Bacteria Found to Break Down Plastic

Maxwell Bernstein | April 3, 2020

Researchers in Germany published new findings in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology that open up the possibilities of using biodegradation on hard-to-recycle materials to reduce plastic waste. 

The German scientists discovered a strain of bacteria that has the capability to break down chemicals in plastics called polyurethanes. Polyurethane foams can be found in mattresses, car parts, spandex clothing, shoes, and much more. 

The bacteria, Pseudomonas putida, fed on a specific polyurethane called polyurethane diol, a material that is often used to create coatings and adhesives that prevent corrosion. 

According to, polyurethanes are difficult to break down since they are temperature resistant and difficult to melt. The difficulty in recycling these plastics causes them to build up and sit in landfills where they end up releasing toxic chemicals; some of which cause cancer. 

EPA rolls back fuel efficiency standards, the U.S. government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis

Photo by Eric Demarcq, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | April 1st, 2020

On Tuesday, the Trump administration weakened Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. Over the past three years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back numerous efforts to combat climate change, but the rules compelling companies to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles were considered to be the federal government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis yet.

The change lowers the rate at which auto companies are required to improve efficiency each year from 4.7% to 1.5%. This falls well below the 2.4% increase per year that the industry has said it would make even without regulations. 

Changing these standards will allow vehicles to emit about one billion tons more carbon-dioxide, equal to about a fifth of U.S. annual emissions. Critics warn that Americans will also be exposed to more dangerous air pollution as a result, and will be forced to spend more on gasoline. Communities near oil-processing facilities and highways, which often consist of poorer Americans and people of color, will face the worst effects.

The EPA argues that the change will make automobiles cheaper, allowing more Americans to buy newer, safer cars. Although the EPA has previously found that the benefits outweigh the costs of the Obama-era rules, they now argue the opposite by citing a more recent study that researchers say is fundamentally flawed

Dakota Access Pipeline to double its oil under Iowa

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The path of the Dakota Access Pipeline (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Julia Poska | March 30, 2020

Oil flowing under Iowa through the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline will soon double, as permitted by the Iowa Utilities Board Friday.

Where there were previously 550,000 barrels of oil daily, there will be 1.1 million barrels,  according to the Des Moines Register.  The Register reported that the state determined risk of increased spill probability or volume to be low.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, which carries oil from the Dakotas to Illinois, was heavily protested in 2016 and 2017 by the Standing Rock Sioux and allies. Critics feared that the pipeline, which passes under the Missouri River, would contaminate water supplies on the Standing Rock Reservation.

The Iowa Utilities Board order occurred two days after a federal judge on Wednesday ordered a major environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline to more thoroughly assess risk of environmental contamination.


New Research Shows Electric Vehicles Really Do Produce Fewer Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions Than Fossil Fuel Powered Vehicles

Maxwell Bernstein | March 27, 2020

Myths based around the “greenness” of the production and use of electric vehicles have been debunked. New research shows that a push for electric vehicles will produce less total heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions than the production and use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

Skeptics of electric vehicles thought that the overall production and implementation of electric vehicles would create more greenhouse gas emissions than our current system. 

Researchers in University of Exeter, England; Cambridge University, England; and Nijmegen University, Netherlands recently found that the production and use of electric vehicles produce 30% less greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. than those of gas powered cars. 

Their findings also showed electric vehicles produced 70% less greenhouse gas emissions in France and Sweden because their renewable-centric electric grids reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from the charging of electric vehicles. 

The research found that electric cars are more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel powered vehicles in most countries except for some exceptions, like Poland, who’s power grid consists of 80% coal. 

Cars and trucks that run on gas account for one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Researchers from several universities in England found that using electric vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions without a change in lifestyle, making widespread use of electric vehicles more promising and likely to reducetotal greenhouse gas emissions. 

Researchers find ways to preserve farmland with prairie

Tyler Chalfant | March 26th, 2020

Researchers are finding ways that prairie grasses could help make farming more sustainable. At Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie Biological Station, located near Manhattan, Kansas, scientists are studying the natural prairie habitat that once covered most of Iowa and its neighboring Midwestern states. 

Iowa Public Radio recently interviewed researchers at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project. Jesse Nippert, a professor at Kansas State and the lead scientist for the Konza Prairie LTER Project, explained that controlled burns can help ecosystems survive the effects of climate change. “Without fire, the grasses would lose their dominance,” he said. Other types of plants, such as shrubbery and eventually trees will eventually take root. 

Precipitation events are predicted to grow both larger and more infrequent in this region as a result of climate change, meaning that both drought and flooding will become more common. This is a perfect setup for soil erosion, and which prairie grasses can help prevent. 

Scientists are studying what these drought conditions could look like by recreating the extreme conditions of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After much of the region’s soil, torn up by unsustainable farming practices, blew away, the natural ecosystem recovered within 20 years. “The species that live here in the Great Plains, these native species, are tremendously resilient,” Nippert said. 

Planting prairie strips near cropland is one way to limit soil runoff. Another option may be perennial crops, which don’t need to be planted every year. Researchers have developed perennial strands of wheat and rice. If widely implemented, perennial crops would decrease damage to the soil, as well as the amount of carbon released into the air.

Virginia sets targets for 100% clean energy

Image result for virginia clean energy
Photo from Piqsels

Tyler Chalfant | March 24th, 2020

Earlier this month, Virginia became the first southern state to set a target for 100 percent clean energy. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires the state’s two largest investor-owned utility companies to produce exclusively carbon-free electricity by 2050. 

Utility companies will also be required to reduce overall energy demand in the next five years, increasing energy efficiency and cutting back on costs for consumers. In a further effort to protect low-income consumers, the law creates the Percent of Income Payment Program, capping the amount consumers pay for electricity based on income.

Through the state’s new renewable portfolio standard, the utility companies must also increase their energy storage capacity, build offshore wind turbines, and inform their customers on how to save money through solar power. The cap on net metering will be raised from one to six percent.

The bill also instructs state agencies to develop a carbon cap-and-trade program, and for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program that most northeastern states have joined. Advocates for the new law say that Virginians will reap $69.7 billion in net benefits, and see up to 13,000 new jobs per year in the state.

Three ways to stay calm, go green while spending time at home

Microgreens are an easy, sustainable foray into indoors home gardening (via flickr).

Julia Poska | March 23, 2020

Over the last several weeks, people everywhere–including Iowa–have been increasingly encouraged or ordered to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Below are three ways to keep caring for Mother Nature while you care for yourself and your community during these unprecedented times.

1. No paper towels? No worries

With mass panic-buying wiping store shelves clean in recent weeks and non-essential excursions strongly discouraged, some households may worry about fulfilling their regular demand for paper products.

While disposable paper towels are great for the messiest of messes, consider using reusable cloths and rags are a more eco-friendly option for household cleaning.

2. No need for bottled water

While stocking up on bottled water might be tempting, there is no reason to believe the pandemic will impact household tap water. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources released a statement encouraging Iowans to continue using tap water as much as they can.

3. Grow your own microgreens

Doing some indoor home gardening will not only keep you busy, but create a hyper-local produce supply you don’t have to venture to the store for. Growing microgreens –seedlings of edible plants– is among the easiest ways to get started.

Spread potting soil in a shallow tray (consider reusing packaging from a container of berries or salad mix) sprinkle a layer of seeds on top and cover with a very thin layer of soil. Kept in a sunny spot and sprayed with water to keep the soil damp, you can yield a microgreen crop every two weeks or so.

Sunflower, sweet pea and radish seeds (available online) are great options for getting started. The seedlings take on the flavor of the mature fruit or vegetable, making a great salad base or addition to other dishes. Get creative!