Major companies collaborate to reduce plastic pollution in the UK

The UK Plastics Pact has officially been launched in an effort to transform the plastics system and reduce unnecessary waste. More than 40 businesses, governments, and organizations have joined the initiative, agreeing to change the way they design, produce, use, and dispose of plastic pollution.

The growing list of businesses participating in the project include Aldi, Coca Cola, P&G, Pizza Hut, and Pepsico. The BBC is reporting that the companies who have aligned with the pact are responsible for over 80 percent of the plastic packaging on products sold in supermarkets across the UK.

Critics of the project say that these companies need to make changes that are enforced by government action, and not just on a voluntary basis.

The organizations that signed the pact have promised to make huge strides by the year 2025.

The pledges that must be honored by the target date include: 100 percent of all plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable; 70 percent of all plastic packaging will be effectively recycled or composted; all plastic packaging will contain an average of 30 percent recycled content; and unnecessary or problematic single-use packaging will be eliminated.

The UK Plastics Pact website states:

“Our throwaway culture needs to change. We need to move away from a linear plastics economy, where we take, make and dispose of plastic, towards a circular system where we capture the value of plastics material – keeping plastic in the economy and out of the oceans.” 

The website cautions that around 5,000 pieces of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK.

The initiative was launched by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a nonprofit group that strives toward a sustainable, resource-efficient economy.

“Creating a circular economy for plastics amounts to a huge opportunity for the economy as well as providing a longer-term benefit for the environment,” said Ellen MacArthur. “Achieving it will require close collaboration and significant commitment from industry, government, and society at large.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Europe faces unsustainable future with food and agriculture

The European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and the InterAcademy Partnership are urging European policymakers to modify their current approach to food, agriculture, the environment, and human health.

The experts say that more policy coherence is needed to effectively address the issues of climate change, nutrition, and food waste. They are recommending a “food systems approach,” which is an integrative system that includes all of the steps involved from growing to consuming food.

Professor Joachim von Braun, is the co-chair of the EASAC-IAP project on food and agriculture.

“A food systems approach is critical to tackling some of the most pressing issues of our day, such as climate change, sustainable land and water use, food waste, and of course human health,” said Professor von Braun. “This calls for science initiatives that cut across disciplines, tailored to the complexity of food systems by both, EU and Member States.”

The researchers noted that the negative impacts of climate change must be met by the introduction of climate-smart agriculture, such as developing crops that are resistant to drought. The study authors also pointed out that, although agriculture plays a critical role in the change that is needed, the changes must be reflected in consumer behavior as well.

On the other hand, agriculture itself is significantly contributing to climate change, which means that new practices and consumer behaviors must be aimed at lowering agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the consumption of alternative protein sources such as insects or cell-cultured meat would lower the demand for livestock products.

The adjustment of meat consumption patterns should also have targeted health benefits, such as reducing the overconsumption of meat and dairy products in high-income countries while providing more nutritious diets for developing countries. Across Europe, obesity and undernutrition are critical public health issues.

Estimates from the research suggest that adopting the World Health Organization guidance on healthy diets could reduce mortality worldwide by up to 10 percent and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 percent over the next three decades.

“As malnutrition remains a huge global problem and in recent years global hunger has increased again, EU science policy on food, nutrition and agriculture needs to take an international view,” said Professor von Braun. “Related innovations in Europe can have large positive impacts elsewhere in the world, if shared in science partnerships. Other themes of promising international collaborative science are food safety and healthy diets.”

Study co-author Professor Volker ter Meulen added, “This report is part of a larger project involving 130 science academies around the globe. Europe’s approach to food, agriculture, and the environment is crucial because Europe’s actions affect others around the world.”

The EASAC-IAP report, “Opportunities and Challenges for Research on Food and Nutrition Security and Agriculture in Europe,” was launched at the Palais des Académies in Brussels.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Key Atlantic Ocean system may trigger hotter summers for Europe

Future summers in Europe could get even hotter due to a partial collapse of the Atlantic Ocean heat transport. The last time this occurred it triggered major weather extremes during the Younger Dryas period 12,000 years ago.

Much of Europe, particularly Spain, France and Italy dealt with crippling heat waves during the summer of 2017.  Climate change has only worsened drought and increased summer temperatures in some regions and driven weather extremes.

Now, according to a new study, in addition to the impacts of climate change, the record-breaking cold ocean temperatures in the Atlantic is weakening heat transport through the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).

The study was conducted by researchers from Stockholm University and published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The results show that the Atlantic heat transport system is at a long-term minimum and could be the weakest it’s ever been in the past 1,600 years.

A similar event occurred before the beginning of the Holocene (Earth’s current geological era) and researchers can look at climate records to help predict future temperatures and prepare for the inevitable drastic extremes should the Atlantic heat transport system continue to weaken or even collapse.

The partial collapse of the AMOC during the Younger Dryas was one of the most rapid cooling events that occurred during the transition from the late glacial climate to the climate we see today in the Holocene.  

Because the rapid cooling happened during a period of rapid warming, the researchers created a climate model that compares the Younger Dryas cold reversal to a potential future cold reversal even with warming due to climate change.

The climate model showed that the weakened AMOC will cause even warmer European summers and bitterly cold winters.

The model simulations also shed insight into the mechanisms behind the processes causing the weather extremes. The root cause appears to be atmospheric blocking, a process where high-pressure systems are stationary for a period of time ranging from days to weeks.  

With the high-pressure systems stuck in place, Europe is cut off from westerly winds that would promote cooler summers and warmer winters.

“If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning proceeds as observed and projected by most climate models for the future, atmospheric blocking might increase in intensity and/or frequency and could lead to even stronger heat waves than we would expect from the gradual warming trend in response to greenhouse gases,” said Frederik Schenk, the lead author of the study.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Lake Superior both stores and emits carbon dioxide

Research from Utah State University (USU) is providing new insight into the flow of carbon dioxide (CO2) between Lake Superior and the atmosphere. Scientists have discovered that the lake shifts from absorbing and storing CO2 to releasing it into the atmosphere.

Most lakes produce CO2 emissions, but this gas transfer process can be altered by external factors, such as humans or the weather. Research from the late 1990s and early 2000s found that Lake Superior was a net source of CO2 to the atmosphere, as expected. Prior to these studies, however, it was thought that Lake Superior acted more as a natural carbon sink.

Dr. Soren Brothers set out to solve the mystery by using 50 years of monitoring data to analyze levels of dissolved oxygen in Lake Superior. The results of the investigation suggest that, in most years, the lake absorbs CO2 in late May to early October, and then emits CO2 during the colder winter months.

However, Dr. Brothers and his co-author Dr. Paul Sibley also found that a major weather event combined with the effects of climate change could cause Lake Superior to become a temporary source of CO2 to the atmosphere in the summer.

For example, a powerful El Nino event in 1997-1998 resulted in significantly less winter ice cover in Lake Superior, while climate change had warmed the water and reduced cloud cover. As the sky cleared, water clarity also increased – allowing more light into the lake.

Ultimately, these events freed up the carbon pool which was released into the atmosphere as CO2. The experts established that, since the early-to-mid 2000s, the lake has returned to its role as a carbon sink in the warmer summer months.

The research highlights how the shifting dynamics of CO2 in lakes not only contributes to climate change, but is also influenced by it.

The study is published in the journal Limnology & Oceanography.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Wildfires thinning forests, saving billions of gallons of water

Is it possible to have too many trees, especially in recent years where climate change and habitat degradation has and is taking a dangerous toll on the world’s greenery?

The answer is yes, according to scientists from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) who found that California’s dense forests put a major strain on water resources in the area.

Trees and plants soak up water in the ground, and in a process called evapotranspiration they emit water vapor into the atmosphere where it will eventually become precipitation.

The amount of water that trees in the Sierra Nevada forests absorb is substantial, and according to a new study, is problematic when other species rely on precious water systems but won’t have access to the water until it rains or snows.

The new research was published in the journal Ecohydrology and shows that forest thinning from wildfires may be a saving grace for California as evapotranspiration has decreased over the years, saving billions of gallons of water.

Contrary to previous forest management policies, recently fires have been allowed to thin out certain forests in California.

“Forest wildfires are often considered disasters,” said Richard Yuretich, director of the NSF’s CZO program, which funded the research. “But fire is part of healthy forest ecosystems. By thinning out trees, fires can reduce water stress in forests and ease water shortages during droughts. And by reducing the water used by plants, more rainfall flows into rivers and accumulates in groundwater.”

In order to see how much water was saved in recent years due to the new thinning policies, the researchers used data from the CZO and U.S Geological survey satellites.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that between 1990 and 2008, forests that were thinned out saved 3.7 billion gallons of water in the California Kin River Basin and 17 billion gallons in the American River Basin every year.

Overall, in the next 20 years, thinning could increase water flow from the Sierra Nevada by 10 percent. Thinning is also helpful in combating potentially disastrous wildfires.

“The need for forest restoration is being driven largely by the need to lower the risk of high-intensity wildfires and restore forest health,” said Roger Bales, the study co-author. “Downstream users who benefit from the increased water yield are an important potential revenue stream that can help offset some of the costs of restoration.”

Forest restoration, which includes thinning and controlling brush pile up, is a costly process but one that the U.S Forest Service says 58 million acres of national forests need. With this new study, policy makers and forest managers have more incentive to spend on restoration efforts.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: G. Dickman

Dust exposure in southwestern U.S. threatens human health

Experts at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are describing the dangerous health impacts that could be caused by rising airborne dust levels in the southwestern United States.

“Our results indicate that future droughts driven by climate change could pose a potentially substantial public health burden in the U.S. Southwest,” said study first author Pattanun Achakulwisut. “This is a climate penalty that is not yet widely recognized.”

Although there has been extensive research confirming a link between dust particle exposure and cardiovascular and respiratory issues, the risk of rising airborne dust levels has barely been addressed.

“The U.S. Southwest has been seeing some of the fastest population growth in the U.S., and the area is projected to experience severe and persistent droughts in coming decades due to human-caused climate change,” said co-lead author Susan Anenberg.

“We know that droughts are associated with increases in exposure to small dust particles (PM2.5) and minerals. These pollutants can penetrate deeply into the lung and are linked to asthma, respiratory inflammation, and cardiovascular mortality, as well an illness known as Valley Fever that is on the rise in the Southwest.”

The team analyzed airborne dust levels and regional drought conditions over the past sixteen years, and then modeled future changes in dust levels based on various climates scenarios through the end of the century. These projections were used to quantify human health impacts.

According to the study, airborne dust levels could rise by 10 to 30 percent, causing premature deaths to increase by 20 to 130 percent. Furthermore, hospitalizations caused by exposure to fine dust could rise by 60 to 300 percent.

“This research highlights the need to better understand both the potential effects climate change will have on dust levels, as well as the specific health impacts of exposure to fine dust in populated, arid regions that may be vulnerable to climate change,” said co-lead author Loretta Mickley.

“Our results suggest that drought-driven increases in fine dust would pose a substantial public health burden in the U.S. Southwest, especially under the worst-case climate change scenario.”

The research is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Pruitt proposes new rule to limit what research the EPA can use

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has announced a controversial new rule that places heavy restrictions on which scientific research will be used to inform policies. The proposal has raised concerns that decades of environmental studies, which formed the foundation of clean air and water regulations, could be disregarded.

If the legislation is passed, EPA policies will be based only on scientific studies with data that is reproducible and can be made public. This has sparked outrage from scientists who explain that many crucial public health studies cannot be replicated because it would mean exposing people to harmful contaminants.

Furthermore, making all data public would compromise the confidentiality of study participants by releasing sensitive information.

Gina McCarthy is a former EPA administrator who now directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University.

“The best studies follow individuals over time, so that you can control all the factors except for the ones you’re measuring,” McCarthy told the Washington Post. “But it means following people’s personal history, their medical history. And nobody would want somebody to expose all of their private information.”

Earlier this week, 985 scientists aligned with the Union of Concerned Scientists signed a letter to Pruitt, urging him to stop pursuing the new restrictions.

“EPA can only adequately protect our air and water and keep us safe from harmful chemicals if it takes full advantage of the wealth of scientific research that is available to the agency,” the letter states.

Before President Trump put him in charge of the EPA, Scott Pruitt sued the agency 13 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general to block clean air and water policies. Like Trump, the EPA administrator has been very vocal about his doubt for climate science.

While the EPA is describing its proposed rule as a push for transparency, critics are warning that the outcome will be anything but transparent.

The letter composed by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that the real motivation behind the legislation is to make it easier for “political interference in science-based decision making.”

“The result will be policies and practices that will ignore significant risks to the health of every American.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Weather affects our emotions and tone of social media posts

Social media can be a great tool for forging connections, enriching social bonds, and sharing news, thoughts, and opinions. Sometimes we take to social media to vent, especially during a long string of inclement weather.

During a spring blizzard, there is likely to be an uptick of posts about being tired of winter, or during a heat wave, many on social media might pine for cooler temperatures.

Previous research has found that weather impacts people’s emotional states, but now a new study has found that certain thoughts and comments shared on social media may be directly associated with weather patterns.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Vancouver School of Economics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Motivated by past research on weather and emotions, the researchers wanted to establish a pattern between specific weather conditions and positive and negative emotional responses.

If the researchers could find a way to measure and predict these responses using social media data, it could aid in understanding how long-term exposure to different types of weather affects health and well-being.

The researchers collected and analyzed 2.4 billion posts from Facebook and 1.1 billion Tweets from 2009 to 2016. A special tool allowed the researchers to sort the posts based on positive or negative keywords.

Weather definitely had an effect on the sentiments expressed and the results showed that temperature, precipitation, humidity, and cloud cover triggered both positive and negative posts on social media.

Temperatures up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit correlated with positive commentary but as temperatures increased over 86 degrees Fahrenheit, people expressed more negative sentiments.  

High humidity, high cloud cover, and precipitation also had an effect on the emotions expressed on social media.

Social media can be used a proxy for underlying emotional states, and although the analysis methods in the study are not perfect, the results show how measuring social media responses can highlight how weather affects different emotions.

“We find that how we express ourselves is shaped by the weather outside,” said Nick Obradovich, a co-author of the study. “Adverse weather conditions — hot and cold temperatures, precipitation, added humidity, and increased cloud cover — reduce the sentiment of human expressions across billions of social media posts drawn from millions of US residents.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Sunlight can make oil spills more difficult to clean and contain

Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have found that sunlight chemically alters oil floating on the ocean’s surface within hours after an oil spill. A follow-up study by the team revealed that the resulting compounds are not as easily broken up, which significantly limits the effectiveness of dispersants in minimizing the amount of oil that migrates toward coastlines.

“It has been thought that sunlight has a negligible impact on the effectiveness of dispersants,” said lead author Collin Ward. “Our findings show that sunlight is a primary factor controlling how well dispersants perform. And because photochemical changes happen fast, they limit the window of opportunity to apply dispersants effectively.”

Dispersants are designed to help oil, water, and detergents mix, which allows the organic solvents contained in the dispersants to break oil down into droplets that are more manageable. However, the new research has revealed that sunlight disrupts this process.

Light energy from the sun begins to break down chemical bonds in oil compounds immediately after they reach the surface of the ocean. This photo-oxidation process is also known as photochemical weathering.

The scientists demonstrated how sunlight rapidly transforms oil into residues that are not fully soluble in the solvents, preventing the detergents from mixing with the photo-oxidized oil to break it down.

The results of the studies indicate that emergency responders must account for direct sunlight and modify the time frame during which dispersants may be successfully used after an oil spill.

“This study challenges the paradigm that photochemical weathering has a negligible impact on the effectiveness of aerial dispersants applied in response to oil spills,” said Ward. “Sunlight rapidly alters oil into chemical compounds that dispersants can’t easily break up into droplets. So photochemical weathering is a critical factor that should be considered to optimize decisions on when to use dispersants.”

The team obtained and tested samples of Deepwater Horizon oil and found that, the longer the oil floated on the seawater’s surface in the sunlight, the more the oil was photo-oxidized. Within just a matter of days, around half of the oil had been chemically altered.

Next, the photo-oxidized oil was tested to find out how it would respond to dispersants. Ultimately, the researchers found that under average wind and sunlight conditions, the majority of dispersants would not have achieved the minimum effectiveness levels designated by the EPA.

Henrietta Edmonds is a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, who funded the research.

“This study shows how important it is to do the most basic research on chemical reactions that take place in the environment,” said Edmonds. “The results help us learn how to effectively respond to oil spills.”

The research was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Stephen Lehmann, US Coast Guard

Sea-level rise could leave low-lying islands uninhabitable

Sea-level rise as a result of climate change is a rather worrying predicament for a number of reasons. In recent years, scientists have been working hard to determine the consequences of this phenomenon, with mostly depressing findings. Now, a new study published in Science Advances reveals that sea-level rise and wave-driven flooding could devastate freshwater resources integral to the populations on low-lying atoll islands, leaving many islands uninhabitable in just a few decades.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Deltares, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Hawaii at Mānoa studied Roi-Namur Island on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands from 2013 to 2015. This is one of more than 1,100 low-lying islands that make up 29 atolls, and contains a number of island nations that are populated by hundreds of thousands of people.

The researchers used numerous climate-change scenarios to predict the effect of sea-level rise and wave-driven flooding on atoll infrastructure and the availability of freshwater. Since many atolls around the world share a similar morphology and structure, the findings of this study can be applied to many of the atolls across the globe. The highest rates of sea level rise can be found in the tropics, where thousands of these atoll islands are located. While previous studies have projected that these islands will experience minimal inundation impacts until at least the end of the 21st century, the studies did not count for the additional effects of wave-driven overwash or the impact on freshwater availability.

“The tipping point when potable groundwater on the majority of atoll islands will be unavailable is projected to be reached no later than the middle of the 21st century,” says Curt Storlazzi, a USGS geologist and lead author of the study.

This means that within the next 50 years, annual flooding could result in the islands becoming uninhabitable as a result of repeated damage to infrastructure and the lack of drinkable freshwater. For populated atoll islands, the main source of freshwater is rain that soaks into the ground and stays there as a layer of fresh groundwater, floating on top of the denser saltwater.

“The overwash events generally result in salty ocean water seeping into the ground and contaminating the freshwater aquifer,” explains Stephen Gingerich, a USGS hydrologist and co-author of the study. “Rainfall later in the year is not enough to flush out the saltwater and refresh the island’s water supply before the next year’s storms arrive repeating the overwash events.”

If these predictions come to fruition, human habitation in many of these atoll islands could be almost impossible, beginning between the 2030s and 2060s. This could mean a major relocation of the islands’ inhabitants, or the need for significant financial investment into new infrastructure. Either way, the predicted sea-level rise could have a devastating impact on the communities that call these islands home.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Peter Swarzenski, US Geological Survey

Warmer temperatures linked to higher stress levels

We often think of summer as one of the more care-free and relaxing times of the year. The cold drudgery of winter disappears and – unless you’re living too close to the equator – the return of warmth and sunshine can be a welcome reprieve. But despite what we may think, summer can actually be a more stressful time for some people. A new study from Poznan University of Medical Sciences has found that medical students are more likely to have higher levels of circulating stress hormones in the summer than in winter.

The stress hormone specifically referred to in this study is cortisol, which is released into the bloodstream during stressful situations and helps regulate the body’s levels of sugar, salt, and fluids. Cortisol is integral to maintaining our overall health, and helps reduce inflammation throughout the body. Our levels of cortisol are usually highest in the morning, gradually dropping throughout the day in order to maintain healthy sleeping patterns. These levels can be affected by illness, lack of sleep, and some medications. But now researchers have discovered interesting seasonal patterns in the cortisol levels of medical students.

The researchers assessed a group of female medical students on two separate days in the winter and two days in the summer. Participants had saliva samples taken every two hours over a 24-hour cycle during each testing period. These samples were analyzed for levels of cortisol and markers of inflammation. During each testing session, the participants also completed a lifestyle questionnaire regarding their sleep schedule, diet, and physical activity levels.

Past studies looking into the seasonal variability of cortisol have found inconsistent results, but this could be because study subjects were often tested in their own homes rather than in a consistent setting. For the results of this current study, the researchers found that the participants’ cortisol levels tended to be higher on the summer testing dates, and inflammation levels did not change much between seasons. With higher levels of the stress hormone in their bodies during these summer months, it appears that for this group of medical students, summer was actually a period of higher stress.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Ocean plastic pollution carries bacteria harmful to humans

As if the growing volume of plastic polluting the world’s oceans wasn’t enough of a cause for concern, a new study has found that harmful bacteria can quickly grow on plastic bags in the ocean in as little as 40 days.

The study was conducted by researchers from National University in California and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

If plastic surfaces make ideal environments for harmful bacteria to thrive, then the presence of plastics in the ocean could increase the risk of illness in humans as toxins swallowed by fish make their way up the ocean’s food chain.

The researchers were interested to examine how quickly bacteria colonizes plastic found floating in the ocean, and if different plastics had any effect on the types and rate of bacteria growth.

The researchers cut plastic bags into squares, put the plastic pieces in steel cages, and submerged the cages in the sea.

High-density polyethylene bags, the kind often found in stores, and low-density polyethylene plastic bags, as well polypropylene plastic resin were all used in the study.

After three days, the cages were retrieved and the plastics analyzed before being submerged again. The researchers repeated this three more times at different intervals and stopped testing 40 days after the experiment began.

The team analyzed both the plastics and water samples taken near the submerged cages and found colonies of harmful bacteria on the plastic.

There were microbes from the group Francisella which can cause high fevers in humans, as well bacteria from the group Rickettsia which can cause spotted fever. One of the strains of bacteria was even similar to the kinds used in biological terrorism.

The bacteria also grew at a surprisingly speedy rate, according to the study researchers.

“There was potentially disease-causing bacteria… It is scary because we think about plastic being harmful to fish and sea life but we don’t always think about the microbes it attracts and the problems this could cause,” said Anna Maria Barral, the leader of the study, told the Daily Mail.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer