EC7C. 2008–2021 Neighborhood and Global Stewardship

cover for GSS book Ecosystem Change

Staying current for Chapter 7

Articles from 2008–2021

Stay current index page for Chapter 7

{ Ecosystem Change Contents }

2021-12-21. Sea spray is belching toxic chemicals back on land. By Elizabeth Gribkoff, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Scientists and policymakers are puzzling over how to get rid of a group of toxic chemicals found in streams and drinking water. One hope was that the persistent compounds, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), would flow out to sea and stay put. But the ocean, it turns out, is spitting them back out: A new study finds sea spray from waves is tossing PFAS into the atmosphere. …PFAS are found in everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. …But the strong chemical bonds that make PFAS so useful also make them extremely hard to break down, earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.” Lab studies have shown PFAS can damage the livers and immune systems of animals, and lead to birth defects and death. In humans, they’ve been linked to cancer and lower birth weights. …Researchers have known the mist created by breaking waves can transport pollutants from the ocean into the atmosphere, says Matthew Salter, a marine biogeochemist at Stockholm University. The white, foamy bubbles don’t just contain air—they also contain microscopic droplets of chemicals that float to the surface of the water. …Salter and colleagues collected air samples every few days from 2018 to 2020 at two monitoring sites…. …Back in the lab, they analyzed the levels of PFAS and sodium ions, a key part of sea spray aerosol, in their samples. The amount of PFAS in the samples was closely linked to sodium levels—a sign that they both got into the air via sea spray—the team reports this month in Environmental Science & Technology. The correlation was strongest at the more remote island site, which was closer to rough, frothy seas.… []

2021-12-17. After decades, some of America’s most toxic sites will finally get cleaned up. By Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post. Excerpt: New funding and the revival of a long-lapsed tax on chemical makers in the bipartisan infrastructure law mean cities like Newark will get money to restore toxic Superfund sites. …The Superfund list includes more than 1,300 abandoned mines, radioactive landfills, shuttered military labs, closed factories and other contaminated areas across nearly all 50 states. They are the poisoned remnants of America’s emergence as a 20th-century industrial juggernaut. The 49 sites receiving money from the infrastructure law include a neighborhood in Florida with soil contaminated from treating wooden telephone poles, a former copper mine in Maine laced with leftover metals, and an old steel manufacturer in southern New Jersey where parts of the Golden Gate Bridge were fabricated.… []

2021-12-14. Bright Lights, Big Cities Attract Migratory Birds. By Brian Phan, EosAGU. Excerpt: Like moths to a lamp, billions of birds flock to brightly lighted urban areas—far from the natural resources they need on their journeys—as they migrate across North America during spring and fall. Light pollution is attracting migratory birds. “It almost acts as a beacon to them, and they gravitate toward it,” said Amy Collins, a postdoctoral research fellow in fish, wildlife, and conservation biology at Colorado State University. As these avian species fly over urban sprawl, they waste precious energy navigating urban environments and are most affected during dusk and dawn, when most migratory birds usually take flight.… []

2021-12-03. A Global Map of Human Sewage in Coastal Ecosystems. By Katherine Kornei, Eos/AGU. Excerpt: …Nutrient-rich agricultural runoff is a well-known scourge of coastal marine ecosystems. But another major source of nutrient contamination—human wastewater—has received relatively scant attention in the literature. Now, researchers have constructed a high-resolution geospatial model to map and quantify the pathogens and nitrogen from human sewage that enter roughly 135,000 watersheds draining into coastal ecosystems around the world. …When a marine environment becomes too enriched in nitrogen or other nutrients—a state known as eutrophication—a slew of problems can erupt. For instance, algae can consume the nutrients and then rapidly multiply (“bloom”), effectively choking out other life forms and creating coastal dead zones. …said Cascade Tuholske, a geographer at Columbia University in New York City…“What we’re most concerned with are tipping points, whereby eutrophication can cascade into complete ecosystem collapse.” …And as diets worldwide shift to include more nitrogen-rich animal protein, our waste products are destined to excrete more and more of this nutrient, said Tuholske, who coled the new research while working at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We excrete most of the nitrogen that we ingest.” …In regions in which open defection occurs, untreated human sewage directly enters watersheds.… []

2021-11-29. New Sensor Aids Rare Earth Extraction from Acid Mine Drainage. By Jenessa Duncombe, Eos/AGU. Excerpt: Rare earth elements appear in more than 200 consumer products. The race is on to source these elements from abundant and environmentally damaging mining waste. …Rare earth elements are essential components in wind turbines and electric vehicles….Currently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is funding more than 30 projects to source rare earth elements from coal mining and its waste. Coal ash, refuse rock, young lignite coal, sludge, and acid mine drainage are treasure troves of rare earth elements, but the technology needed to extract the valuable materials has yet to hit the commercial market. … []

2021-11-16. Cyanobacteria Blooms Exceed WHO Thresholds in Midwest Lakes. By Rebecca Dzombak, Eos/AGU. Excerpt: A study of 369 lakes across the U.S. Midwest finds that many of them, especially those close to agriculture, have high concentrations of harmful algal bloom-causing cyanobacteria.… []

2021-11-11. Saving the Maya Rainforest. By Brendan Borrell, for The Nature Conservancy. Excerpt: …It is July and The Nature Conservancy and its partners recently closed a $76.5 million deal to protect 236,000 acres of rainforest here known as the Belize Maya Forest. Together with the neighboring Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, which TNC helped establish in 1989, the forest will anchor an 11-million-acre network of protected land that spans an area roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined—amounting to almost a third of the entire Selva Maya. With the most recent deal, Belizeans have boosted their total protected land area to nearly 40%. Tropical forests serve as valuable carbon reserves, potentially representing up to a quarter of the climate mitigation needed globally by 2030 under the Paris Agreement. At a local level, this forest contains three major watersheds supplying the country with about a third of its drinking water and a quarter of its water for irrigation.… []

2021-07-21. [] – Maine Will Make Companies Pay for Recycling. Here’s How It Works. Source: By Winston Choi-Schagrin, The New York Times. Excerpt: The law aims to take the cost burden of recycling away from taxpayers. One environmental advocate said the change could be “transformative.” …five years ago, China stopped buying most of America’s recycling, and dozens of cities across the United States suspended or weakened their recycling programs. …Now, Maine has implemented a new law that could transform the way packaging is recycled by requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost. Nearly a dozen states have been considering similar regulations and Oregon is about to sign its own version in coming weeks. …Nearly all European Union member states, as well as Japan, South Korea and five Canadian provinces, have laws like these and they have seen their recycling rates soar and their collection programs remain resilient, even in the face of a collapse in the global recycling market caused in part by China’s decision in 2017 to stop importing other nations’ recyclables… 

2021-07-01. [] – Could plastic-eating microbes take a bite out of the recycling problem? Source: By Warren Cornwall, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Cordova, a marine biologist, collects samples of the slime and brings them back to his lab at Indonesia’s Research Center for Oceanography, where he plans to culture the microbes and feed them only plastic to see what thrives. “We are hoping that we find the most effective microbes that can eat or degrade the plastic,” he says. Researchers across the globe are on the same quest. They are looking for plastic-munching microbes in searing hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, remote island beaches in the Pacific Ocean, and a plastic recycling factory in Japan, among other places. Some scientists have already found bacteria that wield enzymes able to break down a common plastic used to make water bottles and clothing…. 

2021-05-11. The Price They Pay for Your Perfect Vacation Photo. By Priyanka Runwal, The New York Times. Excerpt: Scientists are concerned about unregulated feeding of ocean wildlife by tour operators. …Before the pandemic, …boats would flock to Bottom Harbor and tourists would hop into its shallow turquoise waters holding squid morsels in their hands or on wooden skewers. The turtles would then grab the snacks as the visitors snapped Instagram-worthy images. …The practice is known as provisioning, and it’s an easy meal for the shelled creatures. But conservation biologists have expressed concern in a number of recent published scientific studies about what this food source means for the physical well-being and natural behavior of not just these turtles, but other marine creatures, from tiny reef fish to giant sharks. …“Suddenly a very independent and solitary animal is in close contact with everybody else, which means it’s easier for them to get infected with parasites or viruses,” said Valeria Senigaglia, a marine biologist at Australia’s Murdoch University. It also encourages wild animals to eat regularly rather than intermittently, and sometimes discourages tracking and hunting of prey. Habituation, aggression and loss of fear toward humans typically follows, which could endanger the animals…. [

2021-04-21. New process makes ‘biodegradable’ plastics truly compostable. By Robert Sanders, Berkeley News. Excerpt: Biodegradable plastics have been advertised as one solution to the plastic pollution problem bedeviling the world, but today’s “compostable” plastic bags, utensils and cup lids don’t break down during typical composting and contaminate other recyclable plastics, creating headaches for recyclers. Most compostable plastics, made primarily of the polyester known as polylactic acid, or PLA, end up in landfills and last as long as forever plastics. University of California, Berkeley, scientists have now invented a way to make these compostable plastics break down more easily, with just heat and water, within a few weeks, solving a problem that has flummoxed the plastics industry and environmentalists…. [

2021-02-24. Chemists close in on greener way to make plastics. By Robert F. Service, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Plastics are a climate problem. Making precursors for common plastics, such as ethylene and carbon monoxide (CO), consumes fossil fuels and releases plenty of carbon dioxide (CO2). In recent years, chemists have devised bench-top reactors called electrochemical cells that aim to reverse the process, starting with water and waste CO2 from industrial processes and using renewable electricity to turn them into feedstocks for plastics. But that green vision has a practical problem: The cells often consume highly alkaline additives that themselves take energy to make…. [

2021-02-09. Prozac turns guppies into ‘zombies’. By Warren Cornwall, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Prozac might need a new warning label: “Caution: This antidepressant may turn fish into zombies.” Researchers have found that long-term exposure to the drug makes guppies act more alike, wiping out some of the typical behavioral differences that distinguish them. That could be a big problem when the medication—technically named fluoxetine—washes into streams and rivers, potentially making fish populations more vulnerable to predators and other threats. In recent decades, scientists have uncovered a plethora of ways that pharmaceuticals affect animals in the lab and in the wild, such as by altering courtshipmigration, and anxiety. The drugs find their way into the environment through water that pours from sewage treatment plants, which is rarely filtered to remove the chemicals… [

2020-12-18. Targeting U.S. wetland restoration could make cleaning up water much cheaper. By Erik Stokstad, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Wetlands do a great job of filtering and cleaning up polluted water. But in the United States, many of those natural filters have been destroyed: filled in, paved over, or drained to become farm fields. Now, a study suggests policymakers responsible for managing wetlands could do a better job by strategically locating restored or created wetlands near sources of pollution, such as farms and livestock operations. Such a targeted approach would remove much more nitrogen—which pollutes groundwater, lakes, and coastal waters—than current scattershot policies, the researchers say. The new study quantifies how much nitrogen is removed by wetlands all over the country, providing a new estimate of their contribution to water quality both nationwide and locally. …says Patrick Inglett, a biogeochemist at the University of Florida. “This gives us so much more focus as to where wetlands need to be located.” When nitrogen-based fertilizer washes off farm fields, it ends up in streams. This nitrogen stimulates algal blooms in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, which can cause oxygen-poor “dead zones” that harm fisheries. Excess nitrogen, which comes from livestock manure as well, also contaminates groundwater as nitrate. Wetlands are effective at removing the nitrogen because they have carbon-rich and oxygen-poor sediments that are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria that convert biologically active forms of nitrogen—the kind that would stimulate the growth of algae—into inert nitrogen gas that is released to the atmosphere. …Over the past 30 years …the U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid more than $4 billion to farmers to protect wetlands; in part, the funds help cover the money farmers lose by not converting wetlands to crop fields…. [

2020-12-09. Human Activity Makes India’s Coastlines More Vulnerable.By Matthew Stonecash, Eos/AGU. Excerpt: Researchers propose the creation of an anthropogenic vulnerability index to help guide conservation policy decisions. …Sindhuja Kasthala was studying land use and land cover in the coastal regions of India when she noticed an alarming trend. “I found that although we have coastal rules, the land use kept changing very fast,” said Kasthala. “I thought, instead of just studying the existing vulnerability types, I would come up with a new type of vulnerability—anthropogenic vulnerability—and link it to these policies.” …For the anthropogenic index, Kasthala identified habitat and land use changes, resource exploitation, pollution, the introduction of nonindigenous species, development, and tourism as the key factors. Each of these factors has one or more corresponding indicators. For example, loss of wetlands and aquaculture expansion are both indicators of land use change…. [

2020-12-08. Human-sparked wildfires are more destructive than those caused by nature. By Tess Joosse, Science Magazine. Excerpt: A wayward smoke bomb from a gender reveal party sparked a major blaze near Los Angeles in September, just one of many recent wildfires ignited by people. Now, an analysis of high-resolution satellite data from hundreds of California wildfires shows human-caused blazes spread much faster and kill more trees than ones ignited by lightning. The findings highlight how fires that start differently can behave in distinct ways, with effects far beyond the amount of land torched, says Sean Parks, a fire ecologist with the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, who was not involved with the study. “This focus on high severity rather than just area burned is important.” Fire has always been a part of California’s natural history. But several centuries of human settlement have created new conditions that promote its spread. Studies have shown human ignition is to blame for 84% of all wildfires in the United States, and 97% of all those that threaten homes. Human-sparked fires always seemed more extreme, says Stijn Hantson, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Irvine, who led the new research. But quantitative measurements of how fast they spread and their impacts on ecosystems in California had not been explored, he notes. To probe those differences, Hantson and colleagues compiled daily high-resolution satellite data for 214 wildfires that burned in California between 2012 and 2018. They drew perimeters around detected hot spots for each wildfire from day to day. Then, the researchers measured the distance between each day’s perimeter to the next day’s hot spots to calculate on average how fast the fire grew daily until it was extinguished. Human-sparked fires typically spread about 1.83 kilometers per day, more than twice as fast as the 0.83 kilometers per day for lightning-induced burns, the team reports today at a virtual meeting of the American Geophysical Union…. [

2020-11-25. Illegal Tampering by Diesel Pickup Owners Is Worsening Pollution, E.P.A. Says. By Coral Davenport, The New York Times. Excerpt: WASHINGTON — The owners and operators of more than half a million diesel pickup trucks have been illegally disabling their vehicles’ emissions control technology over the past decade, allowing excess emissions equivalent to 9 million extra trucks on the road, a new federal report has concluded. …In terms of the pollution impact in the United States, “This is far more alarming and widespread than the Volkswagen scandal,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, the research group that first alerted the E.P.A. of the illegal Volkswagen technology. “Because these are trucks, the amount of pollution is far, far higher,” he said. …The E.P.A. focused just on devices installed in heavy pickup trucks, such as the Chevrolet Silverado and the Dodge Ram 2500, about 15 percent of which appear to have defeat devices installed. But such devices — commercially available and marketed as a way to improve vehicle performance — almost certainly have been installed in millions of other vehicles…. [

2020-10-01. Why ‘Biodegradable’ Isn’t What You Think. By John Schwartz, The New York Times. Excerpt: You care about the planet, and would like to avoid bottles and other goods made of single-use plastic. But it’s complicated. Choosing products with packaging that claims to be “biodegradable” or “compostable” might mean that they degrade only under special conditions, and could complicate recycling efforts, said Jason Locklin, the director of the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia. “It’s tremendously confusing, not just to the consumer, but even to many scientists,” he said. …Corn-based plastic. It doesn’t come from petroleum. But in a landfill, it might be just as bad. …Paper, of course, is recyclable — as long as it is just paper. However, paper-based bottles and containers tend to be made with several layers of materials other than paper, including plastic or foil, to form barriers. One paper bottle maker’s website calls 100 percent biodegradability a “goal.” …Some fast-casual restaurants use bowls designed and marketed to be compostable. They are made from bagasse, a fiber produced as a byproduct from sugar cane mills. …while your bowl may be compostable, if you don’t compost at home you have to throw it into a dedicated composting bin in the restaurant, or use a composting service. …PHA, or polyhydroxyalkanoate, has been the next big thing in biodegradability for years. This bioplastic, which can be produced by bacteria, has promising properties: Research suggests it can break down in conventional landfills. In ocean water, it will degrade within a few years, a fraction of the 450 years that it takes standard plastic. Producing the material economically, however, has been a technical challenge…. [

2020-09-17. How trucking eels is reviving a river. By Clare Fieseler, The Washington Post. Excerpt: American eels. They’re having a good year — a good decade, in fact — continuing their unlikely comeback in the largest river on the East Coast, with help from daily truck rides. For more than a decade, biologists have been trapping baby eels in the Susquehanna River and trucking them past four hydroelectric dams to release them in freshwater creeks upstream. Dams interrupt the natural migration routes of the eels, which are born in the Chesapeake Bay and then swim upriver, sometimes hundreds of miles, into freshwater streams, where they grow into adulthood before eventually returning to the bay. …The idea of trapping and physically relocating a species — in this case, moving eels around physical obstacles — is gaining new interest as the planet warms and causes some plant and animal species to struggle in their native habitats. Moving them to a more hospitable home, also known as assisted migration, may be one way to save some species as the climate changes…. [
2020-09-04. East Africa Invests in Strategies to Manage E-Waste. By Hope Mafaranga, Eos/AGU. Excerpt: As Uganda develops its e-waste policy, neighboring Rwanda establishes a broad-based plan involving incentives and high-tech facilities. …E-waste describes everything from the electronic components of large household appliances (such as refrigerators and air conditioners) to personal products such as cell phones, personal stereos, and computers. …In Uganda, this e-waste ends up in landfills. …Old electronic equipment contains toxic materials, and some of them are persistent organic pollutants,” said Naomi Namara Karekaho, a development communicator and educator with Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority. …Rwanda Moves Ahead in East Africa in E-Waste Management. …Rwanda’s National e-Waste Management Policy provides for enactment of specific legislation for management and disposal of e-waste to safeguard human life and the environment. In developing the policy, Rwandan officials considered international conventions such as the Basel Conventionon the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the World Charter for Nature, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, and the Millennium Development GoalsOlivier Mbera, country general manager of EnviroServe Rwanda, explained how Rwanda approached the creation of its e-waste policy. First, the country conducted an initial inventory to assess the e-waste situation and develop a legal framework for what was needed to address it. The framework is still relied on, even though the recycling plant is now operational…. []

2020-09-03. It’s not just cars that make pollution. It’s the roads they drive on, too. By Erik Stokstad, Science Magazine. Excerpt: The smell of summer in Los Angeles, or any major city, is often tinged with asphalt. A freshly paved road or a new tar roof doesn’t just wrinkle your nose, however: A new study suggests fresh asphalt is a significant, yet overlooked, source of air pollution. In fact, the material’s contribution to one kind of particulate air pollution could rival or even exceed that of cars and trucks. …The greatest amount of semivolatile organic compounds escaped when the pavement was heated to 140°C, the temperature of road-paving, the team reports in Science Advances. Emissions fell as the asphalt cooled, but remained constant and significant at 60°C, a typical temperature for asphalt in Los Angeles during the summer, for the duration of the 3-day experiment. This suggests that asphalt could be a long-lasting source of pollution, Gentner says. Sunshine was also important. Even moderate light caused a large increase in emissions regardless of temperature, although the reason is not clear. For road asphalt, emissions increased as much as 300% in moderate light. …It’s not necessarily the case that asphalt roads cause more total air pollution than cars, however. Gentner notes that vehicles also release harmful particles from combustion and exhaust gases that form ozone…. [
2020-08-31. When Fashion is Fungal. By Jessica Wolfrom, The Washington Post. Excerpt: Textiles have a big carbon footprint and then clog landfills when discarded. Could biodegradable clothes be a solution? Fungus gets a bad rap. …The word itself conjures up the notion of mold and decay — the slow ending of something alive. But increasingly, scientists are using mycelium, the threadlike vegetative roots of fungus, to create everything from plastics to packaging materials to plant-based meats, even scaffolding to grow new organs. And now, mycelium is starting to show up in closets as a nature-based material for clothes, shoes and bags slung over shoulders. A new crop of manufacturers are harnessing mycelium to create leather-like materials without the cow. While their products are not yet on the mass market, they’re demonstrating that durable clothing and accessories can be derived from fungi — which is neither plant nor animal — at a lower carbon cost than traditional animal hides or plastics. The fashion industry is the world’s second-most polluting business, behind oil, according to the United Nations. The industry consumes huge quantities of water and produces 10 percent of global carbon emissions — more than all international air travel and maritime shipping combined. Not only does the production of textiles and leather pose environmental problems, so does their disposal. Fast fashion, inexpensive clothes frequently made from oil-based textiles that are designed to be worn briefly, has only compounded the problem. In 1960, Americans tossed 1,710 tons of textiles into landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. By 2017, that amount ballooned to 11,150 tons…. [

See also New York Times article, That Mushroom Motorcycle Jacket Will Never Go Out of Style []
2020-08-30. Big Oil Is in Trouble. Its Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic. By Hiroko TabuchiMichael Corkery and Carlos Mureithi, The New York Times. Excerpt: Confronting a climate crisis that threatens the fossil fuel industry, oil companies are racing to make more plastic. But they face two problems: Many markets are already awash with plastic, and few countries are willing to be dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste. The industry thinks it has found a solution to both problems in Africa. …an industry group representing the world’s largest chemical makers and fossil fuel companies is lobbying to influence United States trade negotiations with Kenya, one of Africa’s biggest economies, to reverse its strict limits on plastics — including a tough plastic-bag ban. It is also pressing for Kenya to continue importing foreign plastic garbage, a practice it has pledged to limit. …“We anticipate that Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying U.S.-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement,” Ed Brzytwa, the director of international trade for the American Chemistry Council, wrote in an April 28 letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. …The plastics proposal reflects an oil industry contemplating its inevitable decline as the world fights climate change. Profits are plunging amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the industry is fearful that climate change will force the world to retreat from burning fossil fuels. Producers are scrambling to find new uses for an oversupply of oil and gas. Wind and solar power are becoming increasingly affordable, and governments are weighing new policies to fight climate change by reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Pivoting to plastics, the industry has spent more than $200 billion on chemical and manufacturing plants in the United States over the past decade. But the United States already consumes as much as 16 times more plastic than many poor nations, and a backlash against single-use plastics has made it tougher to sell more at home…. []   

2020-06-11. Thousands of Tons of Microplastics Are Falling from the Sky. By Scott Hershberger, Scientific American. Excerpt: Carried by the wind, dust particles from places such as the Sahara Desert can float halfway around the world before settling to the ground. As the plastics discarded by humans break down into tiny pieces in the environment, they, too, drift through the atmosphere. …Researchers spent more than a year collecting microplastics from 11 national parks and wilderness areas in the western U.S. …the results, published on Thursday in Science [], reveal the sheer scale of the problem: more than 1,000 metric tons of microplastics—the weight of 120 million to 300 million plastic water bottles—fall on protected lands in the country’s western region each year. The new findings add to scientists’ concern over microplastic pollution’s potential impacts on the environment and human health. …Plastics in the environment “carry all sorts of pesticides, heavy metals and all the other chemicals that we’ve made over time,” he adds. “They’re going to carry them directly into our lungs.” …Janice Brahney, a watershed scientist at Utah State University and lead author of the new study, initially set out to investigate how dust carries nutrients, not plastic. But after peering into her microscope and seeing colorful beads and fibers among the bits of dust, she refocused her efforts. … The particles and fibers they captured originated as carpeting, paint, cosmetic products, camping gear, and more. But the largest contribution came from clothing. …The scientists found microplastics in almost every sample they collected. In total, 4 percent of the identifiable dust particles were plastic. Brahney and her colleagues “immediately realized the gravity of what we were seeing,” she says. “That was a moment of being just completely astounded.”… [ ] See also article in Science [] and New York Times article [].

2020-05-19. Cold War satellites inadvertently tracked species declines. By Stephenie Livingston, Science Magazine. Excerpt: When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, the United States responded with its own spy satellites. The espionage program, known as Corona, sought to locate Soviet missile sites, but its Google Earth–like photography captured something unintended: snapshots of animals and their habitats frozen in time. Now, by comparing these images with modern data, scientists have found a way to track the decline of biodiversity in regions that lack historic records. …The researchers tested the approach on bobak marmot (Marmota bobak) populations in the grassland region of northern Kazakhstan. There, Soviets converted millions of hectares of natural habitat into cropland in the 1960s. The scientists searched the satellites’ black and white film images on a U.S. Geological Survey database for signs of the squirrellike animal’s burrows. They identified more than 5000 historic marmot homes and compared them with contemporary digital images of the region, mapping more than 12,000 marmot burrows in all. About eight generations of marmots occupied the same burrows in the study area over more than 50 years, even when their habitats underwent major changes, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Overall, the researchers estimate the number of marmot burrows dropped by 14% since the ’60s. But the number of burrows in some of the oldest fields—those persistently disturbed by humans plowing grassland to plant wheat—plunged by much more—about 60%. When their burrows were damaged by plowed fields, marmots would often return and rebuild. But the consistent human activity likely weakened marmot families, as the energy animals spent rebuilding took its toll on their health, the team says. The prolonged disturbance may have significantly reduced marmots’ population size in those areas over time, the authors say. … []  

2020-04-08. ‘A huge step forward.’ Mutant enzyme could vastly improve recycling of plastic bottles. By Robert F. Service, Science Magazine. Excerpt: Recycling isn’t as guilt-free as it seems. Only about 30% of the plastic that goes into soda bottles gets turned into new plastic, and it often ends up as a lower strength version. Now, researchers report they’ve engineered an enzyme that can convert 90% of that same plastic back to its pristine starting materials. Work is underway to scale up the technology and open a demonstration plant next year…. []. 

2020-03-23. Bats, insects, coyotes, other wildlife make cities their homes. Urban communities are encouraging this. By Alex Brown, The Washington Post. Excerpt: The nation’s capital is turning drainage ditches into meandering waterways buffered by vegetation, making them more hospitable to birds, fish and reptiles. Instead of mowing the grass, it’s turning open green spaces into meadows filled with plants for pollinators. And it’s encouraging residents to plant milkweed, which has been a boon to monarch butterflies. The District is an urban paradise for many wild animals, and it’s at the forefront of nationwide efforts to make cities and suburbs better places for wildlife. “Generalist” species such as deer, coyotes and raccoons — that thrive in many different conditions — have found cities especially welcoming. Many have been forced out of their natural habitat by development, and an abundance of food and lack of predators make cities a good home. “Animals are just savvy, and they’re starting to adapt because development is pushing them into cities,” said Travis Gallo, who teaches urban ecology at George Mason University…. [

2019-12-30. In Indonesia, Outlaw Gold Miners Poison Themselves to Survive. By Richard C. PaddockPhotographs by Adam Dean, The New York Times. [] Excerpt: TALIWANG, Indonesia — The wildcat miner had something to prove: Processing gold ore with liquid mercury was perfectly safe. So he drank some of the toxic chemical, choosing the promises of gold fever over the pain of mercury poisoning. …For decades, Mr. Syarafuddin and thousands of small-scale miners like him have worked illegally in West Sumbawa on land the government leases to large mining companies. The outlaw miners pay nothing for rights to the land but reap as much as $6 million a month in gold. …About one million small-scale gold miners operate across Indonesia, the world’s largest island nation, and the outlaw industry presents a vexing paradox for the country. The use of mercury in the wildcat camps results in devastating effects on health and the environment. The heavy metal is well known as a slow-acting poison that seeps into the food chain, causing birth defects, neurological disorders and death. But because the mines are a short-term boon to the economy — employing people who might otherwise live in crushing poverty — the government is reluctant to shut them down….

2019-12-30. ‘A Slow-Motion Chernobyl’: How Lax Laws Turned a River Into a Disaster. By Steve Fisher and Elisabeth Malkin, The New York Times.  [] Excerpt: A look at 15 years of attempts to clean up Mexico’s most polluted waterway revealed that the country has neither the means nor the laws to preserve its environment. …By the time the polluted Santiago River bursts over a waterfall on the outskirts of Guadalajara, in western Mexico, its stench seems to be everywhere: hovering over crops, seeping into homes, fouling the tap water. The river smells of industrial waste and sewage — a catastrophe years in the making, with far-ranging consequences. Activists say the chemicals streaming from factories have contributed to a toxic brew that has killed and sickened many along its banks. The environment minister recently called it an “environmental hell.”….

2019-12-29. Our Cherished Rivers Are Under Threat. By Macarena Soler, Monti Aguirre and Juan Pablo Orrego, The New York Times (Opinion). [] Excerpt: … rivers, like many worldwide, have been threatened by dam projects that aim to provide power for distant cities and mining operations. Only one-third of the world’s 177 longest rivers remain free flowing, and just 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) retain a direct connection to the sea. If we are to arrest global climate change, prevent the toxifying of freshwater sources and do right by all those who depend on rivers for survival, we must return more rivers to their natural state. …Hydropower is not a clean, green technology. Rivers help regulate an increasingly volatile global carbon cycle by transporting decaying organic material from land to sea, where it settles on the ocean floor. This draws an estimated 200 million tons of carbon out of the air each year…. 

2019-10-17. Plastic bags were created to save the planet, inventor’s son says. [] By Phoebe Weston, Independent. Excerpt: Plastic bags were invented to save the planet, according to the son of Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin who created them in 1959. The bags were developed as an alternative to paper bags, which were considered bad for the environment because they resulted in forests being chopped down. They were significantly stronger than paper bags, which meant – in theory – they could be used over and over again. However, single-use plastic took off and now our consumption of this polluting material is one of the biggest threats facing the world’s seas, with marine plastic set to outweigh fish by 2050….

2019-10-11. In the Sea, Not All Plastic Lasts Forever. By William J. Broad, The New York Times. [] Excerpt: A major component of ocean pollution is less devastating and more manageable than usually portrayed, according to a scientific team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [] on Cape Cod, Mass., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology []. Previous studies, including one last year by the United Nations Environment Program [], have estimated that polystyrene, a ubiquitous plastic found in trash, could take thousands of years to degrade, making it nearly eternal. But in a new paper [], five scientists found that sunlight can degrade polystyrene in centuries or even decades…. 

2019-08. One Very Bad Habit Is Fueling the Global Recycling Meltdown. By Jackie Flynn Mogensen, Mother Jones. [] Excerpt: It’s called “wishcycling,” and pretty much all of us do it. If you’re like me, you’ve looked at a paper coffee cup or an empty tube of toothpaste and thought, “Is this recyclable?” before tossing it in the recycling bin, hoping someone, somewhere, would sort it out. People in the waste management industry call this habit “wishcycling.” According to Marian Chertow, director of the Solid Waste Policy program at Yale University, “a wishcycler wants to do the right thing and feels that the more that he or she can recycle, the better.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but this well-intentioned reflex is doing more harm than good. Not only that, but wishcycling is playing a big role in the current global recycling meltdown. …in an effort to get more people recycling, companies like Recology have become victims of their own success. In the early 2000s, many communities switched from a dual-stream system, where plastics and glass, and paper and cardboard, each had their own bins, to single-stream, in which all recyclables go into one bin and the sorting is done at the MRF. But when “we decided to put all the things together, we decided to create a contaminated system,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s almost impossible, for example, to put paper in a bin with beverage containers without the paper getting wet, which makes it unrecyclable. And it doesn’t help that many of us are wildly confused about what we should recycle. A decade ago, according to one estimate, 7 percent of the objects Americans put into their bins weren’t supposed to be there. Today, it’s 25 percent. “For every ton of material we get in, there’s 500 pounds of trash that has to be taken out of it,” says Brent Bell, vice president of recycling opera­tions at Waste Management, the country’s largest waste disposal company…. 

2019-08-17. New maps show how little is left of West Coast estuaries. By Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle. [] Excerpt: The most detailed study ever done of coastal estuaries concludes that nearly 750,000 acres of historic tidal wetlands along the West Coast, including enormous swaths of Bay Area habitat, have disappeared largely as a result of development. The cutting-edge survey led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that 85% of vegetated tidal lands that once existed in California, Oregon and Washington has been diked, drained or cut off from the sea. The study, published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS One [], documented dramatic decreases in wetland habitat around San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and nearly 450 other bays, lagoons, river deltas and coastal creek mouths throughout the West. …As the Trump administration relaxes rules protecting wetlands and streams, communities around the bay have already begun identifying areas where tidal marshes can be expanded, restored or re-created. A restoration blueprint, called the San Francisco Bay Shoreline Adaptation Atlas, was released in May by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and SPUR, a San Francisco urban planning research center. …The goal is to eventually restore 100,000 acres of bay marsh, much of it in the Napa and Suisun areas, along the Petaluma River and in the South Bay….

2019-05-28. Food Delivery Apps Are Drowning China in Plastic. By Raymond Zhong and Carolyn Zhang, The New York Times. [] Excerpt: BEIJING — In all likelihood, the enduring physical legacy of China’s internet boom will not be the glass-and-steel office complexes or the fancy apartments for tech elites. It will be the plastic. The astronomical growth of food delivery apps in China is flooding the country with takeout containers, utensils and bags. …The vast majority of this plastic ends up discarded, buried or burned with the rest of the trash, researchers and recyclers say. …People in China still generate less plastic waste, per capita, than Americans. But researchers estimate that nearly three-quarters of China’s plastic waste ends up in inadequately managed landfills or out in the open, where it can easily make its way into the sea. More plastic enters the world’s oceans from China than from any other country. …Recyclers manage to return some of China’s plastic trash into usable form to feed the nation’s factories. The country recycles around a quarter of its plastic, government statistics show, compared with less than 10 percent in the United States. But in China, takeout boxes do not end up recycled, by and large….  

2019-05-20. These tiny microbes are munching away at plastic waste in the ocean. By Helen Santoro, Science Magazine. []  Excerpt: Plastic makes up nearly 70% of all ocean litter, putting countless aquatic species at risk. But … Scientists have discovered that microscopic marine microbes are eating away at the plastic, causing trash to slowly break down. To conduct the study, researchers collected weathered plastic from two different beaches in Chania, Greece. The litter had already been exposed to the sun and undergone chemical changes that caused it to become more brittle, all of which needs to happen before the microbes start to munch on the plastic. The pieces were either polyethylene, the most popular plastic and the one found in products such as grocery bags and shampoo bottles, or polystyrene, a hard plastic found in food packaging and electronics. …Both types of plastic lost a significant amount of weight after being exposed to the natural and engineered microbes, scientists reported in April in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. …researchers still need to measure how effective these microbes would be on a global scale….

2019-04-30. Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered—How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world. By Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart, The New York Times.  [] Excerpt: Does what I eat have an effect on climate change? Yes. The world’s food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year. That includes raising and harvesting all the plants, animals and animal products we eat — beef, chicken, fish, milk, lentils, kale, corn and more — as well as processing, packaging and shipping food to markets all over the world. If you eat food, you’re part of this system.  How exactly does food contribute to global warming? Lots of ways. Here are four of the biggest: When forests are cleared to make room for farms and livestock — this happens on a daily basis in some parts of the world — large stores of carbon are released into the atmosphere, which heats up the planet. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they burp up methane, another potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Animal manure and rice paddies are also big methane sources. Finally, fossil fuels are used to operate farm machinery, make fertilizer and ship food around the globe, all of which generate emissions….  See also New York Times article, The Climate-Friendly Vegetable You Ought to Eat []

2019-03-29. Why Do Garfield Phones Keep Washing Up on This Beach? By Palko Karasz, The New York Times. [] Excerpt: LONDON — For three decades it was a mystery that seemed to defy belief. Bright orange plastic novelty phones shaped like the grumpy cartoon cat Garfield kept washing up on the rocky Atlantic shoreline of Brittany, in western France. Over the years, locals have picked up hundreds of pieces of the phones, including paws, headset cables and even Garfield heads, forever fixed in his familiar smirk. …Last week, volunteers cleaning the beaches solved the puzzle: The source of the Garfield phones was a long-lost shipping container, nestled in a rocky sea cave. “This waste is over 30 years old, and we are still finding bits,” Fabien Boileau, the director of the Iroise Marine Natural Park, told the news site FranceInfo, citing it as an example of plastic debris that never fully breaks down and contributes to ocean pollution. …Around 148 million shipping containers are sent by sea each year, according to the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency. Between 2008 and 2016, shipping companies lost over 1,500 containers on average each year, most during accidents such as capsizing, running aground or when sailing in heavy seas, according to a survey by the World Shipping Council, a trade association….

2019-03-18. Dead Whale Found With 88 Pounds of Plastic Inside Body in the Philippines. By Daniel Victor, The New York Times.] Excerpt: A beached whale found in the Philippines on Saturday died with 88 pounds of plastic trash inside its body, an unusually large amount even by the grim standards of what is a common threat to marine wildlife. The 1,100-pound whale, measuring 15 feet long, was found in the town of Mabini with more than 40 pounds of plastic bags inside its stomach, along with a variety of other disposable plastic products. Darrell Blatchley, owner of the D’Bone Collector Museum in Davao City, attended a necropsy on the whale and called it the worst collection of plastic inside an animal he had ever seen. “The plastic in some areas was so compact it was almost becoming calcified, almost like a solid brick,” said Mr. Blatchley, who has seen other marine mammal post-mortems. “It had been there for so long it had started to compact.” Ingesting plastic gives whales a false sensation of fullness without providing any of the nutrients they need. It leads to reduced weight, energy and swimming speed, making them more vulnerable to predators. They have no way of digesting or expelling the plastic….  

2019-03-16. As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling. By Michael Corkery, The New York Times. [] Excerpt: Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country. Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it. …Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions. …Amid the soaring costs, cities and towns are making hard choices about whether to raise taxes, cut other municipal services or abandon an effort that took hold during the environmental movement of the 1970s….  See also proposed legislation in California: SB-54 California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act.(2019-2020) California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act.(2019-2020)[The California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act would require regulations to source reduce and recycle 75% of single-use packaging and products sold or distributed in California by 2030. It would also require development of criteria to determine which types of single-use packaging or products are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. It would require local governments, solid waste facilities, recycling facilities, and composting facilities to provide information requested by the department for purposes of developing that criteria. It would impose a state-mandated local program. It would require a manufacturer of single-use plastic packaging or products sold or distributed in California to demonstrate a recycling rate of not less than 20% on and after January 1, 2022, and not less than 40% on and after January 1, 2026, as a condition of sale….]

2019-01-24. VIDEO: Inventor Inspired By Childhood Memories Of Fungus. By NPR, from the Joe’s Big Idea series Changing The World, One Invention At A Time. [] Excerpt: In 2007, mechanical engineer Eben Bayer and a friend invented a new kind of packaging material. What makes the stuff unusual is that it’s fully recyclable: It’s made from organic material…, held together by mycelium, the threadlike structures made by a fungus, such as a mushroom….  

2018. Biodegradable plastic: The unintended consequences. United Nations Environment Programme. [] In an effort to reduce plastic pollution, many governments have outlawed conventional plastic bags, allowing only the use and production of “biodegradable” bags. Nonetheless, to limit leakage and damage to the environment, the presence of sound waste management systems are as relevant for the so- called bio-degradable options as for fossil fuel-based plastics. Often “biodegradable” plastic items (including single-use plastic bags and containers) break down completely only if exposed to prolonged high temperatures above 50°C (122°F). Such conditions are met in incineration plants, but very rarely in the environment. Therefore, even bioplastic derived from renewable sources (such as corn starch, cassava roots, or sugarcane) or from bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids (PHA) do not automatically degrade in the environment and especially not in the ocean.

2018-11-30. Why are these Costa Rican monkeys turning yellow? By Helen Santoro, Science Magazine. . [] Excerpt: Chameleons and squid can change their colors, but monkeys cannot—until humans get involved. Researchers have spotted typically black mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) in Costa Rica starting to sport distinct yellow patches on their tails and legs, the first evidence of a rapid change in the pigmentation of primate fur. To figure out what was going on, scientists analyzed the fur of one of these color-changing monkeys. Mantled howler monkeys typically have a type of melanin—the pigment that colors hair and skin cells—called eumelanin that is black, gray, or dark brown. In the yellow hairs, the researchers noticed the melanin had changed to a sulfur-containing type called pheomelanin, seen in animals with yellow, red, or orange tones. The researchers believe the animals are ingesting the sulfur when they eat leaves on the trees surrounding pineapple, banana, and African palm oil farms that have been sprayed with pesticides. This sulfur may be mixing with the hair’s pigment structure and changing its overall composition, scientists suggest. In recent years, farms in Costa Rica have used a greater number of these pesticides….  

2018-11-20. Dead sperm whale found in Indonesia had ingested ‘6kg of plastic’. By BBC News. [] Excerpt: A dead sperm whale that washed ashore in a national park in Indonesia had nearly 6kg (13 lbs) of plastic waste in its stomach, park officials say. Items found included 115 drinking cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags and two flip-flops. The carcass of the 9.5m (31ft) mammal was found in waters near Kapota Island in the Wakatobi National Park late on Monday. The discovery has caused consternation among environmentalists. …It was not possible to say whether the plastic had caused the whale’s death because of its advanced state of decay, she added. …In a tweet, WWF Indonesia gave the breakdown of what was found inside the animal: “Hard plastic (19 pieces, 140g), plastic bottles (4 pieces, 150g), plastic bags (25 pieces, 260g), flip-flops (2 pieces, 270g), pieces of string (3.26kg) & plastic cups (115 pieces, 750g).”….

2018-09-27. Long-banned toxin may wipe out many killer whales. By Elizabeth Pennisi, Science Magazine. [] Excerpt: …one of the more dangerous industrial pollutants of the last century is wreaking havoc on killer whale populations worldwide. …polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) may be slowly wiping out some groups of these iconic marine mammals…as well… seals and sharks. “It’s sobering to be made aware of the potential long-term effects of chemicals that were introduced into the environment over 80 years ago,” says Steven Bursian, an environmental toxicologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who was not involved with the work. …PCBs were first discovered in coal tar in the late 1800s…. They form thick liquids that proved useful as hydraulic fluids, lubricating oils, paint and concrete stabilizers, and nonflammable insulation in electrical transformers. …Companies produced more than a million tons of PCBs before scientists linked them to cancer and immune system, reproductive, and endocrine related health problems in both people and animals. The major user and producer, the United States, banned their production in 1978, and a global ban finally went into effect in 2004. For a while, PCB concentrations in the environment dropped precipitously. …But these pollutants don’t break down easily. They are still leaking into the environment from landfills, river-bottom sediments, and other places they were dumped. Consumed by microbes, they enter the food chain and eventually they build up in fat and blubber of animals, especially top predators such as killer whales, which prey on other predators such as seals or fish that themselves have stored PCBs….

2018-09-24. Common weed killer—believed harmless to animals—may be harming bees worldwide. By Warren Cornwall, Science Magazine. [] Excerpt: Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and one long touted as harmless to animals, might be taking a toll on honey bees. The chemical appears to disrupt the microbial community in the bees’ digestive system, making them more vulnerable to infection. The discovery adds another potential reason for the alarming decline of honey bees in parts of the world, as well as that of other pollinators that live in colonies, such as bumble bees. …Nancy Moran, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas in Austin, … has spent a decade examining the gut microbiome—the population of bacteria that inhabit the intestines of animals—of honey bees (Apis mellifera). She and colleagues took approximately 2000 bees from a hive and fed some a sugar syrup and others syrup dosed with glyphosate at levels similar to those they might encounter in the environment while foraging for food. …bees that consumed glyphosate had five times less of the bacterium. In a petri dish, most strains of S. alvi either slowed or stopped growing after a high dose of glyphosate. This change in a bee’s microbial inhabitants appears to make it more vulnerable to lethal infections. In tests on several hundred bees, only 12% of insects fed glyphosate survived infection from Serratia marcescens—a bacterium widely found in trace amounts in beehives and bee guts…—compared with 47% not fed glyphosate. …The discovery also raises questions about whether glyphosate is affecting the microbiome of other animals, including people….

2018-09-09. Giant Trap Is Deployed to Catch Plastic Littering the Pacific Ocean. By Christina Caron, The New York Times. [] F Excerpt: A multimillion-dollar floating boom designed to corral plastic debris littering the Pacific Ocean deployed from San Francisco Bay on Saturday as part of a larger high-stakes and ambitious undertaking. The 2,000-foot-long unmanned structure was the product of about $20 million in funding from the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit that aims to trap up to 150,000 pounds of plastic during the boom’s first year at sea. Within five years, with the creation of dozens more booms, the organization hopes to clean half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch, a gyre of trash between California and Hawaii, comprises an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of scattered detritus, including at least 87,000 tons of plastic…. See also: Controversial plastic trash collector begins maiden ocean voyage (Science Magazine)

2018-08-06. Designing the Death of a Plastic. By Xiaozhi Lim, The New York Times. Excerpt: Decades ago, synthetic polymers became popular because they were cheap and durable. Now, scientists are creating material that self-destructs or breaks down for reuse on command….

2018-06-27. Tropical forests suffered near-record tree losses in 2017. By Brad Plumer, San Francisco Chronicle. Excerpt: In Brazil, forest fires set by farmers and ranchers to clear land for agriculture raged out of control last year, wiping out more than 3 million acres of trees as a severe drought gripped the region. Those losses undermined Brazil’s recent efforts to protect its rain forests. In Colombia, a landmark peace deal between the government and the country’s largest rebel group paved the way for a rush of mining, logging and farming that caused deforestation in the nation’s Amazon region to spike last year. And in the Caribbean, hurricanes Irma and Maria flattened nearly one-third of the forests in Dominica and a wide swath of trees in Puerto Rico last summer. In all, the world’s tropical forests lost roughly 39 million acres of trees last year, an area roughly the size of Bangladesh or Iowa, according to a report Wednesday by Global Forest Watch that used new satellite data from the University of Maryland. Forest Watch is part of the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. That made 2017 the second-worst year for tropical tree cover loss in the satellite record, just below the losses in 2016. …Trees, particularly those in the lush tropics, pull carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow and lock that carbon in their wood and soil. When humans cut down or burn trees, the carbon gets released back into the atmosphere, warming the planet….

2018-06-04. Whale’s Death in Thailand Points to Global Scourge: Plastic in Oceans. By Mike Ives, The New York Times. Excerpt: HONG KONG — Hundreds of turtles, dolphins and whales become stranded every year on Thailand’s beaches after plastic impedes their mobility or clogs their insides. Some are lifeless on arrival, biologists say, and their deaths barely register with the public. But the survival of a pilot whale that washed ashore in southern Thailand last week, in critical condition and with a belly full of black plastic bags, became a cause célèbre for ordinary people. And its death a few days later was a vivid reminder of a staggering global problem: plastics in the oceans and seas. …After the whale’s death on Friday, a necropsy showed that it had washed ashore in the southern province of Songkhla with nearly 18 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Veterinarians had tried to save its life all week, to no avail. …Of the roughly 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics produced worldwide since the 1950s, about 6.3 billion have been thrown away, according to a 2017 study in the journal Science Advances. The study said that if current production and waste-management trends continued, about 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste would be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. A need for packaging is the main driver of plastics consumption globally, and the study’s authors said that packaging made up 54 percent of the nonfiber plastic thrown away in 2015. …an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste made its way into the world’s oceans each year — equivalent to “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” the study’s lead author, Jenna Jambeck, told The New York Times….

2018-03-22. Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now nearly 4 times the size of California. By Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle. Excerpt: The giant mass of floating plastic that has imperiled birds and wildlife between San Francisco and Hawaii contains 1.8 trillion pieces of trash covering an area nearly four times the size of California — significantly bigger than previously thought — and it is growing, a study published Thursday concluded. A team of scientists from the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, based in the Netherlands, said the debris field, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covers about 618,000 square miles of deep ocean and weighs 80,000 metric tons. It is the largest accumulation of ocean plastics on Earth, and a serious threat to both marine animals and people, according to the three-year mapping study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. That’s because eating plastic, which contains several harmful chemicals, can be toxic, so the birds and fish that eat it and the humans who in turn eat them can suffer health problems. It is a particularly difficult problem to stop because the discarded plastic collects algae that smells to birds like seafood, according to a 2016 UC Davis study. Other studies have shown that as many as 90 percent of seabirds have plastic in their guts…. See also

2017-12-04. London Mayor Seeks Revival of Public Drinking Fountains. By Alan Cowell, The New York Times. Excerpt: LONDON …There was a time when skeptical old-timers derided bottled water as little more than a marketer’s trick to lure consumers into paying for a liquid that should cost next to nothing. And, equally, there were many people who asked where else they would find water when public drinking fountains had all but disappeared. But as concerns mount over the detritus of plastics that elude recycling, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, let it be known on Monday that he wished to redress the balance by providing more drinking fountains and bottle-filling stations while reducing the prevalence of single-use packaging. …The mayor, according to a news release from his office, “has asked City Hall officers to examine the feasibility of a pilot community water refill scheme or other interventions.” And he “supports boroughs in identifying suitable locations for water fountains and bottle-refill stations during the planning in new or redeveloped public spaces, such as town centers, shopping malls, parks and squares.” …Globally, plastic bottles have become an environmentalist’s nightmare, with some reports suggesting that about half of the billions of bottles in circulation are not recycled….. 0

2017-11-25. China Limits Waste. ‘Cardboard Grannies’ and Texas Recyclers Scramble. By Mike Ives, The New York Times. Excerpt: Since the 1990s, the world has shipped its waste paper, discarded plastic and unwanted metals to China, where they are destined to be used as raw materials to help power the country’s export-driven manufacturing boom. In 2016, China imported about $18 billion worth of what the government calls solid waste. But China doesn’t want to be the rest of the world’s trash can. Over the summer, regulators in Beijing started an unusually intense crackdown on what they called “foreign garbage,” citing health and environmental concerns. …Scrap dealers are rushing to find buyers elsewhere in Asia, but the Chinese market is so large that it cannot be easily replaced. …In the United States, the new rules mean more garbage could stay at home. While that could be good news for some recyclers, it could also mean more waste in the country’s landfills, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a lobbying group based in Washington. Recyclers might also have to upgrade their facilities to handle the waste, leading to higher costs for American municipalities and taxpayers….

2017-11-16. A Population of Billions May Have Contributed to This Bird’s Extinction. By Steph Yin, The New York Times. Excerpt: North America was once a utopia for passenger pigeons. When European colonizers first arrived, as many as 5 billion of the gray-backed, copper-breasted and iridescent beauties roamed the continent, possibly the most abundant bird to have ever graced the planet. …Then, in just a few decades, the inconceivable happened: Commercialized and excessively hunted, the birds vanished. A paper published in Science on Thursday sheds new light on why the creatures went extinct so swiftly and thoroughly. Analyzing the DNA of preserved birds, the researchers found evidence that natural selection was extremely efficient in passenger pigeons. This might have made the pigeons particularly well-suited for living in dense flocks, but unable to cope with living in sparse groups once their numbers started to plummet, the authors suggest. Biologists generally assume that a large population corresponds to high genetic diversity, which acts as a buffer to extinction…. But passenger pigeons were so plentiful and so mobile that beneficial genetic mutations spread and detrimental ones disappeared very quickly throughout their population. This caused a loss in overall genetic diversity, which meant less raw material for adapting to human-induced change. …“We were astounded to learn that the passenger pigeon population had been enormous for at least 20,000 years,” Dr. Shapiro said. “That meant they were really big during the last ice age, and they remained big even as the climate changed dramatically during the warming period after.”  …The passenger pigeon illustrates that even species with colossal population sizes are not safe from disappearing….

2017-10-21. Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots. By Eric Lipton, The New York Times. Excerpt: A scientist who worked for the chemical industry now shapes policy on hazardous chemicals. Within the E.P.A., there is fear that public health is at risk. … For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has struggled to prevent an ingredient once used in stain-resistant carpets and nonstick pans from contaminating drinking water. The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders and other serious health problems. So scientists and administrators in the E.P.A.’s Office of Water were alarmed in late May when a top Trump administration appointee insisted upon the rewriting of a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of the chemical, and therefore regulate it. The revision was among more than a dozen demanded by the appointee, Nancy B. Beck, after she joined the E.P.A.’s toxic chemical unit in May as a top deputy. For the previous five years, she had been an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association….

2017-10-20. Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them? By Henry Fountain, The New York Times. Excerpt: The country lost most of its trees long ago. Despite years of replanting, it isn’t making much progress. …The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change. But restoring even a portion of Iceland’s once-vast forests is a slow and seemingly endless task. Despite the planting of three million or more trees in recent years, the amount of land that is covered in forest — estimated at about 1 percent at the turn of the 20th century, when reforestation was made a priority — has barely increased. …Even in a small country like Iceland, a few million trees a year is just a drop in the bucket. …With vegetation unable to gain much of a foothold, farming and grazing have been next to impossible in many parts of the country. And the loose soil, combined with Iceland’s strong winds, has led to sandstorms that can further damage the land — and even blast the paint off cars….

2017-08-17. UC Berkeley Sutardja Center launches new lab to take on $1 trillion meat industry. By Keith McAleer, UC Berkeley Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. Excerpt: The University of California, Berkeley is creating a new Alternative Meats Lab (alt.meat lab) to give students a leg up on a trillion-dollar market opportunity: transforming the meat industry. The lab at Berkeley will use the latest technology tools and techniques to engineer plant-based meat alternatives – with animal meat-eaters as the target market. “There is evidence that meat-lovers would buy plant-based meat alternatives if the taste is right,” said visiting professor Ricardo San Martin, co-chair for the new lab, “One of our goals for the lab will be to develop delicious food that is similar to meat from a nutritional and functional perspective, but may not necessarily mimic meat exactly.” According to the North American Meat Institute, the U.S. meat market topped $1 trillion in 2016, amounting to nearly six percent of overall U.S. GDP. There are many venture-capital backed startups developing plant-based products aiming to compete with traditional meat, but typically their approaches and techniques have been industry secrets. One of the goals of the alt.meat lab will be to develop research to open up the industry by freely distributing findings in order to enable more entrepreneurs to be successful around the world in the meat alternatives space….

2017-07-19. The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics. By Tatiana Schlossberg, The New York Times. For GSS Ecosystem Change chapter 7. Excerpt: …From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004. …A new study in Science Advances published Wednesday offered the first analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured: how much has been made, what kind and what happens to the material once it has outlived its use. …staggering amounts of near-eternal litter is present in the environment — the oceans, landfills and freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems — and the numbers are quite likely to increase, with 12 billion metric tons accumulating in landfills or in the environment by 2050. …Scientists estimate that five million to 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, according to previous studies. New data suggests contamination in rivers and streams, as well as on land, is increasingly common, with most of the pollution in the form of microscopic pieces of synthetic fibers, largely from clothing. The primary explanation for the rocketing rise in plastic is its use in packaging, which accounted for about 42 percent of nonfiber plastic production in 2015. Building and construction is the next largest plastic-consuming sector; it used 19 percent of nonfiber plastic that year. …Most of the plastic that has been made is no longer in use — about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been thrown away since 1950. About 12 percent of that has been incinerated, which is the only way to permanently dispose of plastic; 9 percent has been recycled, which only delays final disposal; and 60 percent — about 4.9 billion metric tons — is in landfills or scattered in the environment….

2017-05-24. Fig Leaves Are Out. What to Wear to Be Kind to the Planet?  By Tatiana Schossberg, The New York Times. Excerpt: In the Garden of Eden, figuring out what to wear was easy and the fig leaves were environmentally friendly. Today, it’s much harder to find clothes that don’t have some kind of negative impact on the planet. Textile manufacturers use complicated chemical and industrial processes to make clothing materials, from cotton to synthetic fibers. And while the environmental consequences aren’t always clear, consumption is growing. …Buying less is the easiest way to make a difference. But when you do need new clothes, you will usually be choosing among four major types of fibers: oil-based synthetics, cotton, rayon and wool. Their environmental trade-offs are so varied that a definitive ranking would be impossible. But here’s what we know, so you can make more informed decisions. …Polyester, one of the most common fibers, is a plastic derived from crude oil. … early research showed that plastic fibers are among the most abundant environmental debris in the world …cotton production still uses just over 2 percent of the world’s arable land and accounts for about 3 percent of global water use, according to the United Nations. …Most rayon today is produced as viscose rayon, which is treated with chemicals, including carbon disulfide…[that] can cause serious health problems for rayon workers, including Parkinson’s disease, premature heart attack and strokeCotton also requires pesticides. …Viscose rayon is often made from bamboo. In Indonesia and other areas, producers are cutting down old-growth forests to plant bamboo for rayon…. “The best thing we can all do is buy less and wear more”….

2017-04-30. ‘Living river’ rejuvenates Napa, brings needed flood control. By John King, San Francisco Chronicle. Excerpt: The flood control project that has transformed downtown Napa is everything that’s out of favor in today’s spiteful political scene. It is complex and nuanced, forged by people from across the ideological spectrum working together. It combines old-school engineering with a far-sighted focus on environmental needs. But here’s the crucial detail. It works, improving the local landscape and economy in ways no traditional solution could have achieved….

2017-04-14. Eating ecosystems. By Justin S. Brashares, Kaitlyn M. Gaynor, Science. Excerpt: The hunting and trade of tropical wildlife is a multibillion dollar enterprise that provides food and livelihoods to millions but is also the single greatest threat to the persistence of our planet’s larger mammals and birds (1). Hunting not only directly affects harvested wildlife but also reshapes entire ecosystems and, in some cases, human societies (1–3). It can change food web interactions, enable disease transmission to humans, and even fund militias (3). Yet, the impacts of wildlife harvest have been difficult to measure because of the largely unregulated and remote nature of hunting and its co-occurrence with other anthropogenic disturbances. On page 180 of this issue, Benítez-López et al. (4) present a broadscale, synthetic effort to quantify the effects of hunting on birds and mammals throughout the tropics….

2016-11-14. Vast and Pristine, Russia’s Lake Baikal Is Invaded by Toxic Algae. By Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times. Excerpt: LAKE BAIKAL, Russia — …The world’s oldest, deepest and most voluminous lake, Baikal holds 20 percent of the planet’s unfrozen freshwater. It is often described as the world’s cleanest lake. …that is no longer the case. Senogda’s once pristine sands were buried under thick mats of reeking greenish-black goo. …The muck, scientists have discovered, follows mass algal blooms at dozens of sites around Lake Baikal’s 1,240-mile perimeter. Confined to shallow water and shores near towns and villages, the problem seems to stem from an influx of untreated sewage — the result of inadequate wastewater treatment. …Algal blooms threaten iconic freshwater bodies around the world, including the Great Lakes, Lake Geneva, and Lake Biwa in Japan. But Lake Baikal is especially precious: a World Heritage site home to more than 3,700 species, more than half found nowhere else. “People are dumping sewage, waste and rubbish around the lake, creating pretty appalling conditions in some places,” said Anson MacKay, an environmental scientist at University College London. Runoff from fertilizers and other pollutants leads to so-called eutrophication, an excessive growth of algae. These blooms eventually deplete the water of oxygen, suffocating aquatic plants and animals. Russian scientists had assumed that Lake Baikal is simply too vast to suffer such a fate, but recent growth in tourism and development seem to be changing the calculus….

2016-07-13. Global Risks and Research Priorities for Coastal Subsidence. By Mead Allison, et al, EoS, AGU. Excerpt: Some of the world’s largest cities are sinking faster than the oceans are rising. Humans are part of the problem, but we can also be part of the solution through monitoring and modeling. Coastal lowlands, which rise less than 10 meters above sea level, are particularly vulnerable to the climate change effects forecast for the 21st century, including the threat of inundation by accelerating sea level rise and increases in severity and frequency of tropical storm surges. These threats coincide with a worldwide surge in human population in coastal areas. Coastal population centers include several megacities, whose populations exceed 10 million. …To make matters worse, many coastal areas are sinking even faster than the waters are rising: Natural and human-driven subsidence rates arising from shallow processes can be one to two orders of magnitude greater than the rate of climate-driven sea level rise predicted for the remainder of the 21st century….

2016-03-25. San Francisco, ‘the Silicon Valley of Recycling’. By Matt Richter, The New York Times. Excerpt: You won’t find San Francisco’s Pier 96 in any travel guidebook but it has become a must-see destination for visitors from Afghanistan to Vietnam. They’ve come to explore Recology — Mr. Reed is a spokesman — one of the world’s most advanced recycling plants, a deafening, Rube Goldberg system of conveyor belts and sorters that, with the help of human hands, untangles a 30-foot hill of debris collected by trucks every day from across the city. …Foreign officials and others come here to pick up tips on how to handle their own mushrooming piles of garbage back home. As the world’s population grows, people are consuming more, creating more trash, and countries are looking for ways to deal with it that put less stress on the environment. Many are part of a growing movement sometimes called Zero Waste or the Circular Economy. It entails trying to eliminate tough-to-recycle items like flimsy plastic bags and also pioneering new ways to recycle or compost everything else. …Today, San Francisco diverts around 80 percent of waste away from landfills, putting it among the elite recycling cities. …The first step is the separation of all recyclable garbage, … human “classifiers” wearing masks, gloves and aprons pull out the biggest pieces of cardboard and drop them down chutes where they are baled. A few feet later, everything else bustles up a fast-moving moving ladder that carries the lighter paper to the top, while heavier cans and bottles fall back down. The bottles and cans are then divided. Farther along, an optical sorter uses a beam of light to determine which plastic bottles are clear and which ones are colored. The clear ones are flipped off the belt by puffs of air. “It’s Willy Wonka’s everything-you-can-imagine recycling place,” …

2016-02-02. Glyphosate Now the Most-Used Agricultural Chemical Ever. By Douglas Main, Newsweek. Excerpt: The world is awash in glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, produced by Monsanto. It has now become the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world, and many argue that’s a problem, since the substance comes with concerning albeit incompletely-determined health effects. A study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe reveals that Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974. Worldwide, 9.4 million tons of the chemical have been sprayed onto fields. For comparison, that’s equivalent to the weight of water in more than 2,300 Olympic-size swimming pools. …the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer unanimously determined that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”  …Research has also shown that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it interferes with the proper functioning and production of hormones, in human cell lines.  …Monsanto says that glyphosate does not pose a threat to humans. …More obviously, the mass-spraying of glyphosate has led to the explosion of resistant weeds, which have evolved to survive despite being sprayed. Already, weeds resistant to the herbicide are found on half of all American farmers’ fields…. …the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has relaxed its rules about what it considers a safe level of glyphosate. Fifty times more glyphosate is allowed on corn grain now than in 1996…. The agency has also increased what it considers a safe amount of glyphosate exposure by a factor of 17. …it is robbing farmers of income, which is diverted to companies that produce herbicides and herbicide-resistant crops like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. “The bottom line is that at least 30 percent of the net income that used to go to farmers is now going to [these companies],” Benbrook says, and it continues to get worse. That’s frustrating to weed scientists like Mortensen, who knows that there are ways to combat crops without using quite so much herbicide. For example, the use of winter cover crops like wheat can reduce the amount of weeds that grow in the spring, with the additional benefit of reducing erosion and improving water quality….

2015-11-25. Huge development projects could doom Africa’s environment. By Virginia Morell, Science. Excerpt: Africa, still covered in large swathes of pristine wilderness, is likely to lose much of its biological wealth if dozens of new massive development projects—from highways to railroads to pipelines—get the green light, according to a new study. Most of the projects are designed to increase agricultural production and ease the transport of minerals such as iron and coal. Yet if all are built, they’ll create a spider web of some 53,000 kilometers of corridors through deserts, forests, and savannas—and a host of environmental disasters, scientists say. Even worse, they contend, most won’t help the continent feed its people, even though this is the primary justification behind many of the projects. “Africa is undergoing the most dramatic era of development it’s ever experienced,” says William Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University, Cairns, in Australia, and the study’s lead author. “No one disputes its need for food and economic development. But these corridors need to be built without creating environmental crises.” …the researchers assessed the potential of 33 such projects to improve agricultural production, and then quantified the environmental costs. …their analysis shows that only five of the 33 projects would meet these dual goals, the team reports online today in Current Biology. Twenty-two of the projects are marginal, meaning that they’re important either for the environment or for agriculture, but not both. And six don’t meet either goal because they would cut through areas with high environmental values without delivering high agricultural returns….

2010-08-31. Up to 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts, study finds. By Associated Press, The Guardian. Excerpt: Birds are eating ‘astronomical’ amount of marine debris they mistake for fish eggs, with the biggest problem areas near Australia and New Zealand. …As many as nine out of 10 of the world’s seabirds are likely to have pieces of plastic in their guts, a new study estimates. An Australian team of scientists who have studied birds and marine debris found that far more seabirds were affected than the previous estimate of 29%. Their results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. …study coauthor Denise Hardesty, a senior research scientist at the CSIRO… said the problem with plastics in the ocean was increasing as the world made more of it. “In the next 11 years we will make as much plastic as has been made since industrial plastic production began in the 1950s.” Birds mistook plastic bits for fish eggs so “they think they’re getting a proper meal but they’re really getting a plastic meal”, Hardesty said…

2015-05-01. Cleveland Indians Have Home-Field Advantage on Recycling. By Diane Cardwell, The New York Times. Excerpt: Cleveland Indians game at Progressive Field, as players warmed up on the jewel-green field, it was business as usual in the garage behind left field for C. L. Gholston, a dishwasher. He had wheeled down gray bins full of kitchen scraps — pineapple and melon rinds, carrot shavings and tomato ends — that were all part of the mix he fed into a contraption he calls the energy machine. Built by InSinkErator, the garbage disposal maker, the machine grinds all types of food waste, including skin, fat, flesh and bone, into a slurry that is later transformed into energy and fertilizer at a plant operated by the renewable energy company Quasar. As governments and industry seek to reduce emissions of methane — a more powerful heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide — by limiting the amount of organic waste in landfills, large food processors are looking for new ways to get rid of their leftovers. Food waste, an estimated 34 million tons a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent figures, is the largest component of landfills, which are responsible for roughly 18 percent of the nation’s methane emissions….

2015-05-01. Hacking Our Diet. onEarth magazine of NRDC. Excerpt: The American way of eating is bad for our health—and the planet’s. Let’s reboot. Around the middle of the last century, everything changed about the way Americans eat. Drugs, chemicals, and machinery transformed thousands of years of agriculture in just a few short decades, with world-shaping results. We can produce way more, yes—but we’re using more land, more fuel, more pesticides, and more drugs to do it, with a deleterious impact on our water, wildlife, public health, and climate. …significant change is on the menu, driven by social, cultural, and, particularly, technological innovations in how we produce, package, ship, and store our food….

2014-07-24. Satellite Study Reveals Parched U.S. West Using Up Underground Water. Excerpt: A new study by NASA and University of California, Irvine, scientists finds more than 75 percent of the water loss in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin since late 2004 came from underground resources. The extent of groundwater loss may pose a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought. …the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years. The research team used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission [ and] to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface. …the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater, …about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) — was from groundwater. …”We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out,” said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s lead author. “This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”…  NASA RELEASE 14-200.

2014-06-05. Putting a Price Tag on Nature’s Defenses. Excerpt: …Coastal marshes absorb the wind energy and waves of storms, weakening their impact farther inland. …the services ecosystems provide us — whether shielding us from storms, preventing soil erosion or soaking up the greenhouse gases that lead to global warming — were [$33 trillion] twice as valuable as the gross national product of every country on Earth in 1997. …Dr. Costanza and his colleagues have now updated the 1997 estimate in a new study, published in the May issue of the journal Global Environmental Change, and concluded that the original estimate was far too low. The true value of the services of the world’s ecosystems is at least three times as high…. Coral reefs…protect against soil erosion by weakening waves before they reach land. …Dr. Costanza and his colleagues now consider the services provided by coral reefs to be 42 times more valuable than they did in 1997…a total of $11 trillion worldwide. Most of the 17 services that Dr. Costanza and his colleagues analyzed…— including tropical forests, mangroves and grasslands — also turned out to be more valuable. …they came up with a global figure of $142.7 trillion a year (in 2014 dollars). …the world’s reefs shrank from 240,000 square miles in 1997 to 108,000 in 2011. …deforestation and other damage we’ve inflicted on the natural world has wiped out $23 trillion a year in ecosystem services. To put that loss into perspective, consider that the gross domestic product of the United States is $16.2 trillion….  By Carl Zimmer, The New York Times.

2014-04-09. The Redeemers. Excerpt: …Every year, electronics consumers around the world generate at least 20 million tons of “e-waste.” …The salvageable commodities to be found in our e-waste, mainly precious metals like gold and copper, share space with a number of hazardous and difficult-to-extract materials such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. …Kabira Stokes, Isidore’s founder and CEO, looks at all of this high-tech trash and sees in it a veritable gold mine (or copper mine, depending). Through a process known as de-manufacturing, her employees collect and sort unwanted electronics donated by individuals or companies. Salvageable metals, plastics, and wire are bundled and sold to certified processors en route to being recycled into new goods…. But at Isidore, the philosophy of redemption doesn’t stop with motherboards and monitors. The men working the floor are themselves part of a reclamation project: each of them came to work at Isidore after serving hard time in California’s correctional system. As ex-prisoners, they are generally considered among the least employable individuals in society. But if the word “recycling” means anything to Stokes, it means believing in second chances and salvation. From a purely business standpoint, it also means capitalizing on the considerable energies and talents of an overlooked, undervalued segment of the labor force. As Stokes puts it: “It doesn’t make sense that just because someone messes up and serves time, we never actually forgive them. It’s not working. And it’s a waste of value.”….  By Lynell George, OnEarth magazine (NRDC). 

2013-12-17. How Beyoncé Is Saving the Planet With Her New Album.  Excerpt: Purchasing “Beyoncé” online instead of as a CD could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent. …the singer and Columbia Records dropped her entire self-titled fifth album exclusively for digital download on iTunes. Of course, it’s not the first digital launch, but it’s one of the most successful … moving more than 800,000 electronic copies in just three days to become the US iTunes Store’s fastest-selling album ever; …2009 study found the average compact disc sold in the UK produces around 2.2 pounds of greenhouse gases across its lifecycle: recording, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, transport, and promotion. Packaging accounted for more than a third of these emissions. …And let’s not forget Beyoncé’s complete lack of pre-promotion for the album. …A United Kingdom report from data collected in 2009 for the British Recorded Music Industry and the Association of Independent Music (UK) shows the current emissions from promo CDs from the indie music sector alone is around 1,700 metric tons—equivalent to more than three times the annual energy, water, and waste emissions from a single music arena. By completely switching to digital delivery of these releases, the independent music sector could save 1,525 metric tons of CO2 annually. That’s a reduction of 86 percent…. James West, Mother Jones.

2013-09-15.  How to replace foam and plastic packaging with mushroom experiments. Excerpt: …”We’re taking local farm waste and mixing it with tissues from mushrooms and growing replacements for plastic foams that are used in protective packaging,” explains Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and one of the chief scientists at Ecovative Design, a “revolutionary new biomaterials company” in Green Island…. More traditional Styrofoam packaging is made of polystyrene, an unsustainable petrochemical, and can take up to a million years to biodegrade naturally. One of Ecovative’s goals is to develop packaging materials that not only decompose faster and more naturally, but also give back to the ecosystem. They do this by utilizing mycelium, the microscopic root structure that allows mushrooms to grow on trees and spread throughout the forest floor…. Local agricultural waste, such as corn stalks and husks, is cleaned and then mixed with mycelium. The mixture is incubated for about two days before being ground up and packed into molds. After allowing the mycelium to grow and fill out for about three more days, the molds are baked in a low-temperature oven to prevent further growth. They are then removed from the molds and trimmed to fit as packaging pieces for electronics, car parts, and more…. They’re currently developing insulation for houses, using the same mushroom root growth structure to create a layer between the interior walls and exterior siding. The mycelium growth between the walls provides insulation, structure, and even an extra layer of protection for homes.” The mycelium itself acts as a sort of fire retardant,” …., Meredith Kile, AlJazeera America.  

2013-06-19.  China puts up a green wall to US trash. Excerpt: Have you ever wondered what happens to the soda can that you toss into a recycling bin? Chances are high that it ends up in China – like 75 percent of the aluminum scrap that the United States exports. Or 60 percent of its scrap paper exports. Or 50 percent of its plastic. But a new Chinese edict, banning “foreign rubbish,” has thrown the international scrap and waste trade into turmoil and is posing a major new challenge for US recyclers. …Chinese recyclers “have got used to expecting 20 percent trash” in the bales of mixed plastics they buy from the US, …. That trash has to be sorted from the recyclables, then buried or burned, further degrading China’s environment. …The international trade has boomed partly because the US cannot dispose of all the waste it generates; …. “If the US border were closed, most of the scrap that is exported today would go to landfill,” says Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “We don’t have the capacity to absorb it all.” …”We used to send garbage because it was the cheapest thing to do and because the Chinese would accept it,” Mr. Powell explains. The new Chinese policy, he says, will force US recyclers either to sort recyclables more carefully, or to recycle more material in the US, or both….. Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor.

2013-06-18.  Why Bottled Water Is Insane.   Excerpt: …while that bottle of [water] goes for $1.79, the same amount from your tap … might go for $.00063 for the same 20 oz…. to illustrate the general insanity of bottled water … in Colorado…marketing equals an unceasing stream of semi-trucks driving between a series of wells and a bottling plant in Denver, about three hours away. One truck pulls up, fills, and drives on, to be immediately replaced by another empty truck, and so on. In the process, they are draining an aquifer that feeds the Arkansas River. [the bottled water company] has purchased the rights to this water from the municipality of Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Water that [the company] takes from the Arkansas is replaced by [the company’s] water supply, and then pumped into the river not far upstream from [the company’s] wells. So [the company] takes water from the Arkansas, trucks it, bottles it, and then trucks it again to stores. Meanwhile, it’s returning the same amount of water in less marketable form to the river…. Michael Byrne, Motherboard.

2013-05-23. Scraps and the City. Excerpt: …Food and other organic material (by which I mean yard waste and prunings) make up a whopping 25 percent of New York’s residential waste stream: that’s a huge amount to potentially divert from landfills and incinerators. Compost it instead and we’d be saving the city money (New York spends more than $330 million a year hauling waste to landfills) and avoiding the generation of the greenhouse gas methane, which is produced when organic material rots in the airless confines of a dump. Not too many people consider the biochemical fallout of their banana peels, but solid-waste managers across the nation are beginning to see organics collection as the next frontier, after recycling, in reducing their waste streams. Today, more than 160 American communities, serving more than 1.2 million households, have programs for separating organics from the trash — an increase of more than 50 percent since 2009. …Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a pilot program for collecting organic material from the curbsides of several Staten Island neighborhoods, a couple of homeless-services agencies in Brooklyn, three high-rises in Manhattan, and 72 schools in two boroughs. Should the two-year pilot succeed — with high participation rates and the diversion of significant tonnages — the program will roll out across the city.  … may take some time for cranky, impatient New Yorkers to get used to the idea of segregating their food scraps, but …If you make it convenient for people, and teach them that this is an important issue, they will eventually change their behavior.  …Twenty years from now, …people will shake their heads and say, ‘You were spending $100 million a year exporting food waste to landfills and allowing it to emit methane into the atmosphere? What were you thinking?’” …. Elizabeth Royte, On Earth Magazine NRDC. 

2013-04-30.  A City That Turns Garbage Into Energy Copes With a Shortage. Excerpt: OSLO — This is a city that imports garbage. Some comes from England, some from Ireland. Some is from neighboring Sweden. It even has designs on the American market. …Oslo, a recycling-friendly place where roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage — household trash, industrial waste, even toxic and dangerous waste from hospitals and drug arrests — has a problem: it has literally run out of garbage to burn…. John Tagliabue, New York Times.  

2012 Sept 03. Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits. By Jeffrey Gettleman, The NY Times. Excerpt: Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter. Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades, with the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarized…ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent. Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say….

2012 Mar 24. Companies Pick Up Used Packaging, and Recycling’s Cost, an article by Allen Brisson-Smith for The New York Times. Excerpt: … a new trend in recycling, courtesy of the manufacturers who make the original products … assuming the costs of recycling their packaging after consumers are finished with it, a responsibility long imposed on packaged goods companies in Europe and more recently in parts of Asia, Latin America and Canada. …Coca-Cola has a whole subsidiary, Coca-Cola Recycling L.L.C., devoted to its stated goal of ensuring the recycling of 100 percent of its cans and bottles in North America by 2015 and 50 percent in the rest of the world. To that end, seven factories owned wholly or in part by the company toil away around the globe recycling plastic, including one in Spartanburg, S.C. …Coke is also experimenting with nonpetroleum-based packaging materials … PlantBottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which are up to 30 percent plant-based and can go through the same process that regular, 100 percent oil-based PET bottles go through. Stonyfield Farm, the Vermont yogurt maker, …told its customers that they could mail in their used cups for recycling. About 200 customers responded. … in 2008, the company struck a deal to put collection bins in Whole Foods stores, and the effort took off. Customers can take any No. 5 container to Whole Foods stores — margarine tubs, other brands’ yogurt containers — where they are collected, taken to a plant for processing, and then turned into toothbrushes and razors by Preserve. Last year, some 11 million six-ounce No. 5 yogurt cups were collected through the program, up from 2.3 million in 2009, according to Stonyfield. 

2012 Jan 24. Mercury’s Harmful Reach Has Grown, Study Suggests.  By Tony Cenicola/The New York Times. Excerpt: The strict new federal standards limiting pollution from power plants are meant to safeguard human health. But they should have an important side benefit, according to a study being released on Tuesday: protecting a broad array of wildlife that has been harmed by mercury emissions. …Songbirds and bats suffer some of the same types of neurological disorders from mercury as humans and especially children do, says the study, “Hidden Risk,” by the Biodiversity Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Gorham, Me., that investigates emerging environmental threats. Methylmercury, the most toxic form of the heavy metal, was found to be widespread throughout the Northeast…. The new study found dangerously high levels of mercury in several Northeastern bird species, including rusty blackbirds, saltmarsh sparrows and wood thrushes. Previous studies have shown mercury’s effects on loons and other fish-eating waterfowl, as well as bald eagles, panthers and otters. … “We’re seeing many other species in a much larger landscape of harm from mercury,” said the principal author, David C. Evers, who is the institute’s executive director. He called the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury standards, adopted last month and scheduled to take effect over the next four years, “an excellent step forward in reducing and minimizing the impact on ecosystems and improving ecological health, and therefore our own health.” …Songbirds with blood mercury levels of just 0.7 parts per million generally showed a 10 percent reduction in the rate at which eggs successfully hatched. As mercury increases, reproduction decreases. At mercury levels of greater than 1.7 parts per million, the ability of eggs to hatch is reduced by more than 30 percent, according to the study. … “What people don’t realize is that our rain isn’t just acidic,” said Timothy H. Tear, director of science for the Nature Conservancy in New York. “It is neurotoxic.”…. See also: Sounding an Alarm on Birds and Mercury, By Anthony Depalma

2011 Dec 30. Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals. By Elisabeth Rosenthal. Excerpt:  … at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation. Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.” Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round. But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment. The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table.  …To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health. Experts agree that in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, “organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case,” said Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture…. See video.

2011 August 8. An Economist for Nature Calculates the Need for More Protection. By John Moir, The New York Times. Excerpt: Dawn is breaking over this remote upland region, where neat rows of coffee plants cover many of the hillsides. The rising tropical sun saturates the landscape with color, revealing islandlike remnants of native forest scattered among the coffee plantations. But across this bucolic countryside, trouble is brewing. An invasive African insect known as the coffee berry borer is threatening the area’s crops. Local farmers call the pest “la broca”: the borer. 
…Since 1991, Dr. Daily, 46, has made frequent trips to this Costa Rican site to conduct one of the tropics’ most comprehensive population-level studies to monitor long-term ecological change.
“We are working to very specifically quantify in biophysical and dollar terms the value of conserving the forest and its wildlife,” she said.
In recent years, Dr. Daily has expanded her research to include a global focus. She is one of the pioneers in the growing worldwide effort to protect the environment by quantifying the value of “natural capital” — nature’s goods and services that are fundamental for human life — and factoring these benefits into the calculations of businesses and governments. Dr. Daily’s work has attracted international attention and has earned her some of the world’s most coveted environmental awards….

2010 September 27. Water Use in Southwest Heads for a Day of Reckoning. By Felicity Barringer, New York Times. Excerpt: A once-unthinkable day is looming on the Colorado River… Water distribution may be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region’s demands. 
For the first time, federal estimates issued in August indicate that Lake Mead, the heart of the lower Colorado basin’s water system — irrigating lettuce, onions and wheat in reclaimed corners of the Sonoran Desert, and lawns and golf courses from Las Vegas to Los Angeles — could drop below a crucial demarcation line of 1,075 feet. 
…This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected. 
…the operating plan also lays out a proposal to prevent Lake Mead from dropping below the trigger point. It allows water managers to send 40 percent more water than usual downstream to Lake Mead from Lake Powell in Utah, the river’s other big reservoir, which now contains about 50 percent more water than Lake Mead. 
…Adding to water managers’ unease, scientists predict that prolonged droughts will be more frequent in decades to come as the Southwest’s climate warms. As Lake Mead’s level drops, Hoover Dam’s capacity to generate electricity, which, like the Colorado River water, is sent around the Southwest, diminishes with it. If Lake Mead levels fall to 1,050 feet, it may be impossible to use the dam’s turbines, and the flow of electricity could cease.

2010 October 5. Japan Recycles Minerals From Used Electronics. By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times. Excerpt: …Recent problems with Chinese supplies of rare earths have sent Japanese traders and companies in search of alternative sources, creating opportunities for Kosaka.
This town’s hopes for a mining comeback lie not underground, but in what Japan refers to as urban mining — recycling the valuable metals and minerals from the country’s huge stockpiles of used electronics like cellphones and computers. 
…Two weeks ago, amid a diplomatic spat with Tokyo, China started to block exports of all rare earths to Japan. 
…In Kosaka, Dowa Holdings, the company that mined here for over a century, has built a recycling plant whose 200-foot-tall furnace renders old electronics parts into a molten stew from which valuable metals and other minerals can be extracted. The salvaged parts come from around Japan and overseas, including the United States… Besides gold, Dowa’s subsidiary, Kosaka Smelting and Refining, has so far successfully reclaimed rare metals like indium, used in liquid-crystal display screens, and antimony, used in silicon wafers for semiconductors. 
Although Japan is poor in natural resources, the National Institute for Materials Science, a government-affiliated research group, says that used electronics in Japan hold an estimated 300,000 tons of rare earths. Though that amount is tiny compared to reserves in China, which mines 93 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals, tapping these urban mines could help reduce Japan’s dependence on its neighbor, analysts say. 
…Japan is also pushing for new manufacturing processes that do not require rare earths. 
…But this form of recycling is an expensive and technically difficult process that is still being perfected.
At Dowa’s plant, computer chips and other vital parts from electronics are hacked into two-centimeter squares. This feedstock then must be smelted in a furnace that reaches 1,400 degrees Celsius before various minerals can be extracted. The factory processes 300 tons of materials a day, and each ton yields only about 150 grams of rare metals.

2010 September 18. Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes. By Mireya Navarro, The New York Times.Excerpt: …Responding to laws that went into effect in 17 states in July, the nation’s detergent makers reformulated their products to reduce what had been the crucial ingredient, phosphates, to just a trace. 
While phosphates help prevent dishes from spotting in the wash cycle, they have long ended up in lakes and reservoirs, stimulating algae growth that deprives other plants and fish of oxygen.
Yet now, with the content reduced, many consumers are finding the new formulas as appealing as low-flow showers, underscoring the tradeoffs that people often face today in a more environmentally conscious marketplace. 
…The new products can run up against longtime habits and even cultural concepts of cleanliness. 
…Jessica Fischburg, a commerce manager in Norwich, Conn., for, which sells janitorial supplies in bulk, said she was not surprised that many of her clients rejected products marketed as environmentally friendly. “The reality of any green product is that they generally don’t work as well,” she said. “Our customers really don’t like them.” 
…But some users attest to quantifiable benefits. Reports of burns, rashes, dizziness and scratchy throats among housekeeping employees have plummeted at North Central Bronx Hospital and Jacobi Medical Center since the staff switched to new cleaning products in 2004… 
…Phosphorus pollution comes from multiple sources, including fertilizer and manure that enter the water through runoff. Dishwasher detergents contribute just a fraction, but environmental campaigners say any reduction can result in a tangible improvements. (Laundry detergents and hand soaps are already free of phosphates.)

2010 July 26. NSF Press Release 10-126: Latest Green Packing Material? Mushrooms! Excerpt: …The composite of inedible agricultural waste and mushroom roots is called Mycobond™, and its manufacture requires just one eighth the energy and one tenth the carbon dioxide of traditional foam packing material.
…With support from NSF, [Gavin] McIntyre and [Eben] Bayer are developing a new, less energy-intensive method to sterilize their agricultural-waste starter material–a necessary step for enabling the mushroom fibers, called mycelia, to grow. McIntyre and Bayer are replacing a steam-heat process with a treatment made from cinnamon-bark oil, thyme oil, oregano oil and lemongrass oil.
…Much of the manufacturing process is nearly energy-free, with the mycelia growing around and digesting agricultural starter material–such as cotton seed or wood fiber–in an environment that is both room-temperature and dark. Because the growth occurs within a molded plastic structure (which the producers customize for each application), no energy is required for shaping the products.
…Bayer and McIntyre are hoping the entire process can be packaged as a kit, allowing shipping facilities, and even homeowners, to grow their own Mycobond™ materials.
…Based on a preliminary assessment McIntyre and Bayer conducted under their Phase I NSF SBIR award, the improvements to the sterilization phase will reduce the energy of the entire manufacturing process to one fortieth of that required to create polymer foam.
…In addition to the packaging product, called EcoCradle™, Ecovative has developed a home insulation product dubbed greensulate™. Comparable in effectiveness to foam insulation, it is also highly flame retardant.

2010 July 23. E.P.A. Considers Risks of Gas Extraction. By Tom Zeller Jr., The New York Times. Excerpt: CANONSBURG, Pa. … Streams of people came to the public meeting here armed with stories of yellowed and foul-smelling well water, deformed livestock, poisoned fish and itchy skin… The culprit, these people argued, was hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas that involves blasting underground rock with a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals…
…Gas companies countered that the horror stories described in Pennsylvania and at other meetings held recently in Texas and Colorado are either fictions or not the companies’ fault. More regulation, the industry warned, would kill jobs and stifle production of gas, which the companies consider a clean-burning fuel the nation desperately needs.
…The Environmental Protection Agency has been on a listening tour, soliciting advice from all sides on how to shape a forthcoming $1.9 million study of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on groundwater.
…Roughly 99.5 percent of the fluids typically used in fracking, the industry says, are just water and sand, with trace amounts of chemical thickeners, lubricants and other compounds added to help the process along. The cocktail is injected thousands of feet below the water table and, the industry argues, can’t possibly be responsible for growing complaints of spoiled streams and wells. But critics say that the relationship between fracking fluids and groundwater contamination has never been thoroughly studied — and that proving a link has been made more difficult by oil and gas companies that have jealously guarded as trade secrets the exact chemical ingredients used at each well.

2010 July 14. NASA Release: 10-166: NASA Supporting Gulf Oil Spill Wildlife Recovery. Excerpt: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is helping with the unprecedented effort to save wildlife from the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 
The first group of hatchlings from endangered sea turtle eggs brought from beaches along the northern U.S. Gulf Coast was released into the Atlantic Ocean off Kennedy’s central Florida coast on July 11. Twenty-two Kemp’s ridley turtles were set free on a Kennedy Space Center beach, which is part of the Canaveral National Seashore. 
After being collected on June 26, the Kemp’s ridley nest from Walton County, Fla., was packed in a Styrofoam box with sand and transported by a specially-equipped FexEx truck to a secure, climate-controlled facility at Kennedy where it was monitored until incubation was complete. Most of the nests that will be collected are from loggerhead turtles, but nests from leatherback and green turtles, in addition to Kemp’s ridley, may be brought to the Kennedy hatchery. 
…The release and relocation work is part of an environmental endeavor by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Park Service, NOAA, FedEx and conservationists to help minimize the risk to this year’s sea turtle hatchlings from impacts of the oil spill. During the next several months, this plan involves carefully moving an anticipated 700 nests to Kennedy that have been laid on Florida Panhandle and Alabama beaches. 
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 as an overlay of Kennedy Space Center, where it shares the land with spac shuttle launch pads, rockets and research and development facilities. As part of the Deepwater Horizon Response, six brown pelicans, four laughing gulls and one common tern also were released at Kennedy on June 6.

2010 May 20. Agency Orders Use of a Less Toxic Chemical in Gulf. By Campbell Robertson and Elisabeth Rosenthal, The NY Times. Excerpt: …According to NOAA’s estimates, Mr. Jindal said, the spill has already affected nearly 50 miles of Louisiana’s coastline, which is full of breaks and inlets into fragile marshlands that are far more difficult to protect than sandy beaches. “No shoreline has been fully cleaned,” he said.
…In directing BP to select a less toxic dispersant, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was exercising caution because so little is known about the chemicals’ potential impact. …BP has sprayed nearly 700,000 gallons of Corexit dispersants on the surface of the gulf and directly onto the leaking well head a mile underwater. It is by far the largest use of chemicals to break up an oil spill in United States waters to date.

2009 Nov. Rubbish in the Pacific. NY Times slide show. In a remote patch of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any national boundary, the detritus of human life is collecting in a swirling current so large that it defies precise measurement….

2009 Nov 9. Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash. By Lindsey Hoshaw, NY Times. Excerpt: …Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas. But one research organization estimates that the garbage now actually pervades the Pacific, though most of it is caught in what oceanographers call a gyre like this one — an area of heavy currents and slack winds that keep the trash swirling in a giant whirlpool.
Scientists say the garbage patch is just one of five that may be caught in giant gyres scattered around the world’s oceans. Abandoned fishing gear like buoys, fishing line and nets account for some of the waste, but other items come from land after washing into storm drains and out to sea.
Plastic is the most common refuse in the patch because it is lightweight, durable and an omnipresent, disposable product in both advanced and developing societies. It can float along for hundreds of miles before being caught in a gyre and then, over time, breaking down.
But once it does split into pieces, the fragments look like confetti in the water. Millions, billions, trillions and more of these particles are floating in the world’s trash-filled gyres….

2009 October 19. Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None. By Leslie Kaufman, The NY Times. Excerpt: At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes…. Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.
The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can….

2009 July. Male Frogs Losing Their Macho. By Kathleen M. Wong, ScienceMatters@Berkeley. The herbicide atrazine, used on millions of acres of corn and other crops each year, turns male frogs into hermaphrodites and can affect human health as well. This alarming discovery by Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes is leading to a major analysis of America’s waterways….

2009 June 29. A Green Way to Dump Low-Tech Electronics. By Leslie Kaufman, The NY Times. Excerpt: …Since 2004, 18 states and New York City have approved laws that make manufacturers responsible for recycling electronics, and similar statutes were introduced in 13 other states this year. The laws are intended to prevent a torrent of toxic and outdated electronic equipment — television sets, computers, monitors, printers, fax machines — from ending up in landfills where they can leach chemicals into groundwater and potentially pose a danger to public health.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 99.1 million televisions sit unused in closets and basements across the country. Consumer response to recycling has been enormous in states where the laws have taken effect. Collection points in Washington State, for example, have been swamped by people….
Since January, Washington State residents and small businesses have been allowed to drop off their televisions, computers and computer monitors free of charge to one of 200 collection points around the state. They have responded by dumping more than 15 million pounds of electronic waste, according to state collection data. If disposal continues at this rate, it will amount to more than five pounds for every man, woman and child per year.
“If you make it easy, they will recycle their stuff,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco. If products are recycled rather than dumped, parts of the machines are refurbished for new use where possible; if not, they are disassembled, their glass and precious metals are recycled, and the plastics, which have no reuse market, are often shipped overseas to developing countries for disposal….

2009 June 19. Destroying Levees in a State Usually Clamoring for Them. By Cornelia Dean, The NY Times. Excerpt: In the 1960s, a group of businessmen bought 16,000 acres of swampy bottomland along the Ouachita River in northern Louisiana and built miles of levee around it. They bulldozed its oak and cypress trees and, when the land dried out, turned it into a soybean farm.
Now two brothers who grew up nearby are undoing all that work. In what experts are calling the biggest levee-busting operation ever in North America, the brothers plan to return the muddy river to its ancient floodplain, coaxing back plants and animals that flourished there when President Thomas Jefferson first had the land surveyed in 1804.
“I really did not know if I would ever see it,” said Kelby Ouchley, who retired last year as manager of the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, which owns the land. He pursues the project as a volunteer consultant in coordination with his brother Keith, who heads Louisiana operations for the Nature Conservancy, which helped organize and finance the levee-busting effort.
…Louisiana’s levees have exacted a huge environmental cost. Inland, cypress forests and wetlands crucial for migrating waterfowl have vanished; in southern Louisiana, coastal marshes deprived of regular infusions of sediment-rich river water have yielded by the mile to an encroaching Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists have suggested opening levees south of New Orleans so the Mississippi River can flow normally into the swamps.
…The workers replanted cypress and tupelo in low areas, then oaks and green ash, and then sweetgum and pecans — “life-sustaining, system-supporting diversity,” as Kelby Ouchley called it in an essay.
Eventually, he predicted, the restored landscape would be home to black bear cubs, largemouth bass, fireflies, crawfish and “gobbling wild turkeys and cottonmouths with attitudes.”…

2008 July 23. No plastic bags in LA stores beginning July 2010. LOS ANGELES (AP) – Excerpt: Los Angeles shoppers soon won’t hear the question, “Paper or plastic?” at the checkout line. The City Council voted Tuesday to ban plastic shopping bags from stores, beginning July 1, 2010. Shoppers can either bring their own bags or pay 25 cents for a paper bag. The council’s unanimous vote also puts pressure on the state, which is considering an Assembly bill that would ban plastic bags in 2012 and charge at least 15 cents per paper bag. “We’ve gotten to a point where we need to act as a city, where we can have real results,” said Councilman Ed Reyes, who proposed the bag ban…. Last year, San Francisco passed the nation’s first bag ban, which took effect in November.

2008 May 7. A City Committed to Recycling Is Ready for More By FELICITY BARRINGER The mayor of San Francisco wants to make the recycling of cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps mandatory instead of voluntary, on the pain of having garbage pickups suspended.

2008 Apr 22. Mercury Migrating Out of Rivers to the Shore. By HENRY FOUNTAIN, NY Times. Excerpt: Mercury contamination can be a big problem in rivers, as it moves up the food chain accumulating in top predators. …In the South River in Virginia, … the mercury has moved from the river to the shore, according to a study by Daniel A. Cristol and colleagues at the College of William and Mary. They report in Science…. The South, a Shenandoah tributary, was heavily contaminated with mercury sulfate from a DuPont factory from 1930 to 1950. Fish and aquatic birds on the river have long been known to be contaminated. But most of the 13 terrestrial birds tested had levels similar to or higher than the aquatic birds.
Researchers say the main culprit is spiders, which in some cases make up 30 percent of birds’ diets and have high levels of mercury. The spiders obtain mercury from their prey, either aquatic insects that are contaminated or terrestrial insects that develop in areas contaminated by flooding.

2008 Mar 4. Polluted Worms Help Starling’s Song, but Not Mating Fitness. By HENRY FOUNTAIN, NY Times. Excerpt: To the long list of the unintended effects of environmental contaminants, add one – eating polluted worms affects the songs of male starlings. What’s more, the females seem to like it.Researchers from Cardiff University in Wales report in the open-access online journal PLoS One that male starlings that consume estrogen and similar compounds, chemicals normally found in sewage, showed brain and behavioral changes related to singing.
Shai Markman, now at the University of Haifa in Israel; Katherine L. Buchanan, now of Deakin University in Australia; and colleagues studied wild starlings foraging at sewage treatment works in southwestern Britain. The birds eat small worms found in huge quantities along filter beds.
The worms accumulate natural estrogen excreted in human waste and estrogenlike compounds from plastics manufacturing. The chemicals are known to disrupt endocrine function, with anatomical and behavioral effects. …A male’s song is one trait that helps to attract mates. The researchers found that females chose the males with more complex songs even though the contaminants had made them less fit. “Females are choosing to mate with males who are in poorer physical condition,” Dr. Buchanan said, with potential effects on the number and survivability of offspring. So the simple act of eating tainted worms may be having an overall effect on starling populations, she added.

2008 February. Poultry workers 32 times more likely to carry resistant bacteria. Union of Concerned Scientists newlstter. Poultry workers are 32 times more likely than the average person to harbor E. coli bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic gentamicin, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The scientists compared stool samples from poultry workers with those from local community residents. The workers were also significantly more likely to harbor bacteria that were resistant to multiple drugs. The study concluded that occupational exposure to chickens may be “an important route of entry” for these dangerous bacteria into the community. Read the study, and send a letter to your members of Congress on legislation to address antibiotic resistance.

2008 February 2. Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags. By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL, NY Times. Excerpt: DUBLIN – …In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts. Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable – on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog. “When my roommate brings one in the flat it annoys the hell out of me,” said Edel Egan, a photographer, carrying groceries last week in a red backpack. Drowning in a sea of plastic bags, countries from China to Australia, cities from San Francisco to New York have in the past year adopted a flurry of laws and regulations to address the problem, so far with mixed success. The New York City Council, for example, in the face of stiff resistance from business interests, passed a measure requiring only that stores that hand out plastic bags take them back for recycling. But in the parking lot of a Superquinn Market, Ireland’s largest grocery chain, it is clear that the country is well into the post-plastic-bag era. “I used to get half a dozen with every shop. Now I’d never ever buy one,” said Cathal McKeown, 40, a civil servant carrying two large black cloth bags bearing the bright green Superquinn motto. “If I forgot these, I’d just take the cart of groceries and put them loose in the boot of the car, rather than buy a bag.”….