Iowa passes new bill on advanced plastic recycling


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Pyrolysis technology can recycle the bottles inside these bags AND the bags (flickr).

Julia Poska| April 12, 2019

The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.

The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly.  Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.

There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.

Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.

Burning plastics releases carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, albeit at fairly low rates  according to industry experts. Michigan State University Extension says gasoline and diesel produced from plastic appear to contain more energy and less carbon that traditional fossil fuels, too.

Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.

On The Radio- BP Oil


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Photo taken on April 3rd 2013 in Mauritania near Tiguent Parc-National-Diawling (jbdodane/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| April 8, 2019

This weeks segment looks at BP’s place in the coming decades with rising demands for renewable energy.

Transcript:

BP Oil and Gas has made energy demand predictions about the future—but are they accurate?

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

After the massive oil spill along the Gulf Coast in 2010, BP became known globally in a decidedly negative light.

Almost a decade later, and with settlement payments still being paid out, the energy company has thrown its weight behind renewable energy. BP outlines in its annual energy outlook that the planet could run on mostly renewable sources by 2040.

There is a small detail that some environmentalists find troubling, however; the BP report also lists an estimated rising global demand for energy well into the 2040s, while other scientific reports estimate that global demand will taper off and even out by the 2030s.

A rising global demand for energy is a given, as underdeveloped countries begin working on their infrastructure and making improvements for their citizens. But overestimating how much energy will be needed globally in the future could allow oil companies to continue selling more fossil fuels, even as renewable energy use grows.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

On The Radio- Endangered Insects


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contrabandbayou/flickr

Kasey Dresser| April 1, 2019

This weeks segment is not an April fools joke; bugs could disappear within the next century.

Transcript:

At their current extinction rate, insects could completely disappear within a century. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Insects are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, reptiles, and birds. One in three species is endangered, and the world’s total mass of insects has been dropping 2.5 percent annually, according to a new scientific review. 

It’s well known that losing bees will reduce pollination for some of our favorite fruits and nuts, but devastated insect populations will leave other critters hungry as well. Insectivores and their predators will starve if insects disappear. 

Researchers from the University of Sydney and the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences analyzed 73 previous studies to assess the state of global insect populations and determine the cause of decline. 

They believe intensive agriculture is the main driver. Wildland is increasingly converted to farmland, and new pesticides like neonicotinoids seem to “sterilize” the soil, killing larvae before they can move to safety, one researcher told the Guardian News.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

On The Radio- Insect based dog food


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(flickr/Buffalo)

Kasey Dresser| February 25, 2019

This weeks segment looks at new methods of creating dog food with less of an environmental impact. 

Transcript: 

A potential new insect based dog food could help the planet. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Meat production has been linked to increasing emissions of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This is the reason many environmental activists choose a vegetarian or vegan diet but humans aren’t the only mammals reliant on meat.

Pets are estimated to eat twenty percent of the meat produced world wide. A pet food manufacturer in the United Kingdom, Yora,  has introduced black solider flies as a protein substitute. Along with less emissions into the atmosphere, the black solider fly based dog food is cheaper to produce and requires less land and water.

At the Royal Veterinary College, pet diet expert Aarti Kathrani confirmed that soldier flies could meet a canine’s nutritional needs. She told the BBC,  “insects can be a very useful source of protein. More studies are needed to show how much of these nutrients can actually be absorbed by a dog’s body- but some studies suggest that insects can provide nutrients for dogs.”

Yora is not the only pet food manufacturer to use flies in their recipe but other manufacturers typically use only a small amount. Yora is currently planning to transition forty percent of their products to majority fly protein.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason. 

On The Radio- Brazil and the negative affects of hydropower


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Brazil’s flag (flickr/Rodnei Reis)

Kasey Dresser| February 18, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the negative impact of the Bela Monte Hyrdodam in Brazil. 

Transcript:

Hydropower is one of the world’s leading sources of renewable energy, but in some places it has come at a cost.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Hydropower accounts for over fourteen percent of all energy globally and about seventy percent of all renewable energy. Although dams help bring power to people, they can also have negative social and environmental consequences.

Researcher Emilio Moran is helping investigate the negative impact of the Bela Monte Hyrdodam in a developing area populated with indigenous communities. The dam is the third-largest in the world, and was built over Brazil’s Xingu (SHIN-GOO) River near the city of Altamira.

The new dams reduced the amount of fish that flow downstream, impacting the fishing yields of villages that rely on the river for their livelihoods. The project took three years to complete, and twenty thousand people were displaced from their homes during that time. Altamira’s population increased by sixty thousand during construction, and the city built hotels and attractions in response. After the dam was completed, however, those sixty thousand workers left, leaving many buildings vacant in their wake.

Hydropower is an important source of power, protecting Brazil from blackouts. It is also much cleaner than coal. But dams are not guaranteed generators of power, and their effectiveness can be altered by rainfall.

Emilio Moran and other researchers are only looking for some accountability, and are pushing for dam developers to mitigate the negative economic and social consequences before building.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

A database of every tree in Iowa City


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Tree found in Willow Creek Park (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Kasey Dresser| January 28, 2019

This month Iowa City published a data base of the 49,863 trees it maintains. On the interactive website, the trees are assessed on location, size, species and environmental benefit. Residents can engage with the website and search specific neighborhoods to find trees in your area.

Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department, Director Juli Seydell Johnson said, “The main benefit for residents is they can see the information that we have. For us, it’s about planning. We want to have diverse tree canopy in the city.”

A data base of the trees also tracks the environmental impact. Right now, Iowa City trees save $455,600 in energy and $221,000 in air quality. The trees also avoid more than 10 million pounds of carbon pollution and 55 million gallons of stormwater runoff.

If you’re interested to learn about the trees in your neighborhood, the data base can be found here.