Controversial Manure Management Plan Approved By Iowa DNR


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | April 6th, 2021

Supreme Beef, a cattle operation stationed in northeastern Iowa, has had their proposed Manure Management Plan (MMP) approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The approval comes after a long series of hearings for the MMP that has faced scrutiny for the risk the plan poses to some of Iowa’s cleanest waters.  In particular, critics emphasized how unlikely it was that the cattle operation would evenly spread manure in the proposed 30 mile radius and that over application on farms closer to the feedlots could potentially pollute surface and groundwaters in the area. 

Northeastern Iowa is particularly susceptible to groundwater pollution from runoff and infiltration because of the porous karst topography found in the area.  Environmentalists who opposed the plan focused on Bloody Run Creek, a popular spot for fishing tourism because of the brown trout that can be found there, as an example of a pristine water that could be harmed by the IDNR’s decision. If the Creek was harmed Iowan’s could lose out on fishing tourism and the loss of one of the few “high quality” waters present in the state.

The Iowa Environmental Council has spoken out against the IDNR’s decision to approve the plan in a statement that took aim at the preferential treatment agriculture receives over environmental concerns.  

University of Iowa engineers receive $1 million to turn wastepaper into plastic


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Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | March 25, 2021

Earlier this month, University of Iowa engineers Xuan Song, Chao Wang, and H.S. Udaykumar, in partnership with Impossible Objects, Inc., received nearly $1 million from the REMADE Institute for their project to improve the speed and reduce the labor costs of remanufacturing recycled wastepaper. 

The project aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) and smart additive manufacturing (AM) technology to turn recycled paper and cardboard into high-value fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) composites. Aerospace, automotive, marine and construction industries use FRPs in most advanced engineering structures. Increasingly, FRPs have replaced heavier and more expensive infrastructure materials and systems, such as steel and concrete. 

The project is one of only 24 chosen in the latest round of funding by the REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership created by the United States Department of Energy. The institute provided a total of $43 million in research funding to support the development of new waste technologies in order to encourage a transition towards a circular economy.

Manufacturing currently makes up 22% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. Song, Wang and Udaykumar hope to address this and that their research will encourage widespread adoption of recycling wastepaper into FRP plastic. 

Microplastics And Biofilms Can Promote The Antibiotic Resistance Of Pathogens


Via Flickr

A recent study conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology demonstrated that biofilms formed on microplastic surfaces can serve as reservoirs for pathogens and promote antibiotic resistance.

Researchers found microplastic particles in wastewater treatment facilities boosted the antibiotic resistance of measured pathogens by around 30 times. Plastic surfaces are relatively hydrophobic which can result in the formation of biofilms that allow pathogens to interact with antibiotics in the wastewater.  When pathogens in the biofilms are able develop antibiotic resistance they can create a new challenge by sharing their resistance with other pathogens using antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).  Increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics has been labeled a significant global threat which is now likely to be influenced by the prevalence of microplastics our wastewater. 

Microplastics are either manufactured for products like toothpaste or handsoaps, and can also be found as debris from other plastic products.  These plastic pollutants have been detected across the globe in many different environments and they present a unique public health challenge.  Additionally, toxic chemicals are known to be attracted to plastic debris in the oceans which can then be released into organisms when they ingest plastics. 

We currently don’t fully understand how low level chronic exposure to microplastics and the contaminants they may release has on the human body, but there is evidence that these particles can act as endocrine disruptors and cause significant harm. 

U.S. Ships More Plastic Waste Overseas Despite New Global Restrictions


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Nicole Welle | March 15, 2021

Over 180 countries agreed last year to place strict limits on plastic waste exportation to poor countries, but new trade data from January shows that plastic exports from the United States have increased.

Participating nations met at Geneva in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, a treaty that places restrictions on shipping hazardous waste. The new addition makes it illegal for most nations to accept plastic scrap shipments unless they are in their purest form. However, the U.S. has continued to send large shipments overseas to poor countries in the months since the addition took effect in January, according to a New York Times article.

The lack of compliance likely stems back to the United States’ refusal to ratify the global ban. The U.S. is one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention, but it is still subject to its laws since participating nations are banned from trading with non-participating nations. So far, this has not stopped American companies from exporting more scrap plastic than ever. January reports showed that the U.S. exported 48 million tons that month, a 3 million-ton increase from the previous January.

The convention’s main goal was to reduce the amount of plastic wealthier countries, like the U.S., were shipping over to poorer countries. The waste often ends up in landfills, oceans or other natural landscapes instead of being recycled, and poorer nations often can’t safely handle the amount of waste coming in from the U.S. Of the 25 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. sent to poorer countries in January, much of it went to Malaysia, one of the convention’s participating countries. Advocates worry that continued lack of compliance on this level will cause more problems in the future. Even if receiving countries refuse to accept American plastic at their ports, American companies could refuse to take it back and find a way to send it elsewhere.

The U.S. government would need to pass legislation to ratify the convention, and it will remain limited in its ability to stop the exports until that happens.

New Report Suggests Human Health is Threatened by Plastics


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | December 22nd, 2020

A recent report by the Endocrine Society, and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) presents a concerning summary of the widespread health effects from plastic pollution.

Within the report, around 144 hazardous chemicals are highlighted because they are used in plastics for a variety of purposes, such as flame retardants, and because they are hazardous for human health.  These chemicals can leach from the plastic products throughout the entire lifespan of the material increasing the potential for human exposure.  Unfortunately, human exposure has been measured and the study reports that nearly everyone tested for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), tested positive.  While testing positive for EDCs doesn’t mean the person tested has acute health risks, little is known about what chronic exposure to a mix of the 144 chemicals culminates in.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that influence how hormones in the body behave and are commonly linked to developmental and reproductive issues.  Some of these chemicals are widely known, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), while others, such as Per- and Polyfluoroalkly substances (PFAS) are beginning to capture attention.

It is projected that plastic production is likely to increase within the next six years, and as plastic production increases, so too does human exposure to these harmful chemicals.  Effective public policy is needed to gain a better understanding of how the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing influence human health, and how to address human exposure to them.

Researchers Develop a New Process for Detecting and Removing Harmful Wastewater Pollutants


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Nicole Welle | June 29, 2020

A group of researchers at Swansea University came up with a new, more efficient way to detect and remove pollutants found in wastewater that come from pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

The research, published in Analytical Science Advances, outlines a one-step process for quantifying and separating a range of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly found in medicine and personal care products that often end up in wastewater sludge. This new method could increase our understanding of which pollutants may be released from these products and help reduce their effects on the environment, according to a Science Daily article.

Contaminated wastewater makes its way into rivers and streams or is recycled as fertilizer to be used on fields. Chemicals from certain pharmaceuticals have been found to negatively impact human health and some animal species that come into contact with them. For example, multiple species of vulture in Asia have become critically endangered after being regularly exposed to components of Diclofenac, a common non-steroidal inflammatory drug. Fish populations around the world are also decreasing after being exposed to female contreceptives that cause the feminization of male fish.

The new method will allow the detection and extraction of harmful compounds using one process where multiple where needed before. Researchers hope that this process will allow for future advances in the wastewater treatment process that will ensure these harmful pollutants are degraded or removed before they come into contact with humans and wildlife.

EPA releases FY 2019 Superfund Annual Accomplishments Report


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | June 16th, 2020

The EPA has released their annual accomplishment report for fiscal year 2019 and Iowa has two sites mentioned in the report. 

The Superfund Annual Accomplishment Report summarizes the work the EPA has done to clean up contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL).  The report also details the efforts being taken to improve the Superfund program based on recommendations made by the Superfund Task Force.  In FY 2019, the EPA fully deleted 12 sites and partially deleted 15 sites across the country.  There were 6 less deleted sites and 11 more partially deleted sites in 2019 over 2018.

Iowa saw two Superfund sites deleted from the NPL in 2019, one completely deleted, and the other only partially deleted.  The Electro Coating Inc. site in Cedar Rapids was deleted, making it the first Superfund site in Iowa to be closed since 2005, while the Shaw Avenue Dump site in Charles City was partially closed.  A partial closure means that some portions of the site still require clean up, while other portions are no longer a hazard to human health.

Superfund is the informal name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) passed in 1980.  CERCLA allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites across the country and to engage those responsible for the contamination.  Since CERCLA was passed, 424 sites have been removed from the list out of 1335 sites total.   

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


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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!

 

AP story showcases tension in Iowa over factory farming


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Large animal feeding operations (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | February 13, 2020

A news story published last week featured an Iowa farmer who illegally built to un-permitted barns containing about 2,400 hogs. State officials were unaware of the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for years. 

That farmer and others are fighting in what Associated Press correspondent John Flesher called a “battleground” in Iowa. Questions of pollution and regulation have inspired lawsuits, anti-CAFO alliances and neighborly tensions throughout the state, as animal feeding operations continue to proliferate.

Below are four key takeaways from Flesher’s in-depth report. Read the full-length story on apnews.com.

  1. The federal government relies state data for animal feeding operation data. In many cases, states keep tabs on only the largest operations (in Iowa, a true “CAFO” has a minimum of 1,000 species-variable “animal units” per confinement). The EPA counted about 20,300 CAFOs nationwide in 2018.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 450,000 animal feeding operations–places animals are raised in confinement (of any size)– nationwide.
  2. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources discovered thousands of previously undocumented animal feeding operations in 2017.  Some point to this case as proof of under-regulation, but state regulators said the discoveries indicated a well-functioning system.
  3. Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, especially large livestock operations need permits for discharging waste into waterways. Since such discharges are often unintended, however, state and federal environmental agencies can only mandate permits for operations caught discharging waste. In some cases, farmers have been able to make spill-proofing improvements instead of applying for permits.
  4. Studies show that livestock operations and anaerobically decomposing waste release massive amounts of ammonia and greenhouse gases. Because such emissions are difficult to measure, though, they are unregulated by the Clear Air Act. Studies have additionally correlated these emissions to human health issues such as childhood asthma. Cause/effect is impossible to prove, however.

 

UI enters final year for 2020 sustainability goals


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UI EV vehicle charging station (via a 2018 Office of Sustainability Report. )

Julia Poska | January 1, 2020

In 2010, former University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced the 2020 Vision: The University of Iowa’s Sustainability Targets. It laid out out sustainability goals to reach within the next decade, which began today. 

The goals were as follows:

1. Become a Net‐negative Energy Consumer

This goal indicated that the university should consume less energy in 2020 than it did in 2010, despite projected growth. Building energy consumption reports from The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) indicate energy energy consumption growth from 2005 to 2013 and 2013 to 2018. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council, though, provided data indicated that energy consumption was below the baseline, if baseline included projected consumption for new buildings.

2. Green Our Energy Portfolio

The document indicated that the University would consume 40% renewable energy in 2020. Since 2010, the university has increased production of energy through renewable biomass sources like oat hulls and miscanthus grass in the on-campus power plant. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council reported 17% renewable energy in 2017.

3. Decrease Our Production of Waste

This goal indicated that the university would “divert” (meaning recycle or compost” 60% of waste by 2020. The Office of Sustainability has since implemented a “tiny trash” program to encourage recycling and a dorm room composting program. The most recent data, for 2017, indicates a 38% diversion rate.

4. Reduce the Carbon Impact of Transportation

The university aimed to reduce per-capita fossil fuel emissions from campus transportation methods by 10%. A 2018 report to the university’s staff council reported a 14% reduction in per-capita transportation emissions, due in part to the campus’s fleet of electric vehicles and solar charging station.

 

5. Increase Student Opportunities to Learn and Practice Principles of Sustainability

6. Support and Grow Interdisciplinary Research in Sustainability‐focused and Related Areas

7. Develop Partnerships to Advance Collaborative Initiatives, both Academic and Operational

The last three goals provided qualitative measures, more difficult to measure and assess directly. The university undoubtedly provides  sustainability opportunities for students, in both practice and research, and has fostered numerous collaborative initiatives.

Stay tuned over the next 364 days to see whether these goals are fully met.