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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universities offer solutions to significantly reduce water stress (when more than 40 percent of an area’s water is withdrawn) for the one-third of the global population affected by it.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)

Indian man with cell phone  

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)

Fish in a commercial fish farming net  

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.

Beef cattle grazing in a field  

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.

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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?

That was what researchers in New Zealand attempted to answer in a new study, “The Societal Costs and Benefits of Commuter Bicycling: Simulating the Effects of Specific Policies Using System Dynamics Modeling.” The study explored different policy options to encourage commuter bicycling in Auckland, a high-income, car-dependent city.

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)

Mumbai  

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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Be prepared: The world is not only getting more crowded, it’s also getting older. A recent Pew Research Center report looked at population trends for the U.S., China, India and 20 other countries and surveyed public opinion about them. According to the report, by 2050:

  • Three times as many people will be 65 or older
  • Most people in Japan, South Korea and Germany will be over 50
  • One in five Americans will be 65 or older
  • Most countries will have more people over age 65 than under age 15
  • The number of dependents (people under 15 and 65+) per 100 workers will grow to 66 in the U.S. and a whopping 96 in Japan

The opinion survey portion of the study found that almost 9 in 10 Japanese and 7 in 10 Chinese consider aging a major problem in their countries. Only a quarter of Americans consider aging a problem in the U.S. Potential challenges of aging cited by the report include economic slowdown and stressed social support system.

Learn more at Attitudes About Aging: A Global Perspective. Photo by Eric Montfort (Flicker | Creative Commons)

 

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In a world where climate disasters, pollution, and biodiversity loss dominate the news cycle, it’s easy to lose sight of the exciting, sustainable solutions being developed everyday. Enter Sustainia100 2014, a guided tour of 100 promising, outside-the-box innovations addressing today’s environmental challenges.

Unveiled last week in Oslo, Norway, Sustainia100 2014 showcases solutions in 10 sectors, including buildings, fashion, transportation and health. From clay refrigerators that cool using evaporation to a saltwater air conditioner that reduces energy consumption by 40 percent, the publication is filled with ideas intended to energize readers about sustainability and move beyond the doom-and-gloom dialogue.

“Reading about how projects and technologies are innovating transportation, advancing our food production, slowing down fashion, and speeding up resource efficiency, you cannot help but be amazed by the opportunities present to start creating sustainable industries, communities and cities,” Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote in the Sustainia100 foreword. “Sustainia100 is a guide to a green and desirable future within our reach and it is a guide away from threats and insecurities.” Download your free copy — and nominate projects for inclusion in Sustainia100 2015 — at sustainia.me/solutions.

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When it comes to wind power, the sky isn’t the limit — it’s the opportunity. Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Delaware and energy firm DNV GL are investigating the potential of airborne wind energy to boost the renewable energy source’s effectiveness.

In a recent study published in Renewable Energy, the researchers determined that winds between Earth’s surface and about 10,000 feet could produce over 7.5 terawatts of electricity, more than triple the global demand. One of the keys to this airborne wind power is using recurring atmospheric features called “low-level jets.” The jets, which usually blow at 30–50 mph, offer stronger, steadier winds than those that turn turbines on the Earth’s surface. The best locations for airborne wind energy include the Horn of Africa, tropical ocean locations and the U.S. Great Plains.

Tapping into wind sources miles above the ground won’t be easy, but it’s far from impossible. Airborne wind power industry leaders are looking at tethered devices that could capture energy at various altitudes to maximize efficiency.

The next step? The team is now working on developing a study to look at higher-level wind energy potential year round. Photo by Niels Linneberg (Creative Commons | Flickr)

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Earlier this week, in the second installment of our Envision 2050 series, in which experts from around the world describe their ideal for human systems in 2050 and what it would take to get there, we asked five visionary urban planners, designers and architects for their views on what cities would be like in 2050. One of those experts, Tony Chan, associate director of the design firm Arup, noted that China’s current urbanization is unprecedented and pointed to a startling fact: “Over the next two decades China will potentially build 20,000 to 50,000 new skyscrapers and have more than 220 cities with populations of more than 1 million.” The country, Chan said, has cities that embody both a romantic and dystopian view of future cities — with smart, connected and green technologies alongside high pollution and resource scarcity.

For more on the future (and present) of China’s cities, you might want to check out the new three-part series in the South China Morning Post about the rise of Asia’s megacities and the issues they face. The first installment was published last week and in it writer Vanessa Collingridge has some startling figures of her own. “In 2010,” she writes, “just nine of the world’s megacities were located in Asia; scroll forward 15 years and 21 of the projected 39 megacities will be situated here, with the biggest growth in population expected to take place in the new or lesser-known cities in South and East Asia.” Photo by sebastien batardy (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Feeding a growing planet means getting food waste under control. With one-third of all food being wasted or lost, that’s no small task. But here’s some good news. Researchers are hot on the trail of some promising new solutions, with a bonus: They don’t involve synthetic, environmentally damaging chemicals.

The scientists, working at the Centre of Excellence for Post-harvest Biotechnology at Nottingham University’s Malaysia Campus, have been finding ways to turn natural products such as chitosan obtained from crustacean shells and gum arabic — acacia tree sap — into small particles that can be sprayed on fruits and vegetables to delay ripening and lengthen shelf life. So far, nature’s food waste solutions are working. The researchers found that particles created from these natural products delayed ripening of tomatoes and increased dragon fruit life by 28 days.

“We believe that developing post-harvest management techniques using natural products is the way forward, especially since these natural biodegradable products we are researching can also contribute to traditional medicine and pharmacology as we learn more about our natural environment,” CEPB director Asgar Ali wrote in an article for The Conversation. “Hopefully too, we can develop better ways of reducing the huge amount of food loss that takes place and focus on getting food to those who need it.” Photo by the_ewan (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Want to know what the water quality is like in the lake down the street? What’s being dumped in the river at the edge of town? Or how your local drinking water sources are being protected? Good news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an app for that.

The EPA recently released an enhanced version of its “How’s My Waterway” website and smartphone app, giving interested individuals anywhere access to water quality reports, pollutant discharge permits and restoration efforts at their fingertips. Users can enter either a ZIP code or a city name or use the program’s GPS technology to find nearby water bodies. The agency even released an application designed for museum kiosks with touch screens.

So what’s the point in making a water quality app? “Communities and neighborhoods across the U.S. want to know that their local lakes, rivers and streams are healthy and safe to enjoy with their families, and providing that information is a priority for EPA,” Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, said in a press release.

Check out the “How’s My Waterway?” website hereArticle by John Sisser. 

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