Eco-friendly, Environmental Hazards, Science

Cigarette Butts Could Soon Be Turned Into Something Useful

A research team in Australia has come up with a way to turn cigarette butts into pavement.
Soon, these nasty things may be IN your asphalt, not ON it. Photo via Pixabay

How do you take the remains of a nasty habit and turn it into something that benefits everyone? Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, may have a solution.

Every year, trillions of cigarette butts are produced worldwide, and most of those are discarded into the environment. Loaded with toxins, they take a very long time to break down, and when they do, all their poisonous chemicals are released into waterways.

But the team at RMIT University, led by Dr. Abbas Mohajerani, has shown that cigarette butts can be mixed with asphalt and lead to a product that not only tolerates wear and tear of daily traffic but also reduces thermal conductivity.

What this means is that the disgusting remains that some inconsiderate smokers leave behind can solve a big waste problem and could help to reduce the urban heat island effect common in large cities.

“I have been trying for many years to find sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution,” said Mohajerani, a senior lecturer in RMIT’s school of engineering.

“In this research, we encapsulated the cigarette butts with bitumen and paraffin wax to lock in the chemicals and prevent any leaching from the asphalt concrete. The encapsulated cigarette butts were mixed with hot asphalt mix for making samples,” he added.

About 6 trillion cigarettes are produced each year, resulting in more than 1.2 million tons of cigarette butts. As the world’s population—and the number of smokers—continues to grow, these numbers are expected to increase by more than 50 percent by the year 2025.

“Encapsulated cigarette butts developed in this research will be a new construction material which can be used in different applications and lightweight composite products,” Mohajerani said. “The only ways to control [the chemicals in the cigarette waste] are either by effective encapsulation for the production of new lightweight aggregates or by the incorporation in fired clay bricks.”

How’s that for an unlikely solution to a big problem? I think this idea is pretty darn brilliant, and I’ll be curious to see how the research plays out in real-world applications.

Nature, Science

The World’s Oceans Now Have A Health Record

The oceans now have a health record, thanks to a team of scientists at UC Santa Barbara

Thanks to a team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara, the world’s oceans now have a health record.

And that health record is revealing clues about what might be behind ocean improvements or declines.

Analyzing data from 220 countries, the team gathered five years’ worth of ocean “vital signs” in a variety of areas ranging from water quality to food provision to tourism potential in order to create an Ocean Health Index. Their conclusion: While ocean health appears to be stable, the oceans around many of the countries analyzed are changing for the worse.

“With five years of assessments about where oceans are healthy and not as healthy, we finally have enough information to get a clear signal of what might be causing changes,” said study lead author Ben Halpern, executive director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara.

Countries like Indonesia, Mexico, and Samoa, that are seeing improvements in their oceans are taking action to make things better, including improving management of wild-caught fisheries and creating marine protected areas.

On the other hand, the countries that saw a decline in ocean health where in consistent political turmoil. Many Arctic and sub-Arctic countries are seeing declines as well, due to the fact that coastlines are losing sea ice, which is a natural protection from storm damage and erosion.

“The Ocean Health Index created the first opportunity any of us has had to measure the health of our oceans in a comprehensive way and track changes with a single measure,” Halpern said.

According to the researchers, the index has scored the oceans’ overall health staying steady at a 71 out of 100. This shows that while the oceans aren’t dying, they aren’t thriving, either. The team will continue to collect data on ocean health every year.

“We believe the Ocean Health Index gives reason for hope by providing a detailed diagnosis of the state of ocean health and a framework that allows countries to identify and prioritize the most necessary resilience actions to improve ocean health,” said study co-author Johanna Polsenberg, senior director of governance and policy for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “This is where our work is most valuable. It helps to identify and highlight the necessary steps to ensure a healthy ocean into the future.”

I don’t know about you, but after seeing all the news about dying reefs, pollution, and overfishing, I’m surprised the oceans are as healthy as they are. Hopefully this new information will help governments and scientists to improve their health.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Green

Judge Says More Environmental Study Needed for DAPL Operation

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to redo some of its environmental studies.
A Portland, Oregon Dakota Access Pipeline protest solidarity rally. Photo: Diego G Diaz /

On June 14, a federal judge put a temporary block on the use of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline by stating that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to reconsider some of its environmental impact studies.

U.S. district judge James Boasberg said that the corps had failed to take into account the level to which a spill might affect “fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”

Boasberg had previously rejected two of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s appeals—one based on the fact that construction threatened sites of historical and cultural significance to the tribe, and the other that oil in the pipeline under Lake Oahe would damage sacred waters.

“Now that the court has rejected these two lines of attack, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River here take their third shot, this time zeroing in on DAPL’s environmental impact,” Boasberg wrote in his decision. “This volley meets with some degree of success.”

The judge wrote that while the Army Corps of Engineers had “substantially complied” with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal permits issued for the pipeline were in violation of the law in certain ways. “To remedy those violations, the Corps will have to reconsider those sections of its environmental analysis upon remand by the Court,” Boasberg wrote.

Later on, the judge will consider whether the pipeline must halt operations while the additional research is being conducted. A status conference is scheduled for the week of June 19.

Whether the pipeline is shut during the review or not depends on whether the omissions in the Corps’ analysis can be addressed quickly, or whether they’re large errors that might require more study.

“We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence, and we will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.

Just days after being sworn in, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Corps to do whatever it needed to do to get the pipeline construction underway. In February, the Corps granted the final easement needed to finish the pipeline.

This decision marks “an important turning point,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the tribes in the lawsuit. “Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline and the Trump administration…prompting a well-deserved global outcry.”

Although the protests by the Standing Rock tribe and its allies were effectively over in February, when the main encampment was cleared and the pipeline completed, this decision by Judge Boasberg shows that the struggle for justice—both for the environment and for the tribe—is not over yet.

Nature, Science

Light Pollution Linked to Immune Problems in Hamster Pups

Light pollution--including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs--can have more serious effects than previously imagined.
Light pollution–including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs–can have more serious effects than previously imagined. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University, disruptions in sleep schedules are not only bad for the health of animals and people, but they can have effects which are passed on to offspring. What’s more, these problems can also be caused not just by interrupting sleep schedules, but by unnaturally light night.

To do the study, researchers used nocturnal Siberian hamsters. They exposed one group of hamsters of both sexes to a standard light day/dark night cycle, and one group to dim light at night, for nine weeks. They then mated the hamsters in four groups—mothers or fathers with dim-light exposure, both parents with exposure to light at night, and both parents with standard light exposure. After the hamsters mated, the entire group lived under standard light conditions.

The researchers found that dim light exposure had a definite influence on the offspring. Fathers and mothers seemed to pass along genetic instructions that impaired immune response and decreased endocrine activity. But it’s especially important to note that the negative changes were traced to both parents.

“These weren’t problems that developed in utero. They came from the sperm and egg,” said senior study author Randy Nelson, “It’s much more common to see epigenetic effects from the mothers, but we saw changes passed on from the fathers as well.”

While this certainly adds to the ongoing discussions of how screens are affecting us as we use them late at night, it has some other implications too. Light pollution is not a problem that has been taken very seriously in the past, despite the fact that previous research has proven that it has negative effects on animals. It has been known to interrupt animal sleep and activity patterns, and this new research has shown some specific, and negative, consequences of light pollution.

But it’s not just for animals that we should be concerned. Humans are making continued use of screens at night, often in otherwise dark rooms, which seems to be having some negative effects on our bodies. Studies have shown that it interrupts sleep and strains our eyes, but the OSU study shows that it could actually affect how genes are passed on to children.

“I think people are beginning to accept that light pollution is serious pollution and it has health consequences that are pretty pronounced—an increase in cancers, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and anxiety disorders,” Nelson said. “We should be concerned about the increasing exposures to light at night from our tablets and phones and TVs.”

Environmental Hazards, Sustainability

Earth’s “Technosphere” is Terrifyingly Large

The technosphere is terrifyingly large.
Photo: Shutterstock

The Anthropocene Review is a journal that looks at the current epoch of the Earth’s history, the one in which humans have so impacted the planet as to mark it as unique from previous epochs. Although the Anthropocene concept is still rather new, it is gaining recognition, and as a byproduct comes a new term: the technosphere.

The technosphere can be compared to the biosphere, which is the system by which life on the planet interacts. The technosphere, in contrast, consists of all the stuff that humans have made: houses, airports, mines, smartphones, AOL free trial CDs, and all the garbage in landfills across the world.

While that may be an interesting concept in and of itself, it’s helpful in putting into context just how much stuff humans have made. Currently, estimates of the total weight of the technosphere come to about 30 million (metric) tons. That works out to about 50 kilos of stuff per square meter of the Earth’s surface.

That’s a lot of stuff.

The technosphere has been evolving for millennia now, but has taken on a life of its own in recent centuries. Frankly, it’s not all the good at being a thing. Where as the biosphere is incredibly efficient, with each living organism providing nutrients for other organisms at some point in its life or death, the technosphere is terrible at recycling, which is why it weighs so much. There’s no getting rid of a lot of this stuff.

The concept of the technosphere, and how terrifyingly huge it is, helps to put into context just how important it is that we get better at efficiently using the resources to which we have access. Eventually, we’re going to run out of raw materials with which to make more things, and at that point the technosphere will have crushed everything else under its weight.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards

Hooded Seals Can Pass Contaminants to Nursing Young

Hooded seals can pass contaminants on to their young.
Hooded seal pup. Photo: Shutterstock

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are man-made chemicals that have found extensive use in consumer products because they repel grease, water, and stains, and they’re heat resistant. They also pose a threat to wildlife. Since that discovery, some PFASs have been phased out of use, but not all of them, and they still work their way into food webs and, subsequently, animals.

The hooded seal is high up in its food web, eating prey that eats prey that eats prey that can get PFASs into their system, increasing the amount of the chemical that gets into the hooded seals. Now, recent research has found that mother seals can pass those contaminants on to their young, both through the placenta and through milk.

While the levels found so far are below the toxic threshold for rodents, and within the expected limits based on findings among other seals, it might be worse for the hooded seals.

Because they only nurse for three to four days, hooded seal milk is extremely rich in lipids, to which PFASs are known to bond. This explains how they manage to pass the contaminants on to their young. Scientists are still not sure what kind of developmental effects these could have on the young seals, who need to put on a lot of weight very quickly in order to survive, because that nursing period is followed by a fasting period.

While the seals seem to be okay so far, that could change, especially as young grow and ingest more prey which are contaminated with PFASs, passing them on to their own offspring. Over subsequent generations the buildup could become quite toxic.

Luckily, by realizing this now, we can begin studying it and, hopefully, learn not only more about the effects of PFASs on animals like the hooded seal, but also how we might be able to mitigate those effects.

Nature, Science

Italian Study Shows Effects of Air Pollution Over Half A Century

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

A first of its kind study in Italy has shown the direct effects of air pollution, and subsequent attempts to reduce it, on the amount of light that reaches soil. Based on daily radiation records of soil from 50 locations around Italy, the authors of the study have shown that after the early 1980s, more solar radiation reached soil on clear days than it had in the previous 30 years of measurement.

The reason for the change is the reduction of aerosols and other pollutants that took place as environmental laws changed. When they enter the atmosphere, air pollutants stagnate there and block the solar radiation coming through the atmosphere.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, there was a significant reduction—or dimming—that was most noticeable on clear days. The increase of air pollution during the 1960s and 1970s is the most obvious culprit here, as smog and other pollutants refracted light and result in less of it reached the ground. That decreased light impacted plant growth and ambient temperatures.

However, following efforts to clean up and reduce air pollution, which were initiated in the early 1980s, there has been a general increase, or brightening, on clear days. Thus, plants received more light than they had in the previous decades.

This study is the first to focus on Italy, but the findings are in line with trends reported from around the world. It gives us yet more proof of the measurable impact green initiatives have had. Looking at this study, for example, shows data-originated proof that the reduction in air pollution has an objective, measurable impact on the lived experience of plants, animals, and microbes on the Earth.