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.
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. Photo by Adrian Wiggins (Flickr | Creative Commons) — October 3, 2014
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.” Photo by mbeo (Flickr | Creative Commons) — October 1, 2014
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. Photo by mattwalker69 (Creative Commons | Flickr). — September 26, 2014
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.
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) — September 23, 2014
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.”
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)
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 Geoscienceoutline 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) — September 12, 2014
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) — September 5, 2014
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) — August 29, 2014
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.
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.
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)
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) — August 20, 2014
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.
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) — August 15, 2014
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.
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) — August 8, 2014
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) — August 6, 2014
As writer Rowan Jacobsen explores in our recent feature “Has Meat Met Its Match?,” animal agriculture’s hefty environmental footprint is creating interest in exploring ways to meet humans’ growing appetite for animal protein that extend beyond beef, chicken and pork. In some places, that exploration is going underwater.
Aquaculture, or fish farming, is the fastest growing sector of animal food production in the world, providing half of all seafood consumed by humans. That number is expected to rise, with another 40 million tons of seafood needed by 2030 to meet demand.
Is a fish sandwich any better for the environment than a cheeseburger or pork tenderloin? It is more efficient from a feed perspective. Nine pounds of feed will produce around 7.5 pounds of salmon, a far better feed conversion ratio than those for cattle and swine. In addition, aquaponics — raising fish and edible plants in a single system in which fish wastes serve as plant food — is being hailed as a particularly efficient solution to the challenge of feeding a booming population.
It’s not all smooth sailing on the aquaculture seas, however. Organic wastes from aquaculture can foul waterways. Growing feed for fish farms already requires a land area the size of the United Kingdom, and harvesting wild species for fishmeal strains marine resources. And at the end of the day, critics argue that jam-packed fishponds aren’t much different than regular feedlots, requiring antibiotics, creating a genetic monoculture and polluting the surrounding landscape.
But, much like traditional agriculture, sustainable practices exist for aquaculture, including only cultivating nonnative species in fish tanks or using lower stock densities to prevent disease. When it comes to satisfying the world’s carnivorous cravings, aquaculture and aquaponics may be a few more tools to add to the sustainability toolbox. — August 1, 2014
In our recent feature, “Has Meat Met Its Match?,” writer Rowan Jacobsen explores ways people can (now and possibly in the future) reduce the environmental and food security impacts of their diets, including entomophagy (bug-eating), synthetic meat and vegetarian substitutes. If none of those fits your needs, there are plenty of other ways to eat meat more sustainably.
Maybe cutting back would work for you. Meatless Mondays — an idea initiated during World War I to conserve resources — is being revived as a way to encourage people to forgo meat one day a week for environment and health benefits, including water conservation and reduced fossil fuel dependence.
Another approach is to do a species switch-out. It takes far less grain (and therefore cropland) to produce a pound of pig or poultry than to produce a pound of cow — so choosing chicken fajitas over beef tacos could help.
If you’re really craving a burger or succulent steak, buying beef from well-managed grazing systems can be another easy swap for sustainability. Compared to feedlots, such systems reduce soil erosion, water pollution and biodiversity loss (though production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, may be higher). Scientists are also working to reduce cattle’s environmental footprint through improved diet, genetics and manure management. — July 30, 2014
For many, sitting alone in a vehicle in a traffic jam on the way to work is a fact of life. But are there policies cities could consider to encourage commuters to ditch the automobile for a bike, improving public health and reducing the environmental toll of motorized transportation?
The verdict? Investing in bike infrastructure pays off. Using a simulation model, the authors determined that policy options such as creating separate bike paths and reduced-speed, bike-friendly streets can yield benefits 10 to 25 times greater than the cost.
“To our knowledge, this is the first integrated simulation model of future specific bicycling policies,” the authors write. “Our projections provide practical evidence that may be used by health and transport policy makers to optimize the benefits of transport bicycling while minimizing negative consequences in a cost-effective manner.” Photo by sfbike (Creative Commons | Flickr) — July 25, 2014
Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist Jonathan Kalan argues that the media, environmentalists and non-governmental organizations focus too much on problems in the world’s megacities (cities where the population is greater than 10 million), such as air pollution and traffic. “Megacities hold enormous value for the developing world,” Kalan writes, “and ensuring that they deliver this value starts, fundamentally, with no longer seeing them as utter catastrophes.”
Kalan breaks his piece, “10 Million Sardines in a Sea of Skyscrapers,” into six sections based on what he sees as major myths about megacities, such as, among others, “Megacities pose the most dire development crisis of the 21st century” and “Megacities can’t be ‘healthy,’ because they’re killing the planet” — and then gives his response, first in pithy answers and then by way of in-depth analysis.
As more and more of the world’s people become urban dwellers, critical examinations of where we will be living, such as Kalan’s, are important to make sure we get the future right. Photo by Deepak Gupta (Flickr | Creative Commons) — July 23, 2014
On a hot, sunny day, dark roofs and pavements in Houston reach a smoldering 160 degrees. Startling facts like this spurred action at the municipal level, including passing an energy conservation code requiring cool roofs on certain buildings and initiating an effort to plant a million shade trees in just three to five years.
“Cool Policies for Cool Cities: Best Practices for Mitigating Urban Heat Islands in North American Cities”— a report published recently by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy — documents actions 26 cities around the U.S. and Canada have taken to address urban heat island challenges as a way to provide other cities with ideas of their own. From Boston to Cincinnati to Los Angeles, cities are employing a spectrum of strategies to reduce urban heating, including modifying stormwater management, installing reflective pavement and planting rooftop gardens. After surveying the cities and analyzing their findings, the study’s authors recommended, among other things, that city governments lead by example, implementing heat island policies and integrating new technologies on their own buildings.
A key takeaway from the report is that cities are making progress when it comes to urban heat island policies and programs, but more can be done.
“More than half the cities noted that they have made significant progress on policy or program implementation,” the study says. “However, no city reported that they had met or nearly met any of their UHI-related goals. Additional or improved mitigation actions are still clearly needed.” Photo by Andrew Dallos (Flickr | Creative Commons) — July 18, 2014
Ever wonder if all those strange sounding ingredients in your shampoo, deodorant or lipstick are healthy or harmful for you and the environment? The Environmental Working Group has the answer. The D.C.-based public interest group is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its Skin Deep cosmetics database. According to EWG, people in the U.S. apply “an average of 126 unique ingredients on their skin daily.” The Skin Deep website and mobile app rate and review 70,000 products and almost 11,500 ingredients. Simply enter the product name or scan a bar code and you’ll be able to tell in seconds if your hair gel or sunscreen contains ingredients known to cause allergies, developmental issues or even cancer. Photo by Pomo Mama (Flickr | Creative Commons) — July 16, 2014
As the world’s climate changes and severe weather events become more common one phenomenon of particular concern is human migration. How will people respond as precipitation patterns change, storms batter coastlines, crops struggle after continual years of drought? A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compares how natural disasters and variations in climate influence migration, finding that the latter seems to have a greater effect than the former.
The study looked at more than 7,000 households in Indonesia over a 15-year time period. Though sudden disasters obviously do create situations where people are forced to move, the researchers found that such moves are more likely to be temporary or short-distance, whereas climatic variation more often results in permanent moves. Photo by United Nations Photo(Flickr | Creative Commons) — July 11, 2014