Tag Archives: waste

Almost half of the global waste is not collected properly — and much of it is burned

Nearly a billion tons of waste are disposed of improperly every year and this is threatening the health and wellbeing of billions worldwide, a new study reports. The study looked at what happens to consumer goods and other products at the end of their useful life and concludes that urgent action is needed to address open burning of solid waste and ill-managed dumpsites.

Image credit: Flickr / Fairphone

The “Global Review on Safer End of Engineered Life” report showed that of all the municipal solid waste generated on Earth, a quarter — half a billion tons — is not collected, and a further 27% is mismanaged following collection. This means that close to a billion tonnes of waste risk polluting the natural environment every year.

The biggest threat comes from the open burning of solid waste, the researchers found, which can damage the health of “tens of millions of people worldwide”. Waste is often burned close to homes, near industrial or commercial areas, and in large uncontrolled dumpsites, releasing emissions into the atmosphere and onto land.

The report also found that open burning releases persistent organic pollutants that are often carcinogenic, mutagenic, and cause immunological and developmental impairments or lead to reproductive abnormalities. It’s a “hazardous cocktail” that threatens the life of those who live and work nearby, the researchers note.

But it’s a difficult one to tackle, especially in developing countries, where it’s common for informal recyclers to set fire to electrical cables and electronic components as they have valuable metals bound with plastic. Also in households, burning food and biological waste can reduce its smell and discourages animals that might transmit disease.

“There is no doubt that the handling of humanity’s waste and its impact on health and safety should be much higher up the global agenda,” Willian Powrie, one of the authors and Southampton professor, said in a statement. “It beggars belief that we are still using crude and ancient methods of disposal to deal with our 21st-century waste problem.”

Engineering X, an international partnership founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, commissioned the study to UK researchers and specialist organizations. They looked at the challenges to occupational and public safety from plastic waste, medical waste, electronic waste, construction waste and land disposal

Open burning was listed as one of the three challenges along with dumpsites and the challenges facing the world’s 11 million waste collectors. These are men, women and children that collect more than 90 million metric tons of waste for recycling each year while being exposed to many health risks such as open burning.

There’s a lack of data on where what and how much solid waste is currently burned, what is released during burning, and what impact burning has on people and the environment locally or on a wider scale, the researchers argued. Previous studies suggested that ending open burning would add a billion tons of solid waste to be treated.

Ruth Boumphrey, Director of Research at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, said in a statement: “Now is the time for collective action. It is unacceptable that in today’s world we do not have a proper understanding of how to safely and responsibly manage the waste from engineered items. We hope that this report will shine a spotlight on these long-neglected issues.”

The researchers made a set of recommendations for urgent action to mitigate harm. The amount of material disposed in dumpsites should be reduced, they argued, also calling for a transformation of existing dumpsites. Waste should be managed differently so populations don’t have to manage their own by open burning, while waste pickers should be part of the waste management plans.

They also listed suggestions for further research and innovation. They said more primary data on open burning should be collected, as well as assessing the benefits and motivations for open burning. Dumpsites should be better assessed, developing standards for their management, they argued, also calling for the empowerment of waste pickers.

Previous studies have warned over the growing amount of electronic waste generated every year. In 2019, 53.6 million tons of e-waste were generated by humans, almost two million metric tons more than the previous year. Only 17% of the waste was recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerated, or just unaccounted for.

3D printing may be worse for your lungs than assumed

A new study sheds light on the potential health costs of 3D printing.

Image credits Lutz Peter.

There’s little room for debate around the merits of 3D printing. That’s reflected in their growing use in homes, schools, and other settings where people spend a lot of time. But a new paper comes to warn that the printers aren’t harmless. The printing process can affect air quality and public health through the airborne particles it generates — these are small enough to enter deep into the lungs, the authors warn.

Printing problems

“To date, the general public has little awareness of possible exposures to 3D printer emissions,” states Peter Byrley, Ph.D., EPA, lead author.

“A potential societal benefit of this research is to increase public awareness of 3D printer emissions, and of the possibly higher susceptibility of children”.

Such printers have served an invaluable role during the pandemic, when institutions as well as individuals turned to them for face shields, respirator parts, or other equipment needed (but scarce) in face of COVID-19. However, the authors argue that it’s precisely due this rise in use that we should understand the health effects of 3D printing.

Materials used in the printing process can vary greatly, depending on the model, and include thermoplastics, metals, nanomaterials, polymers, or volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds. Each print can take up to several hours to complete (depending on the printer and the size of the item). During this time, a wide range of chemical by-products and particles can seep into the environment, especially indoors, according to the authors.

The paper provides a meta-analysis of existing literature on the subject. The team reports finding evidence that ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) emissions generated during the printing process can affect human and rat lung cells it comes into contact with. The same study showed that these particles cause “moderate” toxicity in human lung cells and “minimal” toxicity in rats. Two recent studies from the EPA also showed that emissions from a 3D printer filament extruder (a device used to create printer filaments), both vapor and small particles, are similar to those found in the ABS study. They also report that these emissions can lead to deposition of particles in the lung tissues of individuals aged nine and younger (based on computer simulations).

Another cited study examines the ecological cost of 3D printing. The accessibility, convenience, and scale of 3D printing today is a direct contributor to plastic pollution, it explains. Nanoparticles generated from the breakdown of 3D printed materials were further found to become biologically available when exposed to the environment (meaning an animal or plant can absorb them into their tissues). It establishes a Matrix Release Factor (MRF), describing the percentage of nanoparticles that came out of the plastic when eaten by fish, which can help us gauge how much of them are released when a product breaks down or is consumed.

“This research can help set regulations on how much nanomaterial fillers can be added to particular consumer products, based on their MRF value,” states Sipe. “The data can help determine how much plastic and/or nano-filled products release contaminants into the environment or the human body.”

These risks are manageable, but the only way we can protect ourselves is to know they exist. The authors are confident that 3D printing will continue to enjoy wider popularity in the future, so more in-depth research is needed to uncover all sides of the story in order to make the most of it while keeping people and the environment healthy and safe.

The findings will be presented at the Society for Risk Analysis 2020 Annual Meeting.

Newly-discovered enzyme cocktail paves the way towards infinitely recyclable plastic

The researchers who made the improved version of the plastic-eating PETase enzyme have now developed a new ‘cocktail’ that can break down plastic much faster.

Image credits Džoko Stach.

Half of the cocktail is made up of the previous enzyme, PETase. The other ingredient, MHETase, is an enzyme found in the same strain of bacteria from which PETase was isolated. Together, they can break down plastic six times faster than alone, the team explains.

The findings can help pave the way towards improved plastic recycling methods, the team explains, which would slash plastic pollution as well as the emissions from plastic production.

Plastic-B-gone

“It took a great deal of work on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was worth the effort—we were delighted to see that our new chimeric enzyme is up to three times faster than the naturally evolved separate enzymes, opening new avenues for further improvements.”

Arguably the best place to find plastic-consuming compounds is in colonies of bacteria living on a diet of plastic bottles. But it turns out that it’s also the best place to find such a compound again.

The team isolated MHETase from the same strain of bacteria that produced PETase. Put together, the two are much more efficient at clearing out plastics than apart.

PETase decomposes polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a very common plastic used among other things for bottles, into its chemical components. This opens up the way — at least in theory — to infinitely-recyclable plastics.

Plastic is so useful because, on a chemical level, it is incredibly stable. The other side of the coin is that this makes it virtually indestructible by biological activity and other natural processes in any meaningful timescale (it takes several hundreds of years for it to break down in the environment). It also makes plastic hard to reuse over multiple cycles, as the process of breaking and reforming its chemical bonds has a noticeable effect on its physical properties.

After PETase was first isolated, the team worked to engineer it in the lab to make it more effective. By the end, they made it around 20% faster in breaking down PET.

MHETase, they explain, works as the teammate of PETase in the wild. Put together, they’re twice as fast in breaking down PET. After tweaking it in the lab, the team improved the effectiveness of this cocktail threefold — meaning that it breaks down plastic six times faster than PETase alone. What the team did in the lab is to essentially link the two molecules together chemically, instead of having them as separate solutions. Because of this link, PETase always has a MHETase molecule on hand to boost its speed.

“Our first experiments showed that they did indeed work better together, so we decided to try to physically link them, like two Pac-men joined by a piece of string,” says Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth.

The resulting MHETase-PETase molecule breaks down plastic to its constituent parts, allowing for it to be recycled endlessly. The team hopes that the findings can help decrease reliance on crude oil or natural gas for raw materials and that they will help lower the emissions and pollution caused by plastic production.

The work, however, isn’t done. The authors used the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, the UK’s largest synchrotron, to study the atomic structure of MHETase-PETase. Armed with its 3D structure, they are now working on designing a synthetic molecule that would perform the same task but faster and more efficiently. If successful, we might be able to engineer bacteria, or design completely synthetic ones, to produce plastic-destroying enzymes to clean out landfills and the ocean.

The paper “Characterization and engineering of a two-enzyme system for plastics depolymerization,” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Why is recycling so important? The dirty truth behind our trash

Recycling is much more than just reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, with a long list of benefits that aren’t limited to the environment — there are economic and social advantages to recycling.

Even as we live in a consumer-driven world, with a growing appetite for new things, if we begin to look at the waste created by this level of consumption in a different light, we might turn our problem into an opportunity.

Credit Flickr

What is recycling

Whether it’s plastic, paper, or aluminum, the products and materials that can be used after they fulfill their original purpose are far from worthless. In fact, most materials have great recycling value. It is estimated that up to 75% of all the waste can be recycled or repurposed, a figure that how impactful the process can be if done right. Almost everything we see around us can be recycled, although different materials require different techniques when they are recycled. Most of the commonly recyclable materials include batteries, biodegradable waste, clothing, electronics, garments, glass, metals, paper, plastics, and a lot more.

Recycling the process of separating, collecting, and remanufacturing or converting used or waste products into new materials. But if we want to truly focus on recycling, it’s important to change the way we address it both on a personal and on a societal level.

Recycling helps extend the life and usefulness of something that has already served its initial purpose by returning it to its raw materials and then using those materials to produce something that is useable. It’s part of the three golden rules of sustainability (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) and has a lot of benefits both to us humans and to the environment. Virtually all the planet is impacted by how much we recycle.

Benefits of recycling

The world’s natural resources are finite, and some are in very short supply. At a fundamental level, recycling paper and wood can save trees and forests, recycling plastic means creating less new plastic, recycling metals means there’s less need for mining and recycling glass reduces the use of new raw materials like sand. Of course, the reality of it is much more complex, but the fundamental process is valid nonetheless. Metals, for instance, are repeatedly recyclable, while maintaining most or all of their properties.

Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest, or extract new raw materials from the Earth. That, in turn, reduces the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world, which means fewer forests cut down, rivers diverted, wild animals harmed or displaced, and less pollution.

It’s also much better to recycle existing products than to damage someone else’s community or land in the search for new raw materials. The demand for new goods has led to more of the poorest and most vulnerable people being displaced from their homes or otherwise exploited.

Making products from recycled materials typically requires less energy than making them from new raw materials — sometimes it’s a huge difference in energy. For example, producing new aluminum from old products uses 95% less energy than making it from scratch. For steel, it’s about a 70% energy saving. While not always, manufacturing something the second time around usually consumes far less energy.

Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it produces lower carbon emissions, which means it can help with global warming. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites. Overall, reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere is vital to stop climate change.

Recycling also makes economic sense. As a rule of thumb, it’s six times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse. So, the more you recycle, and the less you put in the bin, the more money is saved — which should be good for households, businesses, and local public services. Recycling food waste and green waste is a great idea too, often generating lots of valuable compost.

Recycling can stimulate the economy in multiple ways. The EPA has shown recycling helps to create jobs in both the recycling and manufacturing industries. A 2016 study said recycling activities account in a single year for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenues.

The steps of recycling

Recycling includes three essential steps, which create a continuous loop, represented by the familiar recycling symbol. The first one is to actually collect the recyclables, which can be done in different ways (for example, they can be collected from the curbside, dropped-off at centers or gathered through deposit or refund programs),.

Following the collection, recyclables are sent to a recovery facility. They are classified, cleaned and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. Recyclables are then bought and sold just like raw materials would be, and prices go up and down depending on supply and demand.

A growing number of products are being manufactured with recycled content. Common household items that contain recycled materials are newspapers, steel cans, plastic laundry detergents and soft drink containers. Recycled materials are also used in new ways such as recovered glass in asphalt to pave roads.

Consumers can help close the recycling loop by buying new products made from recycled materials. There are thousands of products that contain recycled content. When you go shopping, look for products that can be easily recycled and products that contain recycled content.

Types of recycled materials

It’s important to recycle any materials possible, but one of the most relevant are plastics, as they are such a big part of the solid waste that we make. When plastic is sent to a landfill, it does not break down as it’s not biodegradable, and even in the oceanwater, plastic stays around forever, breaking down to smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics). Most plastics are used only once before they are discarded, known as single-use plastics — this type of single-use plastic is already being banned in many parts of the world.

Recycling metal is also very important as it saves energy, reduces emissions and creates jobs. Using recycled metal, known as scrap metal, instead of new metal reduces mining waste by 97% and saves more than 90% on energy, depending on the material. Recycling metals creates six times more jobs than sending the metals to a landfill.

The same applies to paper recycling. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. It also saves energy, about 4,000 kilowatts of it, enough t power an average American home for six months. Paper takes up a lot of space in landfills, so the more is recycled the better the landfills operate.

Like paper, cardboard recycling uses less water, cuts back on emissions, saves prime real estate in landfills for materials that are not recyclable, and prevents deforestation. It is estimated that recycling one ton of cardboard can save 17 trees from harm, 7,000 gallons of water

Reduce and reuse

You may have heard of “The 3 R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While recycling is important, the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Making a new product requires a lot of materials and energy and then the product has to be transported to wherever it will be sold. That means to reduce and reuse are also important ways to protect the environment.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Some of the ways to reduce and reuse include looking for products that use less packaging, which means less raw materials, buying reusable over disposable items, maintaining and repairing products like clothing so they don’t have to be thrown away and borrowing, renting or sharing items that are used infrequently like tools. Reducing our consumption should be the first step, and reusing also tends to be far more sustainable than recycling. Recycling means turning an item into raw materials which can be used again, either for the same product or a new one, while reusing means using an object as it is, without treatment.

The reason why recycling is so important is that it prevents pollution, reduces the need to harvest new raw materials, saves energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saves money, reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, and allows products to be used to their fullest extent. Sounds like a no-brainer, eh? If our society wants to truly reach some level of sustainability, recycling needs to play a core role in that, there’s just no alternative.

It’s not just a health problem. Coronavirus shows environmental effects

Face masks, a tool for protection against coronavirus now in high-demand across the globe, have become an environmental problem in Hong Kong, where 131 people have been infected with the virus and three people have been reported dead.

Aerial of the research beach at the Soko Islands. Credit Oceans Asia

Environmental groups claim a large number of face masks are not being properly disposed of in Hong Kong. Instead, they are thrown onto the shoreline, beaches or even into the sea, where marine life can mistake them for food.

Already dealing with the growing flow of marine litter from mainland China and elsewhere, local environmentalists said these discarded masks have exacerbated the problem and have also raised concerns about the spread of germs.

“We have only had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume. Now we are seeing the effect on the environment,” Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, told Reuters.

Stroke’s organization discovered thousands of used face masks on the beaches of various small uninhabited islands of the Soko archipelago (between Hong Kong and Lantau), in all probability used in recent months due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The scale of the phenomenon expanded as time passed. Stokes said he found 70 discarded masks on a 100-meter stretch of beach, and when he returned a week later, there were more than 30 new ones.

Oceans Asia participates in the WWF Blue Oceans Initiative, periodically visiting various points on the Asian coasts to quantify the presence of waste, with special attention to plastics. The masks were found floating in the water and mixed with other debris on the beaches.

The masks and protective equipment found by Stokes include hospital and private use models, but almost all of them share the condition of being made of non-degradable materials, therefore increasing concern about their environmental impact.

“Due to the current coronavirus outbreak, the general population has taken the precaution of wearing surgical masks and if you suddenly have a population of seven million people with one or two masks per day, the amount of garbage generated is impressive,” said Strokes in a statement.

Detecting these contamination points in the vicinity of Hong Kong is most likely an indicator of a much larger scale problem. There are no verified data in this regard, but the appearance of many other points of accumulation of this type of waste in areas affected by the pandemic is not ruled out by Oceans Asia.

With over seven million inhabitants, Hong Kong has had difficulties dealing with plastic waste, especially since 2017, when China implemented a waste ban. Hong Kong used to export 90% of its recyclables to China so not being able to do that was a big blow. Now, about 70% of Hong Kong’s waste ends up in landfills.

EU pushes for circular economy to have longer-lasting products

Produce, use, and throw away? No, better reduce, reuse, and recycle, says the EU. The paradigm of the current linear economic model could be coming to an end, replaced by a circular economy, a system that seeks to better use the resources available and reduce their environmental impact.

The European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius. Credit EU

The European Union (EU) wants to move forward in that direction and introduced a new Circular Economy Action Plan, with the objective of reducing the bloc’s consumption footprint and double its circular material use rate. By doing so, the EU’s GDP would increase an additional 0.5% by 2030.

“Only by changing the economic model can we hope for success, ease the pressure on our biodiversity and achieve the 2050 goals on carbon neutrality in the European Union (EU),” explained the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius.

The EU acknowledged that many products are currently being manufactured in such a way that they break down fast and can’t be reused, repaired, or recycle. Instead, green products should be the norm, rewarding manufacturers of products based on their sustainability performance, according to the bloc’s plan.

In order to do that, the bloc wants to push for legislation to ensure the manufacturing of sustainable products in electronics and textiles. They should be designed to last longer, be easier to use, repair, and recycle and incorporate the maximum of recycled materials instead of new ones. Additionally, the EU aims to restrict single-use items, deal with planned obsolescence, and veto the destruction of unsold durable goods. Along these lines, consumers should have information on the life expectancy of the products and to what extent they can be repaired, in order to help them make greener purchases.

The EU also wants to improve the collection and treatment of electronic waste, establish new mandatory requirements for plastics — with special attention to microplastics — and encourage the use of more ecological construction elements and reusable articles that replace cutlery or single-use food packaging.

This will lead to less waste generated and minimize the amount of waste exported by the bloc, according to the plan, which would also include the development of a harmonized model for waste collection and threshing across the Union as well as labeling.

As an example, Sinkevicius said that the EU will “move in the direction of universal chargers“, for laptops, smartphones or tablets, so that when buying a new one it does not need to include a charging device. This will make it unnecessary to extract so many raw materials and boost the secondary market.

The initiative was welcomed by business leaders, grouped under the chamber BusinessEurope. They said in a press release that it’s a “win-win” proposal and that “minimizing the amount of waste and keeping the value of raw materials as long as possible is good for the environment and for companies.”

Roughly 98% of plastic waste in the ocean dissolves due to sunlight

Around 98% of all the plastic waste going into the ocean is unaccounted for. A new paper looks into where it winds up, and its effect on marine life.

It’s hard to overstate just how much plastic humanity has dumped into the ocean. Trillions of bits of plastic float into massive “garbage patches” along the subtropical gyres (rotating ocean currents). These patches have a dramatic impact on ocean life, ranging from the largest mammals to the humble bacteria.

And yet, these immense plastic patches only account for 1% to 2% of all the plastic going into the ocean. Which is quite a scary thought. One promising theory is that sunlight-driven chemical reactions break the materials down until they lose buoyancy, or become too small to be captured by researchers. However, direct, experimental evidence for the photochemical degradation of marine plastics remains rare.

Where’s the plastic?

“For the most photoreactive microplastics such as expanded polystyrene and polypropylene, sunlight may rapidly remove these polymers from ocean waters. Other, less photodegradable microplastics such as polyethylene, may take decades to centuries to degrade even if they remain at the sea surface,” said Shiye Zhao, Ph.D., senior author of the paper.

“In addition, as these plastics dissolve at sea, they release biologically active organic compounds, which are measured as total dissolved organic carbon, a major byproduct of sunlight-driven plastic photodegradation.”

The team, which included members from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, East China Normal University, and Northeastern University wanted to verify the theory. They selected polymers that are often seen in the garbage patches, and plastic-fragments collected from the surface waters of the North Pacific Gyre, and irradiated them for approximately two months using a solar simulator.

During this time, the team captured the kinetics of plastic degradation. To assess degradation levels, they used optical microscopy, electron microscopy, and Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy.

All in all, the team reports, plastic dissolution led to an increase in carbon levels in their surrounding water and reduced particle size of the plastic samples. The irradiated plastics fragmented, oxidized, and changed in color. Recycled plastics, overall, degraded more rapidly than polymers such as polypropylene (e.g. consumer packaging) and polyethylene (e.g. plastic bags, plastic films, and containers including bottles), which were the most photo-resistant polymers studied.

Based on the findings, the team estimates that recycled plastics tended to degrade completely in 2.7 years and that plastics in the North Pacific Gyre degrade in 2.8 years. Polypropylene, polyethylene, and standard polyethylene (which see ample use in food packaging) degrade completely in 4.3, 33, and a whopping 49 years, respectively, the team estimates.

The compounds leaching out of the plastic as it degrades seem to be broadly biodegradeable, the team reports. While levels of plastic-sourced carbon in ocean water pale in comparison to natural marine-dissolved organic carbon, the team found that it can inhibit microbial activity. The carbon from degraded plastics was readily used by marine bacteria, the team adds.

“The potential that plastics are releasing bio-inhibitory compounds during photodegradation in the ocean could impact microbial community productivity and structure, with unknown consequences for the biogeochemistry and ecology of the ocean,” said Zhao.

“One of four polymers in our study had a negative effect on bacteria. More work is needed to determine whether the release of bioinhibitory compounds from photodegrading plastics is a common or rare phenomenon.”

Samples in the study included post-consumer microplastics from recycled plastics like a shampoo bottle and a disposable lunch box (polyethylene, polypropylene, and expanded polystyrene), as well as standard polyethylene.

The paper “Photochemical dissolution of buoyant microplastics to dissolved organic carbon: Rates and microbial impacts” has been published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

How a design and culture revolution could help us tackle our plastic problem

There’s no simple solution for the very complicated and pressing problem of plastic pollution — but considerate design could be an important piece of the puzzle.

Image credits: Frankie Leon.

Plastic and water

Plastic is essentially ubiquitous in the modern world. We have plastic packaging, plastic cups, plastic bottles — you name it. Since the 1950s, plastic mass production has increased immensely, and, currently, nearly 60 million tons are produced each year, around 40% of which is packaging.

Much of that plastic ends up in landfills, or, even worse, in oceans. A 2014 study estimated that there are over 5 trillion plastic pieces in today’s oceans, with more than 8 million tons being dropped into the oceans each year. These plastic pieces are of varying sizes, from large and easily visible to microscopic. The impact of the bigger plastic pieces has been documented for decades — nearly every seabird is eating some amount of plastic, which fills up stomachs and can twist and injure intestines. It’s not just birds either. Creatures on all layers of marine ecosystems are feeling the damage, but, particularly when it comes to the smaller pieces, it’s hard to gauge the full extent of this damage.

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”Plastic Danger” footer=””]

We often talk about plastic as if it’s one single thing, but plastic comes in many different varieties. Plastic comes in a range of sizes — from big enough to be seen from orbit to regular plastic bottles to microscopic pieces which are abundant in the world’s oceans.

We know that some of the larger parts of the debris cause economic harm, and also environmental harm, along the food chain. There are more plastic pieces in the sea than stars in our galaxy, and these plastic pieces are often ingested by sea creatures. A new study has found that zooplankton are eating a lot of plastic, and this is particularly bad news because this means that the plastic propagates along the entire food chain. So, creatures like birds and fish can ingest plastic directly, but they can also absorb it indirectly, from their food.

Plastic entanglement is also a direct effect. Animals eat plastic and it fills up their stomachs. Then we see rupturing of intestines by plastic with sharp edges. Aside from this direct, physical effect, plastic is also a transporter for other contaminants. The number of cases in which biologists have found stomach-filled fish or birds is already countless and virtually no sea creature is spared from this — no matter where it lives. Plastic has turned the oceans into a minefield for all animals.

An unfortunate albatross with a plastic-filled stomach. Image credits: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Humans are also ingesting microplastics and there’s evidence of negative health effects on human health.

The bottom line is, it’s difficult to quantify the full damage caused by plastic pollution because it comes in so many different forms. But we do know that it is there, and it is anything but trivial.[/panel]

There is a pressure on scientists to come up with this quantification, but the elephant in the room is that it’s bad. We might still not be sure how bad it is, but at the end of the day, we’re simply using too much plastic. Alexandra Ter Halle, who studies molecular interactions and chemical reactivity at CNRS Laboratoire Interactions told a panel at the 2018 European Science Open Forum that while the negative effects are clear, the full extent of the damage caused by plastic pieces is difficult to quantify.

“We don’t really know what’s happening with the plastic. We’re just now discovering what’s happening with them and developing analytical tools to assess this issue. It’s very hard to quantify this problem. The hope is in controlling our waste and collect and recycle, stopping it going in in the first place.”

Recycling plastic

There’s a reason why our society has become so reliant on plastic: it’s cheap and it gets the job done. Economically, it makes a lot of sense to produce a lot of plastic, because it’s so cheap. But the problem is that it’s become so cheap that it often doesn’t make economic sense to recycle it — it’s simpler to simply pump out more and more.

Economically, plastic is a linear product: it’s used for something, you buy it, you throw it away. Herein lies a silver lining.

Image via US Air Force.

Plastic pollution is a different kind of problem, very much unlike the global warming it’s so often compared to. The product is in your hand to dispose of, and most plastics can be recycled. We need to move towards a more circular economy, but we need a systemic change — a shift away from the linear consumption of short-lived plastic. This is where we need to step in if we truly want to tackle plastic waste.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Land solutions” footer=””]Much of the world’s plastic ends up in the oceans, but the solution has to come from the land, not from the oceans.

As soon as the plastic reaches the oceans, it’s essentially gone. Sure, researchers are working on different projects to address this (like for instance plastic-eating bacteria or gathering ocean plastic), but those projects are still in their infancies, and it’s simply naive to assume that that type of approach can solve a global problem.

Instead, increasingly, researchers are calling for a solution that happens before the plastic ends up in the sea. Essentially, we need to reduce the plastic we use and recycle more of it. That’s where we need to strike.[/panel]

So if we know what the problem is, and we have a general idea how to tackle it, what’s holding things down? The problem — or rather, one of the problems — is design, says marine plastics expert Professor Richard Thompson. Producers don’t design thinking about the end of life, they just want to sell. So they focus on the product attractiveness, and not on recycling.

A Design Revolution

Around 40% of all the plastic we use is packaging. Single-use, plastic packaging.

Thompson says that, in his experience, he has found that designers don’t really communicate with people dealing with the end-of-life of plastic. So, while most countries have labels about recycling packaging, that’s not really a practical consideration. The “Can it be recycled” label is more “Can this be done in a lab setting?” and not “Is this realistically feasible?” — so we end up with many plastic packages that are recyclable in theory, but in practice, end up in landfills or oceans. If we can get the creators and the recyclers of plastic to sit down at the same table, then we have a very good starting point. This is where plastic could start moving from a linear lifecycle to a more circular one.

Linear vs Circular economy.

A simple example is colored plastic bottles. The main reason why producers do this is brand differentiation — they think consumers will like it more. But the pigments in the colored bottles make it much more difficult (and often impossible) to recycle the plastic.

Still, the problems stray way beyond the difficulty of recycling some plastics. The reality is that only about 10% of what’s produced gets recycled back into new products — and, if we really want to make things sustainable, we need to ensure that it can be recycled more than once (about 20 times would be a good target, Thompson says). If we plan to achieve that, we need to design with recycling in mind, and we need all the stakeholders sitting at the same table.

That includes politicians.

Healthy design, healthy policy

Imagining a recycling revolution without policies to facilitate it is difficult. The companies involved have significant inertia and very little incentive to change how they do things. Sure, on a smaller scale, individual companies can make a big difference. In Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, plastic-free aisles have gone mainstream, and are reporting impressive success.

But in the giant industry that is packaging, a good policy can oil some very key wheels , facilitating the entire recycling process.

For instance, politicians can incentivize new technologies. It seems like every other week we read about an alternative to plastic, or some form of more eco-friendly plastic, but it rarely if ever hits the shelves — the problem being, of course, economic. Even subsidizing existing technologies can make a big difference and help tune the market in a more sustainable direction. You can’t fix it all with circularity, at some point, you need new, better materials to enter the stage and hit the shelves.

Then, you have punitive measures like plastic bag bans, which have been enormously successful in various parts of the world. But punitive measures and bans can’t solve it all. Legislation can achieve a lot, but we can’t legislate against the diversity of all plastic uses, Thompson argues. So he suggests a different type of policy: incentivizing producers to make more recyclable products. Simply put, how about reducing taxes for producers that recycle more, and increasing them for companies that don’t recycle?

There’s another important facet which policy can address when it comes to plastic recycling. The cost of recycling is fairly constant, but the price of oil (the raw material) fluctuates greatly — so when the price of oil is high, recycling is viable and demanded. When the price of oil drops, we’ve got recyclers coming out of business. It would make a lot of sense to protect existing recycling industry and subsidize it according to the price of oil fluctuations.

A cultural shift

Lastly, if we want a true change, we will have to shift our attitudes towards plastic.

Thompson brings forth an interesting argument: we don’t actively think of plastic pollution as a problem we, as consumers, can fix. It’s not in our culture.

“If you’d go into the bathroom and you’d see hot water running, you’d stop it, because you want to stop waste. We need to make it like that with plastic: we need a culture shift to improve plastic use,” he explains.

So how do we change that? Again, this can be greatly facilitated by a healthy partnership between producers, sellers, and policymakers. If policy supports the production of more sustainable plastics, producers will no doubt advertise it, and there is a good chance at least some consumers will prefer these options over the others.

But we cannot wait for the change to come from the outside. We have to consider ourselves as active actors in this affair — actors that, for better or for worse, can influence the outcome. We can push producers towards more healthy alternatives and be more conscious of how and what plastic we use.

In the end, plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges of our times, and we all have to work together if we want to solve it. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth it.

Pee, Poop, and Perspiration Will Be Useful in Traveling to Mars

People have effectively been able to acquire fuel and, consequently, energy from human urine. This capability has been known for a number of years. In late 2012, a small group of teenage girls from Nigeria made the news by presenting a generator that ran on urine at the Maker Faire Africa. In their generator, the pee is poured into an electrolytic cell where the hydrogen is isolated from other components in the liquid.

The hydrogen is then purified by passing through a filter. From there, it’s sent to a gas cylinder from which it is further pumped into a cylinder containing liquid borax. The borax aids in separating the hydrogen gas from any remaining moisture. The final step is for this gas to be sent to the generator. The girls’ machine was able to supply six hours’ worth of electricity by using a mere liter of liquid waste.

Of course, this was a rather simple apparatus primarily for display, but the important thing is it worked! Urine’s use for producing gas and/or syngas (synthesis gas) has the potential to be quite revolutionary.

Waste as a Water Source in Space

astronaut-11080_960_720

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Recycling everything possible in extraterrestrial day-to-day life and travel saves both space and money. For a while now, astronauts on the International Space Station have been recycling their own perspiration and pee. The purified output is clean water, which is drunk a second time over. This cycle can be repeated over and over.

You’ve heard of twice-baked potatoes? Well, twice-expelled waste is starting to catch up in its popularity. Human urine and condensate (including breath moisture, human sweat, shower runoff, and animal pee) are all distilled and reverted to clean drinking water. As of 2015, about 6,000 extra liters of water are recycled each year.

Waste Empowering Yeast

One of the molecules which makes up our urine is called urea. Furthermore, urea is composed of nitrogen and carbon. Both of these chemicals are needed to feed a yeast, Yarrowia lipolytica, which when genetically tweaked properly can take a variety of forms such as bioplastics and even fatty acids. One particular fatty acid necessary for human health and functionality is Omega-3. The brain requires this nutrient.

Thus, Yarrowia lipolytica is being tested to hopefully be able to produce Omega-3’s efficiently in the future. This would be a great aid to humanity in the occasion of a manned mission to Mars or elsewhere. In addition, future astronauts will use 3D printers onboard their spacecraft to generate tools and other needed objects made of plastic. Yet again, the yeast can be altered to produce a certain type of polyester which could be employed for this purpose.

Feces and Urine for Future Food

The sheer quantity of food needed to sustain a manned mission to Mars remains a big problem. However, a clever party of researchers from Pennsylvania State University believes to have found an efficiently ingenious answer. The concept was discussed in a paper published in late 2017. Their space-saving device, a bioreactor, uses the urine as well as the feces of astronauts to feed a non-harmful bacteria that, in turn, is capable of sustaining the human space travelers.

Within the bioreactor, the solid and liquid waste become condensed leaving salts and methane gas in its place. It’s the methane which is used to grow the microbial mush, an edible element with a texture similar to that of Vegemite, a thick Australian spread made up of leftover brewers’ yeast extract along with an assortment of additives.

As you have seen, our astronauts’ waste will not be wasted. Scientists will surely engineer more ways for bodily waste to be put to beneficial use.

Astronaut poop could one day be recycled into Marmite-like food

Credit: Thrilist.

Credit: Thrilist.

Every ounce counts when sending cargo and people into space, which is why there’s a great deal of scrutiny for which items get launched. It goes without saying that astronaut food isn’t the tastiest, however, it’s not the most plentiful, either. But what if we could make the most of it by… recycling what hasn’t been digested? A team at Penn State is looking into converting solid and liquid human waste back into food, and their results, so far, are quite promising.

From poop to food

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In nature, nothing goes to waste — not even the so-called ‘waste’ itself. Here on Earth, various microbes and insects consume the waste of larger creatures for sustenance only to become food themselves, sometimes for the same type of creatures that fed them earlier. It’s a food cycle that works very well, and scientists would like to implement a similar system in space.

There are good reasons for this: besides saving money (it costs $10,000/lb to launch cargo into space), manned long-term missions, such as a trip to Mars, require either producing food on the spot (the spaceship) or managing food as efficiently as possible. Recycling food waste back into food is thus very appealing, though perhaps far from delicious. What’s more, you still have to do something with all of that waste — you can’t simply dispose of it with a toilet. On the International Space Station, solid waste is stored and then carefully ejected into Earth’s atmosphere, which ends up being quite a hassle.

To mimic the natural ecology, Penn State researchers propose treating solid and liquid waste with microbial species that produce edible biomass, either directly or indirectly (requiring treatment).

“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of microbial goo,” said Christopher House, professor of geosciences at Penn State, in a statement.

Waste was placed into bioreactors whose design was inspired by aquarium waste filters. Instead of real human waste, the researchers used artificial solid and liquid waste, the kind employed in tests for waste management systems.

“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production,” says House. “On the surface of the material are microbes that take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids, which are converted to methane gas by a different set of microbes on the same surface.”

Along with the waste, the researchers introduced microbes like Methylococcus capsulatus, which on Earth are able to consume waste through anaerobic digestion. This species is particularly efficient at converting waste into food, and can turn it into about 52 percent protein and 36 percent fat. About 50 percent of the solid waste sample was converted into food after 13 hours in the reactor.

Now, there’s a reason why humans are disgusted with poop. We’re evolutionarily tuned to stay away from it since it harbors pathogens. There are numerous infections of all different types that can be communicated through feces. Just to give you some examples, bacterial infections that can be transmitted include cholera, diarrhea, salmonella or shigella; viral infections that are transmitted fecally include rotavirus, norovirus (which causes food poisoning on cruise ships), and hepatitis A and E. There are also parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium, and various different kinds of worms including pinworms, ascariasis, and tapeworms.

To get around this hazard, the team grew their desired microbes in high temperature and high alkaline conditions that are hostile to most pathogens. They found some promising strains like the Halomonas desiderata bacteria, which can withstand a pH level of 11, and produced 15 percent protein and 7 percent fat. Thermus aquaticus, which can survive 158º F (70⁰ C), produced 61 percent protein and 16 percent fats.

“Imagine if someone were to fine-tune our system so that you could get 85 percent of the carbon and nitrogen back from waste into protein without having to use hydroponics or artificial light,” says House. “That would be a fantastic development for deep-space travel.”

But although these initial findings are very promising, House says that his system isn’t ready for applications yet as the study only explored the various components in isolation, rather than a fully integrated system.

“Each component is quite robust and fast and breaks down waste quickly,” he said. “That’s why this might have potential for future space flight. It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.”

If poop-to-food conversion ultimately fails, there are other practical uses for human waste. One of the most immediate threats astronauts face on a mission to Mars, for instance, is deep space radiation. Previously, scientists have proposed lining the inner walls of a spaceship with the crews’ own feces, which apparently is a great insulator against radiation.

Findings appeared in the Life Sciences in Space Research journal.

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The challenges of waste management in the shipping and transportation industry

freightliner-385677_960_720

Credit: Pixabay.

Today, individuals and businesses can send and receive shipments from almost anywhere. With enough time and resources, you can find the right channels to get things where you need them to go.

The shipping and transportation sector is a thriving industry that helps power the global economy. It also generates a large amount of waste, and dealing with that waste is a major concern for shipping companies, government agencies and environmental organizations.

Waste Management in Transport and Shipping

The logistics industry creates waste through transport materials, warehouse activities, vehicle maintenance, packaging and office waste. Some of this waste is hazardous. Waste produced while a ship is in transit must be stored on board until the next time the ship comes to port.

Shipping waste management today is highly regulated by governments around the world. In the United States, for example, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) are the main laws regulating this sector.

For many years, state laws for managing shipping waste closely resembled federal laws. However, some of these federal laws, such as CERCLA, are older. Since the laws went into effect, states have changed their regulations, leading to a mismatch in expectations. Differences in laws among various countries can also create challenges. Shipping companies have to pay close attention to make sure they follow all existing regulations.

Fraud and Mismanagement

Sometimes though, companies break these rules — both incidentally and intentionally.

For instance, a company that imports computer cable assemblies recently settled violated claims to the tune of $1.2 million that it underpaid customs fees on goods imported from China and broke federal customs laws. This is certainly not the only instance like this.

Some of this management stems from the oil and gas industry, a sector that’s closely linked to the transportation industry. The state of Massachusetts, for instance, recently recovered $7.9 million through an investigation into claims that Shell Oil misused a fund meant for the cleanup of contaminated gas stations.

Oil spills, and incidents involving other hazardous materials, are another common issue within the shipping industry. According to U.S. law, the organization responsible for an oil spill must pay for its cleanup, although the Coast Guard works on the spill first and is repaid by the company later. The cost of oil spills is nearly immeasurable in terms of environmental damage, and climbs easily into the tens of millions of dollars in cleanup charges and legal fees. Purposeful dumping of hazardous materials is another common issue regulators continue to try to crack down on.

Environmental Impact

Spilled oil is poisonous to marine life. It can smother small fish and other creatures and coat the feathers and fur of birds and sea mammals such as otters, inhibiting their ability to maintain their body temperature. Spilled or dumped hazardous materials can also destroy marine habitats and persist for long periods of time in the water.

Shipping things long distances also requires a large amount of fuel, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere. Emissions are an especially big issue when it comes to ocean transport, as shipping fuels contain much higher amounts of sulfur than the fuel used in cars. One environmental expert estimated the world’s 16 largest ships emitted more sulfur than all the cars in the world combined.

The European Union estimates maritime shipping accounts for 2.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that emissions will increase by as much as 250 percent by 2050. When factoring in ground and air shipping, that number soars even higher.

Revising Waste Management Norms

As environmental concerns become even more central, governments around the world are attempting to double down on reducing emissions and waste from shipping. U.S. states are finding shipping waste between states is not cost-effective, and are instead focusing their efforts on reducing the amount of waste they create.

The EU has called for a global approach to curbing shipping-related emissions led by the International Maritime Organization. To meet the goal laid out in the Paris climate accord, many nations are looking to shipping as a way to reduce emissions.

In addition to a push from government and environmental concerns, some shipping companies are also seeking to reduce waste as a cost-saving measure. They’re reusing more materials to avoid purchasing new ones, and cutting waste-management costs by reducing the amount of waste they produce.

The shipping and transportation industry is an important part of our global economy, but it also has a significant effect on the environment and presents other challenges as well. Now, governments, shipping companies and individuals must work to balance the need to transport goods with waste management needs and environmental protection.

Fresh veggies.

Americans aren’t only wasting the most food — they’re also throwing out the best bits

If you live in the United States, it’s likely that the single densest concentration of nutrients near you is in the garbage bin.

Fresh veggies.

America is an incredibly paradoxical place when it comes to food. In the land of deep-fried butter and happy meals, the average diet in is bristling with calories but nutritionally equivalent to a handful of stale dirt. This is a country who loves food to the extent that everything American is as American as apple pie, then turns around and throws away between 31% and 40% of all the food they produce each year — more than anyone else in the world. That comes down to roughly 1200 calories wasted per person, per day. Which is about what you’d need to feed an average five, six year old each day.

Over-consumption and malnutrition, at the same time. Obesity, hand-in hand-with over-waste. It flies against common sense and shouldn’t be happening, but it is. To understand how, we have to take a look not only at the quantity but also the quality of what the U.S. throws away, according to a paper from the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of International Health.

“Other researchers had already tracked the amount of food that’s wasted in terms of how much it weighs, the economic value, and how many calories were in it,” said lead author Marie Spiker, a doctoral student in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Our primary motivation was to go beyond calories and look into other nutrients to really show the magnitude of the food that we waste.”

“Even in this environment of abundance there still are nutrients that we’re not consuming enough of on average. So, we were particularly interested in looking for these nutrients that we’re not getting enough of, and seeing how much is actually ending up in the landfill.”

Protip: it’s a lot

The team worked with two sets of data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). First, they looked at the Loss-Adjusted Food Availability (LAFA) figures, which tracks waste along 213 different commodity foods, both at the retail and consumer levels, to see how much of everything gets thrown out. Then, they turned to the National Nutrient Database which records nutritional data for foodstuffs — how much calcium is in a cup of milk, the vitamin C content in an orange, stuff like that.

Armed with these two sets of data, Spiker’s team was able to get an estimate of the amount of 27 different nutrient groups contained in those 213 types of food that gets thrown out each day. And good golly.

Fridge.

Might as well chuck the whole thing at once!
Image credits Magic Madzik / Flickr.

Let’s take dietary fiber, for example. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of fiber for your average 19-30 year-old woman in the U.S. is 25 grams (0.88 oz) per day. But the averaged real intake of fiber for women in this age category is only 16.1 grams (0.56 oz) daily, about two-thirds of the recommended intake. For men, the RDI of fiber is 38 grams (1.34 oz) but the real intake is only 20 grams (0.70 oz), which cuts just over half of the RDI.

So maybe there’s not enough fiber to go around? Well, yea because so much of it gets thrown away: the paper reports that wasted fiber could bump some 206.6 million women or 103.9 million men up to their recommended intake levels. To put that into perspective, there are 321.4 million people living in the whole of the U.S., according to 2015 census data. Let’s assume that this fiber would be perfectly distributed in a 1:1 ratio to the men and women in the U.S., for discussion’s sake — it could potentially satisfy the RDI needs of 155.25 million middle-aged adults, or account for almost half of the gap for everyone. It’s a mind-boggling figure.

This pattern repeats itself for all other 26 nutrients investigated including protein, calcium, potassium, and a host of vitamins.

Why should I care

The study also looked at what types of foods are most frequently wasted and by whom. While retailers and consumers waste about as much calorie-wise, consumers take the prize when it comes to nutrient content. It all comes down to perishable food: unprocessed, fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meat.

Perishable food.

Basically, all the best bits.

“[…] these foods that are perishable are also the ones that are really rich in nutrients,” according to Spiker. “When they are sitting in our kitchens, if we don’t use them, they’re the ones that tend to spoil faster than processed and packaged foods.”

The problem is that a meal thrown out isn’t just a meal missed which, although bad for you, ultimately affects only you. The problem is that the food on our plates comes from a really long and complicated supply chain — so when you throw away food, you also throw away all the work and resources that went into growing it. That means all the land, water, fertilizer, and fuel used in agriculture and transport, the energy required to keep it refrigerated in transit and in stores, it all goes in the bin.

All those resources further translate into an environmental strain with land clearing and ecosystem destruction to make room for crops, all the greenhouse gasses released during the production process, and in certain cases (such as wild fish or seafood) a depletion of stocks which don’t have time to regenerate — all wasted. And to add insult to injury, the food which reaches landfills merrily starts decomposing and releasing methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Take it a step further, and this waste has a direct cost for you. There’s the time you had to spent at work to be able to afford all this food. As we’ve seen that this waste eats into your basic nutritional needs, there’s also a secondary cost it will carry in time — in the form of dietary supplements and medical costs to treat the effects of poor diet. Think far long enough and this waste adds a teeny tiny mark towards climate change and widening social inequality.

A single item doesn’t make much of a difference — but it add it up with everything you threw and will throw out during your lifetime, and it becomes significant. Compounds with what everyone else in the country wastes, and it becomes massive.

Ok, what should I do

“Know your onions” wartime poster promoting food efficiency.
Created by the Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services in World War 2 / Public Domain.

Policy is probably the best way to solve the issue en masse, but a personal touch can also add up the same way. Spiker recommends checking what food you have at home before going out grocery shopping for more. Also, with the exception of baby food, you can pretty much ignore any sell-by date on packages. As we’ve said before, these are there as a guarantee of taste not edibility. Your best bet is to go with your instincts. We have a huge chunk of time behind us in which we’ve evolved to know what we should and shouldn’t eat. If it smells or tastes off, just don’t eat it; else, chow down.

Another way to limit waste while still eating healthily is to buy frozen veggies. After all, whatever health benefits fresh, hand-picked, slowly-massaged-to-classical-music kale has don’t matter if it spoils in the fridge and you throw it out. Buying frozen food will give you more time to eat it before it goes bad.

And finally, consider what you’re purchasing and try to be realistic — can you actually eat everything before it goes bad? Then, once you’ve actually got the food into the house make sure you’re turning them into meals — even if takeout would be the easiest choice.

In the end, the best rule of thumb would be to follow the wisdom of Andrew Burd — be stingy, and make sure you save that money by eating everything you buy.

The full paper “Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients: Nutrient Loss from Wasted Food in the United States and Comparison to Gaps in Dietary Intake” has been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

A fifth of the world’s food is lost to waste and over-eating

Credit: Food Navigator.

An extensive analysis of the world’s global food supply found we’re losing more food to waste and overconsumption than previously believed. We eat 10 percent more food than we need — obviously, some parts of the world consume far more than this average figure since 780 million are suffering from chronic undernourishment at the same time.  Additionally, 9 percent of all the food we make goes to waste or spoils.

The study was conducted by Scottish researchers at the University of Edinburgh using data collected by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This kind of quantitative analysis at every stage of food production is extremely important if we’re to meet the demands of a growing population sustainably.

The good news is we’re making enough food for everyone. The bad news is we’re quite terrible at distributing food and making it efficiently.

Food system losses were considered in six categories, as follows:

  1. Agricultural production: losses that occur in the production process. The losses include agricultural residues (e.g. roots and straw), unharvested crops and the losses during harvest.
  2. Livestock production: losses and inefficiencies in the conversion of feed and grass into animal products.
  3. Handling, storage, and transportation: losses due to spillage and degradation during storage and distribution. These losses occur for primary crops, processed commodities, and animal products.
  4. Processing: losses during the processing of commodities.
  5. Consumer waste: losses and waste between food reaching the consumer and being eaten.
  6. Over-consumption: the additional food intake over that required for human nutrition.

According to the Edinburgh researchers, half of the crops we grow — that’s 2.1 billion tonnes — are lost to over-consumption, consumer waste, and inefficiencies in production. The results suggest that due to cumulative losses, the proportion of global agricultural dry biomass consumed as food is just 6% (9.0% for energy and 7.6% for protein), and 24.8% of harvest biomass (31.9% for energy and 27.8% for protein), the researchers wrote. But the most inefficient food production process is growing livestock, with losses of 78 percent or 840 million tonnes. About 40 percent of all losses of harvested crops can be attributed to livestock breeding which requires an immense amount of animal feed and water. Some 1.08 billion tonnes of harvested crops are used to produce 240 million tonnes of edible animal products including meat, milk and eggs.

“The results here suggest that system losses from over-consumption of food are at least as substantial as the losses from food discarded by consumers (Fig. 4), and therefore have comparable food security and sustainability implications. Consequently, greater research focus may be required to better understand causes, effects and solutions for over-consumption,” the researchers said.

Globally, 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the rearing and butchering of cows, chickens, pigs and other animals – more than the emissions from the entire transport sector. That’s because animals release methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, while crops release carbon through land clearing and fertilizer use.

Bearing these stats in mind, an increase in consumption of meat and dairy products would disproportionately put more strain on the global food supply. This is a serious concern for the coming decades as more and more people in developing countries, from China to India, are improving their financial condition. In 1982, the average Chinese person ate just 13kg of meat a year. Beef used to be called the ‘millionaire’s meat’. Now, the average Chinese eats 63kg of meat a year and could consume 30kg more by 2030.

The researchers recommend in Agricultural Systems that people should eat fewer animal products. As we reported earlier, lower meat consumption would cut food-related emissions by 29%, vegetarian diets by 63%, and vegan diets by 70%. Reducing waste and being careful not to exceed your nutritional needs should also be a priority.

“Reducing losses from the global food system would improve food security and help prevent environmental harm. Until now, it was not known how over-eating impacts on the system. Not only is it harmful to health, we found that over-eating is bad for the environment and impairs food security,” said Dr. Peter Alexander, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences and Scotland’s Rural College, who led the study.

 

 

Cooking nuclear waste into glass and ceramic materials could provide safe, efficient containment

Containing radioactive waste in glass and other ceramic materials might be the key to protect people — and the environment — from their harmful effects.

Image via Pexels / Public Domain.

Nuclear power is awesome. Splitting the atom can yield huge amounts of energy for no greenhouse gas emissions. The downside, however, is that you’re left with piles of radioactive by-product (waste) that is really, really harmful for people, animals, plants, pretty much everything. The good news is that radioactivity naturally decays over time — usually a few million years.

The bad news is that the waste is chemically mobile in water (it gets carried around by rain or rivers) and in air — so you have to keep it well isolated and locked up until that time passes. Which is quite a hassle. The way we go about it now is geological disposal — a fancy way of saying “we bury it really deep” — in disused mines, ocean floor disposal, or (planned) specialized deep-storage.

Rutgers University researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering Ashutosh Goel thinks he’s found a better way to go about it, by immobilizing radioactive waste in glass and ceramic materials. Goel is the principal investigator (PI) or co-PI for six glass or glass-related waste containment projects. His work may help to one-day safely dispose of highly radioactive waste, now stored at commercial nuclear power plants.

“Glass is a perfect material for immobilizing the radioactive wastes with excellent chemical durability,” said Goel.

One of his projects involves mass-producing apatite glasses to immobilize iodine-129 atoms in a chemically-stable form. This isotope of iodine has a half-life of 15.7 million years and is highly mobile in water and air according to the EPA. Exposure to iodine-129 affects the thyroid gland and increases the risk of cancer. Another one of his projects developed a way to synthesize apatite minerals from silver iodide particles. Goel is also studying how to capture sodium and aluminum atoms from highly radioactive wastes in borosilicate glasses which resist crystallization.

Containing waste in glass might provide us with a safe way to dispose of them in the future. And it will look like this.
Image credits Albert Kruger / U.S. Department of Energy.

Among Goel’s major founders is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which currently oversees one of the most wide-scale nuclear cleanup programs in the world, following the U.S.’s 45 year-long nuclear weapon development and production program. This project once included 16 major facilities throughout Idaho, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington state, according to the DOE. The site in Washington state, Hanford, is one of the biggest clean-up challenges the department faces. This complex manufactured more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel, processing around 110,000 tons of fuel from nine reactors on the Columbia River.

Around 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from the Hanford plants went to underground storage in 177 tanks. It’s estimated that 67 of these tanks — more than a third — have leaked part of the waste, the DOE says. In 1989, clean-up efforts started at the site. The liquids have been pumped out of the tanks, leaving behind mostly-dry waste. Work began on a radioactive liquid waste treatment plant in 1999, which is nearing completion.

“What we’re talking about here is highly complex, multicomponent radioactive waste which contains almost everything in the periodic table,” Goel said. “What we’re focusing on is underground and has to be immobilized.”

The DOE hopes to start churning out radioactive-waste-glass by 2022 or 2023 at Hanford, Goel said.

“The implications of our research will be much more visible by that time.”

“[The process] depends on its [the waste material’s] composition, how complex it is and what it contains,” Goel added. “If we know the chemical composition of the nuclear waste coming out from those plants, we can definitely work on it.”

The full paper “Can radioactive waste be immobilized in glass for millions of years?” is still awaiting publication. Materials provided by Rutgers University can be found here.

New method developed to create biocrude oil from wastewater

A newly-developed process could create fuel from our waste. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have created a method to turn ordinary sewage and other organic waste into biocrude oil.

Biocrude oil produced with hydrothermal liquefaction.
Image credits WE&RF.

It may sound like fiction, it does sound yucky, but one day, wastewater treatment plants may be powering your car. The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have developed a novel process, which they call hydrothermal liquefaction, that mimics the geological conditions involved in creating crude oil. Using high pressures and temperatures, they only need a few minutes and the stuff we flush down our toilets to create a liquid that takes millions of years to form in nature.

I’m talking, of course, about crude oil. With wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. treating some 34 billion gallons of sewage every day, the PNNL estimates they could produce some 30 million barrels of crude a year — so each person could churn out two or three gallons of biocrude each year.

This material is very similar to the oil we pump out of the ground, with a little more water and oxygen mixed in. It can be refined through the installations we already have to produce gasoline, diesel, even jet fuel.

Crude nr. 2

Any organic mater, in theory, can be used to produce biofuel. Sewage, however, has long been considered as a poor ingredient for the task because it contains too much water.  But PNNL’s doesn’t require for it to be dried — the step which historically has made wastewater-to-fuel conversion too energy intensive to be economically viable. Through HTL, organic matter is pressurized to 3,000 pounds per square inch (about 100 times the pressure in a car tire), then fed into a reactor system which cooks it to 660 degrees Fahrenheit (350 Celsius). These extreme conditions break the matter down to its simple chemical compounds — the cells in the material rip apart, forming biocrude and an aqueous-liquid phase.

“There is plenty of carbon in municipal waste water sludge and interestingly, there are also fats,” said Corinne Drennan, who is responsible for bioenergy technologies research at PNNL.

“The fats or lipids appear to facilitate the conversion of other materials in the wastewater such as toilet paper, keep the sludge moving through the reactor, and produce a very high quality biocrude that, when refined, yields fuels such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuels.”

Not only that, but the method could provide governments with a method to save significant costs by eliminating the need for sewage processing, transport, and disposal. It’s also very simple to implement, as Drennan says.

“The best thing about this process is how simple it is. The reactor is literally a hot, pressurized tube. We’ve really accelerated hydrothermal conversion technology over the last six years to create a continuous, and scalable process which allows the use of wet wastes like sewage sludge.”

HTL may also be used to make fuel from other types of wet organic feedstock, such as agricultural waste. In addition to the biocrude, the liquid phase can be treated to create other fuels and chemical products. A small amount of solid material is also generated, which contains important nutrients. For example, early efforts have demonstrated the ability to recover phosphorus, which can replace phosphorus ore used in fertilizer production.

PNNL has licensed the technology to Utah-based Genifuel Corporation, which is now working with Metro Vancouver, a partnership of 23 local authorities in British Columbia, Canada, to build a demonstration plant.

 

 

Rotterdam’s new sharks will eat all the trash in the port’s waters

The port of Rotterdam will soon feature a new marine resident. The ‘Waste Shark,’ a drone roughly the size of your average car, will float around the port’s waters keeping an aye out for trash which it can “eat” for processing.

Put a fin on it! Image credits RanMarine.

Put a fin on it!
Image credits RanMarine.

The city of Rotterdam, Holland has been making a lot of effort in the past few years to lessen its environmental impact, and the port hasn’t been overlooked. Under the startup program PortXL, the city’s port authority has also been promoting new solutions to help make it more efficient, more sustainable, and overall just a better place. At the conclusion of the program’s first year, the port signed an agreement with South-African startup RanMarine to deploy a new drone on its waters — the Waste Shark.

The Port of Rotterdam has already announced one drone resident — the AquasmartXL, a small unmanned boat equipped with a camera that allows real-time inspection and surveillance of the water surface. But where the AquasmartXL is the eyes of Rotterdam, the Wave Shark will be its mouth. This drone is roughly the size of a car and can eat up to 500 kilograms (1102 pounds) of trash using a ‘mouth’ 35 cm under the water line. It will “fight ‘plastic soup’ at the source as 90% of all waste in the ocean starts in urban areas,” PortXL’s page reads.

https://youtu.be/J_wP74sqXos

Allard Castelein, Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Rotterdam Authority said that the Rotterdam Port Authority is determined to explore all avenues of innovation, as stated in their operational philosophy.

“Innovation cannot be forced. However, you can create an environment in which innovation is likely to take place and be in line with the market,” he said.

“We support research in conjunction with universities, such as the Port Innovation Lab with the Delft University of Technology and of course our own Erasmus University in Rotterdam. And we collaborate with contests for students. In addition, we support Dutch start-ups that are relevant to the port, but we also scout worldwide via PortXL; the first accelerator that focuses on port start-ups on a global level.”

The contract requires four Waste Sharks For to scour the waters for the next six months as part of a test run for the drones. They will operate in areas where it is too difficult, dangerous, or undesirable to use manned solutions. This includes under jetties, bridges and other structures.

Adidas to award first 50 pairs of recycled ocean trash sneakers

Adidas and Parley for the Oceans have teamed up to propose an unusual solution for our ocean’s plastic problem: wear the waste. The footwear company is releasing fifty pairs of sneakers composed of more than 16 old plastic bottles and 13 grams of gill nets each.

Image via adidas

The idea of a shoe made from ocean waste has been on the company’s mind since last year but more as an idealistic concept than a ready-to-wear reality. Now, with help from ocean activist collective and company Parley for the Oceans, Adidas is releasing fifty pairs of bottle-made sneakers, complete with fishing net thread stitching.

A pretty limited number of pairs, given the quantity of waste in our oceans. Collecting the trash and spinning it into the fibres suitable for footwear has proven difficult, however — plastic bottles are easy to come by and then process, but gill nets emit a powerful smell of rotting fish.

And there’s a lot of gill net stitching.
Image via adidas

This has proven difficult to scrub from the nets, and the extra-tough nylon that makes up these nets need to then be ground into a powder and spun into threads before they can be used in the sneakers. As the shoe isn’t going to make it to mass production before these issues can be addressed, Adidas has chosen to award the shoes via a raffle system on Instagram. All you have to do is upload a video showing your commitment to cut single-use plastic items from your life.

The final strands to be used in making the sneakers.
Image via adidas

To collect the materials, Parley has been partnering up with small countries with strong ties to marine pollution — such as the Maldives, Grenada or Jamaica. After partnering, Parley teams scour the oceanside and fisheries of waste and teach the community of alternatives to plastic use in their activities. The materials are distributed not only to Adidas, but also institutions such as Parsons School of Design. Their hope is that contact with these materials might help change the way new generations of designers think about incorporating them into future designs.

Gathering the materials.
Image via adidas

The winners of the 50 newly released pairs of the collaborative shoe will be announced on Adidas’ Instagram.

Our best bet at stopping food waste is to be more responsible, not more efficient

Humans are throwing away an insane quantity of food, both in the developed and in developing countries. While in the latter case this can be attributed to economic and technological constrains, the former is primarily consumer-driven. And the sum of individual choices adds up to major impacts on a global scale, a new study finds.

Consumer behavior is the main driver of food waste in developed countries. Image credits U.S. Department of Agriculture / flickr

Consumer behavior is the main driver of food waste in developed countries.
Image credits U.S. Department of Agriculture / flickr

The study shows that roughly one third of the food we produce is lost or gets thrown away. That means one third of the resources and effort we put into growing food is also wasted, with severe environmental implications and a direct contribution to global warming. Even worse, the food we don’t consume gets disposed of and decomposes in landfills causing additional problems for the environment. That’s like taking a third of your salary each month, rolling it up into a cigar and smoking it — you’ll only end up poorer and with medical bills to boot.

So why do we do it? Well there are several reasons. Relatively poor countries see losses propagating upstream, with the bulk of the waste taking place in the production phase. This comes down to constraints such as problematic methods of harvesting, transportation and storage. These areas quite simply need more money invested in them to be efficient — things like better roads and infrastructure, a better technological base and higher educated workers.

In developed countries however, downstream waste is the most important factor. These countries have the means and know-how to produce a large surplus of food, and here consumers are the main driver behind waste — anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of foodstuffs bought by households get thrown away. Cultural norms, such as huge holiday meals that largely end up in the bin, misleading food safety labels or simple disgust for items all factor in. There is a widespread feeling that throwing away food is wrong, however, which may underpin efforts to reduce food waste in the future.

“The fact that consumers and stakeholders alike perceive food waste as obviously unethical makes it a good starting point for individual consumers to become engaged in sustainability,” said Aschemann-Witzel at Aarhus BSS’ MAPP Centre, which conducts research on value creation in the food sector.

Because the cause of waste here is so disseminated, there’s no single overarching solution that will solve food waste in the developed world. You can’t put a legal frame on what people do and don’t eat, what they cook and what they throw away, in their own homes — even if you could, enforcing such a system would be downright impossible. Instead, the best way to lower waste comes down to a variety of small changes at an individual or community level; something as simple as checking the fridge before going to the shop can have a large impact in the long run.

“A broad range of efforts are needed to move towards sustainable food security for all,” Aschemann-Witzel writes, “and each individual consumer contributes both to the problem and the solution.”

Beyond this, governments can pitch in by changing overly restrictive food safety laws and regulations that promote waste, or downright outlawing it (such as France did); producers can introduce new types of packaging that keep the stored food fresh even as you remove small amounts. And retailers should remove policies that encourage consumers to buy products they don’t need, such as “2 for the price of 1” offers, the study reads.

Changes designed for the developed world are likely to have an even bigger impact in future, as countries such as Brazil, India and China become more urbanized and dietary preferences change. Here, food waste is likely to increasingly shift towards consumers, the author argues.

“We know more or less the extent of the problem, and what are the causes of food waste — the next step is action, and here research is needed to help identify what is most effective, so that policy makers know what to focus on,” Aschemann-Witzel argues in her article for Science.

The full paper, titled “Waste not, want not, emit less” has been published online in the journal Science and can be read here.

 

 

water bottle

Renewable plastic made from CO2 and waste agriculture

Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. Instead of petroleum, Stanford researchers have found a creative way to make plastic for bottles sourced from CO2 and inedible plants like waste agriculture or grasses.

water bottle

Image: Pixabay

 

Most plastics today are made from  polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester more commonly known. Each year about 50 million tons of PET are made to meet growing demand for electronics, food and beverage containers, personal-care products or fabrics.

To make PET, the industry uses , terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, which are both derived from fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas. For every ton of PET, four tons of CO2 are released according to Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford.

Kanan and colleagues investigated an alternative to PET called polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) which can be sourced from biomass instead of petroleum. Moreover, PEF can seal oxygen better which makes it a more attractive material for bottling.

PEF is made from ethylene glycol and a compound called 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA). However, there are two challenges the industry faces with FDCA. For one, scaling the manufacturing process so it makes economic sense has been in vain. Secondly, though sourced from biomass, FDCA might actually be more harmful to the environment depending on where it’s made.

Traditionally, FDCA is made out of fructose sourced from corn syrup. This, however, displaces potentially usable farm land for edible agriculture. It also involves a lot of fertilizer, water and energy to grow. The Stanford researchers have orientated themselves to another feedstock: furfural, a compound made from agricultural waste. Some 400,000 tons are produced every year for use as solvents, resins and other products.

They used a benign and inexpensive compound called carbonate — one of the most widely distributed mineral around the planet and the stuff animals’ shells are made of. Mixing and heating carbonate, CO2 and furoic acid derived from furfural, the Stanford researchers formed a molten salt. Five hours later, 89 percent of the mixture converted to FDCA. Making PEF from FDCA is a straightforward process.

The researchers claim that using plastics made with this process will dramatically lower the carbon footprint of bottled beverages. The CO2 can be sourced from nearby power plants. Emissions are plentiful, as we all know. Products made of PEF can also be recycled or converted back to atmospheric CO2 by incineration. Eventually, that CO2 will be taken up by grass, weeds and other renewable plants, which can then be used to make more PEF.

“We believe that our chemistry can unlock the promise of PEF that has yet to be realized,” Kanan said. “This is just the first step. We need to do a lot of work to see if it’s viable at scale and to quantify the carbon footprint.”

Reference: Carbon dioxide utilization via carbonate-promoted C–H carboxylation, nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature17185

ugly-carrot

Give ugly veggies and fruits a second chance – they’re just as tasty

ugly-carrot1

According to the United Nations, 20 to 40 percent of fresh food is thrown away by farmers because they don’t look as appetizing as they should to sell. Besides looking a bit crooked, twisted or shrugged, these fruits and vegetables are perfectly edible and taste no different than the perfectly shaped ones you’re always on the lookout for in the supermarket.

eggplant

Acknowledging this dreadful waste, the European Union has started a campaign to raise awareness and convince consumers eating unaesthetic veggies is perfectly fine. To this aim, they’ve teamed up with French retailer Intermarche for a pilot campaign called the “Inglorious Vegetables and Fruits”. Working together with farmers and retail stores, ugly vegetables and fruits were sold with a 30% discount, much to the delight of customers who flocked to the stands, proving they need not much convincing. Everybody seems to be happy: customers get tasty fresh food at a hefty discount, farmers earn more by selling products which would have otherwise been discarded, and retailers can benefit from a greater sales volume. The fresh food pie just got bigger!

grotesque-apple

The little town of Provins, outside Paris, where the first such Intermache experiment was made is not alone. In Portugal,  a food cooperative called Fruta Feia (Ugly Fruit) buys produce too gnarly for supermarkets and sells it to customers, reports the New York Times. A similar initiative is preparing to run in the United Kingdom.