USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 22, 2012

“Paper or plastic?” – The End of an Era

Long gone are the days of the infamous question we could always expect at the supermarket: “would you like paper or plastic bags?”  In recent years, environmentalists have urged cities and states, both domestically and abroad, to place a ban on the use of plastic bags due to their negative impact on the environment.  They contribute significantly to increasing landfills and litter, and can result in harm to wildlife through ingestion or suffocation.  Plastic bag bans are relatively easy for consumers to transition to in their daily lives—reusable canvas or sturdy, recycled plastic bags are becoming increasingly popular and extremely affordable, providing an easy solution to no plastic bag policies.  San Francisco was the first city in the nation to enact a ban on plastic bags, and many California cities soon followed suit.  However, passing such legislation is not as easy as it seems.  With plastic companies lobbying against bans and their employees arguing its unfair for them to lose jobs, especially during economic times like this, policy makers must forge through lots of red tape to make the changes happen.

This “red tape,” has contributed to the challenges that Los Angeles has encountered regarding its own plastic bag ban legislation, including numerous lawsuits and opposition briefs. In 2008, Los Angeles County announced that it would begin working on a plastic bag ban, which came to fruition in 2010. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles City Council announced on April 5, 2012 that it would continue to pursue both a plastic and paper bag ban in approximately 7,500 stores county-wide.  A 6-month phase out period will commence, resulting in a 10-cent fee for every non-reusable bag purchased at the checkout line.  If the Los Angeles ban is successful, it will join San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Carpinteria, Santa Monica, and many other California cities in the banning of plastic grocery bags.  Even with the success, however, the end goal for environmentalists is to push on towards a statewide ban altogether.

While the success of the ban on plastic bag seems to be having a bit of a snowball effect, it is not without its challenges. On March 20, 2012, Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (SPBC) filed suit against the city of Carpinteria for including restaurants and other food providing facilities in its plastic bag ban, on the grounds that it violates the California Retail Food Code. Members of the SPBC include Command Packaging, among other companies, responsible for selling, distributing, and recycling of plastic bags. Their vested, personal interest in the future use of plastic bags slows down the process of enacting the bans on a larger scale. SPBC and other concerned parties have filed lawsuits against many other cities and counties, including but not limited to LA County, Marin County, Santa Cruz County, and the City of San Francisco. These parties are hoping to defend their own welfare, and this is the red tape legislators must face and move through to help the state bid farewell to plastic bags. The road to a plastic bag-free world might be long, and opposition will likely continue to be an obstacle, but there’s finally long-awaited progress in the right direction.

Other Sources:

Sydney MacEwen and Dawnielle Tellez Alanna are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

A Positive Outlook – Problems and Solutions for Aquaculture

Filed under: Aquaculture — Tags: , , , — dginsbur @ 9:42 pm

Today, more than 32% of world fish stocks are overexploited or depleted while and 1 out of 5 people rely on fish as their main source of protein. This is not sustainable considering the projected increase in global population. One potential solution to the imminent shortage of ocean protein is aquaculture. Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic organisms including fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants, is increasing at a faster rate than all other animal protein production. From a stable source of food supply to local economic benefits and career opportunities, it offers a vast array of benefits that society can certainly benefit from. But at what costs? There is controversy over whether the challenges of aquaculture, including marine degradation, outweigh the benefits of this  technology. Overall, considering economic and humanitarian concerns, in addition to the various means by which the problems with aquaculture can be mitigated, the benefits might prove to outweigh the costs.

Some of aquaculture’s most significant benefits are it’s economic, societal, and environmental contributions. Economically, aquaculture can help meet the global demand for food, and it is simply very efficient. For example, in finfish aquaculture, one ton of feed produces almost one ton of this fish, compare this to the 150 kilograms of beef, 300 kilograms of pork, and 500 kilograms of chicken the same amount of feed would produce. Aquaculture, in addition to feeding people, boosts local economy and can therefore be seen as a possible path for many developing nations. For example, in Vietnam’s aquaculture plan will create 3 million jobs, generate $4 billion in exports. Societally, sustainable aquaculture has proven to facilitate women involvement, one example is the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. Environmentally, aquaculture eases strain on natural population of fish in oceans.

Aquaculture’s most significant challenges have to do with its effect on the environment. In land based fish-farms, introduced species can become invasive species in nearby waterways, for example, aisian carp used by catfish farmers downstream have invaded the length of the Mississippi River. Escaped fishes can also infect and reduce genetic diveristy in native populations. from Other concerns are specific to pfaarticular highly demanded species, like salmon. Salmon are carnivorous so its feed is comprised of other fish (e.g. sardines, herrings), but harvesting feed further strains ocean ecosystems. Another major issue with aquaculture is that of waste; open aquaculture system release nitrogen, phosphorus, parasites and fecal matter into nearby coastal water and can contaminate the seabed and shellfish that live there.

There are a plethora of innovative solutions to problems with aquaculture, ranging from specific technologies to broad industry strategies. Some sustainable technologies solve multiple problems; for example, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) use 99% less water than other systems, have a low space demand, eliminate the need for antibiotics and chemicals, minimize the discharge of waste, and prevent fish and parasite escapes. Another solution is integrating rice and fish farming, in which fish fertilize soil used for rice production while eating troublesome weeds and algae. Rice-fish farmers have 5-11% higher revenue, and it is particularly well suited for regions like Bangladesh, where rice farming alrady dominates agricultural land use. Other solutions include technical advances in hatchery systems, feeds and feed-delivery systems, and disease management in addition to cheaper food substrates via use of genetically modified organisms. Overall, the most important suggestion for the future of aquaculture is greater than ecological technologies alone, the solution for this and many other human induced environmental issues is in the development of comprehensive management strategies that balance human need with that of the natural environment.

Other Sources:

Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People H. Charles J. Godfray, et al. Science 327, 812 (2010)

Sarah Beshir and Ashley Lukashevsky are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Genetically Modified Organisms: A Real Concern?

Genetically modified organisms tend to have a negative connotation within society. They’re considered unnatural, unhealthy, and even risky to human health. Yet, the majority of society lacks knowledge on science. People are bombarded each day with articles opposing genetically modified food, arguing that they have potential human health risks and pose dangers to the environment. However, most articles in the news exaggerate the negative effects of GMOs without providing sufficient proof. This negative influence on society has created an automatic opposition to GMOs without considering its many benefits that could ultimately better the world and reduce world starvation.

In reality, GMO’s benefits outweigh its costs by increasing and improving food production. For example, through the insertion of certain genes into rice, people could obtain more vitamin A (A Report on Genetically Engineered Food). In many developing countries, rice is the staple food and often one of the only foods available for consumption. Without receiving enough vitamin A, people in developing countries could face early blindness. However, with the creation of genetically engineered rice that contains vitamin A, people could live a healthier lifestyle regardless of their poverty level.

GMOs can also contain herbicides and pesticides that would not affect the crop itself but would attack certain weeds and pests that try to harm it. In Africa, there is a weed called striga that depletes crops’ nutrients underground (A Report on Genetically Engineered Food). While most weeds can be pulled out by hand, striga begins attacking crop seeds even before it has sprouted. However, through the collaboration among Kenyan and Israel scientists, a herb resistance trait was engineered, allowing crops to continue their normal growth while simultaneously attacking the weed (A Report on Genetically Engineered Food). This engineering feat has allowed farmers in Africa to grow their crops without fear of weeds damaging their crop yield.

These two examples are not the extent of GMO’s functions. They can also quicken growth, prevent pest attacks, reduce the use of fertilizer, and enhance desired traits. Furthermore, they could be better for the environment than conventional crops. Especially since land is becoming scarcer and there is a greater demand for food, GMOs have stepped in to increase the crop yield by being able to resist environmental factors such as salinity, drought, and cold (Biotechnology and the Developing World). Similarly, some GMOs are equipped with traits that require less tilling, which contributes to less soil erosion and runoff. GMOs can promote sustainable farming by encouraging farmers to increase their crop yield, while maintaining the same amount of land and using the same amount of fertilizer (Biotechnology and the Developing World).

Ultimately, genetically modified organisms are nothing to fear. Although media has hyped up the negative effects by appealing to society’s concern for the unknown, the public needs to understand the tremendous benefits of GMOs. They can improve human health by increasing nutritional value. They can also encourage sustainable farming by using GMOs that require less tilling, which benefits the environment by keeping the topsoil intact and reducing fertilizer runoffs into rivers and streams. Sure, GMOs has its drawbacks but every technology has its own faults; nothing is foolproof. But the most important issue is that the benefits exceed their costs, and GMOs does just that.


Kaylee Yang is an undergraduate in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Environmental Agencies: Lack of Oversight makes Law Meaningless

According to James Gustave Speth, the dean of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, if we “continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates… continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates… the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”  The important part about this quote is that it specifies current rates.  With current rates, we will create a world not fit to live in within our children’s lifetimes.  But with the exponential growth of both our population and our economy, holding current levels isn’t even possible as they are rapidly accelerating to meet with demands.

So what’s the answer?  Is our current environmental legislation not enough?  Are they too few in number, or too lenient to be effective?  Environmental laws and regulations are determined by, and regulated and enforced by assemblies, specialized to certain aspects of the environment.  Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency and National Resources Defense Council, and all have legislative, judicial, and executive power to make, shape, regulate, and enforce laws.  In many cases, the regulations set for by agencies are strict.  For example, when regulating the amount of chemicals that can be in drinking water or in food products, chemicals are mandated to be below, or reported on the label, if they are present in any quantity above 1/1000th of the no observable effect level.

We do have a great number of regulations in this country.  If the environmental movement, sparked in the 1960s and 70s by visible and overwhelming environmental degradation such as the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 or the even more visible LA smog of decades past, had never made the legislative and progressive movement that it did, our country would be in a much more ghastly state than it is now.

Inconsistencies, however, occur in our agencies and their oversight.  Even with all the laws and regulations set forward, half of U.S. lakes and a third of its rivers still “fail to meet the standards that by law should have been met by 1983.”   When there isn’t such a great, public demand to commit to regulations set forth, agencies can often slack off and are irregular in their oversight of the regulations that they set forth.  Let’s look at the example of the Minerals Management Service , a former agency under the Department of the Interior.  The M.M.S. until recently was in charge of offshore oil drilling, but in the past has been known to allow oil companies pay less on oil-lease payments, accept gifts from industry representatives, and, “in some cases, literally slept with the people they were regulating.”  After the B.P. oil spill in 2010, this agency was immediately dissolved.  With so much public attention brought to it, the fact that it was not regulating and enforcing what it was designated to became very visible.

This lack of regulation doesn’t just happen in this one agency.  The only reason the M.M.S. got in real trouble was because one of the greatest environmental disasters of the decade happened under their watch.  And if there are more examples out there of agencies that can barely regulate and laws that they are designated to, how can we even judge the effectiveness of our laws?  It doesn’t matter if they’re strict or not if they can’t even be enforced.  And with inconsistencies of the vigor of agencies’ oversight due to public opinion, aesthetic disasters, and current political officials, how can agencies be even taken seriously by the huge and powerful corporations that they are trying to control?

There are just too many factors and stakeholders that shape the policies and amount of regulation that an agency is going to perform.  If we want any laws to be effective and carried out, they must be run and regulated and maintained by respected and powerful agencies.  We must find incentives for agencies to maintain the integrity of our existing legislation and maintaining the goals that we set forth for ourselves environmentally, before we can focus on adopting new and stricter legislation.  Because if this problem isn’t first addressed, any and every environmental law and regulation could become obsolete.


Kimberly Knabel and Justin Bodga are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Federal beach water testing fund cuts: The end of good beach days?

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 (BEACH Act) is a Federal Act by the Environmental Protection Agency, which aims to increase the quality of recreational waters by testing for pathogens. This Act has been very helpful to improve the quality of waters in many states especially in states such as Oregon and Washington, which did not have any legislation of this manner. The BEACH Act amended the Clean Water Act and called for testing of coastal waters by appropriate indicators and in a manner that is “appropriate, accurate, expeditious, and cost-effective.” While the implementation of this act has improved coastal water quality, there are still improvements to be made, and with recent budget problems, the funding to beach testing could possibly be cut.

Due to the uncertainty of our economy, the EPA has said that they will cut the $10 million they give to states for testing recreational waters. They are cutting these funds and allowing local governments to take over testing because they now have the technology and expertise. However, these funds are vital for local monitoring because they allocate important funds to the state for local testing, and without these funds, “states will decrease the number of beaches they monitor, the frequency or cut back on resources they use to notify the public about conditions at the beach.” California’s budget problems have led to a scaling back of beach testing, but a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown provided $1.8 million for testing. So, unless California and other beach states can find their own funding for recreational water testing, the future of beachgoers health may be in jeopardy.

However, the federal government insists that local governments are capable of handling beach testing. Because the EPA has been providing guidance and support for fifteen years, they argue that by know local governments should have developed efficient programs for beach testing. Indeed, any local governments assert that they have become self-sufficient in their beach water quality management. As Santa Cruz director John Ricker stated, “We’ve been doing beach water quality testing since the 70s, long before it was mandated or funded by the state. We kind of just go ahead and do our program, and were happy to get revenue wherever we can.” This independence reveals how local governments are capable of maintaining beach testing if they take initiative without such extreme handholding from the EPA.

Furthermore, the amount of funding received from the federal government varies state by state to begin with. For example, although California has an immense amount of coastlines and beaches, it receives a smaller portion when the EPA decides to divert funding other states that need encouragement to begin beach testing to begin with. States and local governments should be able to conduct testing independent of federal support since it can be inconsistent and is not always guaranteed, as shown through the recent cuts. Counties such as Santa Cruz actually cover half of the cost of beach testing in that area, with the federal government contributing only one fourth. Beyond funding, because of the local variability of fecal indicator bacteria concentrations based on region, it may be beneficial to deal with beach testing on a smaller, local scale. One U,S, Geological Survey showed that the current water quality testing in the Great Lakes was too broad and resulted in many unnecessary beach closures, decreasing revenue made from those beaches. Local approaches to beach cleanups can yield more accurate results of bacteria concentration so that beaches are only closed when truly dangerous to human health.

Although federal support of beach testing has been very crucial in many states, the recent EPA cuts do not mean that beach water testing must cease or decrease in quality. As long as states take responsibility of beach testing, the process can develop strongly and efficiently. Without federal enforcement and encouragement, it will be up to the public to fight for beach testing to maintain human health. If people make beach water quality a priority, they can influence and pressure local officials to make it one as well.


Juliana Duran and Judy Fong are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

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