. Polyethylene Terephthalate, AKA PETE or Polyester
2. High Density Polyethylene HDPE
3. Polyvinyl Chloride PVC
4. Low Density Polyethylene LDPE
5. Polypropylene
6. Polystyrene
7. Everything else; mixed resins, Polycarbonate, etc.

As you can probably guess these plastics and the various additives they contain have been studied extensively and there is a lot of information available, but we’ll save that for another day. Let’s talk about recyclability. The vast majority of the plastics recycled in the US, based both on total weight and the % recovery, is either polyester (1), HDPE (2), or LDPE (4). Because of the various challenges involved; 3, 5, 6, and 7 have very low recycling rates.

Some items from around my house. Clockwise from upper left: a polyester water bottle, PVC shampoo bottle, HDPE napkin container, polycarbonate bottle, LDPE bag, and polystyrene cd case, all in a polypropylene basket.
Some items from around my house. Clockwise from upper left: a polyester water bottle, PVC shampoo bottle, HDPE napkin container, polycarbonate bottle, LDPE bag, and polystyrene cd case, all in a polypropylene basket.

Here in Cincinnati, ALL 7 of these codes are accepted for curbside pickup. Rumpke does not discriminate amongst the different types of resins but does not accept certain products, plastic grocery bags among them. For a complete list see here.

While all of these different types of plastic can be recycled to some extent, they still have a limited lifespan. One additional life, and then it’s off to the landfill. A 2012 Huffington Post slideshow gives a quick description of how many times some common materials can be recycled. So is there anything that recycles better than plastic? Yes! In fact almost any disposables are more recyclable than plastic.

To sum up, the best products are those that don’t leave you with a useless, potentially dangerous item that you are then tasked with the ethical disposal of. If you can get it in your own reusable bag or container-how liberating! Or maybe in a glass jar or paper bag that can be repurposed OR recycled many times! Sometimes buying disposable plastic is just the only available option, and in those cases it’s good to know that we can look for a recyclable plastic that can have another, hopefully much longer life as a new product.

Sources and further reading:

Recap of the July “Inning”: Scary Movie!

At Monday night’s monthly meeting, local Sierra Club members were treated to a screening of the movie Bag It. Bag It invites viewers on a thoughtful, humorous journey through a society gorging itself on plastic. The film stars Jeb Berrier as its every-man protagonist, and features interviews with marine biology superstar Silvia Earle, “Cradle to Cradle” author Michael Braungart, and many other accomplished conservationists. Unfortunately, no representatives of the plastics industry were willing to take part.

The film highlighted numerous seriously-scary problems with the runaway consumption of disposable plastics, such as their persistence (indefinite), their disastrous effects on marine life, and the human health effects of the various chemical additives. Points were driven-home with excellent visuals. Fortunately, Berrier’s wit kept things from getting too dark, and the film offered the hope that by changing our personal use of plastic we can make a significant change towards ameliorating these effects. For more about this film, see For another great documentary, see Mission Blue, which follows the aforementioned Silvia Earle’s inspiring crusade to save the oceans.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time, so only saw about 2/3’s of the movie. At the end, we broke into two discussion groups. Everyone had about 15 minutes to express their views, and the discussions were lively! Many expressed surprise at the number of communities all over the globe which have already taken steps to curb the use of plastic grocery bags, either through an outright ban or by requiring groceries to charge a nominal fee for each plastic bag. This fee provides a small incentive that has been demonstrated to be very effective in encouraging consumers to bring their own reusable bags when grocery shopping.

Matt Trokan passed-out post cards seeking public comments about the plastic-bag problem. Matt is seeking volunteers to willing to host screenings of Bag-It for groups they belong to. He hopes to get a bag-fee proposal to city council soon. Come to the annual picnic to find out more!

Adding a “hands-on” element to the evening, impressive examples of homemade reusable grocery bags were on display, and a tutorial given on how to make your own using nothing but a tee shirt and pair of scissors!

Thanks to everyone who worked to make this month’s “inning” such a success!

Authored by: Matthew Stonecash, volunteer writer