Winners of the Ecological Footprint Blog Competition

The UST Sustaining Students blog aims to provide students with an outlet to share opinions and research findings on a variety of topics related to sustainability. This blog is a sister blog to the sUSTain blog, a faculty run blog with a similar goal. Any students with a passion for sustainability are invited to submit pieces to the editors and work in revisions in order to get their ideas published.

Below, we present posts from a sophomore level class in the Biology Department, BIOL 209 – the Biology of Sustainability. The posts came from a lab in which students were asked to calculate the amount of three important elements: carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus that flow into and out of their households, and to compare those fluxes to those of other Twin Cities residents. The flux calculator was an offshoot of the Twin Cities Household Ecosystem Project, described in a recent paper by University of Minnesota researcher Cinzia Fissore and colleagues. Students were then asked to write a blog post about their findings. We received about 140 entries for the competition. Below we present the grand champion post by Margaret (Meg) Thompson, and three runner-up posts (by Jacob Jerrard, Michael Chmielewski, and Fallon Macemon). Honorable mentions were by Marissa Peine, Hannah Dahl, Jacob Geraghty, and Casey Nightingale. Congratulations to the winners, and thanks to everyone for participating.

Grand Champion!

“Living the Dream”

 by Margaret Thompson

When most people describe their ultimate goal in life, they use words like “success”, “money”, “happiness”, and maybe even “huge”, “luxurious”, or “extravagant.” But how many people would say the American dream is living in a modest-sized, economically viable and environmentally sustainable house causing no more environmental impact than they need to survive?

I certainly wouldn’t. Although I consider myself more eco-friendly than your average Cheetoh-chomping American teenager, with my organic granola and recycled paper notebooks, I realized there’s a lot more I could be doing. I took the Household Flux Calculator (HFC) test to quantify my impact on the carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. Not surprisingly, my outputs are significantly lower than the average person’s. As a college student, my lifestyle is a lot simpler than that of most adults, but what if I had the resources and time and energy to live as my comfort zone dictates? In some sense, the fact that I’m a poor college kid forces me to have a less than average flux. I can’t afford a larger apartment, more processed foods, or a car.

But if I could afford them, I would have them, and maybe that’s the problem. In lecture we’ve come across several papers stressing the importance of a drastic shift in society’s attitude towards sustainability, rather than just development of new technologies or enforcing certain policies. One paper insists upon a radical redesign of the food system to control the extreme phosphorus pollution we are facing in our waterways, and after seeing my results of the HFC, I saw how much phosphorus waste my own food habits generate. I began to think about what little things I could do to reduce my impact in that area.

According to a report studying the lifestyles of Twin Cities residents, certain households have a disproportionate effect on the environment, contributing much more C, N, and P than the majority of households and much more than they need to survive. This disproportionality indicates the attitudes that have driven overconsumption and excessive lifestyles for many years, and despite some really great initiatives, there’s so much more work to be done. You could say we need to have an attitude of constant vigilance. But I prefer to take on a position of constant optimism. If we really want to live sustainably, we have to start believing that what we do every day really can make a difference. Even as a poor college kid, my choices can do some good for the earth. For my part, I’m definitely going to be more conscientious about the food I buy, and composting, recycling, and reusing what I can, wasting only what I need to. But I’m also going to think about my lifestyle choices in a broader sense, and try to consider success in a new way. There needs to be a new American dream, and this time its colors are red, white, blue, and green.

1st runner up

“Island life”

by Jacob Jerrard


Island life.

Items you use must be brought across the water from far off lands, and the waste you are left with must be managed responsibly. You choose what comes in and you choose what comes out, but if you do not find a way to manage these “fluxuations” of resources, you’ll not only ruin your island, but your neighboring islands as well!

Our individual households are like islands, and unfortunately, the resources available to us are limited. Resources must be imported. We bring phosphorous and nitrogen to our islands mainly in the form of food and fertilizer, and output it through waste, wastewater and to the landfill. Transportation and machines utilize nitrogen and carbon and these resources leave our islands through nitrogen oxide and CO2 gas. Our islands are in a constant state of flux as these resources flow in and out. Close attention must be paid to your island’s outputs, because if left unchecked, the surrounding island community may suffer.

And this is exactly what is happening in our very own residential communities today.

The Twin Cities Household Ecosystem Project quantified the average amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon imported and exported by households in Anoka and Ramsey counties, in Minnesota. After crunching some data, it was revealed that a relatively large amount of households showed below average consumption and export, while only a small amount of households contributed largely to the overall export levels. In other words, a few irresponsible islands are tainting the surrounding waters.

The project developed a calculator where people can determine individual household resource fluxes. I spent a mere fifteen minutes entering my family’s household variables and was instantly gratified with insight into my family’s resource usage.

My family’s carbon emission was about 2157 kg a year, which was only a third of the carbon an average household outputs. Considering a main source of carbon output arises from transportation, and that my family rarely drives and does not use air travel, I don’t find this low value surprising. My family tries to only use the air conditioner when absolutely necessary in the summer, and in the winter, the thermostat stays put at a lovely 68 degrees Celsius, which really cuts down our fossil fuel energy consumption (and saves some money on the electric bill to boot!).

For nitrogen and phosphorous, my family used a little more than the average household in both categories. There’s a crazy amount of nitrogen and prosperous the food we eat (75% of a household’s nitrogen output and 60% of a household’s phosphorous output comes from human and pet food!). Meats are full of these elements and unfortunately my family is full of meat eaters. To make matters worse, our numbers were probably higher considering we have two fluffy cats that always seem to be hungry. My family could easily bring our numbers down if we could simply switch to a less meat intensive diet.

All in all, manage your island’s resources responsibly… or else you’ll find yourself stranded in some stormy waters.

2nd runner up – tie

“Green: Just a Color”

by Michael Chmielewski


I like to think that I live in my own little “green,” eco-friendly world. I would even somewhat confidently label my lifestyle choices as “sustainable.” I try to recycle, don’t leave the water running when I’m shaving in the morning, and usually choose to bike when given the option or driving a relatively short distance. Usually.

How often do we as American citizens use the words “green” and “sustainable” interchangeably? Many would argue that the two words are equivalent. Yet according to a recent paper by Joseph R. Burger and colleagues, the two terms “green” and “sustainable” do not carry the same meaning.

Take Portland, Oregon. This metropolitan area is considered to be the “greenest” city in the United States. Portland has outstanding bike paths, obtains 8% of its power from hydroelectric sources, and offers citizens a healthy lifestyle. But consider this: if Portland were to be barricaded from all outside sources, how sustainable would it be? Annually, Portland consumes 1.25 billion liters of gasoline, 28.8 billion megajoules of natural gas, and 31.1 megajoules of electricity. In comparison with other large metropolitan areas in the United States, it ranks about average in carbon footprint. In other words, Portland may be considered “green,” but by what standard? Definitely not in terms of sustainability.

But before we go pointing fingers at Portland, what about ourselves? I recently took a Resource Flow Calculator survey to determine my household’s carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus flux levels. Honestly, I do have to say that I was a little surprised at the results, especially in regard to nitrogen and phosphorus flux levels. Our carbon footprint was understandably low (below average), given the relatively low amount of air travel and the decent amount of automobile travel. Something surprising was that the automobile travel between three cars contributed significantly greater than any other factor to the carbon footprint: 2954 kg C of 4727 kg C total (over 62%).

Another surprising element of the survey was the incredible amount of nitrogen represented in my diet (which consists of meat, fruits, and vegetables). I had always laughed at those who douse their meticulously manicured, artificially green lawns with nitrogen fertilizer on a seemingly daily basis. Apparently diet is also a major contributor to nitrogen fluxes.

Finally, my phosphorus levels were way off the charts (much higher than average). The main contributors to this value were my diet (again) and wastewater. I guess that I should try shaving without water from now on…

But is that what it’s really all about, just cutting back? It is certainly part of the cure. Yet I believe that there is more than meets the eye behind transitioning from a “green” mindset to one that can be determined “sustainable.” Approaching sustainability will take a change in standards, a change in thought. It may not be possible to make a noticeable difference by living more modestly, but one can certainly lead by example. After all, we’re all in this together.

2nd runner up – tie

By Fallon Macemon

What is your flow? In other words, what are your household’s carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen footprints?  After taking the Household Flux Calculator Survey designed around Twin Cities residents [], something I encourage you all to do, you may feel a tinge of guilt if your results proved to be anything like mine did.  That being said, humor me, while I share with you the story of a natural resource-aholic. Oh yeah, that’s me!  My household total carbon footprint was 16,044 kg, a staggering 7,906 kg above average!  To put that in perspective, my household uses four adult killer whales worth of carbon each year.  Not only was my carbon footprint above average, so too was my household’s nitrogen footprint totaling 71.7 kg, 23.4 kg above the average household for the Twin Cities.  Since I’m not one to tell a lie, it seems fair to share with you yet another disappointing statistic, my household’s phosphorus footprint value of 7.12 kg, 3.04 kg, again, above average.  Why might you ask am I sharing my natural resource addiction story?  Because, just like many of you, I was unaware of how devastating the effects of prolonged over usage of precious natural resources have on our Mother Earth.

A study conducted by Fissore et al. in the Twin Cities area, which used the same survey I did only for the whole metro area, found that the two greatest factors influencing the carbon footprint was home energy usage and vehicle/air travel.  That sounds about right, considering the fact that my household’s greatest carbon input was vehicle travel, totaling 12,369 kg.  So how can my household and your household make substantial cuts in our carbon footprints while still being realistic?  For starters, riding our bikes more regularly (location permitting) instead of driving our cars would help immensely.  Also, to combat the high household energy usage, we can unplug appliances when they are not being used, rely more on natural light, and watch less television, a little fresh air never hurt anyone!

When it came to nitrogen footprints, the Fissore et al. study found that diets, particularly diets high in meat, coupled with lawn fertilizer were the dominant factors that increase nitrogen output.  These findings varied from my results, given that 43.2 kg of my 71.7 kg of nitrogen were attributed to vehicle travel (no surprise there!) and only 4.0 kg were due to lawn care.  So what’s my advice to you for making a realistic cut in household nitrogen levels?  Eat. Less. Meat.  In other words, Eat. More. Fruits. And. Vegetables.  Many of us can agree that meat is not only good for our health, but just as good or better for our taste buds.  However, there are a number of ways to attain the same nutrients in meat through other means of food products.  Oh yeah, and maybe let nature run its course on your lawns, forget the fertilizer, or at least try and reduce the number of times you use it.

Last but not least, Fissore et al. stated that phosphorus footprints were 98% attributed to human diet, detergents, and pet food usage.  I hate to say this, but again, this sounds about right as 4.20 kg of my total 7.12 kg of phosphorus was due to detergents.  By now my hope is that you like my advice, but chances are it is scaring you.  But by switching to detergents that are phosphorus-free and feeding our pets food that has minimal phosphorus levels is a start to aid in the fight against increasing phosphorus footprints.

It’s no surprise that my natural resource footprint was above average in all areas of study.  I come from a family of 8 people, we have 5 dogs, and my siblings spend a lot of time in the car for their jobs.  However, that is no excuse.  Being that my family is so large, it is even more crucial for us to adopt new and environmentally friendly ways of living, and yes that may mean giving up some of the “good life”.  We live in America, a developed society set in our ways, but the facts are there: carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus levels show no signs of slowing down and that only means devastation is on the horizon.  And yes, I mean in our lifetimes.  So what do I want to leave with all of you today?  Well, just remember, that there is no better time to start than RIGHT NOW and that though you may think you aren’t making a difference by living an environmentally friendly life, you TRULY ARE.  Now ladies and gentlemen, please excuse me while I go and attempt to practice what I have preached.

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