Global Green is Co-Hosting the SEED Earth Month Market this Weekend!

April 14th, 2015 by Ruben Aronin No comments »

Global Green is co-hosting the SEED earth month market and a panel from 2:30 to 3:30 pm on food waste and food packaging at the Altman Building in Manhattan. The market is free and open to the public.

The panel will feature an introduction of our work in NYC and nationally to help transform waste into assets, and will feature:

1. Our school tray resource recovery project with Parsons New School for Design and NYC Department of Education. The panel will be co-presented by Global Green and our student design team partners at Parsons New School for Design.


2. Global Green will present on our work with food waste and NYC food businesses, followed by a special guest presentation by the newest member of our Coalition for Resource Recovery, Food Cowboy. Check out Food Cowboy’s amazing story and their “air traffic control system” for food waste donation below:


How to get involved:
Join us at the SEED market this weekend!
April 18th – 11am to 6pm
At The Altman Building
135 W. 18th St., New York City

Click here for details:

Global Green USA Applauds Mayor Garcetti’s Sustainable City pLAn for Energy & Equity Goals

April 8th, 2015 by Ruben Aronin No comments »

Los Angeles, CA – “Global Green commends Mayor Garcetti for his bold vision outlined in the City’s first ever sustainability plan. It shows a clear, decisive commitment to making Los Angeles one of the greenest big cities in the country. While there are many strengths to the plan, Global Green especially looks forward to working with Mayor Garcetti to ensure implementation of the ambitious rooftop solar goals that will help bring clean jobs to LA, and avoid sending dirty fossil-fuel jobs out of state,” said Global Green President and CEO Les McCabe.

This plan recognizes that sustainability means more than just a healthy environment: It means a healthy economy fueled by green jobs; sustainable communities that foster equity among Angelenos; and resilient neighborhoods that can bounce back in times of crises. The Mayor’s sustainability plan looks at the whole picture for a truly comprehensive sustainable Los Angeles.

“The comprehensive approach this plan takes toward sustainability – through the environment, equity and a sustainable economy makes perfect sense,” said Mary Luevano. “If LA wants to be an “A” student in sustainability they will need to work hard, and Mayor Garcetti has rolled out the lesson plan that will help the city reach that goal.”

While the plan is only the first step on a long road, it lays the groundwork for what we as a City need to do to succeed, and sets clear goals to track our progress through the coming years. As the only national environmental organization headquartered in the greater Los Angeles region, Global Green looks forward to working with the City to achieve and even surpass some of the goals, and will aggressively work with the Mayor’s office and key city leaders to ensure LA meets many of the “reach” goals outlined in the plan.

Global Green particularly commends the City on its objectives around:

  • Solar energy and energy-efficiency,
  • Creating more livable and engaged communities,
  • Equity – ensuring that minority and low-income communities are a major beneficiaries of citywide sustainability initiatives

Global Green commends Mayor Garcetti for being the first ever Los Angeles Mayor to create a sustainability plan, and for his ongoing commitment to a greener and more sustainable Los Angeles. We look forward to working with him and other key city leaders to ensure this plan is implemented and has a lasting impact on Los Angeles as an example for megacities everywhere.

The City of Los Angeles released the Sustainable City pLAn today, its first sustainability plan, which lays out the City’s environmental and sustainability goals on issues such as water, energy, and waste, as well as topics such as housing and engaged neighborhoods. It sets specific outcomes for 2017, 2025, and 2035.

About Global Green USA
Global Green USA is dedicated to helping the people, places, and the planet in need through catalytic projects, transformative policy, and cutting-edge research. Global Green USA’s signature programs include greening affordable housing, schools, neighborhoods, and cities as well as rebuilding communities — such as New Orleans and areas of New York and New Jersey — that have suffered from the impacts of climate change, sea level rise, and
environmental degradation. Global Green USA is the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International, which was founded by President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993 to foster a global value shift toward a sustainable and secure future. For more information, visit and follow us @globalgreen.

From the Field: A Tour of the Bay Area Food System

March 30th, 2015 by Lily Kelly No comments »

We here at Global Green USA have always taken pride in our organization’s role as a facilitator and a convener, bringing together stakeholders to share their perspectives about some of the most difficult environmental problems facing our communities. Last week, we continued this great tradition by bringing together representatives from San Francisco and East Bay public agencies who are tasked with working toward waste diversion, CoRR members Bag to Earth and Wastequip, and other invited guests, and “followed the food” through the San Francisco Bay Area, from the point at which fresh produce is brought into the city to the point where the compost made from food scraps brought back into the soil of a farm.

A worker unloads organic produce from the Central Valley at a food distribution center in SF

A worker unloads organic produce from the Central Valley at Earl’s Organic Produce, a food distribution center in SF. Photo by Lavinia Petrache

When fruits and vegetables first arrive in the Big City, their destination is usually someplace like Earl’s Organic Produce, our first stop of the day. Fresh produce arrives at Earl’s from farms in the Central Valley and beyond, and are consolidated to be shipped to grocers and restaurants throughout the Bay Area (as well as points as far afield as Truckee and Arcata). Earl’s not only helps bring produce to the people of the Bay, but they have also implemented very strong sustainability policies on site, including a comprehensive recycling and composting program that even ensures that latex gloves get recovered.

The following stops included taking a visit to a residence where Global Green USA has been working with tenants to implement food scrap recovery and gather data on how providing bins and bags improves diversion outcomes, the transfer station where those food scraps are brought by brought by garbage trucks to be loaded onto larger trucks bound for a compost facility, and finally to the Ricci Vineyards Carneros in Sonoma, where that compost is brought into the soil to be turned into world-class wine grapes.

Jon DiPiero of Ricci Vineyards shows us the acres of grape vines that have been fertilized with compost.

Jon DiPiero of Ricci Vineyards Carneros shows us the acres of grape vines that have been fertilized with compost containing food scraps from the East Bay. Closing the loop! Photo by Lavinia Petrache

One of the highlights of my day was standing in the sunny vineyard in the heart of beautiful Wine County, looking across acres of grape vines each surrounded by compost-amended soil, and hearing from the vineyard manager that the use of compost has reduced their fertilizer needs by 25%! Not only is this an environmental win, but our guide also said that it has meant significant costs savings for their growing operation. I’ll drink to that!

Stay tuned for more updates from the field, including our upcoming tour this June in New York City.

Conference Report: Presenting at the Northern California Recycling Association’s Annual Recycling Update

March 19th, 2015 by Lily Kelly No comments »
The Northern California Recycling Association facilitates coordination and collaboration among all thegroupd working on recycling and composting in the Bay Area.

The Northern California Recycling Association facilitates coordination among all the groups working on recycling and composting in the Bay Area.

In the San Francisco area, as you can imagine, there are a lot of different organizations at work to make our lives more sustainable, including increasing our recycling and food scrap recovery rates. Being part of a group like the Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA) helps me, and Global Green, stay informed of what other groups are doing, find new partners for projects, and make sure that our work is coordinated with the many efforts of other tireless environmental organizations and agencies.

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at my first NCRA conference, their annual Recycling Update event. It’s a fast-paced day of back-to-back 10-minute presentations, each from a speaker who is working on crucial pieces of the resource recovery puzzle in the Northern California region. I was asked to present the preliminary results from phase 1 of our work at multi-family buildings in Albany, CA, where we worked with CoRR members Bag to Earth and Orbis Corporation to determine the diversion improvements from distributing equipment to and training tenants one-on-one about how to divert their food scraps. The findings from this project will help city agencies and waste haulers to prioritize their efforts to implement low-contamination, high-participation food scrap recovery programs with residents of multi-family buildings.

The other presentations throughout the day were absolutely fascinating, especially if you are a total recycling and composting nerd, such as yours truly. We heard about the launch of Zero Waste USA, the upcoming Feeding the 5000 event to be held in New York City later this year (following on last year’s Feeding the 5000 Oakland event), the Mattress Bounty Hunters program in Oakland, and many other exciting events.

Afterward, we enjoyed a happy hour with donated beer from a local zero-waste brewery. I just love the Bay Area!

Zero Waste Pre-Oscar Party II: The Return of Recycling

February 26th, 2015 by Lily Kelly No comments »

Global Green USA always strives to “walk the talk,” and make sure our events are as green as possible. This year we continued our zero waste tradition for the second year in a row, in partnership with our Coalition for Resource Recovery members Athens Services and EcoSafe Zero Waste.


©Andrew Stuart 2015

Athens Services provides the waste hauling and sorting for many businesses and residences in Los Angeles, including the Avalon Hollywood – the swanky night spot where the Pre-Oscar Party was held. Athens uses a wet-dry system, meaning that they take food scraps and wet paper (usually napkins) in the “Wet Material” bin to be composted, and then take everything else, such as bottles, cans, dry paper, and plastics, in the “Dry Material” bin to be sorted into each type of recyclable material.


Classy EcoSafe Kitchen Caddy on the bar.

Classy EcoSafe Kitchen Caddy on the bar.

To help recover the food scraps, our member EcoSafe Zero Waste donated large compostable bags for the “wet materials” bins, as well as small bins and bags for the bar areas. These little bins ended up getting plenty of leftover lemon twists and martini olives – goes to show we had a good time! Since we were using almost all reusables at the event (china plates, glassware, metal utensils, etc.), most of the waste generated would end up as either rich soil amendment or as bales of metal, glass, or plastics that will be sent to processors and factories be turned into new products. We even used all real plants and reusable decorations for the interior of the event space to minimize waste from our beautiful setup.


From Left to Right: Les McCabe, GGUSA CEO, Oscar Winning artist Common, Bill Bridge of Global Green, and Scott Seydel, one of the founders of CoRR.

From Left to Right: Les McCabe, GGUSA CEO, Oscar Winning artist Common, Bill Bridge of Global Green, and Scott Seydel, one of the founders of CoRR.


I was glad to get the chance to work with Athens and the great staff at the Avalon Hollywood to make sure that, by the end of the night, everything was set for the Athens Services trucks’ early morning visit, when they come by and whisk the organics and recyclables away to their new life as valuable products.



Yours Truly (left) and Jessica Aldridge from CoRR Member  Athens Services (right).

Yours Truly (left) and Jessica Aldridge from CoRR Member Athens Services (right).

Follow That Box From Georgia to St. Louis

February 3rd, 2015 by Lily Kelly No comments »

For those of you who have been keeping up with our adventures in recyclable boxes, you know that we have tested FBA-certified water-resistant shipping boxes across the country – from California to the Mid-Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. For this past trip, we dove right into the heart of America, with a trip from South Georgia to the Midwest.

This past December, Global Green worked with one of the nation’s largest grocers, and therefore an influential purchaser, to test recyclable boxes that could be used by their suppliers across the country. The grocer operates over 1,300 locations, so if they decide to switch to 100% recyclable packaging that would make a tremendous impact.

To get things started I took a trip to the farming community of Moultrie, Georgia to test out some recyclable boxes with one of their major cabbage suppliers. We had arranged for our CoRR members, Green Bay Packaging and Interstate Container, to send samples of recyclable cabbage boxes to the facility, and I was headed down there to make sure the packing and shipping went smoothly, and to document whether the boxes got the job done.


Cabbage packed in a recyclable box, ready to be added to the pallet and shipped.

When I arrived at the packing shed on a warm, sunny, Southern winter day, the workers were packing box after unrecyclable, wax-coated box of cabbage to be shipped to grocery stores across the country. It’s one thing to hear that over 1.4 million tons of wax-coated cardboard boxes are used every year, but it still takes me by surprise to see the sheer volume of unrecyclable packaging being used at just one packing shed. Clearly, it was time to change things up a bit.

Once I had met up with the facility manager, we grabbed some of the recyclable cabbage boxes that had been shipped in a few days before and gave them to the cabbage packers, who filled them with up to 40 pounds of heavy cabbage heads and stacked them seven layers high on the pallets. Once the pallets were loaded onto the trucks, we watched them take off on their 750-mile trip to St. Louis, Missouri.

A lot of produce items, as well as meats and seafood, are typically packed in unrecyclable boxes coated with paraffin wax. In many cases the boxes are coated to prevent moisture from making the box soggy, but for cabbage the key lies in augmenting the strength of the box itself. An uncoated box would buckle from the pressure of the heavy cabbage heads stacked on top of it, as well as the inevitable moisture of the coolers and shipping containers. But a box with a coating would withstand the rough treatment, and a recyclable coating would mean that the grocer or restaurant receiving the cabbage could sell that box instead of losing money by paying to have it landfilled.


Lily Kelly (yours truly) taking a look at the boxes after they had arrived in St. Louis. They had survived the 750-mile trip unscathed!

Once the boxes arrived in St. Louis, they were unloaded at a distribution center outside the city. I had flown up the day before and met up with one of the leadership team members at the grocery store chain. We headed out early to take a look at the freshly unloaded boxes, and found that the boxes had survived the shipping process with no failures or product damage. The distribution center staff confirmed that they thought the boxes looked good, and many said they performed better than their unrecyclable wax-coated counterparts.

Now that we have been able to demonstrate that the boxes can handle the challenge of being shipped long distances with a heavy load, the next step will be helping more of these packing facilities switch over to 100% recyclable packaging. With the help of our grocer friends, we are embarking on that journey in 2015. Stay tuned for updates from the field!


Celebrity Carpet Recovery – A Pilot in Portland

January 21st, 2015 by Lily Kelly No comments »

The Portland Airport is the home to a very unusual local celebrity – 14 acres of green carpet with a colorful and distinctive geometric pattern. This recognizable carpet has in recent years become part of Portlanders’ homecoming rituals, with many folks taking pictures of their feet on the carpet when they first arrive at the airport. There are even t-shirts and socks for sale that feature the design. However, like all things, carpet doesn’t last forever, and this year the Port of Portland began the process of finding a recycler for their carpet (they plan to recycle 13 acres of it, and give out the last acre in small pieces as souvenirs to locals).

portland carpetAs one of their steps to success, they reached out to Global Green USA to ask us for help finding local recyclers to accept their carpet. We connected them to a few nearby companies who can turn the carpet into new products, and as of now they are choosing a recycler through an RFP process. Given how beloved the carpet is to the citizens of Portland, they have confidence that they will make every effort to ensure that it is recovered into new, valuable products.

But this problem is much bigger than one airport. According to the USEPA, over 3.5 million tons of carpet are manufactured in the US each year, but only 7.5% of this amount is recovered. When these millions of tons of carpet are discarded, it results in the emission of 8.5 million tons of greenhouse gasses, or equivalent to emissions from two coal-fired power plants. This also means that, for every ton of carpet that is recycled, you save 2.4 tons of CO2 equivalent. That’s a pretty good deal! However, carpet recycling is no easy task. For starters, there are multiple types of carpet available, some of which are more easily recycled than others. Additionally, carpet is often discarded as part of a larger demolition or renovation project, which means that contamination of the carpet by construction debris is common, and can hinder recycling.

So what can you do? Well, if you are planning to renovate your house, office, or other property, take a look at these resources provided by CalRecycle – they can give you the full picture of where to get your current carpet recycled, and how to choose a new carpet that can be easily recycled once it has reached the end of its useful life.

And as for Portland, their carpet is fortunately nylon 6.6, so they have high hopes that it will be recoverable into a variety of possible end-products, from padding for a new carpet installation to lumber for decking or railroads. The Port of Portland will be keeping Global Green in the loop as they choose a recycler for their airport’s beloved carpet, and we look forward to documenting its recycling and re-emergence of this legendary floor covering in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Next Steps: Establishing and Expanding Food Hubs for Food Deserts

January 20th, 2015 by Global Green USA No comments »

by Walker Wells, Lily Kelly and Gina Goodhill Rosen

Graphic by Tim Bevins

The following is the final installment of a three-part blog series summarizing the results of our research into the role that food hubs can play in neighborhood sustainability and the urban food network. The previous blogs can be found at Food Hubs Part II and Food Hubs Part I.

In our last installment, we explored some of the different forms that food hubs can take and the various services that they can provide to increase access to fresh foods for residents of food deserts. However, as we have mentioned, food hubs are not typically considered a standard tool to address the presence of food deserts, despite their effectiveness at supporting local food economies. Traditionally, food hubs have been considered a tool for providing services and support for small farmers in rural areas, not urban residents of food deserts. We believe that food hubs could be seen instead as part of a complete rural/urban food system, which could open up new sources of funding and support for their establishment and expansion.

UrbanFoodHub graphics blog 3In this post, we will explore some of the circumstances required for a food hub to be viable and effective, and propose a few next steps for policymakers and funders that could increase the prevalence of food hubs that serve food deserts. When we explored the forces at play concerning where food hubs locate, we approached the question from
a food hub operator’s perspective. What conditions and funding opportunities could make it beneficial to them, and in particular to their bottom line, to locate in a food desert?

Funding and Financing

Food hubs are typically funded through one of more of the following methods: federal government grants, philanthropic foundations, social impact investors, corporate sponsors, small business loans, and private sources of debt or equity. While these funding and financing sources may support the efforts of those already planning to expand or focus their market to underserved areas, it is not typically that there are either requirements or incentives for establishing food hubs that serve food deserts. Furthermore, there are often mismatches between the relatively modest amounts of funding that are needed to launch a food hub and the amount that can be obtained through the formal government programs. For example, New Market Tax Credits (NMTCs) have been used in several locations to finance healthy food businesses in low-income communities. But the vast majority of NMTC transactions exceed $5 million an amount of funding is more in line with what is needed for a medium-sized supermarket[1]. The complicated and expensive process required to apply for and receive NMTC funds makes applying for a smaller amount of funding impractical, thus excluding this option for many food hubs.

The inflexibility in funding can also be a challenge when trying to establish a multi-function food hub. For example storage and sorting areas are seen as an essential component of a food hub and would not be questioned in a funding request to purchase and renovate a building. But the inclusion of retail storefront or a teaching kitchen may be questioned, as they represent a different type of use, operation, and organizational capacity. Funders often need to be educated to understand how the features work together to be able to fully address issues of food access or how various partner organizations will work together to create an effective and stable long-term operation strategy.

Regulatory Compliance

Another challenge that food hub owners and operators face is compliance with food safety regulations, local zoning, and building codes. The extent of regulation varies depending on the type of food hub. Aggregation centers, for example, have relatively few regulations with which they must comply[2]. Processing centers, however, face a longer list of regulations. Regulations increases further if the facility includes food preparation, has a shared kitchen, or if food products are labeled as organic[3].

Currently, the FDA regulates most food handling through a uniform food code enforced by local health departments. At the very least, processing staff must obtain a food-handling certificate, such as Servsafe, and the facility will need liability insurance. According to the food hub operators interviewed by Global Green, zoning compliance is not typically difficult, as food hubs can be located in either commercial- or industrial-zoned areas. Access for trucks and providing sufficient space for storage, sorting, and distribution may be easier in industrial areas. But food hub models located in commercial area are better suited to include the small retail storefronts that can better serve food deserts.


Food hubs are an emerging tool for promoting community sustainability. We have a unique opportunity to shape the role they will play in our food system. Based on the stakeholder interviews and research conducted by Global Green, the following recommendations are offered as ways to increase the potential for food hubs to be a positive force in ameliorating the issues associated with food deserts.

  • Establish funding incentives . For-profit food hubs have an incentive to serve in upper-income markets and neighborhoods where they can get higher prices for their products. Incentives are needed for food hubs to serve or be located in low-income communities. Some government grants for urban food production do require that a specific percentage go towards projects serving low-income communities, but food deserts are not specifically identified. State and federal government grants should provide additional “bonus” funding for food hubs that specifically serve food deserts, in addition to the percentage of funding that’s already set aside for low-income communities.
  • Offer right-sized and flexible funding. NMTC funds, Department of Agriculture grants, and other sources of funding used by food hubs should recognize the amount of funds that are typically needed, reduce the cost and complexity of application, offer increased flexibility, and enable several food hub projects to be bundled together to increase funding and implementation efficiency.
  • Streamline permitting and regulatory enforcement. Cities and counties that have neighborhoods categorized as food deserts by the USDA should remove barriers that would discourage a food hub from being established in commercial or mixed use zones. Local governments should offer an expedited approval process or permit fee waivers to encourage food hubs to choose a food desert location. Health and food handling regulations should be clarified to address the specific types of storage, sorting, and distribution processes that are typical of food hubs.
  • Create a certification for food hubs that serve food deserts. Organic and Fair Trade certifications help growers validate their claims and increase sales. A certificate for food hubs that verifies the service to food deserts could provide multiple benefits. First the certification would be valuable when securing funding or financing. Charitable funders would likely look more positively toward a food hub that is specifically addressing food access concerns. This type of certification could also be used by the US Department of Treasury for defining preferred uses of New Market Tax Credits.

[1] Capital for Healthy Families & Communities. “Healthy Food Markets”. The Low Income Investment Fund.      n.d.. <>

[2] Ribley, Warren, Tim Lindsey, Tom Jennings, Jim Slama, et. al.. Building Successful Food Hubs. January 2012. pg. 9, 11, 19-22, 35 <>

[3] Ibid, page 35

The Future is Global Green: Reflection from CEO Les McCabe

October 29th, 2014 by Global Green USA No comments »

By Les McCabe, CEO

Recent attendance at three major “green” conferences, including SxSW-Eco, International Well Building Institute, and Greenbuild, served as a reminder that the future really is Green and that Global Green USA continues, after 20 years, to be a leader in demonstrating the best practices in Green Urbanism.   SxSW-Eco hosted an international audience of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and friends of the environment, who came together from a number of disciplines to form a catalytic action group determined to find solutions to today’s most pressing environmental problems. Conference themes included advocacy & policy, behavior & design, data & technology, business & finance, energy, food systems, health & education, land & water, and smart cities. Two weeks later, the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) took place in New Orleans. The Institute was created by Delos founder Paulo Scailla in 2013, following a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to improve the way people live by developing spaces that enhance occupant health and quality of life.  This led to the creation of the WELL Building Standard for buildings globally. Immediately following the IWBI meeting, Greenbuild (also in New Orleans), took place with over 25,000 attendees. This conference was decidedly more narrow and directed towards the global green building movement and better, healthier, places to live, work, and engage in the community.

Greenbuild Collage

Thought leaders at all of these events, including Paul Scalia, Laura Turner Seydel, Rick Fredrizzi, Paul Hawken, and Tom Steyer, among others, inspired and motivated those in attendance through their passionate and experienced perspectives on ways in which all of us in the environmental and sustainability arena can work together towards solutions to some of our most pressing problems, created by global climate change and nature’s response to the by-products of human economic development. As a new professional to these gatherings, it was rewarding to hear leaders in the field advocate for greater cooperation and resulting synergies from non-profits, like Global Green, that are working with others; capitalizing on each other’s strengths and experience in order to tackle major issues, as a collective, as opposed to attempting to do so on a smaller scale independent of one another.   While it is our desire at Global Green USA to be seen as the leader in Green Urbanism, in a number of key areas that we have recently identified in our 2015-2019 strategic plan, in order for us to be successful we must engage and collaborate with colleagues in the non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and for-profit corporate sectors; joining those who both support and demonstrate positive environmental affairs practices.

Perhaps what is most rewarding about attending these conferences isn’t necessarily the educational sessions or the speakers, but the networking with likeminded professionals, many of whom are well aware of the good work done by Global Green USA over the last 20 years, representing those who are anxious to engage in discussions regarding prospective partnerships.   It is through such partnerships and collaborative efforts that I believe Global Green USA will be enabled to be the most effective and preeminent NGO in the field of green urbanism and related. Likewise, it is rewarding to see our own well-respected professional staff, such as Walker Wells, presenting at Greenbuild while representing Global Green USA. Through the continuation and expansion of these collaborative efforts, I believe Global Green will continue to be at the forefront of the environmental and sustainability movement.

Green Cross Study Tour to Fukushima: Dealing with Long-Term Radiation and Refugees

October 23rd, 2014 by Paul Walker No comments »

I was fortunate to participate earlier this month in a study tour to Fukushima, Japan and the surrounding evacuation zones, organized by Green Cross Switzerland.  There were 35 of us from the US, Europe, and Asia, including several Swiss and other parliamentarians, and we were joined by our colleagues from Green Cross Japan.  Green Cross continues to be very involved in helping the large refugee populations surrounding both the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophes in the Ukraine and Japan respectively.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on Japan Coastal Cleanup2 (Duncan)March 11, 2011 was catalyzed by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami which hit the east coast of Japan.  Three of the six nuclear power reactors (Units 1, 2 & 3) at the Daiichi site experienced severe damage, what some would call a nuclear meltdown, and released hydrogen and radioactive materials in massive explosions and fires.  Reactor Unit 4, which was shut down and undergoing maintenance at the time, did not melt down but lost cooling water for its large spent nuclear fuel pool which ignited shortly thereafter, also spewing radiation from its 1,500 nuclear fuel rods.

Over three and a half years later, this nuclear catastrophe continues to threaten a large portion of Japan and its inhabitants.  Some 160,000 Japanese citizens remain evacuated from an area of over 47,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles), about the size of Massachusetts and Vermont combined.  Radiation must still be carefully measured and monitored throughout this region, and we were all surprised to see solar-powered highway displays for real-time radiation readings, different from the typical speed readings along US highways.

Japan Family Meeting GC Club Koriyama (Duncan)The study group was able to visit with families who have been evacuated from this region, all wondering if they’ll ever be able to return to their homes.  When they evacuated over 43 months ago they had to leave everything behind – houses, clothes, furniture, and cars.  Because all of these things are suspected of being too radioactive, they may never be able to recover any of their personal belongings left behind.  Our dosimeters and Geiger counters continued to display higher-than-normal radiation readings well over twenty kilometers away from the reactors, and we had to leave a few “hot spots” when readings spiked.  We were told that the radiation readings were about 3 microsieverts/hour Japan Radiation Monitor (Duncan)shortly after the accident, but were now reduced by about 50%.  The readings we saw were in the 0.2-0.5 microsieverts/hour; very low but still a serious risk if one were to live full-time in the evacuated and irradiated area.

These evacuated families are continuing to live in tiny trailers set up by the Japanese government in cities such as Koriyama, over fifty kilometers from the Daiichi reactors in the Fukushima Prefecture, and about a 3-hour drive north of Tokyo.  A city of some 300,000 people, Koriyama still advertises itself as a city in “harmony between people and environment” and one “full of frontier spirit.”  However, since the March 2011 nuclear disaster, most evacuees refuse to allow their children to play outside, given the ongoing elevated radiation readings, so the city has now developed large indoor playgrounds to allow children to exercise.  While some of these concerns about the long-term impact of low-level radiation may be unfounded, many Japanese remain very distressed about the largely unknown health consequences of radiation and are reluctant to return home, should parts of the evacuation zones be re-opened in the future.  The 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed an estimated 15,900 people, and there are still 2,600 missing persons.  Thyroid cancer, especially among children, has also spiked, far above prior estimates, and a recent Japanese government report estimates that physical losses will total over $200 billion.  This will no doubt mean that almost one-eighth of Japan’s territory may take decades or centuries to recover from the 2011 catastrophe.

Japan Hot Zone Gates (Duncan)

A nuclear engineer who used to work with General Electric, Tepco, and Toshiba on boiling water reactors and lived a few kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi site warned that radiation remained very high in Daiichi reactors 1-3 which suffered meltdowns, and there still remain enormous challenges about how best to clean the site, dispose of radioactive water, and cool down the fuel bundles.  He also worried about the vulnerability of the Daiichi reactors and fuel pools to future typhoons, tsunamis, and other possible disasters that could still further exacerbate the current dangerous situation.  He added that fish remain contaminated at least within an 80 kilometer radius, and that it will take at least three decades just to remove the nuclear fuel from the site.  Everywhere we looked in the evacuated zone, we could see hundreds of large plastic bags of contaminated debris, including soil and vegetation, which no one yet knows how to handle or store for the longer term.

Our few days spent in Japan this month have been a sobering experience about the dangers and costs of nuclear power, the enormous and long-term socio-economic and humanitarian impacts of the nuclear fallout from the reactor meltdowns, and the unknown public health risks to millions of Japanese citizens.  As one citizen commented, “we never imagined that radiation would reach us, some 58 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, falling like snow in Koriyama City.  But it did, and we never want to see another nuclear power plant operating in Japan.”

Images by Jeff Duncan