Category Archives: Environmental Issues

EU wants to reduce Russian energy dependency. Here’s how they plan to do it

Few places are as exposed as the European Union (EU) to Russia’s oil and gas in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The EU gets about 40% of its gas from Russia at a cost of over $110 million a day. Moving with a surprising speed, the EU has now introduced a strategy to cut its reliance on this fuel source by two-thirds within a year — and this could mean a lot both economically and environmentally.

Image credit: PxHere.

The REPowerEU plan hopes to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels by 2030, placing initial efforts just on gas. The roadmap proposes to find alternative supplies of gas in the next few months, as well as increasing energy efficiency and doubling down on renewable energy sources in the medium to longer term.

“We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices, diversify our gas supply for next winter and accelerate the clean energy transition,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We’ll work swiftly to implement these ideas.”

The road ahead

The new proposal will make it a legal requirement for EU countries to make sure they have a minimum level of gas storage. The objective is to have gas stocks at 90% capacity by Autumn, up from about 30% now. Discussions are already taking place with existing gas suppliers such as Norway and Algeria to increase flows and compensate for the crackdown on Russian gas. Environmentally, this won’t make a substantial difference as just the source of the gas will end.

The Commission pictures ending reliance on all fossil fuels from Russia “well before” 2030. In the short term, gas would be imported from the US and Africa and some countries might have to increase the use of coal in the months ahead. While this will mean higher carbon emissions, the longer-term goal is a shift to renewable energy — which will make a difference environmentally.

Another area of focus for the EU in the coming months will be higher imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from suppliers including the US, Qatar, and Australia. Germany has already announced plans for two new LNG terminals to increase supplies, which has raised concerns among experts over a longer dependency on fossil fuels.

Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans asked to “dash into renewable energy at a lightning speed,” as they are cheaper, cleaner, and a potentially endless source of energy. The Russian invasion shows the urgency of accelerating Europe’s energy transition to cleaner energy sources, Timmerman said.

As well as finding new gas supplies, the Commission argued the reliance on Russia will be eased because of new renewable energy projects that will soon come online. Countries should consider using the revenues they raised from the Emissions Trading Scheme, the world’s largest carbon market, to pay for further green energy sources, the Commission said. Solar energy will be a particular point of focus, with a 4-stage plan aimed at delivering 1TW by 2030:

  1. Multiply rooftop PV development through mandatory solar on new buildings, bans on fossil-fuel boilers, and significant investment.  
  2. Facilitate utility-scale development by freezing grid connection fees, and mandating member states to identify suitable solar PV sites, aiming to fast-track developments. 
  3. Pave the way for smart solar and hybrid projects using dedicated funding.  
  4. Accelerate the deployment of EU solar PV manufacturing capacity with€ 1bn. 

 The proposal says renewable energy projects have to be fast-tracked, with a large potential in domestic rooftop solar power. Up to a quarter of the EU’s electricity consumption could be obtained from panels on buildings and farms, the Commission said – also calling for a large increase in the use of biogas, made from agricultural and food waste.

EU leaders will meet in Versailles, France, later this week to discuss the plan, which won’t be cheap and might lead to some dissenting voices. Meanwhile, campaigners are asking governments to ensure the poorest are protected. Europe is already facing an energy poverty crisis and no one should have to choose between heating and heating, the NGO Global Witness said in a statement.

UK government allows emergency use of bee-harming pesticide

Image credit: Pixabay.

Bees and other pollinators play a key role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and are also critical to our food security. However, they are in decline in many parts of the world, hit hard by the loss of habitats and loss and widespread use of toxic pesticides.

In recent years, many of these pesticides have been banned due to pressure from researchers and environmental groups. But they can also come back.

A nasty comeback

Thiamethoxam is a type of pesticide part of the group known as neonicotinoids, widely used around the world. However, in 2018, the most toxic ones, including thiamethoxam, were banned from outdoor use in the EU and the UK amid a growing list of evidence of the harm they cause to bees and other pollinators.

When poisoned by these chemicals, bees experience paralysis of their flight muscles and a failure in the homing behavior of foragers — which means less food for the colony. A single exposure is already enough to cause significant damage and Thiamethoxam is increasingly regarded as a problematic pesticide that is best banned. Neonicotinoids in general can also cause environmental contamination, leaching into soil and water and affecting the entire ecosystem.

However, these pesticides continue to be used even in banned places as countries can grant an “emergency derogation” when there’s the danger of a virus that can’t be contained by any other “reasonable” means. The UK is the most recent example, allowing the use of thiamethoxam for sugar beet against the advice of its own government experts.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In January 2021, the UK also planned a special derogation for the pesticide to save sugar beet plants from the beet yellow virus. However, there were lower levels of disease than expected and it was announced that the conditions for emergency use had not been met. This time, things look to be different.

Environmental and health organizations grouped under The Pesticide Collaboration have launched a legal challenge. The UK government decision, even temporary, isn’t consistent with halting wildlife decline, they argue. Farmers should be supported to reduce the reliance on harmful chemicals, finding alternative solutions, they added.

The sugar beet crisis

Over half the sugar consumed in the UK comes from sugar beet grown in England. A large amount of land is put aside every year to satisfy the country’s sugar demand, but climate change is now causing problems for the crop. This has resulted in pressure from farming lobby groups for the government to allow the use of harmful pesticides.

Unfortunately, this winter is much warmer than normal, and scientific modeling predicts a 68% level of virus incidence, which means the threshold for the use of the pesticide has been met, a government statement reads.

“The decision to approve an emergency authorization was not taken lightly and based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorizations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.

There are about 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet in the UK, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU). Farmers will be banned from growing flowering plans for 32 months after the sugar beet crop to minimize the risk to bees. NFU said in a statement that growers are relieved by the decision amid severe pest pressure across the country.

Campaigners argue only 5% of the pesticide actually reaches the crop, with the rest accumulating in the soil and causing a higher level of contamination than in pollen and nectar. This can then be a route of exposure for many organisms, including bee species that nest underground. It’s also absorbed by the roots of many plants visited by bees, such as wildflowers.  

“Allowing a bee-harming pesticide back into our fields is totally at odds with ministers’ so-called green ambitions, not to mention directly against the recommendation of their own scientists. This decision comes just two months after the government enshrined in law a target to halt species loss by 2030,” Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth said in a statement.

Situations like this are more likely to emerge as environmental regulations become tighter and climate change also puts additional pressure on agriculture. It remains to be seen what other countries will do in the UK’s position.

These hard-bodied robots can reproduce, learn and evolve autonomously

Where biology and technology meet, evolutionary robotics is spawning automatons evolving in real-time and space. The basis of this field, evolutionary computing, sees robots possessing a virtual genome ‘mate’ to ‘reproduce’ improved offspring in response to complex, harsh environments.

Image credits: ARE.

Hard-bodied robots are now able to ‘give birth’

Robots have changed a lot over the past 30 years, already capable of replacing their human counterparts in some cases — in many ways, robots are already the backbone of commerce and industry. Performing a flurry of jobs and roles, they have been miniaturized, mounted, and molded into mammoth proportions to achieve feats way beyond human abilities. But what happens when unstable situations or environments call for robots never seen on earth before?

For instance, we may need robots to clean up a nuclear meltdown deemed unsafe for humans, explore an asteroid in orbit or terraform a distant planet. So how would we go about that?

Scientists could guess what the robot may need to do, running untold computer simulations based on realistic scenarios that the robot could be faced with. Then, armed with the results from the simulations, they can send the bots hurtling into uncharted darkness aboard a hundred-billion dollar machine, keeping their fingers crossed that their rigid designs will hold up for as long as needed.

But what if there was a is a better alternative? What if there was a type of artificial intelligence that could take lessons from evolution to generate robots that can adapt to their environment? It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel — but it’s exactly what a multi-institutional team in the UK is currently doing in a project called Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE).

Remarkably, they’ve already created robots that can ‘mate’ and ‘reproduce’ progeny with no human input. What’s more, using the evolutionary theory of variation and selection, these robots can optimize their descendants depending on a set of activities over generations. If viable, this would be a way to produce robots that can autonomously adapt to unpredictable environments – their extended mechanical family changing along with their volatile surroundings.

“Robot evolution provides endless possibilities to tweak the system,” says evolutionary ecologist and ARE team member Jacintha Ellers. “We can come up with novel types of creatures and see how they perform under different selection pressures.” Offering a way to explore evolutionary principles to set up an almost infinite number of “what if” questions.

What is evolutionary computation?

In computer science, evolutionary computation is a set of laborious algorithms inspired by biological evolution where candidate solutions are generated and constantly “evolved”. Each new generation removes less desired solutions, introducing small adaptive changes or mutations to produce a cyber version of survival of the fittest. It’s a way to mimic biological evolution, resulting in the best version of the robot for its current role and environment.

Virtual robot. Image credits: ARE.

Evolutionary robotics begins at ARE in a facility dubbed the EvoSphere, where newly assembled baby robots download an artificial genetic code that defines their bodies and brains. This is where two-parent robots come together to mingle virtual genomes to create improved young, incorporating both their genetic codes.

The newly evolved offspring is built autonomously via a 3D printer, after which a mechanical assembly arm translating the inherited virtual genomic code selects and attaches the specified sensors and means of locomotion from a bank of pre-built components. Finally, the artificial system wires up a Raspberry Pi computer acting as a brain to the sensors and motors – software is then downloaded from both parents to represent the evolved brain.

1. Artificial intelligence teaches newborn robots how to control their bodies

Newborns undergo brain development and learning to fine-tune their motor control in most animal species. This process is even more intense for these robotic infants due to breeding between different species. For example, a parent with wheels might procreate with another possessing a jointed leg, resulting in offspring with both types of locomotion.

But, the inherited brain may struggle to control the new body, so an algorithm is run as part of the learning stage to refine the brain over a few trials in a simplified environment. If the synthetic babies can master their new bodies, they can proceed to the next phase: testing.

2. Selection of the fittest- who can reproduce?

A specially built inert nuclear reactor housing is used by ARE for testing where young robots must identify and clear radioactive waste while avoiding various obstacles. After completing the task, the system scores each robot according to its performance which it then uses to determine who will be permitted to reproduce.

Real robot. Image credits: ARE.

Software simulating reproduction then takes the virtual DNA of two parents and performs genetic recombination and mutation to generate a new robot, completing the ‘circuit of life.’ Parent robots can either remain in the population, have more children, or be recycled.

Evolutionary roboticist and ARE researcher Guszti Eiben says this sped up evolution works as: “Robotic experiments can be conducted under controllable conditions and validated over many repetitions, something that is hard to achieve when working with biological organisms.”

3. Real-world robots can also mate in alternative cyberworlds

In her article for the New Scientist, Emma Hart, ARE member and professor of computational intelligence at Edinburgh Napier University, writes that by “working with real robots rather than simulations, we eliminate any reality gap. However, printing and assembling each new machine takes about 4 hours, depending on the complexity of its skeleton, so limits the speed at which a population can evolve. To address this drawback, we also study evolution in a parallel, virtual world.”

This parallel universe entails the creation of a digital version of every mechanical infant in a simulator once mating has occurred, which enables the ARE researchers to build and test new designs within seconds, identifying those that look workable.

Their cyber genomes can then be prioritized for fabrication into real-world robots, allowing virtual and physical robots to breed with each other, adding to the real-life gene pool created by the mating of two material automatons.

The dangers of self-evolving robots – how can we stay safe?

A robot fabricator. Image credits: ARE.

Even though this program is brimming with potential, Professor Hart cautions that progress is slow, and furthermore, there are long-term risks to the approach.

“In principle, the potential opportunities are great, but we also run the risk that things might get out of control, creating robots with unintended behaviors that could cause damage or even harm humans,” Hart says.

“We need to think about this now, while the technology is still being developed. Limiting the availability of materials from which to fabricate new robots provides one safeguard.” Therefore: “We could also anticipate unwanted behaviors by continually monitoring the evolved robots, then using that information to build analytical models to predict future problems. The most obvious and effective solution is to use a centralized reproduction system with a human overseer equipped with a kill switch.”

A world made better by robots evolving alongside us

Despite these concerns, she counters that even though some applications, such as interstellar travel, may seem years off, the ARE system may have a more immediate need. And as climate change reaches dangerous proportions, it is clear that robot manufacturers need to become greener. She proposes that they could reduce their ecological footprint by using the system to build novel robots from sustainable materials that operate at low energy levels and are easily repaired and recycled. 

Hart concludes that these divergent progeny probably won’t look anything like the robots we see around us today, but that is where artificial evolution can help. Unrestrained by human cognition, computerized evolution can generate creative solutions we cannot even conceive of yet.

And it would appear these machines will now evolve us even further as we step back and hand them the reins of their own virtual lives. How this will affect the human race remains to be seen.

Asian markets are driving sharks to extinction — but European fishermen are selling them fins

Countries from the European Union (EU) play a major role as suppliers and traders in the global shark trade, which is driving many species towards extinction, according to a new report. EU member states were the source of 45% of shark-fin-related products imported to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan in 2020, with Spain being the top exporter for fin trade.

Sharks are currently declining very fast on a global scale. One way humans hunt them is by using a practice called shark finning – the process of slicing off a fin and discarding the rest of the body, usually by throwing it back into the ocean, which leads to a slow and painful demise.

Fins are specifically targeted as they are used to make a fin soup in Asia, which is considered to be a symbol of status. Fishermen sometimes even prefer to practice shark fining instead of selling whole sharks in the market as fins are much more valuable and they get their money’s worth with relatively little work.

Finning is having big implications on shark populations worldwide. About 100 million sharks are killed globally every year, with many species such as the scalloped hammerhead susceptible to extinction.

Population plunges don’t only affect sharks but also entire ecosystems, causing a ripple effect. For example, the decline of the smooth hammerhead causes their prey, rays, to increase. If there are more rays, they eat more scallops and clams, which provide valuable services for the entire ecosystem. Simply put, if you remove the top predators from the ecosystem, the entire ecosystem’s biodiversity is affected.

The role of EU countries

In a new report, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) analyzed almost two decades of customs data in three Asian trading hubs from 2003 to 2020. While the main market for fin-related products is in Asia, EU countries – especially Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Portugal – are big suppliers to this legal market.

“Small or large, coastal or high seas, shark species are disappearing, with the piecemeal management efforts to date failing to stop their decline,” report co-author and IFAW’s EU manager Barbara Slee said in a statement. “The EU, demonstrated by our report to be a key player in global shark markets, has an important responsibility.”

Over 188,000 tons of shark fin products were imported by Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from 2003 to 2020, with the EU responsible for almost a third. Spain was the top source of imports with over 51,000 tons shipped from 2003 to 2020, an annual average of 2,877 tons, according to the report. Portugal ranked second with 642 tons.

EU countries can’t carry out shark finning but the landing and sale of whole sharks are permitted, except for species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That’s why IFAW is now calling for all sharks to be listed under CITES, which would give them further protection.

Shark populations have been shown to recover when effective management is put in place, hence the importance of the CITES listing. If the EU would take a leadership role to ensure the accuracy of trade records and the enactment of sustainability requirements of sharks in trade, then other players would follow through, Barbara Slee added.

“Global shark declines are driven by international demand for shark fins and meat,” report co-author Stan Shea said in a statement. Although many place the burden of change on the consumptive countries, primarily in Asia, equally responsible for declines in shark populations are all countries with internationally operating fishing fleets.”

The full report can be accessed here.

The world’s largest economies promised a pandemic green recovery. They did not deliver

When the pandemic hit and economies around the world went into lockdown, governments frequently promised to “build back better” or to carry out a “green new deal” once economies reopened. Turns out, it was mostly hot air.

Image credit: Flickr / Gerry Machen.

Jonas Nahm, a researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and his colleagues looked at national fiscal stimulus efforts for G20 economies between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021. The researchers chose these countries as they account for more than 80% of global emissions and 85% of global economic activity — these are the climate elephants in the room.

The 20 largest economies injected stimuli of at least US$14 trillion during that period — close to China’s annual gross domestic product, for comparison. While most of the money went for shoring up healthcare systems, wages, and welfare, only 6% (or about $860 billion) went to areas that will cut emissions, such as installing renewable plants.

This green investment is less than those that followed previous recessions, the researchers argued. After the global financial crisis in 2007–09, for example, 16% of global stimulus spending was directed at emissions cuts (or about $520 billion). If a similar share had been committed today, the total would be about $2.2 trillion.

So all in all, investments in renewables and other green infrastructure were severely lagging behind what was promised.

The study showed some governments did more than others. The EU and South Korea led the pack, as each dedicated more than 30% of their COVID-19 fiscal stimulus to emissions-reducing measures. Brazil, Germany, and Italy also spent over 20%. India, China, and South Africa were at the other extreme, focusing on fossil fuel spending.

Looking at the reasons behind this trend, Jonas Nahm told ZME Science governments were preoccupied with the pandemic and not as focused on making structural changes to the sources of growth in the economy. Lobbying by interest groups in the fossil fuel industry could be another reason. However, he argues further research is needed to fully answer why this happened.

The road ahead

There’s still time to improve, the researchers argued, highlighting a set of lessons governments can learn from their recovery efforts. First, they should apply environmental conditions to stimulus bills. It is cheap and effective. Attaching climate targets to corporate bailouts can shift sectors onto more sustainable trajectories.

Governments should also focus on recovery measures that have direct emissions impacts. This means accelerating public spending on renewables to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase the energy efficiency of housing, as South Korea did. Or even investing in vehicle electrification, as Germany did by buying EVs for the government.

At the same time, the researchers believe governments should position their economies strategically to compete in a post-carbon world. This means focusing investments in low-carbon industries, building institutions to make economies more resilient to future shocks, and also helping fossil-based industries to do a transition.

“We hope that showing these aggregate numbers will highlight where we fall short and provide motivation to do things differently going forward. There are also many concrete policy lessons that can be learned from the things governments did do to reduce emissions, even if they didn’t amount to a sufficient response overall,” Nahm told ZME Science.

The study was published as a commentary piece in Nature.

How one lab greatly reduced its environmental footprint

In general, scientists are very aware of the environmental footprint of their research. It’s a noble cause, but many labs use consume vast amounts of plastics, generate waste, and emit greenhouse gases. Many such labs are trying to find ways to go green. In a new study, researchers in Ireland showed how this could be done — while also saving money.

Image credit: Pixabay.

Jane Kilcoyne and her colleagues at the Marine Institute in Ireland run a monitoring program for the detection of biotoxins in shellfish. Aware of labs being “resource-hungry workplaces” contributing to climate change, Kilcoyne told ZME Science they wanted to limit the impacts of their work on the environment while raising awareness overall.

The world’s scientific laboratory sector is massive. There are about 20,500 labs around the world that carry out medical, biological, or agricultural research. Most of them are big consumers of plastics. While the average person in the US consumes 106 kilograms of plastics per year, the average scientist uses 1,000 kilograms per year.

Labs also use large amounts of solvents for sample extraction and analysis, which could be treated and recycled to reduce costs and emissions. Paper consumption for printing is also high. This can translate into deforestation and pollution. Labs consume a lot of energy as well – between five to ten times more energy per square meter than office buildings.

That’s why is critical for labs to adopt good environmental practices. Many are acknowledging the need to operate in more sustainable ways and have already implemented changes to working practices to reduce their waste and energy consumption, such as University College London, set to be carbon neutral in 2030.

Tackling carbon footprint

With a team of seven staff members, the Marine Institute’s national monitoring program for the detection of biotoxins in shellfish implemented a set of sustainable practices in their laboratory, hoping to reduce the overall environmental footprint. As it turns out, it was a success, making the lab a much greener place than before.

They were able to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics by 69% thanks to a transition to more sustainable consumables. Recycling polystyrene (used in the construction industry as insulation) and composting of shellfish waste also led to over 95% of non-chemical waste generated by our laboratory being diverted from landfills.

The researchers could reduce their hazardous chemical waste by about 23% by extending expiry dates and only preparing what’s strictly needed for experiments. They also addressed their fume hood (which uses 3.5 times the energy of an average home) and reduced cold storage equipment energy consumption by 30% through improved management.

The actions implemented led to annual cost savings of about $17.000. But this isn’t the end of the road as further sustainability efforts are still required, they argued. The team will continue working to meet the ultimate goal of achieving a green lab certification known as My Green Lab – an NGO that seeks sustainability in science.

“The strategies adopted could be implemented in any laboratory. In fact, going green in any workplace setting is a win-win. Introducing more sustainable work practices into our monitoring program led to reduced environmental and financial costs, enhanced efficiencies, and boosted staff engagement,” Kilcoyne told ZME.

The study was published in the journal PLOS.

Global warming could fuel extreme wildfires, making them 30% more common by 2050

If you feel like you are seeing more news of wildfires around the world, you’re not wrong. From the Amazon basin to Australia, the issue is getting more severe, affecting people’s livelihoods and biodiversity. Now, a new report by the UN is warning this could just be the start, anticipating extreme wildfire events will increase by 14% by 2030 and 30% by 2050.

Image credit: Flickr / Kevin Spencer.

Scientists from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) said it’s time for everyone to “learn to live with fire” and adapt to the growing frequency and severity of wildfires, which will challenge lives and economies around the world. Even if we reduce greenhouse emissions much faster, the near-term consequences are still locked in.

The report finds an elevated risk for regions previously unaffected by wildfires, such as the Arctic. This is in line with previous studies that have warned we are entering into the worst wildfire period in recorded history. Last year, a study found that the world’s eight most severe wildfires on record happened in the last decade.

“Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” Andrew Sullivan, an Australian researcher and the editor of the report, said in a press conference. “Where wildfires have historically occurred, they may increase; however, where wildfires have not historically occurred, they may become more common.”

Growing wildfires

Fires have always had a vital ecological purpose on Earth, important for many ecosystems as they restore the soil’s nutrients, help germinate plants, and remove decaying matter. Without some wildfires, overgrown foliage such as grasses can dominate the landscape and lead to worse fires, especially during heat waves and severe droughts.

That’s why burning parts on land deliberately has prevented more destructive fires. Indigenous communities have been doing this for thousands of years. But as humans have warmed the planet, neglected forest management and developed more land, wildfires have become more destructive and deadly, according to the new UN report.

Wildfires are made worse by climate change through low humidity, strong winds and increased drought. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, which target carbon-rich ecosystems such as rainforests and peatlands. This transforms the landscapes into tinderboxes, making it more difficult to stop the rising temperatures.

While it’s a global phenomenon, the world’s poorest nations are especially affected by wildfires, the UN said. People’s health is directly affected by inhaling smoke, with increased health effects on the most vulnerable. The economic costs of rebuilding wildfire-affected areas can sometimes go beyond the means of low-income countries.

Wildfires also target wildlife and its natural habitat, pushing some species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian bushfires from 2019 and 2020. A report by WWF found that almost three billion animals, including mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs, were killed or displaced by the fires, much higher than an earlier estimate.

Compiled by 50 researchers, the report calls for governments to re-think the way they address wildfires, allocating more funding for prevention rather than using most of the resources for direct responses. Now less than 1% of the funding is assigned to prevention. Data and science-based monitoring should be used much more extensively.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, Inger Andersen, UNEP head, said in a statement. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires.”

Roadside trash is becoming a big problem — and we only have ourselves to blame

Taken any road trips recently? If so, it’s very possible you’ve seen trash alongside the road, from food-related to tobacco products and the ever-present plastic. This isn’t random, or just a localized problem — it’s part of a growing problem that’s starting to take a big toll on the environment. But this problem could have local solutions. In a new study, researchers found that at least in some cases, most trash generates just two miles away from where they were found.

Image credit: The researchers.

Roadside trash is a growing challenge in many countries around the world, including the US. More vehicles, more people, and more stuff are among the factors worsening the problem over the years. Additionally, the global pandemic has increased the amount of trash, especially for single-use products such as face masks.

Trash on the road can pose safety risks and interrupt traffic flow, especially larger items. Crashes related to debris constitute 0.1% to 0.5% of all crashes. In the US, about $11.5 billion is spent every year to remove all sorts of trash from the road. Every time trash is cleaned, the crew in charge and other road users can be at risk of collision. 

There’s also the environmental impact of the roadside trash, which goes beyond the roadway network. Toxic materials like the chemical components of cigarette butts can be washed away and pollute the soils and the groundwater. Light-weight trash can be blown away by the wind or carried by the rain runoff and end up in rivers and drains.

A group of researchers from the University of California, Riverside collected trash in California for a month and then examined its composition, discriminating the manufacturers of many of the items. Thanks to the receipts collected from the roadside, they were also able to determine where the items were purchased. 

“There has been a lot of emphasis on individual human behavior as the way to decrease rates of littering,” Andrew Gray, an environmental scientist and study author, said in a statement. “In reality, it’s just as easy or even more accurate to say that if we didn’t produce the stuff in the first place, it wouldn’t get into the environment.”

Looking into the trash

The researchers, a group of undergraduate and graduate students trained in data collection, focused on the Inland Empire region, which includes San Bernardino County and Riverside County in California. The area includes mountains and valley regions and has a robust waste management system, with municipal and private trash collection. 

Each of the eighteen researchers surveyed a unique 100-to-1000-meter length of roadside for litter once to three times per week during two to four weeks. Both sides of the road were surveyed at each site, including curb, sidewalk and. Sites were selected based on convenience, so data can’t be generalized to the entire area.

Image credit: The researchers.

It’s the first study of its kind, the team argues, to do high-resolution surveys of litter accumulation rates on roadsides and identify human transport as a primary mechanism for litter transport. Based on the receipts analyzed, they found that most trash ends up on streets just a short distance from where someone purchased them. 

Almost 60% of the materials found on the roadside were plastic. Food-related and tobacco products were the most common ones. The identified branded ones were from were Philip Morris, Mars Incorporated, RJ Reynolds, and Jack in the Box. However, a big number of unbranded objects were also found while doing the survey on the road.

In the study, the researchers argued individuals, policymakers, and manufacturers should work together to solve the problem. Cities have many tools at their disposal, such as bans on items that usually end up outside or increasing street sweeping. They suggested a combination of measures will be necessary to find a lasting solution. While different areas around the globe could have different roadside trash problems, it’s likely that in many areas, the trash originates from nearby and local solutions should be designed.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. 

From large to small, every urban garden is important for pollinators

Size isn’t everything when it comes to gardens. According to a new study, the size of a garden doesn’t correlate with how much nectar its pollinators produce, which means that even small gardens can provide pollinators like bees with a large supply of food.

Image credit: The researchers.

We tend to think of urban areas as problems for conservation, but what if they could also be a part of the solution?

Urban areas can play an important role in the conservation of pollinators, which are currently under threat, especially by pesticides but also by other threats. Urban areas currently cover 2% to 3% of the world’s land and can support substantial pollinator diversity, according to a new study. Among them, small, private gardens can play an important role for pollinators thanks to their flowering plants.

Gardening for the future

Private gardens vary in size, shape, soil type, topography, and amount of sunlight. People also manage their gardens in widely different ways. As a result, the abundance and composition of flowering plants (which is crucial for bees) vary dramatically among gardens; one garden with many flowers may be a delicious buffer for bees, while freshly mown lawns offer next to nothing.

In a new study, researchers from Bristol University carried out the first investigation of how the nectar supply of private gardens changes in space and time. They found that because small gardens can be so important, actions by independent gardeners can lead to a stable and diverse provision of food for pollinators, supporting bees in key areas.

“We knew that gardens were important habitats for UK pollinators, providing 85% of nectar sugar in urban landscapes and a great diversity of flowering plants. However, we didn’t know how nectar production varied between individual gardens or through the months of the year,” PhD student Nick Tew, lead author, said in a statement. 

Gardens and pollinators

Image credits: Kieran Murphy.

Tew and his team surveyed residential gardens in Bristol, choosing six regions of the city for garden surveys. They visited 59 gardens once per calendar month between March and October – covering most of the UK pollinator flight season. They recorded floral abundance in each garden and measured when pollinators can find more nectar.

The researchers found that individual gardens vary significantly in the quantity of nectar they supply, registering a higher nectar production in more affluent neighborhoods but not in large gardens. The supply of nectar reached its peak in July when more plants are in flower, but temporal patterns varied among each garden depending on what flowers they had. 

Gardens with a larger flowering plant richness had a more stable nectar production, the study showed. In other words, individual decisions on how people manage gardens (and how many pollinator-friendly plants are included) can make a big difference for pollinators. The highest-nectar garden produced over 700 times more sugar than the lowest-nectar garden during the survey period. 

“This means that everyone has the potential to help pollinators in a meaningful way, even with a small garden and there is a lot of room for improvement, with some gardens providing hundreds of times less food than others, depending on what people choose to plant, weed, prune or mow,” Nick Tew, lead author, said in a statement. 

In their study, the researchers also included a set of recommendations for all gardeners out there. They suggested using nectar-rich shrubs with complementary flowering periods and flowers with an open shape for late summer and autumn, as most nectar is only accessible to long-tongued pollinators later in the year. 

For a list of some of the flowers that are good for bees, check out this research by the University of Sussex.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology

Powerful volcanic eruption and tsunami hits Tonga

Weeks ago, a submarine volcano near the small island Pacific nation of Tonga started erupting. While the outburst initially seemed harmless, in the past few days the volcano, called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, erupted several times and turned the sky pitch black due to the ash cloud, also triggering a tsunami that severely affected the island and was felt thousands of kilometers away. 

Image credit: Himawari 8 satellite CIRA.

The volcano’s eruptive activity turned especially violent on Sunday, with an eruption described as the biggest recorded on the planet in over 30 years. The middle part of the island disappeared from satellite imagery, with a plume of ash, gas and steam spewed up to 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, along record-breaking lighting

A tsunami quickly followed, hitting Tongatapu – the country’s main island and home to the capital Nuku’alofa. Smaller waves then reached parts of the Pacific Northwest, especially in British Columbia, Alaska, and Oregon. Stations also registered minor tsunami waves in other parts of the world, including Mexico and South America. Two people in Peru drowned because of these waves, and iIn Japan, hundreds of thousands of people were advised to evacuate on Sunday as waves of more than a meter hit coastal areas.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said no other deaths or injuries have been reported so far, but this could change as authorities haven’t made contact yet coastal areas and smaller islands. 

Australia and New Zealand sent surveillance flights to assess the level of damage. On a Facebook post, a beach resort on Tongatapu said the business was completely destroyed. “The whole western coastline has been completely destroyed,” the post reads. Save the Children said drinking water mat have been polluted by the ash cloud.

A volcanic nation

Over 100,000 people live in Tonga, a remote archipelago of over 170 South Pacific islands located 800 kilometers east of Fiji. The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano sits underwater between two islands at 2,000 meters high from the sea floor. The volcano has a long track record of eruptions in recent decades, also causing chaos. 

Back in 2009, an eruption sent steam and ash into the air and formed new land above the water. A few years later, in 2015, an eruption created a two-kilometer-wide island. The most recent eruption occurred in December 2021, with gas, steam and ash going up 12 kilometers into the air. The volcano then erupted again on January 14thand 15th

New Zealand-based volcanologist Shane Cronin told local media said the eruption was the biggest since the 1991 blast at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. “This is an eruption best witnessed from space,” Cronin said. A tsunami warning was issued for the entire archipelago, with waves of up to 80 centimeters detected across the shore.

Meanwhile, Tonga is struggling. Tonga “needs immediate assistance to provide its citizens with fresh drinking water and food,” the country’s Speaker of the House Lord Fakafanua said in a statement. The extent of the damage to lives and property is still unknow, he added. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said waves had a “significant impact” on Nuku’alofa.

One difficult factor to international aid is the fact that Tonga has so far avoided any outbreaks of COVID-19. The country registered its very first Covid case in November last year, triggering a lockdown Other small Pacific nations have also been spared from the worst of the pandemic thanks to their ability to isolate from the rest of the world. 

Thousands of tons of bread are wasted every year — in Sweden alone

The fact that food waste is a big problem is (or at least, should be) already well known. But hearing just how much food is wasted can be sobering. A new doctoral study from Sweden offers a nationwide view of how much bread is wasted every year — and how this food waste could be prevented.

“We have made calculations of the amount of bread waste, analysed the reasons behind it, and suggested solutions. Then we evaluated this in relation to potential environmental savings,” said Pedro Brancoli the lead study author.

Image credits: Douglas Alves.

The project wasn’t focused on bread initially. It mostly aimed to quantify food waste in general and assess what products were most often discarded and placed the biggest burden on the environment. Surprisingly, researchers found that bread — which has not been considered to be a significant waste source before — accounted for much of the environmental damage. The numbers are striking, Brancoli explains.

“We could establish that large amounts of bread are wasted in Sweden. To be more precise, 80,000 tons per year, or about 8 kg per person and year. The current bread distribution system also proved to be a significant source of bread waste. But we were also able to show that the bread that is wasted actually has a significant value,” he explained.

Globally, around a third of all the food produced is wasted, and food waste accounts for 6% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. There are few reliable statistics on bread waste, though some estimates place bread waste at around 30%.

The fact that there’s so much bread could, however, be a blessing in disguise. Bread waste can be used as a raw material to produce a number of different products, Brancoli explains. From animal feed, ethanol, or beer, to the substrate for fungus growth, bread can be used in a number of different applications.

“These alternatives have great potential to reduce the environmental impact in terms of the bread life cycle,” Brancoli said.

He envisions a more circular lifecycle for bread, with products being used for something else instead of simply being discarded. However, in order for that to happen, we need more cooperation between companies across the entire food chain — from wheat-growing to packaging and distribution. In addition to reducing the negative environmental impact, this can also help companies save money long term, the researcher believes.

Ultimately, Brancoli hopes his PhD thesis can start an important conversation around food waste.

“About a third of all food produced is lost on the way from farm to table. This leads to not only an environmental impact, but also unnecessary economic costs and social consequences through reduced access to food. This has led to an increased political and public debate on the need to address food waste, while at the same time increasing interest in the environmental, economic, and social effects it causes,” the researcher concludes.

The PhD thesis was published here.

California bans wasting water as severe drought continues

In a clear sign that the drought is far from over, the state of California has adopted new mandatory regulations to stop residents from wasting the state’s water — the second time in a decade the state decides to restrict the use of water. While the new restrictions are fairly mild, not respecting them could still cost $500 in daily fines.

Drought Desert California Nature Sky Landscape

The state’s Water Resources Control Board, which manages water resources, implemented the new rules after a previous call by Governor Gavin Newsom for a voluntary 15% reduction in water use compared to last year – a target that wasn’t met. The restrictions could take effect as soon as January 15th and have a one-year expiration date, unless extended by the state. 

“Climate change is challenging us to build drought resilience in our water infrastructure and management practices and at an individual level in our daily habits,” Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board, said in a statement. “Prohibiting wasteful water practices increases awareness of water as a precious resource.”

For instance, Californians won’t be allowed to use potable water to irrigate grass on public street medians or landscaped areas between the sidewalk and the street. Using potable water for street cleaning, construction, decorative fountains, and artificial lakes will also be banned. There are a few exceptions, such as watering trees in street medians. 

No other state in the West has implemented statewide restrictions on the use of water on a residential level, although much of the region is currently experiencing a drought. Instead, local governments and water agencies have been the ones setting policies. For example, Las Vegas implemented restrictions on planting grass in order to save water. 

A very wet December

The new restrictions on water use come after a very wet December, but authorities believe the wet trend won’t continue during the winter months, which are normally the wettest in California. In mid-December, about 80% of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought. By the end of the month, only a third had those conditions, according to the United States Drought Monitor.

From abnormally dry in yellow to extreme drought in red. Image credit: US Drought Monitor.

Thanks to the recent rainy spell, the state’s Water Resources Department announced this week that it will resume operations at the Oroville Dam, which went to a full stop in August due to low water levels on the lake. Still, major parts of the state’s water system remain under stress after the extremely dry conditions registered earlier in 2021 – dropping reservoirs to record lows.

About 90% of California’s rainfall and snowfall usually happens between October and April. This makes the winter season a crucial period for determining the conditions that the state will face during the summer. The snowpack is very important, as it’s a way to save water that will then trickle into rivers, streams, and reservoirs during the warmer seasons. 

The state had implemented similar restrictions on water use during a five-year drought that ended in 2017 and some cities have even made them permanent. The restrictions were only one piece of the puzzle, as the state also offered incentives for citizens to set up drought-resistant lawns. Now, water conservation could be trickier, as those measured had already been applied before and California still has to squeeze the belt.

Extinct species of fish reintroduced into its native habitat in Mexico

A little river in Mexico is the site of one of 2021’s most heartwarming tales — the reintroduction of a species that had gone extinct in the wild.

Tequila splitfin (Zoogoneticus tequila). Image via Wikimedia.

We often hear stories about animals going extinct, and they’re always heartbreaking. But, every so often, we get to hear of the reverse: a species that had gone extinct, being reintroduced into the wild. The waters of the Teuchitlán, a river in Mexico that flows near a town bearing the same name, can now boast the same tale.

Efforts by local researchers, conservationists, and citizens, with international support, have successfully reintroduced the tequila splitfin (Zoogoneticus tequila), a tiny fish that only lived in the Teuchitlán river but had gone extinct during the 1990s, to the wild.

Re-fishing

In the 1990s, populations of the tequila splitfin began to dwindle in the Teuchitlán river. Eventually, it vanished completely.

Omar Domínguez, one of the researchers behind the program that reintroduced the species, and a co-authored of the paper describing the process, was a university student at the time and worried about the fish’s future. Pollution, human activity, and invasive, non-native species were placing great pressure on the tequila splitfin.

Now a 47-year-old researcher at the University of Michoacán, he recounts that then only the elderly in Teuchitlán remembered the fish — which they called gallito (“little rooster”) because of its brightly-colored, orange tail.

Conservation efforts started in 1998 when a team from the Chester Zoo in England, alongside members from other European institutions, arrived with several pairs of tequila splitfin from the aquariums of collectors and set up a lab to help preserve the species.

The first few years were spent reproducing the fish in aquariums. Reintroducing these to the river directly was deemed to be too risky. So Domínguez and his colleagues built an artificial pond on-site, in which the fish could breed in semi-captivity. The then-40 pairs of tequila splitfins were placed in this pond in 2012, and by 2014 they had multiplied to around 10,000 individuals.

By now, their results gave all the organizations involved in the effort (various zoos and wildlife conservation groups from Europe, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates) enough confidence to fund further experimentation. So the team set their sights on the river itself. Here, they studied the species’ interactions with local predators, parasites, microorganisms, and how they fit into the wider ecosystem of the area.

Then, they placed some of the tequila splitfins back into the river — inside floating cages. This step, too, was a marked success, and the fish multiplied quickly inside the cages. When their numbers grew large enough, around late 2017, the researchers marked the individual fish and set them free. In the next six months, their population increased by 55%, the authors report. The fish are still going strong, they add: in December 2021, they were seen inhabiting a new area of the river, where they were completely extinct in the past.

It’s not just about giving a species a new lease on life, the team explains. Their larger goal was to restore the natural equilibrium of the river’s ecosystem. Although there is no hard data on environmental factors in the past to compare with, Domínguez is confident that the river’s overall health has improved. Its waters are cleaner, the number of invasive species has declined, and cattle are no longer allowed to drink directly from the river in some areas.

Local communities were instrumental in the conservation effort.

“When I started the environmental education program I thought they were going to turn a deaf ear to us — and at first that happened,” Domínguez said.

However, the conservationists made sustained efforts to educate the locals through puppet shows, games, and educational materials, and presentations about zoogoneticus tequila. Among others, citizens were told about the ecological role of the species, and the part it plays in controlling dengue-spreading mosquitoes.

The tequila splitfin is currently listed as endangered on the IUCN’s red list.

The paper “Progress in the reintroduction program of the tequila splitfin in the springs of Teuchitlán, Jalisco, Mexico” has been published online by the IUCN CTSG (Conservation Translocation Specialist Group). An update on the project has been published in the magazine Amazonas.

France bans plastic wrapping for most fruits and vegetables

A new law banning plastic wrapping for a large number of fruits and vegetables has come into force in France with the New Year, hoping to end with what the government has described as the “aberration” of overwrapped apples, bananas, and carrots. The move is part of a country-wide effort to gradually phase out all single-use plastics by 2040 and establish France as a leader in this field.

Image credit: Flickr / Green Communications.

Over 35% of fruits and vegetables in France are currently sold in plastic packages, according to government estimations. This is largely similar in all developed nations. The new measure hopes to eliminate over a billion wrappings per year and it will be fully applicable by 2026 — complying with the European Union’s goals to promote the circular economy and to reduce plastic waste. 

The initiative started in 2019 when France adopted a plan to eliminate plastic, especially in the food supply chain. Takeout boxes, cups cutlery, and plastic straws were then banned in 2021. This year, food chains will be banned from handing over toys made out of plastic and public spaces will have to be equipped with water fountains to cut the use of plastic bottles.

Fruits and vegetables

“We use an outrageous amount of single-use plastic in our daily lives. The circular economy law aims at cutting back the use of throwaway plastic and boost its substitution by other materials or reusable and recyclable packaging,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement, describing the ban as “a real revolution.”

Under the new legislation, tomatoes, apples, pears, leeks, carrots, and about other 30 items will not be sold in plastic anymore. Instead, supermarkets and stores will have to wrap them in recyclable materials. More fragile fruits such as berries and peaches will still be allowed to be sold in plastic wrapping, but this will have to be phased out in a few years as well. 

Although France’s decision was widely hailed, the exemptions were questioned by environmental NGOs, such as Zero Waste Europe (ZWE). Moïra Tourneur, advocacy manager at ZWE, said in a statement the exemptions will delay and reduce the scope of France’s plastic phase-out. “Why should there be an exemption for peaches [when] around 73% of them are already sold without plastic,” she added.

For campaigners, whether the ban is successful or not will depend on retailers and consumers taking on different packaging practices than changing one material with another. A report by the Rethink Plastic Alliance found that a reusable packaging target of 50% in key sectors would significantly reduce emissions, waste, and water consumption.

Elipso, a professional association that represents plastic manufacturers in France, has disagreed with the decision. The association said in a statement that companies “will have to stop their fruit and vegetable packing activity, even though they have been working on alternatives using less plastic or recycled plastic for several years”. Elipso has already appealed to France’s State Council with other associations, seeking the ban to be removed, though this is unlikely. 

A poll by WWF France in 2019 found that 85% of the population is in favor of prohibiting the use of single-use plastic products and packaging. The use of plastic wrapping has exasperated consumers in Europe, with three-quarters of British people experiencing frustration over the amount of plastic that comes with their shopping, according to a poll by Friends of the Earth.

Other countries will soon join France in a similar move. From next year, Spain will also ban plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables weighing less than 1.5kg. As in France, the law aims to encourage people to buy loose fruit and vegetables in their own reusable containers or other environmentally friendly packets. However, such moves are much more difficult in places like the US, especially as a third of US states have legislation preventing plastic bans.

Wild microorganisms are evolving to eat plastic pollution

Microorganisms around the world are likely evolving to be able to degrade and consume plastic materials.

Image via Pixabay.

A new global assessment of microorganism genomes, the largest study of its kind, found that wild bacteria and microbes are evolving to be able to consume plastics. Overall, the authors report that an average of one in four of the organisms analyzed in the study carried at least one enzyme that could degrade plastic. Furthermore, the number and types of enzymes matched the amount and type of plastic pollution at the location where samples of different organisms were collected — suggesting that this is a natural, ongoing process, caused by the presence of plastic in the environment.

These results are evidence that plastic pollution is producing “a measurable effect” on the world’s microbes, the authors conclude.

Plastic bacteria

“We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution — a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” said Prof Aleksej Zelezniak, at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Millions of tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans and landfills every year, and plastic pollution has become endemic everywhere on Earth. Addressing this issue will be one of the defining challenges of future generations along with efforts to reduce our reliance on such materials and improve our ability to recycle and cleanly dispose of used plastic. However, plastics are hard to degrade — that hardiness is one of their selling points to begin with.

According to the findings, microbes in soils and oceans across the globe are also hard at work on the same project. The study analyzed over 200 million genes from DNA samples taken from environments all around the world and found 30,000 different enzymes that could degrade 10 different types of plastics. such compounds could serve us well in our efforts to recycle plastics, breaking them down into their building blocks. Having more efficient recycling methods on hand would go a long way towards cutting our need to produce more plastics.

“We did not expect to find such a large number of enzymes across so many different microbes and environmental habitats. This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the issue,” says Jan Zrimec, also at Chalmers University, first author of the study.

The team started with a dataset of 95 microbial enzymes already known to degrade plastic; these compounds were identified in species of bacteria found in dumps and similar places rife with plastic.

They then looked at the genes that encode those enzymes and looked for similar genes in environmental DNA samples collected at 236 sites around the world. To rule out any false positives, they compared the enzymes with enzymes from the human gut — all of which are known to be unable to degrade plastic.

Roughly 12,000 new enzymes were identified from ocean samples. Higher levels of degrading enzymes were routinely found in samples taken at deeper points, which is consistent with how plastic pollution levels vary with depth. Some 18,000 suitable genes were identified in soil samples. Here, too, the researchers underscore the effect of environmental factors: soils tend to contain higher levels of plastics with phthalate additives than the ocean, and more enzymes that can attack these substances were identified in soil samples.

Overall, roughly 60% of the enzymes identified in this study did not fit into a previously-known class, suggesting that they act through chemical pathways that were previously unknown to science.

“The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve,” said Zelezniak. “From there you could engineer microbial communities with targeted degrading functions for specific polymer types.”

The paper “Plastic-Degrading Potential across the Global Microbiome Correlates with Recent Pollution Trends” has been published in the journal Microbial Ecology.

Amazon has a big plastic problem — and it’s getting worse

The plastic packaging waste produced by Amazon last year soared by almost a third amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by the marine NGO Oceana, Amazon generated about 599 million pounds of plastic waste, a 29% increase from 2019 estimates, stemming from the many packages delivered during the pandemic.

An Amazon warehouse in the UK. Image credit: Flickr / DK.

Plastic is one of the largest environmental problems of our time. Up to 55% of sea birds, 70% of marine mammals, and all sea turtles have ingested or become entangled with plastic, according to previous studies. We are also exposed to plastic in our food and water, with reports estimating we eat about five grams of microplastics per week. Overall, the world produces over 500 billion tons of plastic waste per year.

“Amazon’s plastic packaging pollution problem is growing at a frightening rate at a time when the oceans need corporate leaders to step up and meaningfully commit to reducing their use of single-use plastic. Amazon has shown it can do this in large markets,” Oceana’s VP for Strategic Initiatives Matt Littlejohn said in a statement. 

In its report, Oceana highlighted steps taken by Amazon in India, where it eliminated single-use plastics for packaging by introducing paper alternatives after the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2022. The company also recently announced it will stop using single-use plastics in Germany. 

Nevertheless, this is not enough, Oceana concluded. Using surveys with Amazon Prime customers, interviews with municipal waste officials, and with store owners, the NGO said Amazon’s recycling efforts won’t “significantly reduce its enormous (and growing plastic problem.” The company should instead become a leader in plastic reduction. 

The figures were rejected by Amazon officials. speaking with The Guardian. Amazon said Oceana overestimated the plastic waste by 300% but didn’t give its own estimated figure. A spokesperson said to share the NGO’s concern for the ocean and said it’s making “rapid progress” in reducing and removing single-use plastics in packaging materials. 

A growing problem

The plastic packaging used by Amazon falls into the category of plastic film, a material very difficult to be recycled and that it’s not accepted by most curbside recycling programs in the US and the UK. In most cases, it’s burned or landfilled, polluting the environment. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, studies showed.

To address this, Amazon asks its customers to drop the plastic waste into selected stores so it can be later recycled. Oceana sent secret shoppers to 186 of these stores in the US and the UK. Representatives from over 40% of the stores visited told the shoppers that they wouldn’t accept Amazon packaging, unaware that such a program even exists. 

Oceana also surveyed over 1,400 Amazon Prime Customers in both countries. Up to 39% said to leave the Amazon plastic into municipal recycling bins, while 35.5% said to put the packaging into the trash. This means the plastic waste of three-quarters of those surveyed ends up in landfills, incinerators, or into the natural environment, Oceana said. 

“Amazon is now bigger than Walmart, and is the largest retailer in the world outside of China. The company is now defining how products are packaged. It must stop hiding behind false and ineffective solutions, like plastic film recycling, and instead, do what it is doing in India and in Germany all around the planet, added Littlejohn in a statement. 

The full report from Oceana can be accessed here. 

Should we pay countries to protect their biodiversity?

The countries with the richest biodiversity don’t always take the necessary measures to protect them. Whether it’s because they lack the motivation or the resources to do so, or because they prioritize short-term economic benefits over environmental protection, countries often neglect their responsibilities. This prompted researchers to explore a curious question: why not pay them to protect their environment?

The ongoing loss of biodiversity is one of the most serious current threats, affecting all the planet’s ecosystems.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Almost without exception, rich countries got rich in the first place by burning a lot of fossil fuels, and it would be a fair way to balance things. At the same time, rich countries that want to reduce their emissions could make a bigger impact by investing abroad than inside their own borders.

“Human well-being depends on ecological life support. Yet, we are constantly losing biodiversity and therefore the resilience of ecosystems. At the international level, there are political goals, but the implementation of conservation policies is a national task. There is no global financial mechanism that can help nations to reach their biodiversity targets”, says lead author Nils Droste from Lund University, Sweden.

In itself, the idea isn’t exactly novel — several such mechanisms are already in place. For instance, Norway and Germany are already paying Brazil to reduce deforestation (although the payments have been frozen in light of recent deforestation). Previous research has shown that this sort of scheme can help protect existing areas and create additional protected areas.

But a global framework isn’t in place, and could offer much more benefits, researchers argue. They propose three possible mechanisms:

  • An ecocentric model: only protected area extent per country counts — the bigger the protected area, the better;
  • A socio-ecological model: protected areas and Human Development Index count. This adds an incentive for also include development justice to the previous model;
  • An anthropocentric model: population density is also considered, as people can benefit locally from protected areas.

In most cases, researchers say, the second model offers the most incentives. Essentially, it provided the most value for the invested money when it comes to conservation and protection. The results were particularly impressive for countries that are currently doing the least to achieve their protection goals.

“While we developed the socio-ecological design with a fairness element in mind, believing that developing countries might be more easily convinced by a design that benefits them, we were surprised how well this particular design aligns with the global policy goals”, says Nils Droste. “It would most strongly incentivize additional conservation action where the global community is lacking it the most”, he adds.

Of course, the question of “should we do it” is still on the table. The downside is obvious: you pay a lot of money for something which doesn’t benefit you directly (and there’s also the problem of some of the money being lost through corruption). However, protecting biodiversity is truly a global challenge that will require global efforts to solve. In the long run, everyone would benefit from protecting biodiversity worldwide.

Ethically, the plan would allow richer developed countries to mend past environmental damage. But politically, offering money to other countries is never a popular idea, and countries are rarely keen on opting for such plans. While researchers expect this type of project to help the planet as a whole (it’s in everyone’s best interest to have developing nations grow sustainably), it remains to be seen whether something like this can truly catch on.

“We know that we need to change land use in order to preserve biodiversity. Protecting land from degradation and providing healthy ecosystems, clean air or clean rivers is a function of the state. Giving a financial reward to governments for such public ecosystem services will ease the provision of corresponding conservation efforts and will help to put this on the agenda,” concludes Droste.

The study has been published in Conservation Letters.

Air pollution influences the sex ratio of babies

According to a new study, the presence of air and water pollutants affects the human sex ratio at birth — some increase the ratio of boys at birth, while others decrease it. It’s hard to say how significant this change is, but researchers warn that it could have long-term consequences

Image credit: Flickr / VT Ploywoda

There are more boys born than girls in every single country of the world. This has been the case since 1962, the earliest data available. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that currently are around 105 males per 100 female births for most countries, although this can slightly vary from around 103 to 107 boys per 100 girls. 

A study from 2015, considered the most extensive one of its kind, tracked the evolution of sex ratio from conception to birth and found that sex ratio at conception is equal – there are no differences in the number of male and female conceived. However, female mortality is slightly higher than male over the course of a pregnancy.

Andrey Rzhetsky from the University of Chicago wanted to explore the issue further with a group of researchers, hoping to understand the factors that influence sex ratio at birth. Previous studies have found that changes in weather, stress and pollutants could influence the sex ratio, but they only looked at one or two factors at a time.

“The issue of sex ratio at birth is surrounded with legends, conjectures, and small-sample trend observations,” Rzhetsky told ZME Science. “Variation at birth occurs through death of embryos, for some reason biased towards one of the sexes. If the causes can be established, the findings can have profound health implications.”

Understanding sex ratio at birth 

In this large scale study, Rzhetsky wanted to validate previously-reported associations and test new hypotheses using statistical analysis of two very large datasets incorporating electronic medical records. One dataset included over half (150 million) of the US population, while another covered the entire Swedish population.

“We decided to test a collection of past claims plus a number of new associations with environment using a very large cohort, effectively over half of US population,” Rzhetsky, told ZME Science. “We found a number of associations between sex ratio at birth change and individual pollutants. Ideally, these associations will be studied in animal models.”

The findings showed that the sex ratio at birth wasn’t affected by seasons, ambient temperature, violent crime rates, unemployment rates, or commute times. However, there were a set of pollutants that affected the sex ratio, some increasing the ratio of boys and other decreasing it – such as iron, lead, mercury, aluminum and carbon dioxide.

Air pollution is one of the most significant environmental problems across the world. The average global citizen is estimated to lose 2.2 years of life with the current levels of air pollution, a study found this year, with all of us exposed to more than three times the air pollution considered acceptable by the World Health Organization (WHO).

There were also other factors associated with changes in the sex ratio, the finding showed, including extreme droughts and industrial permits. The researchers also tested links between stressful events in the US and sex ratio in nearby areas, finding that Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause any changes and that the Virginia Tech shooting did. 

However, this is still just a correlation. We don’t fully understand the effects that pollutants and other environmental factors have on the sex ratio of babies, but studies like this suggest that the impact of our pollution can be more far-reaching than we thought.

The study was published in the journal in PLOS Computational Biology.

Illegal gold mining happening in plain sight on an Amazon river

Illegal mining in the Amazon is a growing threat to local communities, but it’s continuing to grow and expand, posing a threat not just to the environment but to people’s health as well. A few days ago, a rumour that gold was found in the Madeira river in the south of the Amazon rainforest sent would-be miners into a frenzy, with hundreds of rafts being spotted on the lake.

After a rather slow crackdown, the operations have now been stopped, but many fear miners are still active, but are now more careful about hiding.

Map of the Amazon Basin with the Madeira River highlighted.

The Madeira River is the biggest tributary of the Amazon river, the biggest in the world. Madeira alone contains40% of the fish species of all the Amazon basin, including several endemic species such as the Bolivian river dolphin. It’s 3,250 km (2,020 mi), during the rainy season its depth can reach 180 m (590 ft).

Fifteen days ago, around 300 hundred dredging rafts moved to the river due to the gold rumor. The activity is obviously illegal in such an important region of the Amazon basin — but that did little to stop miners.

The rafts appeared together in lines and placed themselves in plain sight as if nothing out of normal was happening. The rafts are equipped with pumps to suck the riverbed to find gold. Then, to make things worse, miners use toxic substances made of mercury to separate the gold from sand and other rocky material. The remains of the separation are then discarded in the river itself.

This situation is an environmental disaster waiting to happen, but the Brazilian government only started preparing on November 25, well after the presence of the rafts was clear. As the government made it a public statement it made most of the miners leave the area, until finally on November 27 the remaining rafts were burned down by the Federal Police.

Not so long ago, in 2018, scientists were ‘celebrating’ the decline of mining in the river. They published a paper discussing mercury pollution and attributed the concentration levels to be mostly from the ’80s when the activity was intense in the region.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for the consumer to know where the materials used to make jewels come from. If it is connected to illegal mining it comes with human rights risks and environmental impacts. Some of the ecological impacts stated by scientists include the loss of land and natural vegetation, air pollution from the vehicles used, and noise pollution.

No kids, no problem — Many young adults think it’s ‘morally wrong’ to have children

Overconsumption, overpopulation, and an uncertain future are the top concerns of those who argue that the climate crisis is affecting their reproductive future. Researchers from Arizona University found growing environmental concerns among young adults, which could have major repercussions in the future. 

Image credit: Flickr / Victoria Pickering.

Almost 38% of US citizens aged 18 to 29 believe that couples should consider climate change when deciding to have children, while 33% aged 20 to 45 cited climate as a reason to have fewer children. If this becomes a widespread belief, we’ll need to start figuring out what this means on an environmental, societal, and psychological level. 

Understanding the motivation

There have been previous studies analyzing people’s tendency of going childfree, but the concerns and motivations of individuals of people doing so in response to climate change haven’t been properly investigated. Though a multi-method study, a group of researchers wanted to address this and understand its possible repercussions. 

“For many people, the question of whether to have children or not is one of the biggest they will face in their lives,” Sabrina Helm, the study lead author, said in a statement. “If you are worried about what the future will look like because of climate change, obviously it will impact how you view this very important decision in your life.”

Each new child that is born into this world means consumption of resources such as water, food, and energy, while simultaneously causing further pollution to land, water, and air. In fact, a study calculated that having one fewer child would lead to 58.6 tons of CO2 emission reductions — and it’s pretty much the most eco-friendly thing you can do. But these ideas aren’t really regarded as mainstream in society.

Alongside a team of researchers, Helm first used content analysis to examine reader comments on online press articles, hoping to familiarize with the broad range of opinions surrounding pro-childfree climate change debates. They selected articles after a Google search using terms such as “no kids/children” and “birth strike.”

Much of the discussion in the comments was of readers debating what they perceived to be drivers of climate change. Of these, overpopulation (or the belief that there are too many people on the planet) was the most prevailing concern. Others noted overconsumption in developed countries and high birth rates in developing ones. 

The researchers then carried out a set of 24 semi-structured interviews with young adults (18 to 35 years old) in New Zealand and the US, hoping to get a better understanding of what they read on the online comments. Data was collected between October and December 2019, with 12 interviews carried out in each country.

All participants mentioned that they believe not having kids was the biggest positive choice one can make for the environment. While some were less certain and said they could change their mind in the future and end up having kids, others were more adamant about their decision. An uncertain future, overconsumption, and overpopulation were the most cited reasons.

Almost all participants were worried about how having children contributes to resource overuse with regard to current and future consumption levels in society. They felt responsible and uneasy about the emissions that would be emitted by their potential kids, expressing concerns about future shortages of natural resources. 

On a personal level, many participants felt misunderstood by their relatives and friends. They indicated their family members expressed a strong desire for them to have children, believing that they would change their minds as they aged. A few participants were also worried whether their partners would agree with their decision. 

For the researchers, the findings point at immediate implications for society. Further decreases in the birth rate in high-income countries would affect the social system and economy, for example with a labor market shortage. There could also be impact on health public policy, as young people are feeling an emotional strain in response to the climate crisis. 

“Many people now are severely affected in terms of mental health with regard to climate change concerns,” Helm said. “Then you add this very important decision about having kids, which very few take lightly, and this is an important topic from a public health perspective. It all ties into this bigger topic of how climate change affects people.”

The article was published in the journal Population and Environment.