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Google's Top 10 Environmental Topics of 2011

As 2011 comes to close, Google has embarked on its annual exploration of the biggest news, trends and events that captured our attention and sparked our curiosity throughout the year. With Zeitgeist 2011, Google provides a visual analysis of how the world searched, including Top 10 lists of the most popular queries in a variety of different categories. If you've never poked around the Zeitgeist website I highly recommend doing so. It's a fun way to learn about what people are talking about around the globe.

In my exploration of the Zeitgeist topic lists, I was surprised to learn that all of the Top 10 most Googled environmental topics were actually questions. So, here are answers to those ten burning questions about the environment that have been plaguing the Google-verse this year.

1.  How do you compost?

If your town doesn't have a compost pick-up program, check with your local municipality to see if they provide bins or classes to help residents compost on their own. If you have some outdoor space you can separate out all your scraps (minus meats and citrus) and throw them in a compost bin. Worm composting - also known as vermicomposting - is great for smaller spaces and is an easy way to speed up the compost process, producing a rich fertilizer for your plants or garden. It may seem gross at first but I can assure you, those little guys work hard and your plants will love you for it. And if the whole process just seems like too much for you, there are businesses like Compost Cab that will collect the compost for you for a small fee.

2.  What is vegan?

Vegans are people who, for a variety of different reasons, choose not to use or consume animal products. Unlike vegetarians who won't eat meat but will usually eat other foods that come from animals, vegans do not eat milk, butter, eggs or any other animal derived products. Many vegans also go a step further by avoiding the purchase of any type of animal product - like leather, for example - for any purpose.

3.  What causes earthquakes?

Earthquakes are caused by the movement of the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the Earth. These plates are in constant slow motion as they respond to rock that's flowing deep within the Earth. Earthquakes generally happen at faults - areas where the edges of these plates rub together. As the plates stick and push against each other, tension builds up. Eventually, when the rock at the edges of the plates can't withstand any more strain, the rock breaks. The shaking that results is the earthquake. Although most Earthquakes happen this way, there is evidence that man-made earthquakes are possible as well.

4.  Is fish meat?

This issue is not completely cut and dry. If you use a biological definition of meat as a protein that comes from an animal, then the answer is yes. However, the dietary rules of some religions separate fish from other types of meat. The USDA groups fish, red meat, poultry, beans and peas into a protein food group. And Pescatarians choose to eat fish but not other types of meat. Bottom line, the distinction really depends on the definition of meat you choose to use.

5.  What is an LED?

LED stands for light-emitting diode. These impressive little lights are found in tons of different applications and devices. They produce the numbers in your digital clock, transmit information from your remote control, light up your watch, and tell you when your toaster is on. Unlike ordinary incandescent bulbs which use a filament that can burn out, LEDs are illuminated by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material. LEDs generally cost more than incandescents or CFLs but they use less energy and last significantly longer. Last year Philips unveiled the first LED replacement for the common household bulb which is gaining in popularity.

6.  How do you dispose of paint?

According to the EPA, homeowners in the US throw out 64 million gallons of paint per year. Oil-based paints are considered Hazardous Household Waste (HHW) and must be disposed of properly. Many states have special HHW collection days or disposal facilities that accept these types of wastes. You can search for a facility in your area on Earth911.com. Latex paints are not hazardous waste and may be able to be recycled. The Product Stewardship Initiative has been working with some states to develop legislation that would require paint manufacturers to collect leftover paint for post-consumer use. If this program hasn't yet reached your state, consider asking your local paint retailer to help you repurpose your paint. And if all else fails, turn your latex paint into solid waste by opening the can and letting it sit outside to dry up before throwing it away.

7.  What is deforestation?

Deforestation is a global issue that involves clearing of the Earth's forests on a massive scale. According to the World Resources Institute, more than 80 percent of the Earth’s natural forests have already been destroyed. The biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture. Farmers cut down forests to plant crops or graze livestock. Deforestation degrades the quality of the land, destroys wildlife habitat and drives climate change. At the current rate of deforestation, the world's rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years. However, there are some creative economic tools being developed that are aimed at promoting conservation by putting a value on forests.

8.  What is fracking?

Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from the ground by injecting water and chemicals into deep wells at high pressure. The process breaks apart the underground rock, releasing the gas so that it can be captured. Some argue that fracking can address the need for a cleaner source of domestic energy by providing an alternative to oil and coal. However, there is mounting evidence of the negative impacts that fracking has on the groundwater, given that the hazardous chemicals used are exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. There is also concern that fracking can cause earthquakes-one firm even admitted this.

9.  What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint measures the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced by the activities of a person, household or business within a specified timeframe. There are several different types of greenhouse gases but the footprint is usually expressed in tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The Nature Conservancy has a carbon footprint calculator that can estimate the emissions associated with how you eat, travel, and use electricity. Many companies use the World Resources Institute's Greenhouse Gas Protocol to measure, manage and report the greenhouse gas emissions produced from their operations. New legislation in the US will soon require some businesses to report this information to the EPA.

10.  Is Styrofoam recyclable?

Styrofoam - also know as expanded polystyrene or EPS - takes 500 years to biodegrade. The technology to recycle EPS exists, but most communities do not accept styrofoam in their curbside recycling programs. As a result, most styrofoam ends up in landfills where, along with other plastics, it takes up between 25 and 30 percent of the space. The good news is that there are many perfectly good biodegradable alternatives to styrofoam packing peanuts and food containers. Many municipalities have banned the use of styrofoam food containers and California is even moving to do the same statewide.

[Image Credit: Florian Lauck, Flickr]


Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.

Kara Scharwath

Kara is a corporate social responsibility professional and marketing consultant with expertise in consumer research and environmental science. Currently, Kara is working as a Graduate Associate on the <a href="http://corporate.disney.go.com/citizenship2010/">Corporate Citizenship</a> team at the Walt Disney Company. She is also a founding partner of <a href=http://besui.com/">BeSui Consulting</a>, a boutique marketing consulting firm specializing in consumer insights and marketing communications.

Kara graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in <a href="http://admissions.rutgers.edu/Academics/AcademicContent.aspx?CAMPUS=New… Policy, Institutions and Behaviors</a>. She is currently pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management from <a href'"http://www.presidioedu.org/">Presidio Graduate School</a> where she is exploring the impact investing space and working to identify new ways to increase access to capital for start-ups and social ventures. Follow her on Twitter <a href="http://twitter.com/karameredith">@karameredith</a&gt;.

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