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News Digest: ‘Green’ thinking continues to sweep college campuses

March 24, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about some fascinating and encouraging news from other college campuses throughout the U.S. that, in some form or another, are embracing “green” technology and lifestyles.

Since then, plenty has happened at schools like the University of Montana, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maryland. Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on at these campuses, with links included to the full stories for further reading.

U. Montana to offer climate change minor this fall

The Montana Kaimin newspaper reported today that a new minor program on climate change studies will be available to students this fall. The program will incorporate studies involving science and social issues as well as looking at potential solutions to climate change.

“It’s beyond looking at the science. We are trying to get students into this whole social, political arena,” said UM regents professor of forest ecology Steve Running, director for the new program and Nobel Peace Prize recipient for work on climate change issues. “We are trying to be on the leading edge of this transition and educate particularly our students in facilitating this change and helping the alternatives bubble up.”

The task of fixing the “global sickness” will soon be in the hands of the next generation, he added.

The minor was initiated under the direction of UM Provost Royce Engstrom, who received input from 29 faculty members from 18 departments who wanted to bring a climate change program to campus. “An important thing for students to know is that students from any background can enter into this minor because it takes a very interdisciplinary approach,” Engstrom said. “It’s not just for science students, it’s not just

for policy students. It’s for any student.”

U. California Regents approve deal between universities, utility companies

The Board of Regents for the University of California system approved a program that could lower energy costs and increase efficiency on a number of UC campuses. The program could save the UC system $36 million, the Daily Californian reported.

In collaboration with PG&E, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and three other companies, the program will be implemented at nine of the 10 UC campuses and four of the five medical schools over the next three years.

It will fund 900 energy-efficiency programs and is expected to reduce the UC system’s annual utilities costs by $36 million, or about 10 percent. The utility companies will cover roughly $61 million of the project’s total $247 million.

“It makes perfect financial sense,” said Dirk van Ulden, associate director of energy and utilities at the UC Office of the President.

UC Berkeley will undertake 190 programs, the most of any UC campus, totalling a budget of $24.8 million. PG&E will loan the campus $8.8 million to pursue these projects.

U. Connecticut gets a ‘kick’ out of environmental activism

The University of Connecticut began a shoe recycling program as part of Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program to cut the school’s carbon footprint and promote environmental awareness on campus, The Daily Campus reported.

The collection kicked off on March 1 as part of Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program, a program in which the company collects shoes so that their rubber soles may be turned into running tracks, athletic surfaces and playgrounds. According to the company’s Web site, in 19 years, Nike has collected 22,736,188 pairs of shoes globally.

UConn was inspired to start a sneaker collection after hearing about Nike’s program, seeing it as a way to reduce the university’s carbon footprint.

“UConn students are generally athletic-minded and environmentally-responsible,” said Richard Miller, the director of the Office of Environmental Policy, in an e-mail interview.

“We knew there were a lot of sneakers being thrown away by students, faculty and staff, and by recycling and reusing the components in different products, it would be a more sustainable practice than using raw materials to make these same products.”

The program is a partnership involving UConn Athletics, EcoHusky, the OEP, Nike and the Willimantic Waste Co., which brings the shoes to Nike.

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How “green” shoppers navigate the neighborhood grocery store

March 24, 2009

The grocery store produce section—a haven for all green shoppers

The grocery store produce section—a haven for all green shoppers. Photos by Andy Kroll

 

The half-empty jar of pasta sauce and remaining few slices of cheddar sit there looking lonely on my shelf of the refrigerator, like two shy wallflowers at a middle school dance.

In other words, it’s time to hit the grocery store and restock.

I had intended to write my “Going Green”-themed grocery shopping post about buying my produce and bread at the local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, but decided otherwise, out of the worry that students without easy access to a farmer’s market wouldn’t find help in the post. So instead, I went to the regular grocery store—that ubiquitous Midwest chain, Meijer—and attempted to shop there as green as possible.

Which was, of course, far greater of a challenge. Meijer does promote and sell its own “Natural” and “Organic” brands of, say, peanut butter or laundry detergent; but, as The New York Times’ Mark Bittman recently pointed out, these supposedly eco-friendly, sustainable products aren’t always the answer, having evolved into a fad more than a revolution in how we eat and live:

[E]ating “organic” offers no guarantee of [healthy eating]. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our calories from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is “sweets”; and one-third of nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.)

Healthy shopping doesn't just mean "Natural" and "Organic"

Healthy shopping doesn't just mean "Natural" and "Organic"

If there’s one tip I can share about how to buy healthy food at regular grocery stores, one that I learned from both Michael Pollan and experience, it’s to shop from the perimeter walls of the grocery story and to avoid the inside lanes and shelves. After hearing Pollan mention this is in a great talk at Google’s headquarters, a lifetime of shopping with my mom became so much clearer in my head—the walls in most grocery stores are lined with coolers and freezers and shelves with watering devices, i.e., for the food that’s most fresh. The inside of most stores, on the other hand, contains food loaded with preservatives and chemicals and ingredient lists numbering fifty long with indecipherable words. The kind of food that would still look the same if it were left on those shelves for decades.

Fresh on the outside, most everything else on the inside.

So I shopped the walls, and left the inner aisles untrodden. The end result? My cart was filled with far fresher food, food that will go bad in a week if I don’t eat and food that costs quite a bit more. For college students, with our hectic schedules and erratic behaviors, the inner aisles are indeed more convenient—it’s food that keeps for longer, takes less time to cook, makes for easy on-the-go snacking.

But is it healthier? Not at all. Support local economies and local farmers? No chance. And it’s a matter of deciding whether you’re willing, as Pollan says, to vote with your fork: You shopping decisions impact how food policy in this country is developed, and supporting fresh-grown, local food not only keeps your healthier but communicates an important message.

Seeking out sales is the key

A produce sale, ahem, ripe for the picking

And to be honest, shopping fresh can be done a budget. Here’s a tip of mine: When you’re at the store, look for fresh produce that’s nearing its expiration date. Usually, tomatoes or peppers or apples or pork chops (though I’m not eating many of those lately) that are close to their expiration are marked way down because the stores need to offload those products. A $4 bag of lettuce becomes a $1.50 bag of lettuce. A box of roma tomatoes for $3 becomes $1. For the Kroger chain grocery store near my house, I’ve found that most Friday afternoons there’s a lot of produce discounted throughout the store, and if I’m planning a dinner or even doing a bit of my own shopping, I can get great fresh food for cheap.

The catch is that you have to use the produce sooner—in the next day or so, if not that very evening. For someone like myself who likes to cook, that’s not a bad thing; for those averse to cooking, this may be a bit more of a problem. Either way, it’s a nice exception to pricey fresh food standard.

There’s always coupons, too, in the city and student newspaper, online, at the campus union or student center.

A major problem with shopping at this particular Meijer is that I have to drive there. It’s more than three miles away, and without a bike capable of holding five or six bags of groceries (I’ll get to those shortly) or a Zipcar membership, I had to fire up my little-used car parked in the driveway. I haven’t driven the car much at all in the past three weeks, but it was a necessary evil for this shopping excursion.

There were those bags, too. I ended up using plastic bags at the checkout counter—again, far from the best option (bringing your own reusable bags), but I will say that my roommates and I save our plastic bags and reuse them for other tasks around the house. Will they ultimately still end up in a landfill, though? Yes. Note to self: Time to invest in some reusable bags, Andy.

A reader from another post mentioned the issue of milk in the context of cattle producing greenhouse gases, that if we cut our milk consumption, like I’m trying to cut my meat intake, that would decrease animal-related emissions. On this particular trip, I did not buy any milk or milk products. I’m not much of a milk drinker (bad experience with a glass of curdled 2% milk), but the issue of buying milk or getting calcium from another source is a tough one: We need calcium and milk is a popular source of that nutrient, but the cattle that produce that milk for us do indeed have a substantial carbon footprint. It’s a dilemma on which I need to be better informed saying much else, though soy milk, which I take in all my coffee, is a potential alternative.

Shopping fresh may seem expensive, but with a bit of extra effort and flexibility, it can be done affordably for college students on slim budget. I picked up some fresh tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, bakery bread and peanut butter (the kind with only “Peanuts” as an ingredient and with the oil on top—the sign that it’s fresh) this time around.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I longed for some of those preservative-laden goodies lining the store’s interior—a bag of sour-cream-and-onion chips, some Keebler’s cookies, a frozen mac-and-cheese dinner. Though I’ve been pretty diligent in the past year or so to stick to fresh foods, the siren’s call emanating from those frozen pizza section (once a major vice) still tugs at me on occasion. Hopefully, the more I stick to healthy, fresh food, the more that will go away.

I’d love to hear from anyone with their own tips on shopping healthy on a budget that don’t necessarily involve farmer’s markets or more eco-friendly stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market. To all you foodies out there, please do not hesitate to share your own tips or ideas, or send them to me at akroll [at] umich.edu. I’d be more than happy to write another post with suggestions!

Keg or can? An eco-friendly, beer-drenched showdown

March 20, 2009
Some (quality) Busch Light cans in my basement fridge. Photo by Andy Kroll

Some (quality) Busch Light cans in my basement fridge. Photo by Andy Kroll

On Tuesday, another beer-filled, hazy, riotous St. Patrick’s Day went into the history books, with the sound of Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys and the theme song to The Boondock Saints carrying through the air.

St. Patty’s is also one of the greenest days of the year, too—the color, that is, not necessarily the “green” lifestyle I write about here. But in the spirit of both St. Patrick’s Day and my month-long sustainability project, I’ve decided to offer a few eco-friendly tips for next year’s St. Patrick’s Day parties—and for drinking beer in general, too.

For my friends and I in St. Patrick’s Days past, the main question at hand has always been: How are we going to get our beer? Or, in other words, do we buy a case of beer or a keg?

There’s the usual squabbling that cases are cheaper but kegs hold more fermented goodness and look much cooler on a patio or porch. Kegs, though, are harder to transport and require much more money upfront than do cases. And so goes the usual back-and-forth.

Now, I’d like to add an environmental aspect to this debate. As it turns out, kegs are a much more environmentally friendly way to drink your St. Patrick’s Day (or any day’s) beer than buying, say, a 30-pack of beers in cans. Kegs are reused over and over and over, unlike cans which, though recyclable, require a good amount of energy to recycle and remake into new products again. Kegs also come without any of the cardboard packaging, which, though also recyclable, usually end up in the trash can.

Given that most kegs weigh quite a bit more than cases, the energy expended transporting kegs from a brewery to (usually) a distribution center and then out to stores is certainly an issue. But in the long run, the nearly endless reusability of kegs outweighs the transportation emissions, especially when considering the energy used in the production, transportation and recycling (or flat-out disposal) of beer cans.

Now, if you really want be a green keg drinker, you could try using a plastic keg. (Some beer aficionados will consider this blasphemy, but we’re all about going green here.) As Plastic Kegs of America explains on its Web site:

Plastic Kegs America Kegs are significantly lighter than metal equivalent kegs; meaning the same volume of beer can be transported at a lower all up weight; reducing the delivery cost and reducing fuel consumption as well; save money and do your little bit at the same time!

Also the material used on the chimes (note: not liquid facing material) of the 1/2 barrel; 1/6 barrel and the 1/12 barrel is environmentally recycled HDPE; and the entire keg is recyclable; so rather than letting your keg become a BBQ/mooring for an old fisherman’s boat/scrap for cash for a less savory cause; if you ever damage your keg beyond repair; simply remove the spear and you can recycle the keg!

So in the battle of kegs versus cans, the more environmentally friendly option is going the keg route. And outside of the keg-vs.-can debate, there are a spate of other green steps you can take when imbibing some quality brews.

Here are just a few courtesy of Mother Nature Network:

Consider trying an organic beer or two. The ingredients that are most common in beer – barley, hops and sometimes wheat – are heavily laden with insecticides, fungicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers when commercially grown. All of these are bad for the environment. The ingredients for organic beer should not be grown with any of those – leaving the earth (not to mention you) a little bit healthier.

An alternative to organic beer when looking to leave less of an impact on the earth with your beer is to buy a local brew. It may not be organic, but it won’t have to travel far to get to you. The fancy imports that you drink may be really tasty, but they leave quite a carbon footprint getting from their home to yours. Buy buying local, the energy and fuel needed to transport the beer is decreased dramatically.

When at a restaurant, order beer on tap. Many restaurants do not recycle their bottles because it’s either a hassle or they don’t want to pay the fee to have them hauled off. By ordering beer from the tap, there is a good chance you’ll save at least one bottle from ending up in a landfill.

Recycle your empties. This may seem like a no-brainer but I’m still surprised at how many people don’t do it – even when they have curbside recycling programs. If you don’t have curbside recycling or your apartment complex doesn’t have a program, you can find out where to take any glass or cans that need to be recycled by going to Earth911. By entering your zip code, you can find the nearest recycling center.

Adventures in composting, day two: I awoke today and looked out the window to see my compost pile a bit out of sorts:

Day two, and my compost pile is already falling apart. Photo by Andy Kroll

Day two, and my compost pile is already falling apart. Photo by Andy Kroll

Undeterred, I replaced the fallen board, sprayed the pile with a bit of water to keep it moist and then headed off for campus. I can’t tell if the microbes have started to do their composting-thing yet (they’re a bit too small to see, I think), but here’s hoping they are.

I’ll keep you updated on how the process is coming along.

Let the composting begin!

March 19, 2009

My compost pile on day one. All photos by Andy Kroll

My compost pile on day one. All photos by Andy Kroll

Had New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk parody duo, “Flight of the Conchords,” been in my backyard this morning, they would’ve agreed with me: Conditions were perfect.

Perfect, that is, for building a compost pile.

After some predictably uncooperative Michigan weather, a recent run of warm spring days finally provided an opening for me to build my planned compost pile in my backyard. So I awoke at nine this morning, pulled on some grubby gardening clothes and took to the backyard.

But before getting into my morning adventure, a quick explanation of what composting actually is, courtesy of the University of Illinois (whose composting directions I closely followed):

Composting is the biological decomposition of organic material into a humus-like substance called compost. The process occurs naturally, but can be accelerated and improved by controlling environmental factors. People may wonder, “Why bother with composting if everything organic decomposes eventually anyway?”

If raw wastes are put directly into the soil, the decomposition process will rob the soil of nitrogen, an important nutrient for plants. (Soil incorporation is one method of composting, but requires leaving the area fallow.) Finished compost from a pile is typically a more uniform product with a better balance of nutrients. It can be used throughout the growing season in many different types of applications.

With a pile, composters have more control over adding and mixing the amount of carbon and nitrogen rich materials used to make the end product. In addition, a properly controlled composting environment can ensure production of high temperatures needed for killing weed seeds, diseased plant tissue, and pathogenic organisms.

The University of Illinois’ “Building Your Compost Pile” tutorial also proved immensely helpful in building my compost pile.

Putting together the frame for my compost pile

Putting together the frame for my compost pile

Using the tutorial’s instructions, I began by constructing my three-side compost box to contain the pile, which was made of three perfectly sized pieces of wood I found in my basement. I dug a little bit into the ground so that the boards would hold firm once I filled the compost pile with more organic materials, soil and fertilizer.

Next, I gathered up a bunch of dry leaves from throughout the backyard and dumped them up in the compost pile area until the first layer of leaves and dead grass was about six inches high. I then dumped a layer of commercial fertilizer—one of the active ingredients in any compost pile— on top of the leaves and grass, and then poured on top of that a layer of ground soil I dug up from the backyard. Unfortunately our house lacks in the gardening and home maintenance department, so when I say “dug” I really mean using a pocket knife to carve up the grass and my hands to dig up the soil.

And the pile grows...

And the pile grows...

So at this point, I had three layers: Dried, dead leaves and grass; commercial fertilizer; and ground soil. I repeated this process two more times, so there are three layers of each stacked up in the compost pile.

Once I had finally grabbed up enough leaves and dug up enough soil, I fished around my kitchen for some food scraps—orange and banana peels, bread, apple cores. I put as many of these as I could find in a plastic tub and then dumped out the tub on top of the pile, as food scraps are an important part of the composting process.

Moving forward, what I have to do is occasionally “turn” the pile, or use a pitch fork to mix up the pile, and also make sure that the pile stays somewhat moist—“The organic material should feel damp to the touch, with just one or two drops of water expelled when squeezed tightly in the hand,” the University of Illinois tutorial advises.

And now it’s time to sit back and let nature do its work, with a little help on my part. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on how it’s coming and whether the pile is working, though I don’t hold out high hopes as I’m not much of a green thumb. Nonetheless, it’ll be a great learning experience.

The final product — day one

The final product — day one

Commuting without carbon

March 18, 2009

Palestra.net’s Kaitlin Urka talks with Andy Kroll about how he gets around campus without his car. Click on the image above to watch the story on our partner site Palestra.net

Pitching all that pesky—and wasteful—junk mail

March 18, 2009

Andy Kroll

Each afternoon, I greet the arrival of the day’s mail in the steel “U.S. Mail” slot on my house’s front porch with ambivalence.

On the one hand, I subscribe to a spate of different politics and culture magazines, one or two of which usually arrive each day much to my glee. On the other hand, crammed into the mail slot with those magazines and the rest of the day’s mail are reams and reams of junk mail—coupons, Pottery Barn catalogs I don’t want, credit card applications, etc.—practically bursting out of the mail slot.

Junk mail, that plague of unwanted and wasted advertisements and catalogs, might seem like a minor inconvenience to you and me. But according to a report issued by ForestEthics, a nonprofit environmental group that tries to protect endangered forest, found that more than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered in the U.S. each year—an average of 848 pieces per household.

The ForestEthics report goes on to conclude that the production, distribution and disposal of those 100 billion pieces of junk mail generates more than 51 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. That’s the equivalent annual emissions, the report says, of 9.3 million passenger cars, 11 coal-fired power plants or 12.9 million homes.

So what’s to be done? Junk mail, it seems, is as predictable and unstoppable as death and taxes. Thankfully, as the push for more eco-friendly, green living has gained in popularity in the U.S., organizations like 41pounds.org have sprung up, offering services to cut out unwanted junk mail.

For a fee of $41, 41pounds.org will contact direct mail companies and other junk mail sources and have them purge your name from their mailing lists for five years. This is what I’ve done for my own house, saving me the time it would take to remove my name and address from direct mail lists by myself.

If you don’t want to pay a service to remove your name and address, EcoCycle.org has a detailed, step-by-step process on how you can personally contact direct mail companies and have your name and address removed. Here’s EcoCycle’s first step:

Step 1: Remove your name

Contacting the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and registering with their Mail Preference Service provides an effective way for you to fight the junk mail glut. The DMA does not provide marketers with consumer mailing lists or do consumer mailings. They provide their Mail Preference Service to marketers for the sole purpose of removing consumer’s names and addresses from their prospect mailing lists. To add your name to the do-not-mail list, register online at www.dmachoice.org/dma/member/regist.action or download a mail-in form. Be sure to list each name receiving mail at your address, including misspellings. You can also send a letter, along with $1, with your name(s) and address to the DMA asking to be removed from their mailing list. Note that mail addressed to “resident” or “occupant” cannot be stopped through the DMA.

Direct Marketing Association

Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 282 
Carmel, NY 10512

212-768-7277
www.dmachoice.org

The U.S. Postal Service also offers its own tips on how to become what it calls an “ENVIRONMAILIST,” which don’t involve spending any of your precious dollars, either.

Every year, U.S. businesses send billions of pieces of mail that are undeliverable as addressed (UAA). By taking simple, ongoing steps to maintain a clean, up-to-date list, your business can reduce its amount of UAA mail. This helps lessen its impact on the environment because you’ll be producing fewer mailpieces and using less paper, ink and energy. Resources available to help hone your lists include ZIP Code correction, address standardization and change-of-address services. Here are steps you can take to fine-tune your lists:

• Merge and purge mailing lists often to remove invalid names and addresses.

• Provide frequent, clear opportunities for customers to opt-in and opt-out.

• Maintain a list to prevent unwanted communications.

• Allow customers to specify their preferred method of contact.

• Target mail efficiently using segmentation and modeling to select recipients.

• Personalize your message to increase relevance and reduce waste.

O.K., so targeting direct mail companies may seem tedious or a waste of time. But when considering the serious environmental impact, if all the college students in the country—often targeted by corporations and credit card companies—took a few minutes to cut down on the junk mail they receive, the impact would be significant.

Forget Urban Outfitters or American Apparel – think thrift

March 16, 2009

Andy Kroll

It was my own, idyllic designer boutique. A gem of a store with all the houndstooth blazers and Italian-made men’s shoes I could imagine, hidden there amongst the more conspicuous shops and offices of Manhattan’s Third Avenue. One unseasonably hot morning last summer, I walked into this particular store with $20; half an hour later I strolled contentedly out with an entire handmade suit.

I’m talking not of some actual designer store, but of the best deal for clothes and shoes even furniture for cash-strapped, sustainable minded students — the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army, or “Salvo” in campus parlance, offers students trying to be more green a two-pronged opportunity to live more sustainably: You can give your unwanted shirts and shoes and pants to the store, and you can buy other people’s donated goods as well.

By donating clothes and other belongings, you ensure that those things don’t end up in the garbage can and landfill somewhere, which only adds to our country’s waste problems, or that they don’t end up in an incinerator, which releases harmful emissions. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, donating unwanted clothes instead of throwing them out saves you 165 pounds of CO2 a year. And by shopping at thrift stores including the Salvation Army, you’re essentially reusing other people’s belongings and getting more use out those items than if they’d been thrown out.

You’re also decreasing your own consumption rate for new products by buying reused items, and if large amounts of people followed suit and bought reused clothes and furniture, that would decrease demand for production of new items and result in less raw product consumption.

In my own case, I started shopping at the Salvation Army a year or two ago, snapping up the odd jacket and dress shirt, and have been a faithful shopper—and donor—ever since. Unless an article of clothing is completely wrecked, I try to give most of my unwanted t-shirts and jeans to the Salvation Army once every couple of months. Fortunately, there’s a store location just a few blocks from my house, so it’s an easy walk.

For those frightened of buying reused clothes, I can say that I’ve never had a bad experience with anything I’ve bought from the thrift stores—no smelly shoes, no bug-infested jackets or anything like that. Granted, that’s just my own personal experience. (David Sedaris’ own experience—a pair of thrift store pants gave him crabs—is quite different.) My advice: Make sure you thoroughly inspect something before you buy it, which I always do.

And it’s not just clothes, either. You can buy CDs, kitchen appliances, sometimes TVs and a number of other eclectic accouterments donated to the store—many of which are far better off on a store shelf instead of sitting in a landfill and potentially damaging the environment.

When my girlfriend moved into a new apartment in Florida this past fall, she even found two matching leather couches in pristine condition, a sturdy kitchen table and several matching wooden chairs—and all for cheap.

So for college students looking to make their own shopping habits a bit more eco- and wallet-friendly, thrift stores are a great place to start.

You want updates; I’ve got them: My meat-eating experiment—“I’m going to cut [my meat consumption] down by 75 percent, to 5 meat-eating occasions a week. I figure that should be a significant step toward cutting my carbon footprint through my eating habits,” I wrote—which I began last week, is failing. I hardly realized how difficult it is to break this carnivorous habit of mine.

Now that I think about it, most of my meals before beginning this project consisted of some kind of meat, whether it’s Kung Pao chicken, or a hamburger patty, or chili with ground beef in it. You really don’t realize how much meat you eat until it’s gone.

I’ll admit I exceeded by “5 meat-eating occasions a week” target last week—but only by one. This week I’m hoping a bit more fortitude will see me through until Sunday.