Zero Waste Life

By Claire Matheison

When was the last time you threw something in the trash? This morning? Last night? Disposing of unwanted items is such a common part of what we do that it’s likely you don’t even remember. It seems impossible to avoid having to throw things away; coffee cups, candy bar wrappers, and Styrofoam packaging work their way into our lives on a daily basis and must be discarded somehow. However, although becoming waste free is certainly difficult, it’s not impossible. Béa Johnson and her family have been maintaining a “zero waste” lifestyle in their Mill Valley, California home for several years now, and only throw out two handfuls of garbage each year.

A few years ago, the Johnsons decided to simplify their lives by getting rid of the majority of their existing material possessions and resolving to make new purchases in such a way that they would have little to no waste left over to discard. When garbage trucks swing by their house each week, they remove a large bin of compostable organic material and a small container of recyclables, but no actual garbage. The Johnsons manage this by bringing their own containers when they shop for food and buying in bulk to avoid packaging. They use cloths in place of paper towels, buy refillable shampoo and soap, and have stocked their home with many multipurpose items, such as a cheese grater that can double as a zester and a sofa that becomes a bed. When it comes to gift giving, they value experiences over things, buying ski passes and gift cards to ice cream stores instead of toys and gadgets. For clothes, Béa shops at thrift stores and keeps her purchases to a minimum, maintaining a simple wardrobe. One essential practice in the Johnson household that goes beyond the cliché of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is refusal. Although avoiding unnecessary disposable packaging in today’s material world is about as easy as avoiding taxis in Manhattan, the Johnsons make a point of resisting the norm by refusing extra packaging.

While the Johnson’s lifestyle is extreme, it can act as an inspiration for those who are interested in modifying their behavior in a manageable way. There are simple ways to cut down on everyday unnecessary waste that people are already familiar with – bringing travel mugs to Starbucks and drinking from reusable water bottles, for example – but we can also make an effort to shop consciously, choosing the products with the least packaging, buying used items such as clothes and dishes when possible, and bringing reusable bags to the store. It’s important to erase the notion of “away” in “throw away,” for garbage doesn’t just vanish but ends up in landfills, which take up space and pollute the environment. Not everyone can emulate the Johnsons, but we can all use their lifestyle as an example to aspire to by gradually reducing the influence of waste on our own lives and on the planet.

Check out Béa’s blog,, for more ideas.

Claire is a junior at Barnard and Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of The Zero Waste Home.


Turning Awareness into Action: Barnard’s “Environmental Leadership, Ethics and Action” class

By Claire Mathieson

Setting the stage.

It has been a whirlwind semester for the twelve students in the interdisciplinary Science and Public Policy  program’s Environmental Leadership, Ethics, and Action class. On Wednesday December 7th they presented their Green Action Projects at the panel “Awareness into Action II: Speaking Out on the Environment.” Professor Diane Dittrick of Barnard’s Environmental Science department asked the students to spend the semester pursuing an environmental passion and become an expert on it, keeping weekly blogs along the way. Assisted by environmental journalist Katherine Bagley, the students learned how to write professional blog posts, the best of which were published on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s blog On Earth. Wednesday night was the culmination of their work, when they finally showed the semester’s results to the public.

The topics varied from one end of the environmental spectrum to the other, with short presentations on community gardens, composting, hydrofracking, the collapse of bee colonies and coral reefs, biomimicry, eating sustainably, environmental art, the overharvesting of medicinal plants, the degradation of the Tibetan grasslands, social justice in communities devastated by oil extraction, and conflict minerals in the Congo.

Students present their work.

Throughout the semester, the students had researched their topics and performed the journalistic aspects of the course (such as interviews) on their own. In class, they delved into environmental literature, discussing and debating leadership and ethics through a green lens, led by Professor Dittrick and Professor Randall Balmer of the Religion department. Each student had a different background when it came to the environment and majors varied from Environmental Science and Chemistry to Spanish and Anthropology. Drawing on models like Majora Carter and John Francis, students were encouraged to find the vision and the drive within themselves to become leaders in the environmental movement.

Professor Dittrick, who had taught the class only once before, was extremely pleased with each student’s results and declared the panel a success. After the presentations, the students opened the floor for questions, encouraging other Barnard students and members of the community to join in on the same discussions that they have been having weekly throughout the semester. Despite the heavy nature of many of the topics, there was an air of lightness in the room as the evening came to a close. After months of hard work, each student had fulfilled what she had set out to do: encourage action through heightened awareness.

Claire is a junior at Barnard and Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing. She was in the Environmental Leadership, Ethics and Action class this semester.

Your Local Glacier Walk

By Claire Mathieson

Glacial striations in Central Park

Winter is on its way in and the city is getting progressively chillier, but you should be thankful it’s not much worse; Manhattan is nowhere near as cold now as it once was. Just 20,000 years ago (mere seconds in geologic time), Manhattan was covered in a sheet of ice a mile thick. During the most recent Ice Age, which lasted from about 95,000 years ago to 20,000 years ago, the Laurentide ice sheet covered over 5 million square miles of North America, spreading from the Arctic over much of Canada and the northern United States. New York City was right on its margin and, while fortunately for us the glacier itself has long since melted, there is still a great deal of evidence of its presence right here in Manhattan.

Glacial erratics in Central Park (a.k.a. those awesome
climbing rocks when you were younger)

Today, Central Park is rife with joggers, tourists, and yappy dogs, but the large rocks that protrude all over the park date way back to when Manhattan was under a glacier. For those of you who never took earth science, glaciers are vast ice sheets that form when more snow falls during the winter, then melts during the summer over a period of many years. Glaciers move, slowly but surely, and as they do, they “pluck” rocks from the Earth, dragging them along with them. These rocks scrape against the ground, creating striations like the ones seen in Central Park. Sometimes, these rocks are left behind by the glacier and stand in place where they are left. They are then known as glacial erratics and are often composed of a type of rock that is not common to the region, as they have been moved long distances by the glacier. Central Park has some extremely impressive striations and glacial erratics that are obvious enough to see on your morning walk. To see evidence even closer to home, head over to Morningside Park, which has its own share of striations.

Many of the striations show up in Manhattan schist, a type of rock extremely common to the area.Manhattan schist was created millions of years ago, when underwater landslides and the shifting of plate tectonics caused land masses in North America to compress like an accordion, shunting it both upwards into tall mountains and downwards into the Earth. This caused the formation of a kind of reverse mountain range, which was unseen, but massive. Due to intense temperature and pressure brought on by being jammed deep into the Earth, schist gradually formed from specific types of sedimentary rock.

Over millions of years the schist grew closer to the surface as the land over it eroded, and it became bare to the world by the time the glacier came along. The glaciers dragged boulders over the schist, which shapes much of the topography we know today. Even Long Island is a product of the glacier, known as a terminal moraine, formed when the glacier began to retreat and left a pile of sediments in its wake.

It’s easy to think of Manhattan as a formation of steel, glass, and neon, but in reality the island has spent longer beneath an icy monolith than it has playing host to the American civilization. You don’t have to worry about a glacier plowing through the city any time soon, but as the gentle reminder of winter rolls in, take a moment to think on the region’s past, when nature reigned and the only thing in vogue was polar white.

Claire is a junior at Barnard and Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing. She is studying Environmental Science.

Photos courtesy of Glaciers Online, Microecos and Sarah Lipkis.

In the Land of Fire and Ice: Barnard Environmental Science student explores Iceland

Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon

By Claire Mathieson

The smoking lava field, Fimmvörðuhál

This year, back-to-school for me didn’t mean buying textbooks and finding classrooms, but packing hiking boots and rain gear for my flight to Reykjavik, Iceland. I had been lucky enough the semester before to overhear one of my Solid Earth professors saying that there was room on Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) graduate trip to Iceland, and asked her if it would be possible for me to join. Less than an hour later, Bill Menke, the professor who would lead the trip, pulled out a well-loved geological map of the country and went over the group’s route – from that moment, I was on my way.

The trip was largely organized by a pair of graduate students and, though not for credit, was meant to give students a chance to experience certain aspects of the geological world we study firsthand. Our group was made up of thirteen people in all, including Professor Menke and four guests, and though I was the only undergraduate in the program, everyone came from different programs and backgrounds and brought something unique to the trip, so I didn’t feel left out at all. Upon landing, we went straight from the Keflavík airport to a rainy spot on the Reykjanes peninsula, where we got our first up-close look at the basalt that makes up the volcanic island nation. We then moved on to what turned out to be a trip highlight for many- the famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa southwest of Reykjavik known for its steaming opal surface and its healing properties. After a talk on monitoring Iceland’s thirty volcanic systems from Páll Einarsson, a professor of geophysics at the University of Iceland, we retired to our campsite, which looked out on the capital. From there we made a gradual circle around the country, visiting a geothermal power plant and carbon dioxide sequestration site (where carbon dioxide is stored in reservoirs, rather than accumulating in the atmosphere) east of Reykjavik, then staying at Þingvellir, home to Iceland’s ancient parliament.


Next, it was on to Geysir and its centerpiece Strokkur, which explodes every few minutes, and then Gullfoss, a monstrous waterfall whose flow changes direction halfway through its drop. The most memorable day for many started at 7:30 AM in our picturesque campsite in Skógar (complete with towering waterfall) and ended at 6:30 PM at a remote point 25 kilometers away. Throughout our trek we passed through vibrant pasturelands draped in myriad waterfalls and dotted with sheep, barren hills of sand and ice, the smoking lava field, Fimmvörðuháls, which erupted last year as a precursor to the air traffic nightmare Eyjafjallajökull (which after days of practice I finally managed to pronounce: aja-fyat-la-jo-kutl) , and a magnificent panorama of steep dark slopes tinged green and cut through with glacial rivers. We were rewarded with a glimpse of the site off of which Tolkien based the Black Gate of Mordor, and learned that Iceland, not New Zealand, had inspired the author to create Middle Earth.

Icelandic sheep. So chill.

As we continued to drive around the country, we hiked a glacier, jumping crevasses; visited Jökulsárlón, the iceberg-studded glacial lagoon featured in the James Bond films and Batman Begins; and stayed in Mývatn, a town on a beautiful lake neighboring the volcano Krafla. Mývatn’s only drawback was its wildly successful colony of midges (similar to gnats or mosquitos) whose sole purpose in life is to bother humans, usually by flying at their eyes and into their noses and mouths. From Mývatn in the northeast we drove southwest to Reykjavik and spent a free day in the city, visiting its famous church and a variety of museums, and admiring the impressive street art, which included everything from murals and collages of glass shards to intricately yarn-bombed trees. Finally, ten days after our arrival, we took down our tents and boarded our bus for the last time. As I gazed out the window of the plane to catch my last glimpse of Iceland, I couldn’t help wishing that Hurricane Irene had come late enough to delay our flight home for a few days. As much as I knew I needed to return to class at Barnard, a part of me felt that my time with DEES in Iceland had been more worthwhile than any college course.

The group on a glacier hike (Claire, first on the left)
Photo courtesy of Bill Menke

Claire is a junior at Barnard College. She is majoring in Environmental Science and is Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.