U.S. Senate Covers Our Butts

Almost by mistake, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that could greatly benefit the environment. By a margin of 79-17, Senators approved a bill that will allow the Food and Drug Administration to place substantial regulations on tobacco products. Most of the regulations are aimed at reducing the number of people who begin smoking at a young age by banning fruit-flavored cigarettes and cartoonish packaging and ads aimed at children. Such efforts would undoubtedly improve the nation’s collective health. But applying higher taxes and stricter rules to tobacco product sales could also clean up the stain cigarettes leave on the planet.

BUTTsOUT, an international organization dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of smoking, reports that 4.3 trillion cigarettes are disposed on the side of roads, in water sources, and in public parks every year. And cigarette butts, which take more than 25 years to decompose, account for more than 50 percent of all litter in most western countries. Growing tobacco contaminates water supplies, destroys soil, and consumes almost four miles of paper every hour during the factory rolling process.

This legislation is good news for the 440,000 smokers that cigarettes kill each year. And if it can clean up tobacco's environmental mess at the same time? We'll all breathe a little easier.

Life & Death Simulations

First, check out this vivid simulation of the ugly synergy between population growth and C02 emissions. It's called Breathing Earth and it simulates realtime births outpacing deaths as carbon dioxide emissions spew at ~1,000-tons a second.

Too bad we can't turn Breathing Earth into the default screensaver on all new computers. Maybe: from screensaver to worldsaver.

Another interesting simulation, this one published in an upcoming PNAS, describes how Earth's 1-billion-year lifespan can be more than doubled by adjusting atmospheric pressure.

[Simply put: the only reason we can't breath easily atop Mount Everest is not because there's less oxygen in the air. In fact there's the same amount of oxygen at 29,000 feet as there is as at sea level. What's different is a greatly reduced atmospheric pressure that causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed over a much greater volume of space.]

Well, about a billion years from now, believe it or not, greenhouse Earth will fail. Ever-increasing radiation from our aging sun will heat Earth to the point where atmospheric C02—the kickstarter for plants that turn inorganic sunlight into organic life—will have been pulled out of the air by weathering rocks. Oceans will evaporate. The atmosphere will burn away. All life will disappear.

But Caltech researchers propose a solution: Reduce the total pressure of the atmosphere itself by removing massive amounts of molecular nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the mostly nonreactive gas comprising 78 percent of the atmosphere. Removing a bunch of it would regulate surface temperatures and allow C02 to stay alive in the atmosphere and support life for an additional 1.3 billion years.

Strikingly, no external influence [read: intelligent life or intelligent design] is necessary to remove N. The biosphere will accomplish this task all by itself—since nitrogen is incorporated into the cells of living organisms and is sequestered with them when they die.

In fact this reduction may already be underway. Earth's atmospheric pressure may be lower now than it was earlier in the planet's history. To assess this, some researchers are examining gas bubbles formed in ancient lavas to determine past atmospheric pressure.

 

Composting vs Methane Capture: A Climate Smackdown

Across the pungent world of waste, a climate debate has been raging. Which is better: turning yard clippings and food scraps into compost, or landfilling them and capturing the methane that they release to produce energy?

Last month, I happened across this question while riding in a muddy pickup across the top of Altamont Landfill, a 30-story hill of garbage run by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collection outfit. "To me, I think it's good to have more organics in the garbage," operations manager Neil Wise told me. Organic matter in landfills generates methane, a potent and flamable greenhouse gas; Altamont currently captures enough methane to power 8,500 homes.

On the other side of this debate is the City of San Francisco, which this week voted to make composting lawn clippings and food scraps mandatory for every city resident. The nutrient-rich product fertilizes more than 200 Bay Area vineyards. Composting advocates worry that outfitting more landfills with "methane wells," possibly with the aid of carbon offsets created through a climate bill, will detract from those efforts. 

Here's my take: While capturing methane from landfills is certainly worthwhile, evidence suggests that composting is far better. A nine-year study by the Rodale Institute, to be published in the next issue of Compost Science and Utilization, a peer-reviewed journal, found that applying compost to cropland sequestered a staggering 10,802 pounds more carbon dioxide per hectare each year than farming with conventional manure fertilizer. That's more than the yearly emissions of a Chevy Impala. "That's a pretty big deal," says Rodale research director Paul Hepperly, the author of the study. "When you are composting, you are stablizing the carbon" in organic matter.

And though capturing methane at a landfill also reduces greenhouse gasses, it can't match composting's associated benefits. Compared to raw manure, Rodale also found that compost applied to farmland led to a 600 percent reduction in nitrate leaching, which can pollute steams and groundwater, and improved the soil's retention of water by a factor of three. "This relates to looking at things wholistically," Hepperly said, adding that the ultimate goal should be an "agricultural system that invests more in our environment and takes less out of our resources."

 

This Week In Frog: Name Results/Our Foreclosed Palace

In case you missed it, last week we interns started a Frog Blog to compete with Kevin Drum's catblogging. This week, we decided to overhaul our little fellow's tank. One side effect of the Great Recession is that people are realizing how expensive it is to be pet owners. Thus, we were able to find a ten gallon tank complete with filter, a castle, artificial plants, eight pounds of gravel, a piece of driftwood, large rocks, a net, cleaning solution, food, and six fish that needed adopting—all for $30 on Craigslist. 

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Yesterday, we added six snails to the mix to keep the tank squeaky clean. Only after introducing the snails to their new frog neighbor did we realize that we'd accidentally acquired a stowaway fish as well in the water-filled pet store bag, bringing our grand tank total to seven.

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As for the long-awaited naming results...After much consideration, we decided to stick with the traditional "Smart, Fearless Journalism" theme...With that, we introduce MUDRAKER.

Caribou Numbers Decline Steeply Worldwide

The first ever worldwide census analysis of caribou/reindeer numbers reveals a nearly 60 percent decline worldwide in the last three decades.

This dramatic decline across the circumpolar world is a result of a bad intersection between global warming and industrial development, according to the data published in Global Change Biology.

Global warming is affecting the herds in three of four season. The spring green-up in the Arctic now arrives earlier—before the migrating herds arrive, depriving mothers and calves of quality feeding. Warmer summers cause more intense insect blooms that harass the herds and affect their ability to feed. Winters produce more freezing rains that ice over and make inaccessible the lichens the animals feed on during the dark months. I wrote about a particularly bad freezing rain event a year ago.

Meanwhile industrial development in the boreal forest has driven the decline of many herds.

The analysis raises serious concerns not only for the animals but also for people in northern latitudes who depend on caribou/reindeer for their livelihood.

For all of us, really.

Digital Transition Eco-Challenge: Repurpose Your Rabbit Ears

We're just hours away from saying goodbye to rabbit ears for good. Are you one of the nearly 3 million that isn't ready? Will tomorrow begin a new era in hi-tech government surveillance? Could you care less? Well, however you feel about the boob tube, the consequences of such a massive switchover are significant, particularly for all the parts we'll no longer use.

Hopefully all those government-subsidized converter boxes will keep millions of old-fashioned sets out of electronic wasteland, but what of the beloved antennae? Ever thought of designing a use out of the elegant, retractable numbers? Maybe we could all donate them to music schools to be repurposed as batons. Would they work on drums? As pointers for teachers? Tomato cages?

Toss me your bright ideas in the comments.

Did Disney Dump Toxic Waste?

From the annals of the dark side of Disney, we bring you news that citizens of Burbank, California, are suing the media giant for allegedly dumping toxic chemicals, including a known carcinogen, in their community since 1998.

According to the Burbank Leader, citizens hired Delaware-based watchdog group Environmental World Watch Inc. to test local waterways for chromium 6 (also known as hexavalent chromium), which increases risk of lung cancer in those who inhale it. The group reported “significant quantities” of the toxin downstream from Disney's facilities.

Unsurprisingly, Disney has been tight-lipped about the case so far, but a spokesperson did call the allegations "completely baseless."

This all comes on the heels of the company's big we're-going-green announcement earlier this year, when execs outlined plans to conserve energy and reduce emissions and waste. If it turns out the dumping accusations are legit, Disney'll have quite the PR problem to imagineer its way out of.

 

Crap Fish

Farmed fish taste like crap. Now we know they're crap for the environment too. Consider this: Steelhead trout bred in hatcheries are so genetically impaired that even if they survive and reproduce in the wild their offspring are significantly less successful at reproducing.

The study in Biology Letters suggests adding hatchery fish to wild populations could hurt efforts to sustain the wild runs.

The data reveal that fish born in the wild from hatchery-reared parents averaged only 37 percent the reproductive fitness of fish with two wild parents. Fish born in the wild from one hatchery-reared parent and one wild parent averaged only 87 percent the reproductive fitness

Most significantly, these differences were detectable after a full generation of natural selection in the wild.

The problem arises from the fact that fish who do well in the safe world of the hatcheries are selected to be different from those that do well in the predatory real world.

And, no, using wild fish as brood stock each year does not solve the problem. Exactly that type of steelhead were used in this study. Yet apparently even one generation of hatchery culture produces strong negative effects on wild fish.

The implications reach far beyond steelhead. Captive breeding is a cornerstone of recovery efforts for many endangered species. This study raises doubts that such programs actually work.

This research was based on years of genetic analysis of thousands of steelhead trout in Oregon's Hood River in field work since 1991. Scientists genetically fingerprinted three generations of returning fish to determine who their parents were and whether they were wild or hatchery fish.

That's the beauty of long-term research. May we fund more of it.

Want to know what's better to eat—if you must eat the wildlife of the sea? There's even an iPhone app to guide you through the menu.

McCain Was Right

During his failed campaign for president, John McCain had some pretty clever ideas about climate change. And no, not "drill, baby, drill." In an uncharacteristic moment of clarity, McCain proposed that the US government offer a reward of $300 million to any individual who invented a more efficient car battery.

Will President Obama embrace McCain's idea and urge Americans to get creative about clean tech? As environmental sustainability becomes an ever hotter issue, individuals and companies have come up with bright, green ideas, including more accessible solar panels, smarter suburbs, and more creative vehicle designs.

Such strategies have been incredibly helpful in terms of reducing what we use, but none so far have introduced the kind of significant technological innovation that is needed to reverse our gas guzzling, energy hoarding culture. As Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu told Congress in March, the scientific community needs technology that is "game-changing, as opposed to merely incremental." MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, for example, invented a chemical catalyst last year that distills hydrogen from water to produce energy. Nocera explained that on a large scale, this process "could take care of the world's energy needs." President Obama should give Americans an incentive to create such energy-saving technologies in other environmental fields as well.

"Don't Mess With Texas," perhaps the most famous state slogan in history, began as an anti-littering campaign. Having grown up in the Lone Star State, I remember a TV ad showing two fighter jets swooping over a highway, presumably about to strafe some guy who tossed a can out of his pickup. Well, turns out San Francisco is about to do Texas one better. Today, the city's Board of Supervisors made it illegal not only to throw that can out the window, but also in the trash; a new law will require you to recycle it. I can't wait for the bus ads featuring a gun-packing hippie: Don't mess with San Francisco.

Of course, San Francisco's strong recycling norms aren't unique along the Left Coast, which, as we noted in our recent Waste Issue, takes those curvy green arrows much more seriously than folks in New York. Recycling is already mandatory in San Diego and Seattle, where trash collectors shame offending homeowners by posting notes on their trash bins and leaving them unemptied on the curb. Still, San Francisco might up the ante. SF Weekly notes that its proposed fines for not recycling--$100 to $500--are ten times higher than Seattle's.

San Francisco is already the least trashy city in America. In May, it announced that it recycles 72 percent of its waste.  And most homeowners and more than a fifth of apartment dwellers compost (under the new law, everyone will). Fascinated by how the city where I live achieves such high numbers, I recently began following my garbage. I've tracked it from the can at my apartment building to its eventual reincarnation, learning a lot along the way about the obstacles to going "zero waste," as the city hopes to by 2020. Check back tomorrow for the first installment of this colorful--and stinky--trash saga, which will appear on this site throughout the week.