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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any truth to claims that we need not worry about plastic pollution because nature will evolve microorganisms to break it all down? -- C. Davis, Sacramento, CA

Humans have long aimed to maximize efficiency and convenience in everyday life. Plastic has fueled the growth of today’s post-industrial world: From food preservation and textile production to construction and machinery, plastic has made elements of everyday life more convenient. Consequently, the planet is inundated with plastics like Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Around the world over 70 million tons of PET plastic is manufactured, and only 19 percent of it is recycled. The World Economic Forum estimates that the planet is on track to have as much plastic by weight as fish in the ocean by 2050.

Scientists and environmental advocates alike are focused on addressing global plastic pollution. In 2016 Japanese scientists at the Kyoto Institute of Tokyo took samples outside of a recycling facility in Osaka and made a revolutionary discovery: microorganisms capable of breaking down PET plastic. They use enzymes that allow degradation of plastics into component pieces in only six weeks, compared to the 450 years it takes for plastic to break down on its own. This discovery gave rise to the question of how people can harness and utilize these microorganisms, as the naturally occurring microorganisms broke down plastic at a rate far too slow to be efficient for practical use. In response, scientists created a “super enzyme”—a mutant of the naturally-occurring organisms—capable of speeding the rate of plastic degradation so that 90 percent of a sample can be broken down in 10 hours.

Plastic-eating microorganisms are an amazing example of the resilience and adaptability of our planet. However, they are unlikely to be our saving grace to rid the Earth of the plastic pollution scourge. Current recycling systems are inefficient; most of the plastic we put in recycling bins ends up in landfills. Also, the products that are recycled are unappealing to manufacturers due to their dark, gray coloration. Nonetheless, thanks to these microorganisms, recycled plastic can now rival the quality of virgin plastics.

But even with the help of super enzymes, microorganisms that break down plastics do so far too slowly to keep up with current production levels of plastic production and disposal. Additionally, it is crucial to understand the broad impacts of plastic pollution even as it is broken down. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) associates 78 percent of priority pollutants with plastic pollution. Plastics contain contaminants and harsh chemicals absorbed in the manufacturing process which are released into the environment as they break down. This means that we will see an increase in the effects of chemical leaching impacting marine life by causing respiratory problems, chemical accumulation in fatty tissues, disruption of endocrine function, and death.

The discovery of these microbes may very well be the future of recycling, but we are still years away from adequately scaling up this potential use. In the meantime, addressing the amount of plastic making its way into the environment is still an important global issue; reducing plastic use and disposal is the best tool we have to address the problem at hand.

CONTACTS: What you can do about pollution? epa.gov/trash-free-waters/what-you-can-do-about-trash-pollution; How to reduce your plastic use, epa.gov/trash-free-waters/ten-ways-unpackage-your-life; Plastic eating microbes helping with recycling, science.org/content/article/could-plastic-eating-microbes-take-bite-out-recycling-problem; Are plastic-eating bacteria the solution? edf.org/blog/2018/07/13/are-plastic-eating-bacteria-solution-ocean-pollution-its-not-simple-science-shows; Scientists develop super “mutant enzyme,” ecowatch.com/mutant-enzyme-recycles-plastic-2645686207.html.

Dear EarthTalk: I've recently been really into salads and have been wondering does my consumption of more salads and less meat help fight climate change? -- Penelope Marie, via e-mail

Prioritizing salads is indeed a step forward, as meat and animal products lead to pollution and the production of greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. Methane emissions from cows is a significant source of greenhouse pollution, but livestock agriculture also contributes to global warming in other ways. In fact, the global meat industry would be the third largest polluter if it was a country after the United States and India.

Worse, 58 percent of food emissions come from animal products alone. Another contributing factor is improper storage methods leading to immediate declines in water quality when antibiotics and feces-borne diseases such as e. coli enter waterways. Several containment failures for pig feces in North Carolina in recent years highlight the severity of the problem.

Plant-based diets have the potential for reducing one’s carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is how much each person contributes to climate change through their consumer behaviors, including their support of factory food production.

If you’re one of the 89 percent of Americans who eat meat and other animal products, you’re complicit with factory farming techniques. However, choosing to minimize your meat consumption—by eating salads—can help break this cycle. In fact, a recent study in the journal Food Policy finds that cutting meat consumption in half can reduce a typical American’s carbon footprint by some 30 percent.

Some argue that so-called “ethical consumption” is less significant a factor than institutional action—and therefore individual actors don’t have the capacity to shift global climate problems. But this line of reasoning fails to take into account the importance of citizen and consumer action in shifting societal behaviors. Indeed, consumers can work in tandem with governments and businesses. This could include boycotting meat, advocating for social change or volunteering with or donating to related nonprofit and/or political campaigns. Voting for candidates who take the climate crisis seriously is also an important way individuals can make a difference.

Finally, consider other ideas to reduce your carbon footprint even further. Salads are a great start, but staying mindful of what one puts into a salad is also important. Consider reducing quinoa and almond consumption. Quinoa degrades soil quality. Almonds siphon water away from people and animals, which contributes to drought conditions in California. Focusing on reducing meat consumption as much as possible may also be helpful, including switching to vegetarian proteins such as beans or reducing a reliance on proteins as the centerpiece of a meal.

Even if you’ve already done a great job reducing your carbon footprint in other ways, think about how much more you could be contributing by reducing or eliminating meat from your diet.

CONTACTS: Going vegan: can switching to a plant-based diet really save the planet? theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/apr/25/going-vegan-can-switching-to-a-plant-based-diet-really-save-the-planet; Plant-based diet can fight climate change - UN, bbc.com/news/science-environment-49238749; Extinction Rebellion, extinctionrebellion.uk/; Cows Are the New Coal, time.com/6125014/cows-agricultural-emissions/.

Dear EarthTalk: As millions and millions of electric car batteries start to reach the end of their useful lives, how can we avoid an e-waste apocalypse? -- W. Alexander, San Francisco, CA

Record-breaking electric car sales confirm that the future of electric transport is here. Globally, 10 million lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles are now on the road. The International Energy Agency predicts that number will increase to 300 million by 2030, accounting for over 60 percent of new car sales. But a huge problem looms on the horizon: in less than a decade, nearly two million tons of lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles will be retired each year, and the current recycling infrastructure isn’t ready for them. Most lithium-ion batteries are tossed in landfills, with only five percent recycled worldwide.

Researchers at Newcastle University in the UK warn that this growing stream of spent batteries poses “an enormous threat” to the natural environment and human health. “Degradation of the battery content in some cases may lead to the emergence of chemicals structurally similar to chemical warfare agents.”

Given the risks, upping our capacity for recycling these batteries is imperative not only to avoid possibly catastrophic landfill disposal, but also to reduce the need for harmful mining. More than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, the most expensive element in a lithium-ion battery, is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). One would assume this to be an economic miracle for miners in the DRC, however unrelenting poverty forces even the children to work in the mines instead of attending school.

In addition to pitiful wages, DRC miners face serious health threats and local environmental annihilation. Researchers at the University of Lubumbashi found that residents near the mines, especially children, had higher urinary levels of cobalt, cadmium and uranium. The urinary cobalt concentrations found in this population are the highest ever reported for a general population. Fish in the DRC are also heavily contaminated with high levels of metals, while soil samples are so contaminated that the mining regions of the DRC are considered among the 10 most polluted areas in the world.

Lithium mining has also spurred a backlash across the globe, including in Serbia, Tibet and Chile. And in the U.S., residents near Thacker Pass in Nevada formed a grassroots group to sound off on multiple concerns should a proposed lithium mine begin production there. Concerns include a possible dramatic decrease in air quality due to the tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel that will be burned daily at the proposed mine, releasing the same carbon dioxide emissions as a small city. The mine would also extract more than a billion gallons of water annually from an already over-allocated aquifer in the Quinn River Valley, possibly leaching dangerous substances into groundwater in the process. Further distressing are the adverse impacts to the area’s unique sagebrush steppe terrain, a habitat for over 350 species, including greater sage-grouse, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits and more.

Dramatically increasing recycling capacity for lithium-ion batteries and creating new ways to store electricity safely are crucial to staving off the worst impacts of our newfound reliance on this technology.

CONTACTS: Environmental impacts, pollution sources and pathways of spent lithium-ion batteries, pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2021/xx/d1ee00691f; Protect Thacker Pass, protectthackerpass.org; High human exposure to cobalt and other metals in Katanga, a mining area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19486963/; Human exposure to metals due to consumption of fish from an artificial lake basin close to an active mining area in Katanga, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26953137/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the leading environmental podcasts out there these days?

-- Jane Mitchell, Boise, ID

Given the popularity of podcasts these days, it’s no surprise that several have popped up on environmental topics. Whether you are interested in green tech, environmental justice or climate change, there’s no doubt a podcast (or two) for you. Here is a rundown of some of the leading offerings.

Investigative journalist Amy Westervelt’s podcast company, Critical Frequency, has launched some of the most engaging eco-podcasts out there today. One is Inherited, a reported, narrative podcast by, for and about youth climate activists. Each explores a different facet of what the next generation plans to do with the climate-compromised world it is inheriting. Another great listen from Critical Frequency is Drilled, a narrative, investigative climate accountability podcast reported, hosted and produced by Westervelt herself. The most downloaded climate podcast of all time, Drilled, tackles the fossil fuel industry’s role in spreading climate denial. Lastly, the latest offering from Critical Frequency is Damages, a courtroom drama podcast that follows hundreds of climate lawsuits currently underway around the world in order to highlight activists’ quest for justice in perhaps the largest crime against humanity of all time, human-induced climate change. The first season explores "rights-of-nature" laws, which bring Indigenous approaches to nature into Western judicial systems by giving ecosystems the same rights as individuals.

Sea Change Radio is another great source for long-form audio on green topics. This nationally syndicated radio show and podcast—with an archive of 700 shows spanning the last 16 years—focuses on the shift to environmental and economic sustainability. Veteran host Alex Wise interviews activists, entrepreneurs and policymakers to get the inside scoop on various climate and other initiatives in the U.S. and globally. If you’re fascinated with the science of nature, the weekly Nature Podcast highlights research from a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature. Each weekly edition features interviews with the scientists behind some of the most striking environmental research currently underway, with topics ranging from astronomy to zoology.

Another great podcast for keeping your finger on the pulse of environmental activism is How to Save the Planet, a weekly podcast from leading non-profit Friends of the Earth that features stories from the front lines of the climate movement while explaining complex issues—environmental racism, eco-anxiety, fracking, etc.—in language anyone can understand. Yet another, Sustainababble, infuses coverage of climate and environment with humor thanks to the witty repartee of hosts Oliver Hayes and David Powell as they interview a wide range of experts to untangle confusing environmental concepts and highlight the greenwashing that pervades so much of the information sphere.

For those listeners with shorter attention spans, the Climate Connections Podcast might be just the ticket. This daily 90-second audio drop hosted by Anthony Leiserowitz, a human geographer at Yale University who studies public perceptions of climate change, details how the climate crisis is already shaping our lives and what we can do about it. The show aims to highlight positive solutions to reduce climate-related risks and wasteful energy practices.
CONTACTS: Inherited, podlink.to/inherited; Drilled, drillednews.com/podcast-2; Damages, audible.com/pd/Damages-Podcast/B09QRFHK9X; Sea Change, cchange.net; How To Save The Planet, friendsoftheearth.uk/about/how-save-planet-friends-earth-podcast; Sustainababble, sustainababble.fish; Climate Connections, yaleclimateconnections.org/the-climate-connections-podcast.

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.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m looking to furnish my new apartment and wondering if you could point me toward some sustainable options? -- B.C., New York, NY

In the U.S., sustainable living has gained momentum in recent years as more and more Americans make conscious efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Reusable shopping bags, greater recycling, and electric cars are major successes when it comes to greening our everyday lives. And a lesser known but no less substantial contributor to environmental damage comes from a source of our comfort: home furnishings.

Economically speaking, Americans spend nearly $120 billion on furniture and bedding per year, and 84 percent buy furnishings new. This increased demand, leading to increased production, means that companies looking to cut costs rely on cheaper, less sustainable materials. This results in to furniture that’s not built to last and therefore ends up on the curb. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nearly nine million tons of furniture enter landfills every year. On top of that, the manufacturing of many of these furnishings consumes considerable amounts of natural resources, and some may contain toxic chemicals that impact both the environment and human health. Fortunately, there are ethical and sustainable options available when it comes to furnishing a home or apartment.

A large number of companies now offer green-friendly products that use sustainable materials and manufacturing methods. Chicago’s What WE Make specializes in furniture using reclaimed wood, custom-made-to-order. Masaya & Co. produces handmade tables, chairs, bed frames, dressers and more using sustainable materials and low-impact methods, and for every product sold, the company plants 100 trees in Nicaragua, where products are manufactured. Alabama Sawyer makes furniture from local tree waste, and Emeco makes chairs from recycled materials and uses 100 percent recyclable shipping and packing materials. Medley makes all types of home furnishings with sustainable materials like bamboo and organic latex, free of toxic chemical finishes. Avocado Green Mattress makes eco-friendly bedding with non-toxic materials and ethically sourced labor practices. Etsy partners with sellers who specialize in items crafted with reclaimed plastic fibers, cotton, linen, wool, and responsibly-sourced woods.

Second-hand furniture offers further options for sustainable furnishings. “The most sustainable products are those that already exist,” says Nicole Sarto of Stanford magazine. Local charity shop items tend to be quality pickings simply in need of washing or a new paint job. IKEA now has a furniture buyback program, giving store credit for second-hand IKEA furniture that they refurbish and resell. Furniture rental is also an option for sustainably furnishings, especially if a person changes residence frequently.

Beyond furniture, the smaller details of a home or apartment can also be sustainably sourced. Water-saving showerheads, eco-friendly lighting, and energy-saving curtains and blinds are all items to consider when furnishing a space. Like any sustainable lifestyle choice, furnishing a home or apartment is about more than choosing a comfortable couch or chic end table. It’s about how the item was made, what it’s made with, and where it’s ultimately going to end up.

CONTACTS: Environmental Impact of Furniture, theworldcounts.com/challenges/consumption/other-products/environmental-impact-of-furniture/story; 9 Ways to Furnish Your Home Sustainably on a Budget, neutrinobursts.com/how-to-furnish-your-home-sustainably/; 12 Ethical & Sustainable Furniture Brands To D-Eco-Rate Your Home, sustainablejungle.com/sustainable-living/ethical-sustainable-furniture/; Is Furniture Rental Worth It To Furnish Your Home? Yes! roomservicebycort.com/about-us/blog/furniture-rental-worth-it.

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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