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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any way to counter the epidemic of topsoil erosion that is plaguing farmers here in the U.S. and around the world? -- Mary. R., Sarasota, FL

Topsoil holds a balance of organic matter, air, water and minerals and as such is the layer that facilitates life in the soil. Researchers think we have already lost upwards of a third of the topsoil that once blanketed the fertile American Midwest, and that we are losing exponentially more of it all the time.

Erosion is the vehicle for topsoil loss. The intensive practices of tilling, overgrazing, deforestation, leaving land barren during the off season and monocultural crop development all weaken the soil, making it more vulnerable to erosion.

The sediment from the soil lost flows downslope into waterways and as such is an environmental and public health nuisance. Farmers must then use increasing amounts of synthetic additives to make up for the lower nutrient content of their degraded soils. Without the topsoil layer, more water and more inputs are needed to grow crops.

The solutions to binding topsoil and replenishing what has been lost are straightforward but time intensive, as building a small amount of soil can take decades. However, more carbon is stored in the soil than all Earth plants and atmosphere combined; it’s just a matter of letting resilient ecosystems recover.

Cover crops, such as biennial and perennial legumes, cereals and forage, are inexpensive, supply soil with much needed nitrogen and bind the soil during the offseason. Giving productive land a rest period can help with topsoil loss. Rotational grazing provides time for the pasture to regenerate. Adding organic matter before and during the growing season gives the microorganisms in the soil fuel and nutrients. Planting native prairie, which are perennial plants, builds deep reaching, soil building roots.

If a farm is transitioning its practices to build soil, it takes time, which can be difficult in an industry dependent on production. Carbon building incentives are growing, in both the government and private sectors. Some farms are being creative with their resources, such as planning riparian buffer zones near waterways to hold soil and filter pollutants before they flow into the water. Farmers that are concerned about water usage in drier climates may find the slow work of soil building rewarding in the knowledge that every one percent increase in carbon means 40,000 gallons of water retained on an acre of land. Healthier soil means less water and less fertilizer needed.

The need for transition from monoculture to more perennial crops is essential for the future of food. Annual crops produce one harvest, while perennials provide a harvest year after year. Much like soil building, a perennial harvest can take time. But the long root systems build soil, require less input and water and are more resilient once they reach maturity. Indeed, agricultural researchers are hard at work hybridizing certain perennial crops to give farmers alternatives to planting wheat, corn and other monocultural annuals that degrade instead of building back our precious and fast-fading reserve of topsoil.

CONTACTS: NRDC’S Soil Erosion 101, nrdc.org/stories/soil-erosion-101; URI Reduce Soil Erosion, web.uri.edu/safewater/protecting-water-quality-at-home/sustainable-landscaping/reduce-soil-erosion/.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that you shouldn’t put plastic bottle caps that are less than three inches wide in diameter into the recycling bin? -- Bill S., Grafton, VT

Yes! It is true that you shouldn’t recycle plastic bottle caps that are less than three inches in diameter; in fact, you shouldn't recycle anything that is less than three inches in diameter.

Why is this? During the recycling process, plastics are sorted, baled, washed, ground down, separated from contaminants, melted, filtered and made into pellets. This is a long, complicated process, and the smallest plastics are often easily lost. The end result is an overaccumulation of plastic bottle lids and other small plastic items that were disposed of improperly and unfortunately have nowhere to go.

This overaccumulation is very problematic for animal life; marine life in particular. Hawaii, for example, is detrimentally affected by the global plastics issue. Because of its location in the Pacific, much of the world’s plastic waste ends up on Hawaii’s beaches, making the 50th state an unfortunate but necessary target of scientific inquiry. According to the Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii (BEACH), plastic caps are among the top 10 items found during beach clean-ups. In another study completed by BEACH, it was found that 100 per cent of albatross chicks that call the northwestern Hawaiian Islands home had eaten plastic derived from a number of sources, plastic bottle caps being one of them.

Unfortunately, most plastic bottle caps, regardless of their size, are not easily recycled and may require a specialized facility. According to Earth 911, plastic bottle caps are made from a different kind of plastic called polypropylene (plastic #5) which has a higher melting point (a difference of 160 degrees Fahrenheit!). Because of this, when the plastic recyclables are melted down, the bottlecaps stay intact. This can render an entire batch of recyclables useless, which means it becomes unusable waste again.

Thankfully, specialized recycling facilities circumnavigate this issue by grinding the plastic caps into flakes. These flakes are then melted into pellets, which are formed into new items such as reusable plastic bags or car battery casings.

However, finding these specialized facilities may be a bit tricky, depending on where you live. Most curbside collectors offer a cap-on standard, whereby you as the recycler may recycle plastic caps if they are twisted onto a bottle. However, some do not as they may consider a sealed bottle a safety hazard (due to compression/explosion) while others may simply want to avoid liquids. In some select cases, they may refuse to recycle bottle caps simply because the financial return rate is too low. Whatever the case, it is advised that you determine exactly what options your recycling program offers, as the options do vary.

If you’re having difficulty finding a convenient way to recycle your plastic bottle caps, your best option would be to either save them up and then throw them out at an acceptable facility, or to reuse them. Many plastic caps are actually universal and can be used on all sorts of different plastic bottles. Other more determined recyclers have even gone as far as to make arts and crafts from bottle caps!

CONTACTS: Bottle Caps and the Environment, sustainability.weill.cornell.edu/recycling/bottle-caps-and-environment; How to Recycle Plastic Caps & Lids, earth911.com/recycling-guide/how-to-recycle-plastic-caps-lids/.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the Count Us In campaign all about and how does it differ from other efforts to help us rein in carbon emissions? -- P. Stout, Anchorage, AK

Count Us In is a global movement of people and organizations committed to getting individuals to take active, reasonable steps to lower their own carbon footprints so that the actions of many aggregate into significant change on a large scale. The goal of the non-profit campaign is to get this message out to upwards of a billion people, especially the so-called “non-activist middle” that simultaneously have the most business and political sway but are also actively contributing to carbon pollution.

Individuals can get on board with Count Us In via the organization’s website by engaging in various carbon footprint reduction “steps” that are counted by an online “Aggregator” designed to show how individual efforts add up to significant carbon reductions collectively. Each step has an associated description for an action to be taken, anything from driving an electric car to improving the insulation of your home, as well as a respective carbon reduction value. When you take a “step,” you input the data associated with the action you took, then that step is added to the Aggregator. To date, the Aggregator has recorded over 15 million individual steps, which adds up to a savings of some 174 million kilograms of greenhouse gas.

With over 100 organizations standing behind the movement, including TED Countdown, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Accenture, Global Citizen, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the European Union (EU) Climate Pact, YouTube and SKY Sports, the Count Us In campaign has gained a serious reputation as a worthwhile effort in climate change activism, encouraging its followers to join in the action. According to their official website, the Count Us In campaign utilizes the significant influence that these large organizations have to act as a catalyst for change. As they state in their FAQ, “Your organization or company can help Count Us In become the largest citizen climate action mobilization, by joining as a partner, and promoting Count Us In among your supporters, followers, members, staff and customers.”

Count Us In considers itself different from other climate action movements because organizers encourage participants to actively, rather than passively, engage in carbon reductions with their community. Each participant must take action in the form of a “step,” and then record that step appropriately within the Aggregator. This simple, yet effective step-by-step process pushes people to be aware of not only the action they are taking and the impact they have as an individual, but also the cumulative effect the community’s actions have when added together.

If you’d like to take a “step” with the Count Us In community, their team makes it easy for you by providing 16 of their best steps, chosen specifically because of three criteria: “their impact on your personal carbon pollution, their power to influence leaders and their ability to involve everyone.”

Here are some popular Count Us In steps you can take right now: fly less often, drive electric, insulate your home, wear clothes that last, tell your politicians, walk/cycle more, cut food waste, green your money, repair and reuse, and get some solar! Make sure to enter your progress into the Aggregator so your contributions are counted.

CONTACT: Count Us In,

Dear EarthTalk: What’s new in food packaging to make it more sustainable? E.C., Bern, NC

Along with food waste, food packaging is a significant source of pollution, generating approximately half of the packaging waste in the United States. In the wake of growing concerns about climate change and food product packaging’s role in it, companies are taking action to make packaging more sustainable.

There are many changes in progress. Corn and cane sugar plants are being increasingly used as materials for packaging food. However, this system puts pressure on already-stressed agricultural land and can jeopardize food security, since crops that could be used for food itself are being used for other purposes. One solution is to use agro-food residue, the byproduct of agricultural production—cornstarch, rice husks, etc. that would otherwise be discarded—for food packaging. In this way, packaging can reduce agricultural material waste without threatening agriculture or food resources.

Companies have begun taking the whole life cycle of a product’s packaging, beyond just use and disposal, into consideration. In doing so, they have prompted designs of products made from and transported using sustainable materials, not just ones that can be recycled by customers. For example, Heinz is working with Pulpex to prototype a food-grade bottle made from sustainably-sourced wood pulp that can be recycled and biodegrades if it is thrown away. It has a 90 percent lower carbon footprint than glass and a 30 percent lower footprint than PET, a very common type of plastic in food packaging.

Other examples abound. Alter Eco worked with Natureflex to create truffle wrappers that are made from eucalyptus and birch and then lined with aluminum. The material reportedly composts in industrial settings and biodegrades in the ocean. Boxed Water is Better sells water in recyclable boxes, made of 75 percent paper that is flatten so efficient for shipping, allowing one truck to carry as many boxes to filling centers as 26 trucks carrying plastic bottles. The company also ensures that the paper comes from well-managed forests, that the material is free of BPAs and other chemicals, and that part of the profit is invested in planting trees in deforested and fire-prone areas. Mondelez, which produces snacks like Oreos, and Wheat Thins, Ritz and Belvita crackers, has almost reached its goal of reducing its use of virgin plastic by 25 percent for rigid packaging and by five percent overall by 2025.

Such technologies are creating more effective food packaging that reduce waste, but these solutions face obstacles. Investing in sustainable materials and partnering to develop new ideas, combined with the supply chain and inflation disruptions associated with the pandemic, come with potentially-prohibitive financial costs that have impeded some planned transitions. Also, demonstrating the benefits of these changes has proven to be difficult, and “greenwashing”—marketing that overstates companies’ products’ environmental pluses—has made investors wary. However, the chances of success are significant as growing numbers of customers demand sustainable packaging. For example, 24 percent of young adults have indicated a willingness to pay five percent more for sustainably packaged food.

CONTACTS: “The Next Generation of Sustainable Food Packaging to Preserve Our Environment in a Circular Economy Context,” frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2018.00121/full; "16 Companies Rethinking Packaging," greenbiz.com/article/16-companies-rethinking-packaging; "Mondelez Targets New Plastic Use in Packaging," fooddive.com/news/mondelez-targets-new-plastic-use-in-packaging/596260/.

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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