As kids across the U.S. go back to school this month, many are diving back into an ongoing experiment in energy conservation, the New York Times reports. Schools have long been known as energy wasters, with classroom lights, computers and air-conditioners often left running nonstop, but thanks to rising energy costs and shrinking budgets, U.S. schools are now emerging as bastions of saving energy — and money. And as the Times reports, many are doing it with low-tech strategies, such as Post-it notes on light switches that say "When not in use, turn off the juice."

More than two dozen states have used federal stimulus money to fund energy-saving programs and upgrades in schools since 2009, the director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities tells the Times. The trend has been especially strong in New York City, driven partly by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign to reduce citywide energy consumption and carbon emissions by 30 percent over the next six years. The city's 1,245 school buildings have cut their energy use by 11 percent since 2008, and have already seen rewards for their efforts. The Post-it note strategy alone has helped Long Island's Mount Sinai School District save $350,000 per year, the Times reports, while energy savings in Yonkers have funded renovations like new windows and new boilers the district couldn't have afforded otherwise. Schools from Washington, D.C., to Washington state are taking part, too, adding things like energy-efficient lights, solar panels, and geothermal heating and cooling systems. Oregon's Legislature passed a bill in June to offer low-interest loans and grants to schools that make efficiency upgrades, similar to another grant program that Washington state launched in 2009.

In many cases, though, saving money on energy is less about big renovations than nose-to-the-grindstone diligence, the Times reports. Conservation measures are often enforced by designated "energy managers" — sort of like hall monitors, only they care more about flipping switches than skipping classes. At New York's Mount Sinai district, for example, energy manager Chris Heil inspects 100 classrooms daily and issues "tickets" to teachers, administrators or anyone else who's wasting energy. His efforts have reportedly helped cut the district's utility costs by 30 percent since 2007. "I'm kind of like the cop who walks around and makes sure people are doing what they're supposed to be doing," Heil says. "As soon as you take me away, people will start their bad habits again."

(Source: New York Times)


Some 60,000 pounds of ground beef is being recalled due to possible E. coli contamination, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced over the weekend. The beef came from National Beef Packaging Co. in Dodge City, Kan., but some of it may have undergone further processing and repackaging, and has likely been sold under other brand names, UPI reports. Three major grocery chains — Kroger, Publix and Winn-Dixie — are also recalling some of their ground beef in response to the National Beef recall, which came after the Ohio Department of Agriculture detected E. coli during routine food-safety tests, the AP reports.

There have been no illnesses reported so far in relation to the E. coli contamination, which is thought to be concentrated in the Southeast, according to the USDA. The recalls affect beef sold in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee, although the meat was also sent to several distributors elsewhere, the AP notes, and may have been repackaged and sold nationwide. Meat-packing companies in Detroit and Indianapolis received some of the tainted beef, according to National Beef, as did Wal-Mart operations in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. At Kroger, the recall includes ground chuck, ground beef patties and meatballs with "sell by" dates from July 29 to Aug. 12. At Publix, it includes at least two dozen products with "sell by" dates from July 25 to Aug. 12. And at Winn-Dixie, it includes ground chuck and patties with "sell by" dates from July 31 to Aug. 12.

As the USDA warns in a news release about the recall, this strain of E. coli — formally known as E. coli O157:H7 — "is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure." The agency also warns that "the very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness." Anyone in possession of the potentially contaminated meat can return it to the store for a full refund, Central Florida News reports. The USDA also has a hotline for questions at 1-888-MPHotline.

(Sources: Associated Press, UPI, Central Florida News, ReutersUSDA)


With a new wave of rhinoceros poaching flaring up in Africa, Europe is pressuring Asian governments to tell their citizens that rhino horns have no medicinal value, the London Independent reports. Rhino horn is just keratin — the same material that makes up human hair and fingernails — but it has long been used in traditional Asian medicine to treat a variety of ailments. And it has recently come under soaring demand due to a mistaken belief that it can cure cancer — driving the price up to nearly $82,000 per kilogram, more than the price of gold or cocaine.

The high price of rhino horn has driven thieves to new extremes, the Independent reports, including a rash of museum burglaries across Europe that have targeted the horns on mounted rhino heads. But far more problematic are the criminals who go directly to the source: Organized crime syndicates are increasingly sending well-armed poachers into Africa in pursuit of rhino horns, forcing some countries to deploy soldiers into national parks to support local rangers and police. South Africa saw roughly 12 rhinos poached each year between 2000 and 2007, but that number leapt to 333 in 2010. More than 200 have already been killed this year, and conservationists are worried the animals' future may be in danger if something isn't done to snuff the demand.

The U.K. is thus filing a request, on behalf of the European Union, for Asian nations to launch "appropriately targeted" awareness campaigns for their citizens, highlighting the lack of scientific evidence for any medicinal benefits of rhino horns. The proposal includes all member nations in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, but specifically targets China, Vietnam and other Asian countries where demand for the horns is rising. It also aims to set up a working group to focus on the issue for the next full meeting of CITES, scheduled to take place in two years. "The world community cannot sit back and just watch these species disappear," the U.K.'s wildlife minister tells the Independent, "and we want to help debunk the myth of rhino horn's healing powers."

(Source: London Independent)


An underwater ecosystem that was wrecked by overfishing a decade ago is now the most robust marine reserve in the world, according to a new study by researchers with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego. Located near the southern tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula, Cabo Pulmo National Park enjoyed a 463 percent population boom of fish from 1999 to 2009, showing how conservation efforts can revive even the most damaged ecosystems.

"The study's results are surprising in several ways," says Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, the lead author. "A biomass increase of 463 percent in a reserve as large as Cabo Pulmo represents tons of new fish produced every year. No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery." Cabo Pulmo covers more than 27 square miles, a daunting area to restore in such a short time, the researchers say. Certain management tactics were key to this recovery, they write, including the protection of spawning areas for large predators. But local enforcement was also critical — boat captains, diving instructors and other locals have worked for years to enforce the park's regulations, and have worked with authorities to promote surveillance, fauna protection and anti-pollution efforts. "We believe that the success of CPNP is greatly due to local leadership, effective self-enforcement by local stakeholders, and the general support of the broader community," the authors write in the study, which was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study's authors also hope CPNP can serve as an example to political leaders in Mexico and elsewhere, proving that conservation really can work — even in severely damaged ecosystems — when done correctly. "Few policymakers around the world are aware that fish size and abundance can increase inside marine reserves to extraordinary levels within a decade after protection is established; fewer still know that these increases often translate into economic benefits for coastal communities," says Aburto-Oropeza. "Therefore, showing what's happened in Cabo Pulmo will contribute to ongoing conservation efforts in the marine environment and recovery of local coastal economies."

(Sources: International Business Times, ScienceDaily, UC-San Diego)


The Tennessee Valley Authority shuts down a reactor, John Gofman dies, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (light switch): Nils Vik/Flickr

Photo (ground beef): Jupiter Images

Photo (rhino horn): ZUMA Press

Photo (CPNP): Octavio Aburto-Oropeza/iLCP

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon.
Schools save energy, E. coli spurs beef recall, Europe vs. Asia on rhinos, and more.