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  • An Environmental Marvel in Education: Discovery Elementary School

    Students Attend Classes in a Net-Zero Energy Building with a Hydroponics Unit Discovery Elementary School is a public K-5 school in Arlington, VA, named for astronaut and Sen. John Glenn, who once lived near the park where the school now stands. Opened in 2015, Discovery was the largest net-zero energy elementary school ever built in the United States and the first net-zero energy school of any kind in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The 97,588-square-foot school, which has around 700 students, is a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School and a National Wildlife Federation Eco-Schools USA Green Flag School. Recently, The Earth & I conducted an interview with Discovery Principal Dr. Erin Healy. E&I: Dr. Healy, you were hired as the principal one year before the opening of the Discovery Elementary School. Could you please tell us what steps you took to prepare the teachers, staff, and PTA to create a green sustainability-centered school. Dr. Healy: When we first opened, we had to build community. We were pulling students from three overcrowded elementary schools …  We had to come together and decide: “What do we want Discovery to be?” We screened a movie about some outdoor school in Europe (School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten.) They have kids go outside—in the sunshine, rain, and snow—from ages two to seven. Every day, they're just outside. They're using knives, building fires, and doing all of the things that American schools are not doing. Those kids don't come inside and learn letters and how to read and write until age seven. And we're kind of forcing it on our students at age five. And it all meters out, right? It inspired the parents to think outside the box and know that active, outside play is important. We also screened another movie that was about all the plastics in the ocean. The marine biologists who created that documentary were able to interact with our students, and our students were able to ask them questions. Again, any normal elementary school might not watch a movie about plastics in the ocean, but because this is central to what we do—it becomes part of our community. E&I: Yes, education should prepare students to solve these critical problems. If they know about such issues, they can think about solutions. Dr. Healy: Yes. Our students also do research projects. Second graders, for example, are located in the “ocean” wing of our school, so everything that they see is about the ocean. When the teachers said, “Let's do a research project. What do we want to educate people about?” They decided they wanted students to learn about the importance of rainwater. So, on the caps of the public rainwater sewer system [in the school’s driveway and parking areas], they drew animals, like fish and frogs, with a paint that only shows up when it rains. When it rains, the paint shows up and you can see a frog or a fish. They were just raising awareness about the rain, what the water does, and who it affects. E&I: You mentioned the fifth-grade research project and how they created a trap for the sewers? Dr. Healy: Yes. We did a “design thinking challenge” and had every grade level do something related to the hallway that they were in. Fifth grade is in the “galaxy” hallway, so it's all about energy, but they were struggling to figure out what they should do and they came up with an idea not related to energy. They were concerned about the amount of trash that was in the school parents’ car loop and falling into the local water system because there's a huge gap where all the rainwater flows. They said we should put a net or something there to stop that, and so they designed it, built it, and set it up. It was wonderful. Then they graduated, and we were like, “Okay, goodbye fifth graders.” Four days or so later, summer school started. And then this happened on the first day of summer school: We in Arlington, Virginia, had never seen the amount of rain that fell. The first forty-five minutes were crazy. It was an absolute deluge. Well, the turf field that has the crumb rubber covering, it all lifted, came down the hill into that school parking loop, and was about to be swept away into the local sewer, but the net was there that the kids had built, and it stopped all that crumb. After the sun came out, the crumb dried up, and there was a layer of it several inches deep. The Arlington County public service system came out and was able to vacuum it up and put it back in the field. It never got into the sewer system. I was thinking, “I need to go find those fifth graders and thank them each individually” because all of it could have just polluted our sewer system. But their net system stopped it—it was just spectacular. E&I: What would you recommend to other schools who would like to develop their environmental education? Dr. Healy: I think for another school or school system to replicate this, it's really important that people have time together to plan. None of this happens without planning, but it’s all extra for our teachers on their own time—like what the art teacher and the advanced academic teacher do … running the eco-action team. There's no time in the day for them to formally plan for that, so they're doing it on their own time. We’re the only school in the county that's so focused on sustainability. Any time that we use for this is done on our own time. We don't have the time, so we make time. …  I am so grateful for all the people that do it on their own time, but it would be lovely and better for students if it could be planned and purposeful. E&I: By planned and purposeful, do you mean it would be part of the curriculum? Dr. Healy: Yes. As if the county could say, “You have this one day; how much could we actually get done in planning the different types of activities that are already happening for our students?” It's on the backs of teachers who care and love it, and it's their passion. And, if you think about the busy work week, it would be great if there was support in that area. E&I: In your networking with other schools do you see the same issues? Dr. Healy: Yes, I do. I am in communication with the principal of a school in Fairfax. They have a lovely garden system and all sorts of things, but they also struggle with finding the time for their teachers to prepare for the activities, for the students, and for outside learning—it's just hard. E&I: So, in a sense, education is backward. It has not caught up with today's needs. On another topic, are there different things in the kitchen that can save energy? Dr. Healy: Yes. Our kitchen doesn't have a deep fat fryer, which most elementary schools have. It's all electric and modular, so that every piece in the kitchen can be taken out if it doesn't work and a new element put in. I think that was new when they were building this school. One other thing I'll say is that we can feed the students with everything that we grow and produce, which is awesome. I don't know if all schools do that. “We can feed the students with everything that we grow and produce, which is awesome.” E&I: You harvest enough to be able to use it in the kitchen? Dr. Healy: We harvest enough lettuce, if you can believe it, for use in the kitchen. We also donate extra [lettuce] to the local food bank because we have so much. When the hydroponics unit is full, it overflows with lettuce. There's just so much there, and the second graders get to harvest it, which they love, and we serve it to the staff and students. And while talking about donating, every student is required to take a piece of fruit and a carton of milk at lunch. But many don’t consume them. So, we collect them and put them in a special refrigerator to be given to the food bank as well. Last year, we donated 600 pounds of food to local food banks. E&I: The school was built as a green school, but it was still within the budget, right? Dr. Healy: Yes, one of the main reasons that the county board gave VMDO Architects the bid to build the school was because they said that they could come in under budget and make the building sustainable. The architects said they could do it, and they did it. It was a win-win situation. “[W]e produce so much extra energy that the school is able to offset the cost of other schools’ electric bills. E&I: Where is your energy stored and how much does it cost to store it? Dr. Healy: We don't have the exact information right now, but from what I heard from the county energy manager, we produce so much extra energy that the school is able to offset the cost of other schools’ electric bills. [As part of Discovery’s eco-friendly elements, the school has 1,706 rooftop photovoltaic (PV) solar panels generating 496 kW of power.] Kathy Lin, who's the Arlington County Energy Manager, actually advocated at the state level to change a law to allow us to offset our energy. … [S]he advocated and helped pass a bill so that now we can offset the [electricity] cost for other schools. E&I: Another issue is character education. You said a lot about collaboration. Dr. Healy: Collaboration is the backbone of the school. If you don't believe in collaboration, don't come here. Every staff member knows that. Regarding character education, we follow something called "The Responsive Classroom." We send our teachers to a four-day training for level one and another four days for level two. It's about whole-school character education. Every classroom in Discovery starts with a morning meeting, with four components: the greeting, the sharing, the group activity, and the morning message. It’s about logical consequences, redirecting language, and it clarifies a lot of the expectations we have for students. Together, we talk about CARES. That's cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. We're teaching all those things daily in morning meetings and in “closing circles.” E&I: One of our recent articles for the Earth & I was on Green School Bali. A couple times a day they ring a gong and have a minute or so of “mindfulness” or meditation. Dr. Healy: It's so funny that you bring that up because I was hired a year before the school was opened. I was sitting in an office, and I was thinking, “How am I going to make this a sustainable school? How am I going to do this?” I did research, and Green School Bali came up. I couldn't believe how cool it was, and I reached out to them and was in communication with their "sustainability director." I asked, "Hey, I'm in Virginia, we're opening a new school, and I've never done this before. I've never been a principal. How do we make it sustainable?" And we talked. The PTA for our building actually formed before I was hired. … It turned out that the PTA president was a roommate in college with someone who worked at Green School Bali! I thought this is kismet, this is fate, because I reached out to them just from my research indicating they're a great school. I had no idea what I was doing, and then she was telling me this—all these connections, that's what it takes. It takes learning from others, learning how to do this. I joke with my staff all the time. “We need to take a trip there. We need to do a vacation to Bali, Indonesia, because it's work related.” E&I: Thank you very much. For The Earth & I, Marion Warin Miller spoke with Dr. Healy. She is a French bilingual researcher, writer, and editor now residing in Northern Virginia.

  • Cherished Seabirds Threatened by Climate Change

    By Mal Cole* To imagine the coastline without the calls of seabirds ringing out above the waves as they search for prey and protect their young would be to imagine a true climate disaster. Though this extinction scenario seems far-fetched, seabirds face more threats than any other group of birds. Dangers include competition from invasive species, commercial fishing, and especially climate change because they rely both on delicate coastal habitat (for breeding) and the open ocean (for food). Changes in either habitat can threaten their survival. Many seabird species also rely on arctic habitats, which are some of the most threatened by climate change. Some birds have long migrations that can be made more difficult by unpredictable weather events. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) now lists 31% of seabirds as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Several seabird species—including kittiwakes, petrels, puffins, and terns—face particular threats from climate change. Kittiwakes The black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), known in the United Kingdom simply as "kittiwakes," are a species of gull reminiscent of the more common ring-billed gull, except it is smaller, with a large head in proportion to its body and black legs and feet.  Its name comes from its characteristic call that sounds like “kitti-weeeik.” Kittiwakes use several cliffside sites in the UK, such as the Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, as their breeding grounds. They typically rear one to three fluffy, grey chicks each year. Since a 2018 assessment by BirdLife, the kittiwake has been listed as “vulnerable to extinction” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which was a stark change from their 2016 assessment that placed them at “least concern.” According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RBSP), overfishing and changes in ocean temperatures have eroded the populations of sand eels, which form a large part of these nesting birds’ diets. Kittiwakes also face threats to their breeding grounds. In February 2024, the kittiwakes suffered a crushing blow to their habitat when a cliff face holding 383 kittiwake nests fell into the sea in Sussex, England. The Sussex Ornithological Society had already observed a decline in kittiwake nests on the cliff face, with numbers at their lowest since 2011. This cliff face was the only known nesting site for the kittiwakes in Sussex, and it’s unclear if they will be able to adapt and return to the area. Petrels The decline of the kittiwake population is part of a larger trend in the population decline of seabirds. A long-term study that followed Wilson’s Storm Petrels in Antarctica showed a massive 90% decline in population over a forty-year period for two colonies. Like the kittiwakes, petrels are pelagic seabirds and spend most of their lives in the open ocean. They only return to land for breeding and rely on specific nesting sites for nesting.  Petrels are also facing loss of food due to warming oceans. The melting of sea ice reduces the number of Antarctic krill that the birds rely on. (To learn more about krill, see the E&I article “Antarctic Krill: An Ecosystem Powerhouse Caught Between Humans and Nature.”) Cloudier seas may also make it difficult for pelagic seabirds to find food. Researchers at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland observed Manx shearwaters, a seabird in the petrel family with gray color and white bellies, to understand how the cloudy ocean waters affected hunting conditions. The UCC researchers found that when sunlight penetrated the water, the shearwaters were able to dive deeper and collect more prey. The study suggests that as the oceans get cloudier due to climate change, it will be more difficult for pelagic seabirds to find food. Puffins In 2016 and 2017, researchers estimated that thousands of birds, many of them tufted puffins, died of starvation in the Bering Sea. The research team suggested that warming seas impacted the availability of the birds’ traditional food sources in the molting season, a stressful season during which the birds need extra energy and lose some of their ability to fly and dive. The puffins, which are colorful seabirds with upright penguin-like postures, were not able to find enough fish to sustain themselves, and the bodies of emaciated puffins washed up on the northwestern coast of North America, including St. Paul’s Island in Alaska. More recently, the tufted puffin’s cousin, the Atlantic puffin, suffered from the effects of warming seas and heavy rains in the Gulf of Maine. A study noted that the sea surface in the gulf was warming 99% faster than the global ocean. This has led to changes in available fish for the puffins to feed their chicks. This, plus heavy rainfalls, contributed to a disastrous 2021 for the puffin population—90% of the nesting puffins on the Island of Petit Manan, a ten-acre island refuge for nesting seabirds, failed to raise chicks to adulthood. Fortunately, by 2023, these puffins saw a second year of population rebound, Popular Science reported. Terns Even subtle changes in weather and climate can have negative impacts on seabirds with long migratory routes. Arctic terns fly to both the North Pole and South Pole, the longest migration of any animal at 100,000 kilometers (over 62,100 miles). Terns rely on wind support to help with their migration, but changes in windspeeds due to climate change could negatively impact their journey. A 2023 study found that climate change could affect prevailing winds along the terns’ migration route, which may require them to change course. Due to the length of the journey, even minor wind pattern changes can have negative impacts for these long-distance avian athletes. In addition to changes in weather, disappearing sea ice may influence the arctic tern’s breeding and foraging grounds. The terns rely on Antarctic sea ice for raising their chicks, and the loss of sea ice has likely led to devastating effects on other arctic seabirds such as the Ivory gull, which has lost 70% of its Canadian population since 1980. “[C]ontaminants and illegal harvesting in Greenland during migration” are likely contributing factors. Beacuse of their sensitivity to the effects of climate change, seabirds can indicate the general health and well-being of the ecosystems they inhabit. For that reason, it’s important to protect seabirds, not just for their own sake but for the sake of marine ecosystems. A 2019 study found that 380 million seabirds would benefit if the top three threats to seabirds could be controlled: the proliferation of invasive species, bycatch (unintentional trapping as a result of commercial fishing), and climate change. Countering these threats is an intimidating, long-term task, but researchers are also working to save several individual seabird species. In 2023, conservationists made an international effort to create a new colony of threatened black-footed albatrosses on the Mexican island of Guadalupe. And Audubon’s Seabird Institute is working to restore seabird populations worldwide, including seven in the Gulf of Maine. There is hope for seabirds as long as commitment to their conservation continues. *Mal Cole is a freelance science and nature writer based in Massachusetts.

  • ‘Barefoot Architect’ Brings Sustainable Housing to Pakistan’s Poor

    Over One Million Homes Were Lost After Catastrophic Flooding *By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe Designing safe, sustainable dwellings for those without means or access is beginning to have its day. One determined Pakistani architect is at the forefront of this response. The 'Barefoot Architect' After a storied career as a pioneering Pakistani architect, Yasmeen Lari pivoted away from designing glitzy modern architecture—with its high carbon footprint and other drawbacks—to address the plight of Pakistan’s disaster-plagued poor. Lari has turned her focus to designing environmentally friendly disaster-relief dwellings for a populace that faces periodic earthquakes and flooding. Known today as the “barefoot architect” for the “poorest of the poor,” Lari repurposed her professional career—she calls her former self a “starchitect”—and set up Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA), which, according to Dezeen magazine, works to “uplift impoverished communities without impacting the planet.” Descended from a compassionate, public-minded father who sheltered Muslim refugees at the time of Partition, Lari has long been committed to the preservation of her heritage, having set up the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in 1980 with her historian husband. With the same determination that led young Lari to study architecture and succeed as the first woman to register as an architect in Pakistan, Lari’s foundation set about preserving historically important architectural treasures, such as those of the once-prosperous Sethi family in Peshawar, among many others. The foundation’s urgent work to address disaster relief housing for the poor followed later—with a particular concern for women and children whose lives in Pakistan have traditionally revolved around the home. Empowering people to create their own safe, affordable, nature-based housing and communal structures—carrying “the sweat and pride” of the community—eventually became more important to Lari than designing prestigious commercial structures. Since her career pivot, considerable attention has been paid to her work. In 2023, at the age of 82, she was awarded the Royal Gold Medal, considered one of the world’s most prestigious architectural accolades. Sustainability In Service to Women and Children Yasmeen Lari’s designs prioritize using locally sourced, renewable materials and incorporating traditional techniques and vernacular architectural styles. In an interview with BBC Urdu in 2020, she described her design motto as “low-to-no cost, zero carbon, and zero waste.” (See video) Her approach is highly regarded by architects, environmentalists, and humanitarian organizations. With many women and children in Pakistan spending much of their lives near the home, designing disaster-resistant homes with natural, nontoxic materials is a necessity. Disaster mortality rates are generally higher for women and children. [See The Earth & I, April, 2021]. Feminist architect Nourhan Bassam, founder of the think-tank GamingX, spoke with The Earth & I about the importance of Lari’s work in addressing this need. “By acknowledging the distinct impact of these disasters on women, we understand that ‘disasters are a feminist issue’,” Bassam said. “Through her foundation, Lari has not only influenced architectural practice but also inspired a broader conversation on intersectionality and cross-cutting topics of sustainability, feminism, and disaster resilience in the field of architecture,” said Bassam. Strong Collaboration Required Providing adequate safe housing for a population as large as Pakistan’s is not easy. “Designing disaster-resistant, affordable housing from local and sustainable materials is a complex process that requires a holistic approach,” Maulik Patel, managing partner at UniquesCadd, an architecture firm focusing on disaster-resilient architecture, told The Earth & I. Various stakeholders need to be involved. “Addressing these challenges requires interdisciplinary collaboration, community engagement, and innovative approaches to design and construction,” Patel added. Dezeen reported that from 2012 to 2014, [Lari’s] foundation provided 40,000 new shelters that housed about 300,000 people following severe flooding in Sindh Province. Lari’s track record suggests that her foundation is uniquely qualified to help address the disaster housing challenges of Pakistan’s poorest populations. Dezeen reported that from 2012 to 2014, her foundation provided 40,000 new shelters that housed about 300,000 people following severe flooding in Sindh Province. Addressing Pakistan’s Floods Lari’s foundation was severely tested when heavy rains led to catastrophic floods in Pakistan in 2022. A third of the country was submerged and 33 million people were forced from their homes or otherwise impacted. (See video here). According to UNICEF, half of those affected were children. A total of 1.4 million homes were destroyed in what the World Economic Forum (WEF) described as a “climate-fuelled catastrophe” that claimed at least 1,700 lives. In the aftermath of the devastating floods, Yasmeen Lari and the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan launched a plan to build a million flood-resistant homes throughout the country by 2024. The initiative also aims to ensure that every affected household has essential resources. While Lari’s plan addresses the urgent need to focus on disaster relief, it also emphasizes the need for disaster preparedness—such as safety shelters for communities. Video on shelter assembly. ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan The shelter project draws heavily on Lari’s expertise and experience working closely with local communities and utilizing indigenous, renewable materials—such as lime, mud, and bamboo—to create durable, yet easily replaceable structures. In a 2023 interview with RIBAJ, Lari said the know-how to complete one of her shelters was already freely available through a YouTube channel that had over 5,000 subscribers at the time. Through the channel, anyone can learn to build one of the foundation’s houses via detailed step-by-step instructions. Lari envisions positioning shelters on elevated roads that normally are not submerged during flooding. These structures can be relocated to permanent foundations for long-term use. Durable, sustainable, personalized—Heritage Foundation shelters. ©2024 Heritage Foundation of Pakistan Lari said it is possible to construct 25 shelters a day wherever the foundation has people “on the ground.” In the RIBAJ interview, Lari said it is possible to construct 25 shelters a day wherever the foundation has people “on the ground” to facilitate skill-sharing among villages. The WEF reported that about 1,000 homes had been completed in heavily stricken Sindh province as of September 2023. In addition to providing basic shelter, Lari also aims to provide water, toilets, and Lari’s “eco-alternative” Pakistan Chulah Cookstoves, which are self-built from local mud and CO2-absorbing lime plaster. The stoves, which are fueled by agricultural waste, cut wood use by 50% to 70%, Lari told Dezeen magazine. The result was a healthier cooking environment compared with the traditional Pakistani wood-burning chulah. According to Dezeen, the health benefits of replacing open fires with Lari’s cookstoves include reduced air pollution, skin burns, and likely lowered rates of respiratory or heart diseases. The reduced need for firewood also impacts deforestation rates and time spent searching for firewood. Resting on a solid raised platform, they are also less likely to be swept away during a flood. Traditional indoor (left) and outdoor (right) wood-burning chulah cookstoves. Progress and Frustration The WEF reported that Lari’s foundation had, as of November 2023, helped 2022 flood victims build approximately 4,500 homes with the goal of doing so for “at least 350,000 households.” According to the WEF report, Lari has been frustrated by the UN’s humanitarian system “and institutions like the World Bank” for handing out aid “without building the capacity of the people,” and for constructing concrete structures in Pakistan following disasters. The WEF report included responses from a World Bank representative and the Sindh People’s Housing Foundation (SPHF), set up by the Sindh government to address the province’s flood disaster housing needs. Mariam Altaf of the World Bank of Pakistan told WEF the bank preferred permanent “brick and mortar” houses, which she said “are more resilient housing options than mud-based ones.” The SPHF told WEF they were aware of Lari’s work, but preferred “burnt brick and cement” structures over mud-based, which they said had been the majority of those washed away during prior flooding. *Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past 10 years, Natasha has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives. Natasha has also been interviewed as an insight provider for research institutes and conferences. Editorial notes Sources: Interview with Nourhan Bassam, architect, feminist urbanist and founder of GamingX, a think-tank focusing on community development and empowerment. Interview with Maulik Patel, managing partner at UniquesCadd.

  • State of the Science on Plastic Chemicals 2024

    New Report Tracks Plastic Chemicals and Their Potential Hazards The PlastChem project, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, is a collaboration of researchers from Norwegian and Swiss institutions. Project objectives include compiling data on all known plastic chemicals, linking plastic chemicals to polymers of concern, and providing scientific evidence to guide policy development. In March 2024, researchers released the first version of their State of the Science on Plastic Chemicals report. Over 9 billion tons of plastic chemicals are produced per year. More than 25% of plastic chemicals lack basic information on their chemical identity. The report found 16,325 plastic chemicals with a chemical abstract service registry number (CASRN). Of these, 11,950 (73%) are organic chemicals, 3,449 (21%) are chemicals without information, and 926 (6%) are inorganic chemicals. Only 47% of all plastic chemicals with CASRNs, or 7,585 chemicals, have data on their functionalities. The five functions associated with the greatest number of plastic chemicals are colorants (3,674), processing aids (3,028), fillers (1,836), intermediates (1,741), and lubricants (1,684). More than 4,219 plastic chemicals are viewed as hazardous because they are persistent, bioaccumulative, mobile, and/or toxic (PBMT). Out of the 16,325 chemicals, 10,726 chemicals (66%) do not have hazard data at this time, and 1,191 chemicals (7%) are considered less hazardous. Some 1,875 chemicals classified as hazardous are still marketed for their use in plastics, which means chemicals of concern can be present in all plastics types. At least 6,300 plastic chemicals have a high exposure potential, including over 1,500 compounds known to be released from plastic materials and products. Over 9,000 plastic chemicals do not have publicly available information on their origins or uses in plastic. Source: Wagner, M., Monclús, L., Arp, H. P. H., Groh, K. J., Løseth, M. E., Muncke, J., Wang, Z., Wolf, R., & Zimmermann, L. (2024). “State of the science on plastic chemicals - Identifying and addressing chemicals and polymers of concern.” Zenodo.

  • UN Seeks Legally Binding Global Plastics Treaty by End of 2024

    Member States Urged to “Begin the End” of Plastics Pollution Whether by consensus or by two-thirds majority vote, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is urging UN member states to sign the first-ever legally binding global treaty to end plastics pollution by the end of 2024. The resolution to develop the treaty (“the instrument”), which will also cover plastics in the marine environment, was introduced at the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), in March 2022. The UN’s International Governmental Committee (INC) was tasked with creating an agreement that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, from production to disposal. Work on the treaty began with the INC-1 session in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in December 2022, followed by INC-2 in Paris (May 29–June 2, 2023) and INC-3 in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2023. The fourth session, INC-4, is scheduled from April 23-29, 2024, in Ottawa, Canada, with a final session, INC-5, scheduled from November 25-December 1, 2024, in Busan, South Korea. The two 2024 INC treaty gatherings follow the November 2023 Conference of the Parties (COP 28) in Dubai, where delegates agreed to transition away from fossil fuels to achieve net zero by 2050. However, since plastics are produced from fossil fuels, some observers speculate that increases in plastics production are “the ‘Plan B’ for the fossil fuel industry.” The UNEP has raised concerns over an International Energy Agency prediction that plastic production will account for almost half of oil demand growth by 2050. UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen told stakeholders at COP 28 that “plastics are not a lifeboat for you as energy systems decarbonize. The world can’t afford the emissions.” Though negotiators are committed to producing a treaty by the end of 2024, finding agreement among member states will not be easy. According to UNEP, an analysis has shown that fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyist participation in the negotiations is on the rise. Some member states have included fossil fuel company lobbyists in their delegations at a time when UNEP is warning that “producers’ responsibilities schemes” are expected to be established to “tackle plastic pollution at its source.” According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), plastic production is predicted to triple by 2060, while recycling rates currently linger below 10%. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the “societal cost” of plastic pollution, emissions, and clean-up may be nearly $3.7 trillion just from plastic produced in 2019 alone. The situation, says UNEP, is “a call to action to everyone—governments, businesses, schools, and communities—to join forces and address one of the most urgent challenges we face.” Sources:

  • U.S. Teams Gear Up to Stop Tasty Red Invader

    Louisiana Red Swamp Crayfish Unwanted in Great Lakes Waters *By Mark Smith Not all alien invaders are found in sci-fi books and movies. Some of them, like the red swamp crayfish, are very real and can be very local. Nature is filled with ecosystems, many of them delicate, where fauna and wildlife have evolved over time to form a balance. And when something disturbs that balance, the effects can be devastating. For instance, when non-native organisms are introduced into an environment, they may cause significant harm to existing wildlife populations, damage infrastructure, and even decimate food chains. Such harmful newly resident organisms are called invasive species. All around the world, conservationists, scientists, farmers, and many others are trying to deal with the impact of invasive species, and debate is raging about how best to handle them. Should they be removed or culled? And, if so, how? Or, is it more feasible to adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy and permit the invasives to integrate into the ecosystem as nature finds a way to establish a "new normal" balance within the ecosystem? Non-native or Invasive Terminology is vital in this debate because not all species introduced into a habitat are invasive. The term “non-native species” refers to organisms that are not originally from a particular area but are introduced accidentally or purposely by human activity, or by natural events. Many non-native species are harmless or even beneficial to their new home. The humble tomato, for example, is non-native to the United States. Many non-native species are harmless or even beneficial to their new home. The humble tomato, for example, is non-native to the United States but grows innocuously in many people’s gardens and makes a delicious addition to many dinner plates. But other non-native species are, as the US National Parks Service defines them, ones that cause “harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health.” “Most non-native species are not harmful and may provide economic benefits,” said Joanne Foreman of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MI DNR), which is currently engaged in programs to control invasive species. “Invasive species cause harm when they out-compete native species by reproducing and spreading rapidly in areas where they have no natural predators and change the balance of the ecosystems we rely on.” Invasive organisms can also impact the food chain. Dr. Douglas Tallamy is Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He says the introduction of certain plants—especially ones that offer little food for insects themselves but crowd out native plants that do—impact native US insect populations to the degree that there are fewer insects and reduced bird populations. “In North America, 96% of our terrestrial birds rear their young on insects,” Dr. Tallamy told The Earth & I. “This is the problem when you reduce that number of insects. By and large, when you flood the environment with a plant from someplace else, it devastates the food web.” A Red Menace One invasive species that has found increasing fame—or infamy depending on one’s point of view—is the red swamp crayfish. The Louisiana crayfish ... has established unwanted populations far from home—throughout Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in the US. Native to the south-central US and northern Mexico, it is known as the Louisiana crayfish. But this edible species has established unwanted populations far from home—throughout Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in the US, including on the southern shores of the Great Lakes in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Red swamp crayfish are large and aggressive compared with many other crayfish species, and are capable of adapting to a broad range of conditions. One 120 mm (4.7 in) long female can carry over 600 eggs. In the US, one reason they have spread so far is because they are the species most used in the food industry and eaten at crawfish boils. They are also popular as aquarium pets and may be released into waterways by aquarium owners who no longer want them. But despite the red swamp crayfishes’ harmless appearance, they can have a devastating impact if released into new environments. According to the Invasive Species Center, the crayfish can cause the accumulation of toxic cyanobacteria by overfeeding on aquatic plants. The cyanobacteria can release toxins and take up more of the water’s oxygen—suffocating other organisms. The crayfish also negatively impact native fish populations by consuming fish eggs, larvae, and aquatic vegetation. Red swamp crayfish also tend to burrow near the water’s edge, decreasing bank and soil stability, which can lead to increased erosion around water infrastructure, bank slumps, and problems with drainage. This has been observed in Europe and Asia, where there have been cases of catastrophic drainage of wetlands and rice paddies. ‘Bad Things Will Happen’ The state of Michigan has been trying to control booming populations of invasive red swamp crayfish for six years. In 2017, the species initially found its first Michigan home in a hotel retention pond. The MI DNR spent three years trapping and removing more than 100,000 of them from the pond without ever reaching eradication. But efforts are continuing with new ways being tested in the hopes of making a significant dent in their numbers. Dr. Brian Roth is Associate Professor at the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. He is working with the MI DNR, US Geological Survey, Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas, Gun Lake Tribe, and Auburn University to determine the best way of eradicating or controlling the species. “The Michigan DNR is really keen on maintaining our native ecosystems,” he told The Earth & I. “We really just don’t want to find out what happens if red swamp [crayfish] become widespread and abundant. Almost all signs point to ‘bad things will happen’.” He said the overall aim of the current strategy was to cull the crayfish and control the populations they cannot eradicate. “We do not want these crayfish here,” he said. “We value our native animals more than invasive ones.” His team’s research is looking at novel ways to mitigate or resolve the problem. “We have tried sound to attract crayfish. It works but is too cumbersome and not cost effective. Carbon dioxide didn’t work and was pretty expensive.” The team even made traps for juvenile crayfish made from modified shower loofahs, but that too was unsuccessful. He said it was too difficult to implement on a large scale. Currently, biological controls using fish and different types of traps are being explored. “We always implement these strategies in a scientific framework that helps us to learn what works and what doesn’t, and we always keep in mind that we want a strategy that is easy to implement and not cost-prohibitive,” said Dr. Roth. The team is currently using a pyrethrin-based chemical that binds quickly to sediment and is non-toxic to mammals and birds but highly toxic to crayfish. The team is currently using a pyrethrin-based chemical that binds quickly to sediment and is non-toxic to mammals and birds but highly toxic to crayfish. “We use this chemical in combination with a bentonite clay product to fill existing crayfish burrows and hopefully trapping crayfish inside. These treatments appear to be the most effective and cost-effective means to reduce crayfish abundances,” he said. A Different Way of Thinking? But there are some observers in the invasive crayfish debate who argue that the crayfish should be allowed to co-exist with native species or be dealt with in ways that are less aggressive. “We need to take a humane, long-term view and learn to co-exist, as some species considered invasive are here to stay,” said Cebuan Bliss, an environmental researcher at Radboud University in the Netherlands. She is one of the contributors to a report on invasive species published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). She pointed to a controversial policy in the Netherlands to use underwater traps to kill animals, like coypu (nutria) and muskrat, that are considered invasive. The traps hold the animal under water until they drown, causing the creature distress and pain. Now, she said, the traps are being phased out in the Netherlands but are still being used in other countries. “Slowly but surely, we're seeing more humane methods of managing these species,” she said. “In the United Kingdom, researchers are experimenting with contraception for squirrels. Non-lethal methods of managing invasive animals also include using sound, scent, or physical deterrents.” While debate is ongoing about the best way to deal with invasive species, there is urgency around the need to get something done. Time will tell if such methods are effective. *Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

  • Bioplastics Market Development Update 2023

    Report Projects Large Increases of Global Bioplastics Production by 2028 European Bioplastics is an association that represents the interests of over 80 member companies mostly in bioplastics, research, and consulting, from Europe, US, and Asia (China, Japan, and Thailand). Bioplastics differ from conventional, petroleum-based plastics in that many bioplastics are biodegradable depending on their method of production and biopolymer. In December 2023, the association released its Bioplastics Market Development Update 2023, which has global bioplastics production projections into 2028. A forecasted 2.182 million tons of bioplastics were produced in 2023, of which 1.136 million tons (52%) were biodegradable and 1.047 million tons (48%) were not. However, the actual amount utilized in 2023 was 1.799 million tons (82%). This is similar to 2022 when 1.507 million tons (83%) out of 1.813 million tons were utilized. Some 43% of bioplastics (about 0.934 million tons) went into rigid packaging (0.356 million tons) and flexible packaging (0.577 million tons) in 2023. Global bioplastics production is projected to rise to 2.670 million tons in 2024, but then jump by about 81% to 4.839 million tons in 2025. This would be due to a more than doubling of biobased/non-biodegradable bioplastics production from 1.095 million tons to 2.241 million tons and about a 65% increase of biodegradable bioplastics production from 1.575 million tons to 2.598 million tons. In 2028, global bioplastics production is projected to rise to 7.432 million tons, about 340% of the 2.182 million tons produced in 2023. In 2023, the types of bioplastics with the highest global production capacities were polylactic acid (PLA) at 31.0% (biodegradable), then polyamides (PAs) at 13.5% and polyethylene (PE) at 12.3% (both biobased/non-biodegradable). By 2028, the types of bioplastics with the highest global production capacities are projected to be PLA at 43.6%, followed by PA at 18.9%, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA, polyesters produced by microorganisms) at 13.5% (biodegradable). Sources:

  • ‘Plastic Free Lunch Day’ Coming to NYC Schools in April 2024

    Children Urged to Reduce Plastic Use in School Cafeterias During the week of April 17–24, 2024, non-profit Cafeteria Culture (CafCu), in partnership with Fund for the City of New York, is raising awareness among school children and the public about the billions of plastic utensils, wrappers, and other packaging items that are discarded annually from school lunch programs across the globe. CafCu’s signature event, Plastic Free Lunch Day (PFLD), takes place the week of Earth Day 2024 in New York City’s 1,700 K-12 public schools but also invites partnerships with schools as far away as Japan. What kind of impact could a program like PFLD have? According to CafCu’s website, “If every school in the US reduces just two pieces of plastic per school lunch each day, we can eliminate 10 billion pieces of plastic per school year.” The non-profit began in 2009 as Styrofoam Out of Schools. It was successful in catalyzing the elimination of Styrofoam lunch trays in every NYC public school and nine other large US school districts. This change alone is estimated to have stopped 4.2 million Styrofoam trays from entering the waste stream per week. This led to the formation of CafCu and its first PFLD event, held in 2022. School children are encouraged to bring reusable utensils from home and buy or bring lunches that don’t require utensils. Students are also asked to avoid plastic plates, condiments in plastic packaging, and any other plastic-packaged item, such as snacks or drinks during the PFLD events. CafCu says the kids in its programs discuss environmental issues, collect and analyze local data, and talk with decision makers about solutions, including ones the students have designed. The organization is also behind the production of the student-led documentary, Microplastic Madness (2019), already screened in at least 45 countries. CafCu invites under-resourced schools to host a free screening of Microplastic Madness (View official documentary trailer here). What’s next for the organization? Having helped to eliminate Styrofoam from all NYC public schools, it expects PFLD to play a major role in the non-profit’s biggest goal yet, to eliminate the remaining single-use plastics from NYC and US public school cafeterias. Sources:

  • Global Initiative to Restore Peatlands Makes Strides in the UK—How These Crucial Carbon Sinks Are Making a Comeback

    By Yasmin Prabhudas* Peatlands are unique ecosystems formed of plant material that has partially decomposed, forming peat when soil becomes saturated with water. Also known as bogs, mire, moors and marshlands, and even featuring in some tropical forests and swamps, peatlands store up to a third of the world’s soil carbon. This is double the amount captured in the whole of the earth’s forest biomass, as they absorb the carbon dioxide that plants use during photosynthesis. The Global Peatlands Initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme, aims to save peatlands to prevent carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere. Its Global Peatlands Assessment outlines how some 50% to 60% of peatlands consist of carbon, more per hectare on average than all other ecosystems. They are the largest carbon stock in the biosphere, globally storing between 450,000 million and 650,000 million tons. A Global Feature Peatlands are estimated to cover about 500 million hectares (1.2 billion acres) in at least 177 out of 193 countries, where conditions, such as the climate, substrate (surface on which organisms grow) and hydrology (how water moves in relation to the land) keep the soil permanently wet. Some 33% of peatlands are in Asia, with 32% in North America, 13% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 12% in Europe, 8% in Africa, and 2% spread between Oceania and Sub-Antarctic Islands. The Katingan Project in Indonesia, for example, protects 149,800 hectares (about 370,000 acres) of peatland in central Kalimantan, home to one of the largest remaining peat swamp forests in the country. Human activity destroys 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) annually, and global estimates show that a total volume of about 2 billion tons of CO2 are emitted every year through degraded peatlands, excluding fires. Human activity destroys 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) annually, and global estimates show that a total volume of about 2 billion tons of CO2 are emitted every year through degraded peatlands, excluding fires. Biodiversity Given their varied wetland systems, peatlands are home to species such as orangutans in Southeast Asia, bonobos and gorillas in Central Africa, and the aquatic warbler in Europe. They also support other species during migrations. Among the members of the Global Peatland Initiative is the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Emma Hinchliffe, director of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, offers a UK perspective: “Peatlands are the UK’s largest semi-natural habitat.[…] We have three broad different types of peatland—we’ve got blanket bog, we’ve got lowland raised bog, and we have fens as well.” Species that are attracted to peatlands are those that depend on their waterlogged nature. “We’ve got this really beautiful diversity of algae that lives within the peatlands, within the film of water that exists around plants,” explains Hinchliffe. “And then you’ve got this whole host of microscopic animals that feed on the algae, [..] all the different species of sphagnum moss. […]. It’s that kind of microscopic landscape that they form and all the roughness and complexity and texture that they create over the surface that gives us, for example, some of our water quality. Roughness helps us slow the flow of water over the surface to help delay flood peaks.” UK peatlands are also teeming with insects, wading birds, reptiles, and mammals. Agriculture The biggest risk to peatlands is drainage. Hinchliffe claims that in post-war UK, “there was this agricultural incentive to improve the land. And part of that improvement was really through large-scale drainage incentives.” The biggest risk to peatlands is drainage. “Once those tunnels are open within the peat, water moves through them, and they keep eroding and that, in itself, leads to habitat loss because a lot of the species are dependent on a wetland environment.” “The drainage doesn’t really tend to repair itself. Once those tunnels are open within the peat, water moves through them, and they keep eroding and that, in itself, leads to habitat loss because a lot of the species are dependent on a wetland environment.” Drainage also puts at risk peatland’s carbon stores. Overgrazing and burning are two other cross-boundary problems related to the use of peatland for agriculture. And peat is widely extracted and added to compost for horticulture. Atmospheric pollution Temperate and boreal peatlands (found in northern regions) and blanket bogs are particularly sensitive to the atmospheric deposition of nutrients from agriculture, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, often deposited through rainfall, which can change the vegetation. Afforestation In the UK, conifer plantations have been planted on expanses of blanket bog. Not only is the land drained, which risks the release of the stored carbon, but there are also implications for biodiversity. Hinchliffe claims: “A lot of the scientific evidence is starting to point towards the benefits of removing forestry and restoring peatlands in terms of carbon balance. “Trees and peatlands are two of our biggest natural climate heroes […] and you shouldn’t really be compromising one for the other by putting trees on peat.” Restoration But it’s not all bad news—peatland restoration is gaining momentum. The IUCN UK Peatland Programme, a networking and partnership-building organization comprised of practitioners and land managers, is among those leading efforts. It carried out an assessment of peatlands through the Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands back in 2011. And the development of a UK strategy has for the first time set a target of restoring 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) by 2040. The main restoration technique involves rewetting the land. “Once you rework the area and that water level stops coming back up in the drainage ditches, everything else starts to respond and repair.” Techniques The main restoration technique involves rewetting the land. Hinchliffe states: “Once you rework the area and that water level stops coming back up in the drainage ditches, everything else starts to respond and repair.” Others involve changing the vegetation, by, for example, planting sphagnum moss. Restoration Projects Black Hill, central England Over the last 150 years, Black Hill has faced atmospheric pollution from nearby industrial towns and cities. Wildfires created expanses of bare black peat. But through a partnership program involving a range of stakeholders, such as the Environment Agency, Natural England and the National Trust, 50 million sphagnum fragments were spread to promote peat building. Langlands Moss Local Nature Reserve, Scotland Work at Langlands Moss Local Nature Reserve had initially focused on protecting and conserving 20 hectares (49 acres) of raised bog, but, in 2018, a feasibility survey found an estimated 298,199.6 cubic meters (about 10.5 million cubic feet) of peat underneath an adjacent forest. As a result, the boundary of the nature reserve was extended, doubling its size. Over 21 hectares (51 acres) of conifer trees were felled, and 21 dams and five “bunds” (low level banks of peat, which slow the loss of water and promote the growth of sphagnum) installed. The project will restore all the peatland to improve the hydrology and expand the natural lagg zone (fen vegetation). Cors Fochno, Wales Cors Fochno is the largest actively growing raised bog in the lowlands of the UK. It has peat up to 26 feet deep but has in the past been drained and subject to peat cutting. The restoration, carried out in partnership with the local community, landowners and contractors, has been ongoing since September 2020 as part of the New LIFE for Welsh Raised Bogs project. It involves removing invasive species and scrub and introducing light grazing, as well as restoring water levels through peat bunds, so wildlife and rare plants can thrive, carbon can be stored, and water purified. More than 8 miles of peat bunds have been created. How People Can Help There are several ways of helping—from raising awareness of this little-known ecosystem to avoiding products containing peat such as certain composts for the garden, or produce grown unsustainably on peat soils, such as dairy goods from the Netherlands. Volunteering is also an option: “There are a lot of communities out there […] where there’s the opportunity to go and volunteer and physically help,” says Hinchliffe. *Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for non-profit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.

  • Taste With No Waste—New York City’s New Haute Cuisine

    How NYC Restauranteurs and Chefs Are Turning the Tables on Food and Plastic Waste *By Jerry Chesnut A decade ago, New York City was eager to do its part to help the environment by using its new regulations to reduce food and plastic waste generated by the city’s thousands of restaurants. Then COVID-19 struck and eating out came to a halt. Virtually all restaurants closed, many temporarily and many forever. Takeout—or dining at home—became the norm. And all this in a city that experiences an 80% fail rate for newly opened eateries even in good times. Today, things have turned around, not only for the NYC restaurant industry, but also for the city’s conscientious diners, chefs, and restaurant owners who care about reducing restaurant waste. Dining out is thriving again, and the city has unveiled plans to renew enforcement of older waste regulations while also introducing new (2023) regulations to curb plastic use in takeout food orders. For instance, plastic straws and beverage stirrers are now available to restaurant patrons but only upon request. Plastic carryout bags are still allowed, but restaurants that once bagged and piled up their trash overnight for sidewalk pickup must now use rat-resistant containers. Meanwhile, diners who support efforts to curb both food and plastic waste are starting to frequent a small-but-growing number of “zero waste” establishments that claim to generate no food or plastic waste whatsoever. Recovery Means More Trash For some, these welcome changes could not have come too soon. An estimated 22 billion to 33 billion pounds of food are wasted annually by US restaurants, according to the FoodPrint project. An estimated 22 billion to 33 billion pounds of food are wasted annually by US restaurants, according to the FoodPrint project. Moreover, those staggering numbers do not include plastic waste. According to NBC News, the NYC mayor’s office reported an estimated 18 million tons of single-use plastic eating utensils had been extracted in 2019 from the city’s residential waste stream. Citing a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center reported in 2020 that 68% of all discarded food in New York and two other major US cities is still edible, and that in New York City alone, 20% of this edible waste was generated by restaurants and caterers. What NYC Does About Food Waste NYC currently requires restaurants to separate their organic food waste and to “arrange for collection by a private carter.” Alternatively, eateries can self-transport organic waste or process it on-site. Enforcement, though relaxed during the pandemic, was re-established in mid-2022 to dole out a $250 to $1,000 fine to eateries that do not follow the separation rules. There have been accounts by dedicated scavengers (so-called “dumpster divers”) that few restaurants follow these rules, but these same accounts noted that the waste-separation rules do not apply to smaller establishments. Takeout food discarded at home is also being impacted by a city initiative, introduced in 2023, to collect curbside residential food waste for composting. The city’s capacity to fully compost that waste is still in development. Zero-Waste Dining on the Rise From chef Mauro Colagreco’s renowned three-Michelin-star Mirazur in France to restaurants scattered throughout New York City and the world, zero-waste dining and waste reduction strategies are establishing themselves as potentially profitable trends in the restaurant industry. One review of 114 restaurants in twelve countries found that almost all establishments “achieved a positive return” on their waste reduction investment, and an average of 75% of the sites recouped that investment within a year. In addition, none of the places reviewed spent more than $20,000 on waste reduction efforts. According to Barron’s, Mirazur became “the world’s first restaurant [Jan/2020] to receive “Plastic Free” certification,” inspiring over 500 inquiries from other restauranteurs interested in going “plastic free.” In London, chef Doug McMaster’s Silo claims to be the “world’s first zero-waste restaurant.” In January 2020, just prior to the pandemic-related restaurant lockdowns. Bon Appetit reported how west~bourne, an “LA-inspired all-day café” in New York’s Soho neighborhood, competed to be the city’s first “certified” zero-waste restaurant. The magazine noted that a restaurant manager would take pictures of the “compost, recycling, and trash accumulated” in a single day. The bags would then be weighed and documented on a spreadsheet as evidence of their zero-waste effort. By 2018, a few NYC restaurants were already featuring their versions of “zero [food] waste dishes.” These offerings included often discarded food parts, such as “broccoli, cauliflower and mushroom stems,” in the dishes. Other excess food parts were turned into vinegars or sent off to farmers for their pigs to eat. Blackbarn Shines with Peat Creativity and innovation continue to drive the city’s waste-reduction trend as restaurants, such as Blackbarn in Manhattan, find inventive, tasty ways to keep conscientious diners coming. CBS News reported in 2023 that Blackbarn's menu, co-created by executive chef Brian Fowler and chef/owner John Doherty, benefited from a relationship with Peat, a provider of “food waste upcycling” in the borough of Queens. Peat delivers Peat-grown mushrooms to Blackbarn (via low carbon e-bike) at a reduced price in exchange for Blackbarn’s compostable food waste (which Peat e-bikes haul away). Today, even New York’s waste-averse home cooks can shop instore or online from Brooklyn-based Precycle for bulk food supplies with a zero-waste footprint. Zero-Waste Exemplar One of today’s leading examples of zero-waste dining in New York City—not to mention overall commitment to sustainability—is Rhodora Wine Bar in the borough of Brooklyn. Rhodora’s owner, Henry Rich, and director, Halley Chambers, have pledged to send “absolutely nothing” to landfills. According to Bon Appetit, their approach to outlawing plastic and food waste in their operations is comprehensive. Single-use plastics are forbidden on-site, and suppliers must meet the expectation that everything incoming is to be “recycled, upcycled, or composted.” This means that incoming packaging materials can be composted or recycled or delivery packaging can be returned and reused. Single-use plastics are forbidden on-site [at Rhodora Wine Bar], and suppliers must meet the expectation that everything incoming is to be “recycled, upcycled, or composted.” As a wine bar, Rhodora’s menu consists of conservas (tinned fish); hard, aged cheeses; and antipasti (pickled vegetables) meant to complement their wines. This menu helps minimize food waste and unnecessary cleaning products, and the foods’ tin and aluminum packages are easily recycled and of relatively high value. The wine comes from “small-farm, natural winemakers” that share Rhodora’s commitment to the environment and aversion to what they describe as the often-harmful processes of “large-scale wine manufacturing,” according to Bon Appetit. Rethinking Food Waste The city’s growing zero-waste zeal is inspiring some restauranteurs and chefs to both reduce waste and deliver food to needy neighbors—and do so off the clock, for nothing. Non-profit Rethink Food—founded by culinary veteran Matt Jozwiak and pioneering chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park—is passionate about upcycling nutrition that is normally lost through tossing out good food. They are creating meals for disadvantaged New Yorkers who have no access to healthy food, not to mention gourmet dining. Serving haute cuisine to those “last” in the food line is probably unprecedented, but Rethink Food’s track record is impressive (having] put together over 14.8 million locally prepared, gourmet meals, rescuing more than 1 million tons of food. Serving haute cuisine to those “last” in the food line is probably unprecedented, but Rethink Food’s track record is impressive. Founded in 2017, the organization is on the threshold of serving over 24 million locally prepared gourmet meals and rescuing more than 2.4 million pounds of food. Rethink Food wants more New Yorkers to get involved. Its newly opened facility (March 2024) in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan features a “street-facing space” for the public to learn about and engage in their work. Innovative “dinner series with chefs” and community events and programming are being designed and scheduled to teach ways of fostering food security and reducing waste. Rethink Food founder and CEO Matt Jozwiak says the new space “reflects our culture of centering community leaders, culinary professionals, and hospitality at the heart of our approach to creating a more sustainable and equitable food system.” Six Years to Zero-Waste Dining According to the Sustainable Restaurant Association, restaurant waste reduction involves five action points: to measure “how much and where food was wasted,” to get staff on board, to control portions (avoid “overproduction”), to review inventory and purchasing procedures, and to find ways to repurpose excess inventory and any food that could go to waste. With growing support from the city and its diners and restauranteurs, New York City appears committed to keeping the zero-waste restaurant trend going and meeting its ambitious goal of sending no waste to landfills by 2030. *Jerry Chesnut. Jerry Chesnut has pursued a lifelong interest in the role of diet in physical and mental well-being. Having lived more than half of his life in and near New York City, he maintains an avid interest in the city’s sustainable food scene.

  • Is Edible Packaging Ready to Replace Plastics?

    Ooho Gel Packets and Casein Films Take a Bite Out of Plastic Pollution By Gordon Cairns* When American entrepreneur Nathaniel Wyeth patented the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle in 1973, he couldn’t possibly have imagined how this handy, cheap, and disposable item would be part of the global environmental catastrophe facing nations today. Like other plastic packaging, the PET bottle was invented to replace heavier, more expensive containers such as those made from glass, wood, and paper. Ironically, this innovation became popular just as these other items started to get recycled: UK’s first recyclable glass bottle bank opened in 1977 in Barnsley, England. The success of plastic bottles changed people’s behavior in the West—from drinking safe, clean water from the tap to buying a plastic bottle of clean water—and created one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Sales of this product grew by 73% in the decade between 2010 and 2020. A Marathon Problem However, the problem of disposing plastic bottles grew too. For instance, after London’s 2018 Marathon, an estimated 750,000 bottles littered London’s streets; likely ended up in a landfill. Marathons encourage the public to lead healthier, fulfilling lives while raising millions of dollars for charity, but a downside emerged: These events typically supply hydration to runners with single-use plastic bottles, which are then immediately discarded. To target this environmental concern, in 2019, the London Marathon organizers cut that waste by over a third by supplying the runners with liquid in 30,000 edible packages called Ooho. The packages are made from seaweed and calcium chloride and created by regenerative packaging company Notpla. Rather than taking a sip and tossing the bottle away, runners could burst the bubble (Ooho) made from seaweed and swallow it or discard the skin, given that it is edible and biodegradable. This pollution reducing product has since been used at other major sporting events including the Zevenheuvelenloop marathon in the Netherlands and the Göteborgsvarvet half-marathon in Sweden. It also fills vending machines at the London Aquatics Centre. Limitations of Edible Packaging While the idea of getting water from an edible package might seem to be a clever way to replace the ubiquitous plastic variety—a million bottles are sold every minute—the Ooho isn’t quite ready for that. The package is designed for a single gulp rather than the portability and volume that plastic allows. Its delicate membrane also isn’t great for storing in a grocery store without extra packaging, which defeats its original purpose. Yet despite its present limitations, there’s plenty of opportunity, as well as impetus, for further development and improvement. Other challenges [of edible films] include higher vulnerability to heat, requiring another layer (typically plastic) to protect it from contamination, and higher production costs. Edible packaging is generally made from edible biopolymers (proteins, lipids, and polysaccharides), plasticizers, or food-grade additives. Their materials include coatings, films, pouches, and sheets. The films should be a good barrier of oxygen (to slow decay), water, and aroma. Compared to PET/PS films, edible films tend to have disadvantages of lower tensile strength and higher water vapor permeability, while having the advantage of higher resistance to oxygen permeability. Other challenges include higher vulnerability to heat, requiring another layer (typically plastic) to protect it from contamination, and higher production costs. Meanwhile, lipid-based films can be made from fatty acids (monoglycerides, diglycerides, and triglycerides), waxes (such as paraffin), and other oils (such as palm and peanut), raising health concerns. Packaging Revisited in History Despite numerous public campaigns to raise awareness of plastic waste, it has continued to rise. A report from the Minderoo Foundation revealed that between 2019 and 2021 the amount of plastic waste rose by 6 million metric tons (6.6 million tons) with recycling unable to scale up quickly enough. With no clear sign that people will give up single-use plastics, science has been looking to the past to solve this 21st century problem. While it might seem modern, edible packaging was being used to protect our food 600 years before plastic was ever invented. The first known example of edible film used for food preservation was made in the fifteenth century from soymilk (Yuba) in Japan. In the 1930s, emulsions and waxes were developed to coat fruits, with the purpose of improving their appearance, controlling the ripening process, and decreasing the loss of water. By the 1960s, however, comestible packaging had limited commercial appeal and was mainly used as wax coatings on fruit and vegetables. A Review of Edible Packaging Methods But as environmental crises have a way of re-focusing the mind, scientists across the world have returned to these old ideas, making incredible advances by using different edible foodstuffs for a variety of purposes as outlined in Edible Food Packaging, edited by Amrita Poonia and Tejpal Dhewa. These include a remarkable range of edible packaging products that can replace plastic varieties. A multitude of products can be made from fruit residues alone, revealing the potential usefulness of unwanted food. Some of the methods being trialed include a film made from peach puree that can create an oxygen barrier to preserve nuts, confections and baked goods; peel from pomelos that delays oxidation and increases the shelf life of soybean oil; and a pulp formed from arrowroot starch and blackberry that promotes the stability of anthocyanins (a type of antioxidant) found in grapes, apples, and cabbage, making them easier to handle and more attractive to the consumer. The beauty of using fruit and vegetable waste is that these products are plentiful, as they have the highest percentage of waste amongst all foodstuffs. However, thus far, many of these products are not as efficient as those created from plastic and also take longer to apply to the food being preserved. For these and other reason, Poonia and Dhewa believe comestible packaging is not yet able to function alone in the market: “Edible films and coatings cannot entirely replace synthetic packaging. Usually, secondary packaging is necessary for handling and hygienic practices.” “Edible films and coatings cannot entirely replace synthetic packaging. Usually, secondary packaging is necessary for handling and hygienic practices.” They believe there is a need to combine synthetic and natural packaging: “In this sense, it is important to apply eco-friendly food preservatives to control the loss of the nutritional value of the perishable foods and to reduce the requirements and waste of conventional packaging, improving the economic efficiency of packaging materials.” Making Edible Packaging Consumer-Friendly Of course, as a marketable product, there would be no point in creating edible packaging options if consumers won’t buy them, but two recent studies on public perceptions have been positive. One study published this year evaluated consumer attitude, acceptability and purchasing intentions of 100 participants in Portland, Oregon. The participants were asked to evaluate three types of edible food packaging: muffin liners, cranberry pomace fruit leather wraps, and powdered drink sachets. All were rated positively by the participants, with two-thirds saying they would buy all three products if they came to market. A 2021 study of a similarly sized group of consumers in Indonesia were asked to try a chili powder that came in an edible gelatine package. It, too, received a positive response, with the consumers highly likely to replace their current unbiodegradable packaging with the new edible product. If these innovative modern scientists and manufacturers can create edible, biodegradable packaging that is lightweight and easy to transport, then a path to dent the use of single-use plastics may be opened. Biodegradable or edible packaging has the potential to become as commonplace as banana skins. Meanwhile, conscientious consumers can do their bit to prevent plastic waste by reusing, reducing, recycling the plastic containers used, or eliminating their use altogether. *Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.

  • State of the World’s Birds 2024 Update

    Report Highlights Hope in Conservation Efforts in Bird Populations BirdLife International is a charity that is the “official scientific source of information on birds” for the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. In its 2024 annual update, BirdLife International reported improvement for a few species but greater pressure on 11 other species. In the 2023 Red List, 11 species were uplisted to higher threat categories while 4 were downlisted to lower threat categories. Overall, the number of species in the critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and near threatened categories declined, respectively, by 1 (to 232), 8 (to 405), 37 (to 717), and 51 (to 940), since the previous year’s assessment. However, many of these changes were reclassifications based on improved knowledge about the species rather than a change in status. Out of 14 threats to birds, the top five are agriculture (73%), logging (51%), invasive species (42%), hunting and trapping (39%), and climate change and severe weather (37%). The global outbreak of a H5N1 variant of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) resulted in the death or destruction of about 0.5 billion poultry and impacted more than 400 bird species in 2021 to 2023. Examples of species include the Peruvian Booby (over 47,500 deaths), Cape Cormorant (over 20,000 deaths), and Common Crane (over 5,000 deaths). Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are areas identified as homes to “critical populations of the world’s threatened species.” In 2023, over 43% of each KBA was covered by protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures compared with 11% in 1980. However, this figure is on a peaking trend from 2020. The four downlisted bird species include three Asian stork species (Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubius, Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus and Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala) whose local communities worked to preserve them. Also, in Hawaii, the Millerbird Acrocephalus familiaris was relocated to the island of Laysan a decade ago and now has a self-sustaining population; this allowed it to be downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered. The 11 species uplisted included two of Hawaii’s honeycreepers, which were impacted by avian malaria carried by invasive mosquitoes, and the Juan Fernandez Tit-tyrant Anairetes fernandezianus, which lives in an island near Chile and is threatened by invasive plants and predators. Other species in South America and South-East Asian were uplisted due to forest loss. Sources: Individual case studies:

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