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The latest ideas and inspiration from around the world
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How on Earth are we going to figure out how to feed the 9.5 billion people who will be inhabiting this planet by 2050? Perhaps by looking to the ultimate problem-solver — nature.

On Jan. 19, the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation will launch a worldwide design challenge. Their goal? “To show how modeling nature can provide viable solutions to reduce hunger, while creating conditions conducive to all life.”

Scientists, architects, planners, college students, high school students and others are invited to submit their ideas for a marketable solution that uses inspiration from nature to improve the global food system. Challenge participants will have access to biomimicry design resources and expert advice, and will have a chance to compete for cash prices of up to $160,000.

If you have a nature-inspired idea to reduce food spoilage, improve food packaging, boost production or soil conservation, or otherwise enhance food security, gather your forces and get ready to apply to the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge: Food Systems starting Jan. 19.  View Ensia homepage

Photo courtesy of Groasis.

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Mary Kang wasn’t even originally looking at methane emissions. The Princeton doctoral candidate was trying to get to the bottom of another issue: carbon dioxide escaping after being stored underground. During that research, she got to wondering about methane emissions from old oil and natural gas wells. What Kang, now a Stanford postdoctoral researcher, and other researchers found could be a significant and previously unidentified source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Studying 19 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, all but one of which were not on a list of abandoned wells kept by the state, the researchers found that, while all the wells were releasing some methane, some of the wells — about 15 percent — were releasing thousands of times more methane than the wells at the lower levels of release. Stressing that their findings are preliminary given they only tested 19 wells — some of which are over 100 years old — the team estimates that the amount of methane coming out of all the abandoned wells in Pennsylvania could be 10 percent of the total amount released due to human activities.

The silver lining in these findings, though, is that 15 percent number related to the so-called super-emitting wells. If such a small percentage were to hold nationwide, then focusing on identifying and capping the super-emitting wells or capturing the methane from those wells is a more realistic option than trying to plug all of the nation’s 3 million abandoned wells — but one that could still have a significant effect.

Read the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesImage: Detail from map in PNAS paper.  View Ensia homepage

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California-based PAX Pure hopes to offer a new solution to water scarcity with its groundbreaking water purification tool. Developed by Jay Harman and Tom Gielda, PAX Pure technology desalinates and demineralizes water without membranes, moving parts or chemicals. Instead, the technology simply mimics high-altitude conditions.

The big challenge with conventional desalination and demineralization is the energy needed to separate the impurities from the water by boiling. However, PAX Pure boils water at lower temperatures by mimicking low atmospheric pressures. By increasing the velocity of water to create an area of low pressure, PAX Pure systems achieve optimal operation at the low boiling point of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The process is not only cheaper and more efficient than conventional desalination, it can run on energy from the sun or waste heat from industrial manufacturing.

PAX Pure was recently named co-winner of the SXSW Eco Greentech competition, a contest for start-up technologies that fulfill market demand while reducing environmental impacts. While PAX Pure technology could be applied to agriculture, marine desalination, food and beverage manufacturing, and more, founder and CEO Philip O’Connor sees greatest potential in the hydraulic fracturing industry.

Water transportation can account for 60 to 80 percent of total fracking costs due to the fact that many U.S. fracking sites are located in water-stressed regions. Onsite demineralization of water would allow fracking companies to reuse their wastewater. “Pax Pure is looking to treat water during hydraulic fracturing at well sites for reduced trucking miles in the transport of water,” O’Connor says. This onsite approach to the demineralization of wastewater could significantly “clean up” the fracking industry. View Ensia homepage

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The illegal exportation of waste throughout the European Union, the trafficking of endangered species, and surface-water pollution were all recognized in a repot today by Eurojust, the European Union agency set up to deal with cross-border crime, as areas where reporting is low and conviction is even lower. Additionally, in the cases of illegal trafficking of endangered species and waste, the crimes are often linked to organized crime groups.

“Eurojust launched the Strategic Project in spring 2013 on the basis of an intriguing paradox: there was growing evidence of an increasing understanding that environmental crime is a serious crime, often involving a cross-border dimension and organised crime groups (OCGs), while at the same time, statistics on prosecutions of environmental crime in the Member States did not appear to reflect the real impact of this crime,” the authors write. “The number of cases referred to Eurojust, at that time, was also very low.”

Eurojust points to a number of reasons why this is the case, including a lack of communication and coordination between EU member states; lax, if any, specific legal action for environmental crime; and the technical and often complex nature of environmental issues. Still, the agency was able to point to a number of best practices and possible solutions, including better cooperation between partners, member states working more closely with Eurojust, more consistency in definitions of environmental crimes across countries, freezing and confiscating assets related to these crimes, and more.

“Environmental crime is threatening human life, health, and natural resources,” Věra Jourová, the EU’s commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, said in a press release. “These crimes affect the whole of society. They must therefore be targeted with the same seriousness as other criminal offenses.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by David J (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Forests provide habitat for over half of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species, mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon, and contribute to the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people around the world. But they’re rapidly disappearing: 13 million acres of forests have been leveled each year over the past decade, largely due to the global demand for beef, palm oil, paper and soy production. From food to fuel, these four commodities appear in almost every company’s supply chain.

To help companies recognize and reduce their risk related to global deforestation, the international nonprofit CDP recently released a report detailing the business case for assessing and managing risks related with forest commodities. Entitled Deforestation-Free Supply Chains: From Commitments to Action, the report offers insights from 152 leading businesses, including Cargill, Unilever and Sodexo.

Nearly three quarters of the companies participating reported they recognize the need to address deforestation, and 89 percent said they have seen business benefits from sustainably sourcing forest-based commodities. Nineteen major companies, including Cargill, L’Oreal and Kellogg, have already adopted zero deforestation policies. Still, the report cites a need for a greater commitment to moving from understanding deforestation-related risks to changing business practice accordingly. It recommends setting roadmaps and targets addressing deforestation, and calls out mechanisms such as certification, supply chain management and product tracing as useful tools for reducing deforestation-associated business risk. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha” (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Earth’s rising temperatures mean more glacier melt, sea-level rise and severe weather, and this translates to heightened threats for coastline communities. In response, SCAPE Landscape Architecture — powered by President Obama’s Rebuild by Design Initiative — has proposed an innovative way to protect coastlines that also promotes biodiversity, environmental education and traditional livelihoods.

Instead of creating one conventional levee to protect the coastline from storm surges, Living Breakwaters uses innovative design to address the ecological and social impacts of wave mitigation. With community input, the design team developed a system of layered breakwaters — thick sections between land and water — that provides multiple rows of protection parallel to the shoreline. Layers consist of sloped mounds that help dissipate waves before they hit the shore. Each breakwater layer is designed to accommodate one specific type of naturally occurring underwater ecosystem. Called “reef streets,” these pocket ecosystems provide habitat for oysters, lobsters, juvenile fish and other organisms.

Unlike traditional levees, which often barricade the beach. Living Breakwaters provides recreational shoreline and makes it possible to preserve water-based traditions. Coastline accessibility fosters economic resilience and education, and local schools are able to gain hands-on experience learning about oyster ecology.

The system was recently named winner of the 2014 Fuller Challenge for socially responsible design by the Buckminster Fuller Institute. SCAPE has proposed pilot testing the project on the south shore of Staten Island, New York, and aims to one day adapt the system to shorelines across the United States.  View Ensia homepage

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Between 2009 and 2013, impact investors poured close to $23 billion into conservation projects such as water quantity and quality conservation, sustainable agriculture, and habitat conservation around the world.

That’s according to a report, Investing in Conservation: A landscape assessment of an emerging market, from EKO Asset Management Partners and The Nature Conservancy. The $23 billion valuation comes from surveys conducted with 56 investors — five for-profit and nonprofit development finance institutions and 51 private investment organizations.

“[The] report puts real numbers to what we’ve long suspected: private investors are deploying more capital than before toward investments that lead to both greater conservation and bring a definable financial return,” said Ricardo Bayon, EKO Asset Management partner and an author of the report, in a press release. “But more needs to be done.”

The report, which also included guidance and analysis from representatives of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase & Co., doesn’t include investments in clean tech or renewable energy, and in fact only covers a portion of the money being invested by governments, multilateral agencies and philanthropic sources on conservation, which some sources estimate could total about $50 billion annually. And the report’s authors acknowledge that the total amount is a far cry from the $300 billion annually that a recent Global Canopy Programme report says is needed to help address the world’s conservation challenges.

There are efforts, such as NatureVest (launched earlier this year by The Nature Conservancy with support from JPMorgan Chase & Co.), that attempt to broaden investments in conservation projects around the world and help close this gap. Specifically, NatureVest pools investment capital and provides long-term funding support to help move conservation projects from the early stages through to completion.  View Ensia homepage

Disclosure: The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is one of Ensia’s funders.

Photo by iStopckPhoto.com/RusN

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Solve two problems with one filter? That’s what Drinkwell aims to do. Begun through a collaboration between researchers at Lehigh University and the Bengal Engineering and Science University, the Boston-based social venture — recently named winner of the 2014 SXSW Eco Social Impact for Profit competition — offers an innovative approach to removing arsenic, an odorless, colorless carcinogen, from drinking water while providing a business enterprise to local people.

Arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater in many parts of Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization reports it affects more than 200 million people in 70 different countries. Not only that, but according to Drinkwell, the contamination has cost Bangladesh alone billions of dollars in lost GDP.

Drinkwell’s solution? A resin-based filter that is far more energy- and water-efficient than conventional reverse osmosis approaches to cleaning up arsenic-contaminated water. To boost local economies while reducing the arsenic health risk, the company has developed a “select, build, sell, collect” approach that engages local entrepreneurs to market the systems, teaches community members how to maintain the technology, provides jobs, and shows members how to collect data and monitor their results. The technology has already been successfully deployed in 200 communities across Laos, India and Cambodia.  View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Likhitha

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The textile industry uses copious amounts of water to dye fabrics — by some estimates, 25 liters of water just to dye a T-shirt. Not only that, but many textile factories are located in Eastern Asia, where chemical-laden water is sometimes dumped directly into local rivers.

A technology recently showcased by Sustainia has the ability to substitute carbon dioxide for the water. Applied Separations developed a technique that uses supercritical CO2 to take up the dye. Supercritical fluids are highly compressed gases that exhibit properties of both gases and liquids and can simultaneously move through solids and dissolve materials.

Supercritical carbon dying allows color pigment to penetrate fabrics easily without the use of harmful chemicals, salts or water. The method cuts dyeing time in half, and fabric emerges already dried. This means energy and costs could theoretically be reduced by 50 percent. The process also removes CO2, a greenhouse gas, from the air.

Hefty start-up costs deter many East Asian factories from adopting supercritical dying systems. Nonetheless, supercritical carbon technology has the potential to revolutionize the textile industry, and a small number of plants are taking hold across East Asia and the United States.  View Ensia homepage

Photo by Adrian Wiggins (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Plastic’s versatility renders it almost indispensable in today’s world, but plastic waste is a huge environmental burden. To make it possible to both benefit from plastics and reduce their environmental costs, the Plastic Disclosure Project, a global initiative of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, is challenging businesses and others to commit themselves to measure, manage, reduce and even productively use plastic waste. By tracking their “plastic footprints” and developing a closed-loop approach to using plastic, organizations can recognize inefficiencies, streamline production, increase customer loyalty, benefit from waste recovery and cut costs. According to PDP, improved management of plastic could save consumer goods companies up to $4 billion per year.

To that end, PDP provides a central registry where companies, governments, universities and other entities can sign up to disclose how much plastic waste they produce and receive support and encouragement as they work to reduce its environmental toll. In addition, it provides information on the impacts of plastics and curates a “Solutions” page that provides links to specific opportunities and strategies for reducing plastic waste as well as recycling and even upcycling plastic products.

This past summer PDP partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme and the environmental impact assessment company Trucost to release a report on the natural capital cost of plastic in the consumer goods industry. The first to assign monetary value to the impacts of plastics on marine environments, the study provides information organizations can use to internalize environmental costs of plastics and change their risk management accordingly.

PDP sees an opportunity for businesses to act on plastics before most legislators, consumers, investors and NGOs. There is an impending demand for change, and as the PDP reminds us, “Companies that act first are usually the ones to profit most.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by mbeo (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s first-ever Disruptive Innovation Festival debuts online Oct. 20. Over the course of four weeks, the DIF will provide an online space for entrepreneurs, businesses, thought leaders and learners from around the world to explore how we might shape a circular economy.

DIF aims to challenge our current “cradle-to-grave” mindset and replace it with a closed-loop system that values natural resource conservation. The international event will feature live broadcasts from William McDonough, Ellen MacArthur, Janine Benyus and others. Speakers will address collaborative consumption, new business models, design innovation and more. The DIF will also host a variety of forums and competitions, with English as the main language and facilitation in Spanish, French and Russian.

One focal point for the event will be three global design competitions revolving around the Biomimicry Challenge, Generation Z and Smart Cycles. The Biomimicry Challenge, for example, asks participants to “radically improve an aspect of the food system” by targeting a deficiency in the way our food travels from plow to plate. Entries should harness biomimicry and make the food system more affordable, accessible and efficient. Ideas could revolutionize the way we package food, irrigate crops, harvest produce, rear livestock, distribute food or mitigate waste, all while bring us closer to a circular economy. Entries for the Biomimicry Challenge and Generation Z are due Oct. 22, and entries for Smart Cycles are due Nov. 8. Top innovations will be featured on the DIF website.

To learn more about DIF, grab free tickets, enter a global design competition or join the conversation visit thinkdif.co. View Ensia homepage

Photo by mattwalker69 (Creative Commons | Flickr).

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In 2013, more than 200 million tourists sunbathed on Mediterranean beaches. You can bet that most of them applied sunscreen. That sunscreen may be valuable for preventing skin cancer for humans, but it can also wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.

A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that when sunscreen washes off a person into the ocean, certain ingredients react with sunlight to form hydrogen peroxide, which can be toxic to phytoplankton.

Researchers Antonio Tovar-Sánchez and David Sánchez-Quiles took to the waters near Majorca Island to verify the impacts of Mediterranean tourists on marine life. They sampled water under different sunlight conditions. Using a combination of data from ultraviolet radiation, tourist numbers and seawater samples, the team concluded that sunscreen alters oceanic composition and affects phytoplankton populations.

It turns out titanium dioxide — a common ingredient in LEDs, solar cells, surface coatings and sunscreen — is the chemical culprit. When titanium dioxide nanoparticles enter the water, their protective coatings dissolve. This allows the compound to react with ultraviolet light and form new compounds, such as hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide generates high levels of stress on phytoplankton, the cornerstone of the oceanic food web. All marine life depends on these primary producers to survive. Phytoplankton also play a key role in carbon sequestration, thus contributing to overall climate stabilization.

How can beachgoers stay healthy and maintain healthy ecosystems, too? One strategy is to cover up with long sleeves or wide-brimmed hats before resorting to sunscreen. If sunscreen is necessary, just make sure it is fully absorbed before hitting the waves. Photo by HJL (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Think liberals and environmental hipsters are leading the way on carbon pricing? Think again. According to a report just published by nonprofit environmental information organization CDP, hundreds of corporate giants, including Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and Bank of America, are already including carbon pricing in business decisions — and many are working to advance related legislation as well.

The report, Global Corporate Use of Carbon Pricing, summarizes information gathered from companies around the world in response to a 2014 questionnaire. Of those participating in the survey, 150 major corporations, including 29 in the U.S., reported that a carbon price figures into their business strategies, with prices used ranging from $6 to nearly $90 per metric ton. More than 200 of the respondents said they support carbon pricing legislation, and more than 600 — including 112 in the U.S. — reported that they consider carbon pricing regulation to be a business opportunity.

“Companies in the U.S. and worldwide are already advanced in their use of carbon pricing,” the CDP report notes. “They are ahead of their governments in planning for climate change risks, costs and opportunities. These companies want, and are calling for, clear pricing and regulatory certainty to help them plan their climate-related investments, and they want to see more certain, internationally linked carbon markets.”

Hat tip to Chemical & Engineering News for calling our attention to this story. Photo by Blatant World (Flickr |Creative Commons)

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Among other benefits, trees are valuable for their ability to clean the air around us. Last week, researchers from The Nature Conservancy, Dow Chemical Company and the University of Florida published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attesting to that fact. The team found that planting trees around urban areas could contribute to the abatement of ozone and a precursor of ozone, nitrogen dioxide. Not only that, but in many cases trees could do the job at a cost equal to or lower than technological fixes.

There are cases where trees don’t necessarily pencil out — such as if land would have to be purchased for reforestation. And if planting trees comes at a cost to habitat such as important grasslands or wetlands, it may not be the right option. Still, TNC’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva writes in a blog post about the study, “Kroeger and colleagues show that forests can be added to the engineering solutions in a significant way. … And unlike the engineering solutions, forests bring numerous extra benefits as a bonus — they sequester carbon and help to mitigate climate change, they can cool air temperatures, they can help improve water quality and reduce flood risk, and they are habitats for wildlife and sites for recreation.” Photo by USFS Region 5 (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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As seen in California’s ongoing drought, water acquisition is not just an issue in the developing world. Climate change, industrial and residential use, and inefficient irrigation all contribute to water scarcity. However, researchers from Utrecht and McGill universities offer solutions to significantly reduce water stress (when more than 40 percent of an area’s water is withdrawn) for the one-third of the global population affected by it.

Recognizing that there is no silver-bullet solution, the researchers in a paper published in Nature Geoscience outline six “wedges” that, when combined — in various ways in different places — can mitigate water stress. Each wedge represents a different strategy that could theoretically reduce water stress by 2 percent in a little over 35 years. In combination, all six wedges have the potential to reduce the number of people facing water stress by 12 percent by 2050.

The water-stress wedges are defined as either “hard path” solutions, such as increasing water storage in reservoirs and desalination of seawater, or “soft path” solutions, such as irrigation efficiency and limiting population growth.

While hard-path options might require more initial capital, soft-path wedges necessitate significant social and socioeconomic changes. However, overcoming these challenges could mean greater water security. Article by Kayla Walsh. Photo by Marcelo César Augusto Romeo (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Invertebrates — including insects, worms and crustaceans — are usually pretty small, but they have a big impact when it comes to providing ecosystem services. In fact, insects alone are responsible for pollinating around 75 percent of the world’s crops, and invertebrates play a major role in recycling waste and improving water quality.

That’s why scientists are more than a little concerned about the decline in invertebrate populations. Studying all 1.4 million named invertebrate species is impossible, but of the one percent evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 40 percent were considered threatened. Other studies suggest that invertebrate populations showed an overall decline of 45 percent in the last four decades.

So where’s the silver lining on this cloud of vanishing invertebrates? Understanding invertebrate loss may be the first step toward saving them. Scientists are hoping their research on invertebrate loss will improve conservation efforts by determining what successful invertebrate species are doing to maintain their populations. Photo by Christian Guthier (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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When songbird populations started dropping across the U.S. in the 1950s, conservationist Rachel Carson saw disaster waiting in the wings. Something was going terribly wrong with the natural world, she concluded in her 1962 book Silent Spring — something that could harm humans, too, if we didn’t figure it out and fix it. Subsequent actions to ban DDT and gain tighter controls on other pesticides averted what could have been a full-blown disaster not only for birds but also for humans and other species that ultimately depend on the integrity of natural systems.

In a striking 16-part series of articles that began this week and will continue into October, Environmental Health News, in partnership with National Geographic, is documenting similarly disturbing observations in bird populations around the world today. From chickadees with malformed beaks in Alaska to waterfowl with brain lesions in the southeastern U.S., the series is looking at a spectrum of emerging issues with bird populations and asking what these anomalies might be trying to tell us today.

“When it comes to environmental health, birds are on the front line,” says EHN editor in chief Marla Cone in a video summary of the series. “‘Canary in the coal mine’ isn’t just a proverb anymore. Birds around the world are telling us what ails in their environment, and possibly what ails us as well.”

Read the first five installments and watch for the rest at Winged Warnings. Image by Dyniss Rainer (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You’ve heard about the problem of environmental crime, from poaching to murder. Individuals interested in becoming part of the solution have a unique opportunity in Michigan State University’s online Conservation Criminology graduate certificate program.

The program, which began in 2008, consists of three courses covering topics such as environmental risk perception, corporate environmental crime, and globalization. Participants learn to deconstruct environmental risks, apply theory to analyze risks, and use tools ranging from communication to enforcement to promote compliance with environmental laws and regulations. To learn more, see Conservation Criminology. Photo © iStockphoto.com/RyersonClark

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Marine protected areas are a popular way to try and combat the massive decline of coral reefs around the world, in part due to overfishing. But, what if, once damaged, the fish and coral you need to make the area healthy again don’t want to move back in? Turns out you might be left with a seaweed protected area. 

In a study published today in Science, researchers from Georgia Tech found that in Fiji, damaged coral reefs that have been taken over by seaweed give off a chemical that Pacific fish and coral can smell, which deters them from settling in those areas. “If you’re setting up a marine protected area to seed recruitment into a degraded habitat, that recruitment may not happen if young fish and coral are not recognizing the degraded area as habitat,” said the study’s first author, Danielle Dixson, in a statement.

Pointing to a way to maximize the recovery of protected areas, the researchers say intervention may be necessary to get rid of seaweed that discourages fish and coral from coming back to the ecosystems and promote healthy coral that will once again attract them.

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With record-breaking droughts, rising temperatures and more than half of the United States population living in cities with vulnerable water supplies, water scarcity has gone from distant doomsday scenario to a natural resource reality. But at 98 gallons of water per person, the United States’ daily water use is among the highest of any nation in the world, over seven times the 13.2 gallons needed for basic human needs. So what should your household be doing to conserve water?

A recent study published in Environment magazine by Benjamin Inskeep and Shahzeen Attari put common conservation practices to the test, finding out which ones hold water and which should be left out to dry. In “The Water Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Water Use,” the authors determined that the greatest indoor water saving potential comes from toilets and washing machines, accounting for 38 and 26 percent of total indoor water savings, respectively. Seemingly simple practices such as installing a low flush-toilet or only washing full loads of laundry can reap tremendous conservation benefits.

Outdoor water use accounts for 29 percent of residential consumption, so conservation can’t stop at the door. Replacing turfgrass with water-wise landscaping is one of the most effective conservation measures. Watering plants in the morning or simply using a hose instead of a sprinkler can cut outdoor water consumption by up to 40 percent.

“Clear and accurate communication of the potential savings associated with specific actions can draw the attention of households to actions that are relatively easy for them to implement and effective at curbing water use,” the authors write. “As water availability is expected to become an increasingly urgent issue in the coming decades, it is heartening to find that substantial reductions in household water use are readily available to U.S. households.” Photo by Jodimichelle (Flickr | Creative Commons)

 

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It’s an unconventional question: What do you get when you mix coconut husk fibers and recycled plastics? The answer: A sustainable material that can reduce petroleum consumption and carbon emissions while boosting economic development.

Researchers with Essentium Materials in College Station, Texas, are making everything from vehicle trunk liners to wall planters out of coconut husk fibers, long considered an agricultural waste in the production of coconut milk and oil. Elisa Teipel came up with the idea as a graduate student working to find a marketable product for farmers and community members in Papua New Guinea. Since then, Teipel and her husband, Blake Teipel, along with colleagues Ryan Vano and Matt Kirby, have used a National Science Foundation small business innovation research grant to ramp up production of the new material.

The researchers estimate that the coconut husk product could double the annual incomes of the world’s 10 million coconut farmers. But using coconut husk fibers isn’t just good for local economies in developing nations, it’s also good for the environment: The researchers figure that replacing synthetic polyester fibers with the new materials could cut back on 2 to 4 million barrels of petroleum and reduce carbon dioxide output by 450,000 tons each year. Photo by Horia Varlan (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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For $200 billion, you could buy two International Space Stations, Facebook or Peru’s economy. But according to a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme and INTERPOL, you could not match the value of illegal wildlife trade and environmental crime worldwide.

In “The Environmental Crime Crisis,” researchers outline the scope and consequences of illegal wildlife trading and environmental crime. At $213 billion, environmental crime is worth 60 percent more than global official development assistance and stealing much-needed revenue from developing economies. Worse yet, money from this criminal activity is winding up in the hands of militias and terrorist groups, which bring in millions from illegal charcoal and ivory trading.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The report cites a wide range of efforts that organizations and governments are making to take a bite out of environmental crime. In Tanzania, rangers are getting specialized training to address poaching, and in Brazil, satellite monitoring and police operations reduced deforestation in the Amazon in 2012 to the lowest level since 1988. Photo by ukhomeoffice (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Increasing standards of living mean more — literally hundreds of millions more — computers, cell phones and other electronic devices are being deployed  in developing nations. But what happens when these hot new devices are no longer wanted?

Researchers from two institutions in India — the PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh and Surya World Technical Campus in Punjab — recently published a study in the International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management estimating the number of desktop and laptop computers that will be disposed of in the developing nation by 2025. In the next 10 years, 126 million desktops and 900 million laptops are expected to exceed their life expectancy, flooding Indian e-waste facilities with over a billion devices containing environmentally toxic arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and more.

While the information is alarming, it’s also valuable. Researchers hope the results of the study will help alert policy-makers and planners about the need to cope with the coming e-waste boom and preemptively address potential environmental and public health problems. Photo © iStockphoto.com/hadynyah

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Ants are mighty little creatures. They inhabit every continent on Earth except Antarctica. They can lift 10 to 50 times their body weight. And now, one new study suggests, they may have the potential to help curb global warming.

In “Ants as a Powerful Biotic Agent of Olivine and Plagioclase Dissolution,” Ronald Dorn of Arizona State University studied calcium-magnesium silicate mineral dissolution by ants, termites, tree roots and bare ground at six sites in Arizona and Texas over 25 years. Ants emerged as the leader in promoting mineral decay, a process in which calcium and magnesium released by mineral decay combine with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce limestone or dolomite. In fact, ant nests appear to enhance mineral dissolution by two to three orders of magnitude.

So what does this mean for carbon and the climate? Dorn suggests ant-based carbon sequestration may have contributed to Earth’s cooling during the Cenozoic Era, and proposes using ants as a model for developing new strategies to combat human-induced climate change through enhanced mineral dissolution and more efficient accumulation of calcium carbonate from atmospheric CO2. Photo by Troup Dresser (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Last year, Beijing’s concentration of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) averaged nearly four times the World Health Organization’s recommended safe level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. On bad days this January, that number soared to over 600. It’s safe to say factories, power plants and automobile usage in the region are leaving the city’s 20 million residents smothered in smog.

Now, the Chinese government is enlisting the help of tech industry giant IBM to reach its cleaner air goals. By using sensors, satellites and analytics, IBM will be able to predict smog levels up to three days in advance. Perhaps more importantly, the company’s models will be able to pinpoint the sources of smog down to the street level, helping government officials with policy, planning and decision making.

This partnership with IBM comes as Beijing officials are investing $160 billion in an effort to reduce PM 2.5 concentrations by 25 percent by 2017. IBM’s effort to closely monitor pollutant levels and sources may be the city’s strongest weapon in its “War on Smog.” Photo by Safia Osman (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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