2011: The Year in EcoMyths

by Katie Casas, Director of Public Outreach, EcoMyths Alliance

We hope you have enjoyed our environmental myth-busting this year as much as we have! As we celebrate the beginning of 2012, here are the highlights of 2011’s EcoMyths:

  • Myth: The Chicago River is Mostly Toilet Water. The Chicago River is famously known for being green…as in the color green. Thousands of people flock to the Chicago River every St. Patrick’s Day to watch and marvel. But although it’s certainly green in color, how green is it in terms of its cleanliness? The short answer: it’s getting cleaner every day. The river is home to an increasing amount of fauna (birds, fish, beavers, etc.) as well as people who are once again enjoying its serenity and views. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD)‘s seven sewage treatment plants are continuing to help. Not so fortunately, 70 percent of the river’s water comes from sewage treatment plants. MRWD processes 1.4 billion gallons per day, but it only utilizes two of the three processing steps typically used to clean water. This means that while most organic material is filtered out, the water is not yet disinfected by the time it’s put back into the river. This summer the MWRD voted to begin disinfection of its treated wastewater, but first they have to raise money and build the disinfection facilities. Once this is done, the river should be safe enough for swimming…eventually.

Speaking of the MWRD and their deep tunnels, there’s something else you may find in dark places…bats. 

  • Myth: Bats are Dangerous to Humans. “I vant to suck your blood.” That quote may summarize how a South American vampire bat feels, but North American bats crave a sweeter, fruitier nectar. Here we often see bats around dusk, jetting around back and forth. But what you may not know is that we ought to thank them, not fear them. Bats are important pollinators. When they eat, they help disperse seeds across open areas, thus assisting with reforestation. What’s more, they also consume approximately 3,000 insects per night. That’s lowering the chance for nagging mosquito bites or worse—the West Nile Virus. Besides getting a bum rap (they’re actually quite furry and cute creatures), they’re also experiencing an illness that is killing bats in a plague-like fashion (some populations are being wiped out entirely). The white-nose syndrome is a fungus that’s true to its description. While it poses no risk to humans, it’s deadly to bats. You can inform yourself by hearing the “Bat Chat” offered at Brookfield Zoo or getting involved in bat conservation efforts. You can also encourage bats to move in to your neighborhood and eat your mosquitoes by installing a bat box on a tree near you. Most of all, remember: bats are friends.

We’ve established that fruit bats like fruit. So I bet they like apples then.

  • Myth: An Apple A Day Keeps the Doctor Away. Oh, that apple may provide Vitamin C, but what else may it be supplying you with? Care for a side of insect repellent? Well, unless it’s organic, that’s exactly what you may be consuming. According to the Environmental Group’s Dirty Dozen list, apples are the number one offender. Even after washing your prized apple, there’s still pesticide residue. Luckily good old organic saves the day. Or does it? Yes, organic apples are healthier due to the fact that you won’t find any pesticides on them, but if we’ve learned anything about the environment, more than one factor must be weighed to determine a “greener” choice, since everything is interconnected. Unfortunately for those of us in Illinois, buying local organic apples can be tough. Local farmers must contend with our climate, fungus, bacterial issues, and the natural variations in pest and predation every year, a combination of factors that means there just aren’t many certified organic apples to buy from Illinois. Thus, if you buy organic apples, enjoy them, but tread lightly because those apples probably have an additional carbon footprint thanks to being shipped in from out-of-state. On the bright side, Illinois farmers can produce multiple varieties of delicious organic pears, a fruit not too dissimilar from apples, in taste and nutrition.

Organic apples may not be readily available in Illinois, but there is one thing that is: Christmas trees.

  • Myth: Fake Trees Are the Eco-Friendly ChoiceOh, [real or fake] Christmas tree, oh [real or fake] Christmas tree…” Inquiring minds want to know: which choice is more eco-friendly? When we tackled this myth in December, we took the approach that like the apples, more variables must be considered than the product itself. Real trees add nostalgia, and represent a renewable resource that grows back. Real trees don’t generally wind up in landfills, thanks to community pick-up programs. On the other hand, fake trees do not require the cutting down of a living tree, and can be reused year after year. But, the carcinogenic-laden fake trees are manufactured in China, requiring quite a bit of energy and fuel. And while they can be reused, most are not made of recyclable materials. According to Ellipsos, you would need to reuse that fake tree for about 20 years to even out the carbon footprint benefits of celebrating with a real tree. With that knowledge in hand, we’d like to point out how lucky we are to be living in Illinois because it means we have easy access to some wonderful local Christmas trees. And besides, real trees provide hands-on experience to inform you of the difference between fir, pine, and spruce trees (you’ll never forget the difference between a harsh prickle and a soft brush!).

If you’re going to buy a real Christmas tree, why not make an adventure out of it and cut it down yourself? That’s just one of many ways to get outside during the dark days of winter, an activity that is more important and healthier than most of us realize.

  • Myth: Getting Outside Is Fun but Not Fundamental. Winter may be the hardest time of the year to get outside. It’s cold, it’s windy, and it’s harsh. All this means that there’s all the more reason to bundle up and get out in the snow. Getting outside aids not only in our physical health but our mental health too, especially in the winter months. We feel more connected to nature simply by seeing it, so imagine if we’re actually out in it. Ever feel the winter-time blues? Studies have proven that patients in hospitals, students, and workers feel more positive when exposed to a greenscape. So indulge a little and take little moments to enjoy and explore nature. You’ll find a long list of events you can attend outdoors here in Illinois this winter on our events page, including eagle watching, snowshoe-making, naturalist-guided hikes and many other ways to enjoy the outdoors even as the snow begins to fall.

Best wishes for a wonderful–and green–2012, from all of us at EcoMyths!

Katie Casas is the Director of Public Outreach for EcoMyths Alliance.