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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Every day when I pick up my kids at school, all the parents wait in their cars with the engines running. Is all this idling a significant contributor to the atmosphere’s carbon burden or am I being a worry wart over nothing? -- Mary B., Burlington, VT

Idling is indeed a scourge on the environment, given the noxious emissions coming out of our engines. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), a single vehicle dropping off and picking up a kid at school each day adds three pounds of air pollution to the atmosphere per month from idling. The 250 million personal vehicles on the road in the U.S. alone generate about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide every year just by idling. DoE reports that eliminating unnecessary idling by personal vehicles would be equivalent in emissions reductions to taking five million vehicles off the road.

Personal cars are only part of the problem. About half of the six billion gallons of fuel we waste on idling each year in the U.S. comes from commercial vehicles. We’ve all seen those delivery trucks with their engines humming while the driver eats his lunch inside or makes his rounds of deliveries on foot. But this kind of irresponsible behavior is actually against the law in 41 U.S. states (some of these restrictions are in municipalities but not necessarily state-wide). The rules vary by jurisdiction: A few states have outlawed idling altogether with the majority of others limiting it to five minutes before fines kick in.

Environmental activist George Pakenham made news last year by collecting some $9,000 in bounty payments for reporting commercial vehicle idling around New York City as part of a new anti-idling ordinance (successful tattlers get 25 percent of the fines they call in, which range from $300-$2,000).

What’s surprising is how much idling still goes on, given that most modern engines run better—and warm up faster—while in motion. And you won’t cause any measurable wear-and-tear on your car or truck by turning it off and on instead of idling, given the sturdiness of modern-day starters and batteries.

The non-profit Sustainable America launched its #TurnItOff campaign to spread awareness about the need to reduce or eliminate wasteful automotive idling. The group recommends that if you’re pulled out of traffic and going to be waiting for more than 10 seconds, do everyone around you and the environment a favor by turning off your engine. (If you have a hybrid or electric car —or a newer internal combustion car with so-called “stop-start” technology—you’re already part of the solution, as these vehicles shut themselves off when at a complete stop and then come back to life when the driver steps on the gas.)

While preventing automobile idling may be an up-hill battle, the shift to hybrid and electric engines is a step in the right direction. Maybe one day when all the vehicles on the road are zero-emission EVs, idling won’t be an issue anymore. But until then, whether you’re a mom at school pick-up or a delivery driver between drops, be responsible and shut it off while you wait.

CONTACTS: DoE’s Idling Reduction for Personal Vehicles, afdc.energy.gov/files/u/publication/idling_personal_vehicles.pdf; Idling Laws By State, cdllife.com/2014/idling-laws-state/; “Idle Threat” Film, videoproject.com/Idle-Threat.html; #ITurnItOff, iturnitoff.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the environmental impact of these dockless e-scooters I see all over town now? -- Jim M. Salisbury, CT

By now, you’ve certainly seen dockless e-scooters in your town or somewhere nearby. Some 85,000 of these electric-powered, phone-unlockable mini-vehicles crowd the streets and sidewalks of 100 different metro areas across the U.S. In 2018 they surpassed dockless e-bikes as the most common app-rentable transport option nationwide, with riders taking them on some 38.5 million trips.

These e-scooters are often marketed as “green” or “carbon-neutral” because they run off electric batteries instead of fossil fuels, but consumers shouldn’t think they’re getting a completely guilt-free ride. A recent lifecycle analysis from North Carolina State University assessing the “cradle-to-grave” environmental impact of e-scooters found that bicycling, walking and buses are all “greener” ways to get around.

A rider hopping on an e-scooter doesn’t necessarily think about the carbon emissions and other impacts involved with manufacturing, transporting and maintaining these otherwise low-impact electric vehicles. “If you only think about the segment of the life cycle you can see, which would be standing on the e-scooter where there’s no tailpipe, it’s easy to make that assumption,” says Jeremiah Johnson, an NC State professor and study co-author. “But if you take a step back, you can see all the other things that are a bit hidden in the process.”

While relatively light and small, e-scooters must carry a battery in addition to their basic frame and electronic systems. Producing these batteries takes a heavy toll on the environment, although no worse than similar types of batteries used in e-bikes and even electric cars. Besides the batteries, the aluminum used to create the e-scooters’ frames and the rubber for their tires add to their environmental footprint.

The NC State researchers found that about half of an e-scooter’s carbon footprint is created during production, while most of the rest (43 percent) comes from collecting and recharging them every night. In general, e-scooters are charged by freelance workers known as “juicers.” At the end of each day, they take e-scooters off the street and typically charge them up at home via their own power outlets (likely not from renewable sources). Furthermore, the majority of juicers pick up e-scooters in gas-powered cars or trucks. The upshot is that the common charging process is a long way from being carbon neutral.

That said, e-scooters are currently about twice as efficient as the average car in per passenger miles per gallon (in this case CO2 units emitted per passenger carried a distance of one mile). However, a car carrying more than one passenger can reach the same or even better levels of efficiency as an e-scooter. Buses, when fully loaded, easily beat e-scooters in per passenger efficiency, while bicycles easily beat buses.

Of course, e-scooters are sure to become more efficient in the future as both the production and pick-up processes get greener. As a consumer, you can improve the situation by using e-scooters to replace car trips, but bikes or buses are still a better choice as far as the planet is concerned.

CONTACT: “Are E-Scooters Polluters? The Environmental Impacts of Shared Dockless Electric Scooters,” iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab2da8

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that fungi can help clean up contaminated soils? – M. Sharpe, Canton, CT

Like animals, fungi derive energy by breaking down large molecules into smaller compounds. They do so by secreting enzymes and acids onto whatever it is they intend to consume, and then absorbing the byproducts of this digestion process. While fungi primarily consume biological matter (like dead wood), their enzymes can also break down a wide array of man-made compounds. In fact, fungi are so good at this, we’re now employing them to clean up contaminated soils via a technique known as mycoremediation.

Of course, these fungi are just doing what they evolved to do eons ago. Underneath our feet, massive fungal networks run through the soil, with many fungal species developing a symbiotic relationship with plants whereby a part of the fungus (the mycelium) grows adjacent to—and sometimes inside of—the roots of the plant. The mycelium is capable of breaking down and transporting nutrients and minerals essential for the plant’s survival. After detecting and digesting these compounds, the mycelium ferries them to the plant’s roots, where they’re absorbed. In exchange, the plant releases compounds that are vital for the fungi’s survival.

It’s the fungi’s ability to break down and/or transport compounds that make them useful for restoring damaged soils. Often, these soils have been saturated with compounds made up of dangerous—and relatively large—molecules. By breaking these molecules into smaller pieces, fungi help to reduce their toxicity. In other instances, soils are contaminated with fundamental elements such as cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, which can’t be broken down. However, fungi still have the ability to uptake and transport these substances, and to eventually concentrate them in their fruiting bodies (mushrooms). We can then remove the fruiting bodies, and the contaminated ecosystem will be one step closer to regaining health.

Fungi can break down and/or absorb a wide range of compounds, including oil and other petroleum products, PAHs, PCBs, PCPs, neurotoxins, airborne pollutants, synthetic dyes, cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, copper, dioxins and organophosphates.

If fungi are so effective at cleaning up our environment, why isn’t this technique more widespread? For starters, it’s a slow process. As with any biological strategy for environmental clean-up, mycoremediation is limited by the speed of metabolism. If a polluted area needs to be cleaned quickly, other options may be better. Another issue with mycoremediation is that it often fails to completely rid soil of a given toxic compound, instead simply reducing the concentration. It can also be hard to justify economically, as no one wants to eat a mushroom full of heavy metals.

However, the biggest reason for mycoremediation’s relative lack of fame and use might simply be a lack of data from field tests. It’s a relatively new technique, without many case studies to support its use (despite a good amount of lab testing). Thankfully, this situation is changing. In 2017, for example, a large batch of oyster mushrooms was used to remediate soil damaged by California wildfires. The same variety of fungus has also been used to clean up oil spills and other toxic messes.

CONTACTS: Fantastic Fungi Film, fantasticfungi.com; “Mushroom as a product and their role in mycoremediation,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4052754/; “Untapped potential: exploiting fungi in bioremediation of hazardous chemicals,” nature.com/articles/nrmicro2519.

Dear EarthTalk: Is switching out meat for edible bugs to satisfy our protein needs a viable way to ratchet down our carbon emissions and overall environmental impact? -- J. Cruz., Gary, IN

It’s true that humans’ affinity for meat—especially beef, lamb, pork and to a lesser extent chicken—takes a huge toll on the environment given the resources and emissions expended to rear and then transport it to market. In fact, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that raising livestock accounts for some 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. Meanwhile, on the consumption side, cutting meat out of our diets is perhaps the most efficient way we can slash our personal carbon footprints. But eating only vegetables can make it hard to get enough protein, and that’s where bugs—with half or more of their body weight consisting of proteins—could play an important role in providing us with enough sustenance to feed ourselves, especially as our population surges to nine billion by 2050.

Proponents of eating bugs argue that emissions from so-called “insect farming”—that is, growing bugs for the express purpose of feeding humans and/or animals with them—is a much more energy- and emissions-efficient way to produce protein than traditional forms of livestock agriculture. “If we bartered beef, pork or chicken for a handful of insects, the environmental impact of our animal-protein intake would drop dramatically,” says Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. “Insects are especially effective at converting their food because they’re cold-blooded and therefore waste less energy to keep warm.”

If you’re curious about edible insects, why not try some? Lewiston, Maine-based EdibleInsects.com ships edible insects coast to coast. UK-based PureGym is a big proponent of deriving dietary protein from insects, and offers several seemingly tasty recipes on its website and YouTube channel. Creamy Mealworm and Coconut Noodles, anyone?

Of course, just because crickets, ants, cockroaches and worms are becoming more common as food delicacies doesn’t mean that eating them is new for humans. The FAO points out in its “Edible Insects” report that while bugs have always been part of human diets, recent innovations in so-called “mass-rearing systems” mean we can produce a lot more insect-based protein than we used to: “Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries.”

Suzuki couldn’t agree more: “Emerging entotechnologies (from the Greek root entomo, for ‘insect’) bring together applications that focus on what insects do best.” For instance, food waste or agricultural residue is fed to fly larvae, which in turn is used as a meat-free but protein-rich livestock feed. “[L]arvae have voracious appetites for fruit and vegetable residues and could help improve the way we handle...organic waste,” reports Suzuki. “It’s a way to give a second life to stale food, rather than sending it to compost bins or biogas plants.”

“Considering that nearly 45 percent of fruit and vegetables produced worldwide is wasted, this is not a fringe idea,” says Suzuki. “After feeding the hungry with the highest quality unsold portions of our food, we could feed our breeding animals with insects raised on organic residues from grocery stores and restaurant kitchens.”

CONTACTS: David Suzuki’s “Save The Planet: Eat An Insect,” davidsuzuki.org/story/save-planet-eat-insect/; FAO’s “Edible Insects,” fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf; PureGym, puregym.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.



 


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