The debate about the environmental friendliness of Christmas trees continues


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Consumers debate about the environmental safety of real and fake trees. (istockphoto)
Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | December 7, 2017

Here’s a dilemma that’s common among Christmas-observing households around the holidays: Real tree or artificial tree?

The question goes a little further than skin-deep. There has long been a debate about the safety and eco-friendliness of the real tree versus the artificial tree, with parties on both sides presenting evidence for their claims. The goal, overall, is to figure out which one leaves a smaller carbon footprint–is it the fake tree, the one that you buy once and haul out of your closet every year for a decade, thus saving on transportation costs for the real tree? Or is it the real thing, a true Christmas pine tree, an all-natural, biodegradable organism that won’t be left in a landfill?

The numbers are tricky because they’re variable. A lot of the measurements depend on how the real tree was transported to a store or warehouse, how much fuel that took, how eco-friendly the harvesting process for real trees is. Fake tree fans usually make an interesting point: with a fake tree, you save literally a decade’s worth of production.

Real tree enthusiasts have their own retort: artificial trees are plastic. PVC plastic, actually. They are definitely reusable, but once they’re discarded, they end up in landfills and in the ecosystem with other bits of equally dangerous trash that will take years and years to break down properly. Most artificial trees are imported from China, but a consumer can more easily pick local businesses when searching for a real tree.

There is a general consensus that both options have their advantages and disadvantages. Whatever decision a consumer makes, researching before a purchase is one of the best ways to give back to the Earth this holiday season.

 

 

Environmental groups speak out about consequences of holiday consumerism


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This holiday season, environmental groups are reminding consumers that increasingly short-lived gadgets have an impact on the natural environment. (Curtis Palmer/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 29, 2017

U.S. shoppers spent $5 billion in 24 hours on Friday, making Black Friday 2017 a record haul for retailers. Whether it’s purchased online or in stores, the new Hatchimal or the Nintendo Switch, environmental activists warn that consumers should think twice about the impact these goods have on the environment.

Greenpeace, an independent global campaigning organization, reported that electronic goods alone are expected to generate 50 million tons of waste in 2017. Electronic goods like smart phones and laptops make up the quickest growing waste stream worldwide, less than 16 percent of which is expected to be recycled this year. About one-third of e-waste that is recycled is sent overseas to countries like Kenya and Pakistan to be taken apart by workers that are not protected from the toxic materials that can be found inside electronic gadgets.

Plastic is also a primary contributor to waste during the holiday season. Used for everything from toys to wrapping paper to grocery bags, more than 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year with about 8 million tons of it dumped into oceans annually. Plastic can take more than 400 years to break down and has mounted to form two enormous plastic islands in the Pacific Ocean, one of which is estimated to be more than one million square miles in size.

Friends of the Earth environmental activist Julian Kirby asked of holiday shoppers, “If you don’t need it or want it then don’t give them your money. If you are going to take advantage of what’s purported to be lower prices then don’t rush into it, think about whether it’s the most sustainable and ethical product and whether you might be able to get a second hand version that’s able to do just as good a job.”

On The Radio – PCB sources located in schools


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Researchers found concentrations of PCBs to be higher indoors regardless of the school’s location. (Gordon Lew/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 31, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a recent University of Iowa study which revealed that dated building materials in schools release PCBs into the air.

Transcript: In the largest study of its kind, UI Researchers recently made important discoveries related to the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in schools.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Led by the Iowa Superfund Research Program, the study tested indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools for PCBs. PCBs are a class of manmade organic chemicals known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems in humans.

The study found that regardless of the school’s location, from Columbus Junction in rural Iowa to heavy industrial areas of East Chicago, concentrations of PCBs were higher indoors. PCBs were commonly used in construction and manufacturing through 1979. The research article, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, points to old window caulking and light ballasts as likely sources of PCBs in schools.

Research has shown that exposure to PCBs during childhood can cause significant neurological deficits, visual impairment and learning difficulties. Schools in the U.S. are not currently required to measure PCB concentrations.

For more information or to read the full study, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

CGRER co-director Dr. Jerry Schnoor comments on U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement


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Jerry Schnoor speaks with Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie at the COP21 climate conference in 2015. (CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | June 2, 2017

President Trump is expected to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a 2015 climate accord that committed most of the world’s nations to limiting greenhouse gases. CGRER co-director, Dr. Jerry Schnoor, responded to the White House’s decision in a statement authored on May 31, 2017:

           “President Donald Trump expects to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement this week. It is a sad time for U.S. leadership in the world. We should remain in the Agreement that we faithfully signed for important environmental, political, and economic reasons.

Climate change is already here – even in Iowa – and it is going to get much worse if we do not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions that are accumulating in the atmosphere and heating the planet. We recognize climate change in the Cedar Rapids flood of 2008, from which we are still recovering, and the (extremely unusual) Cedar River Basin flood of September last year. Temperatures are warmer, especially at night and in the winter. Intense precipitation is more severe and frequent. It is a wetter/warmer Iowa with more humidity in the air and greater runoff in our rivers.

At the global scale, ice is breaking and melting – in the Arctic, Greenland, Antarctica and land-based continental glaciers everywhere. Animals, which depend on the ice for fishing and hunting, like polar bears, are in trouble. Oceans are 30% more acidic than 50 years ago due to carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, subsequently bleaching coral reefs and undermining fisheries. More frequent droughts and floods affect agriculture and food supplies. Sea level is rising and already influencing real estate prices and the number of days with “clear sky” flooding in the streets in Miami. Impacts on human health, heat stroke, air quality, pollen, emphysema and asthma, and the migration of mosquitoes and ticks as vectors of disease are especially worrisome.

Politically, the U.S. is losing its credibility in the world as a stable partner whether one speaks of the Paris Climate Agreement, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or NATO. Once broken, trust is hard to restore. America First means everyone else be damned, and friends can be difficult to find in times of need. Moral and ethical reasons would dictate that the richest country, which dumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, should be the first to act. I stood in Paris with representatives from the most vulnerable nations like the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and the Maldives, who are already losing whole islands to sea level rise and abandoning ancestral homes. I listened in Paris to coastal nations like Bangladesh, Senegal, Mozambique, and the Philippines, embattled by improbable storm surge and increasingly powerful storms. And my heart cries for the children of drought and famine in South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. These vulnerable countries profited the least from the fossil fuel age, but they suffer the most.

It is not often when 194 countries agree on anything. What makes the Paris Climate Agreement unique is that for the first time, nearly every nation (rich and poor alike) agreed on an equitable “bottom-up” plan to decrease emissions and to fund the most vulnerable nations. It is certainly not a perfect agreement, and it does not go far enough to stem the tide of climate change. More will be needed.

But the U.S. will not be a party to the agreement, and that is a major economic mistake. It is quite possible that China and President Xi Jinping will step into the limelight and lead the world forward. After all, China is already the world’s leading producer of solar photovoltaic panels and wind power. Interestingly, the Chinese written word for “crisis” has two characters. One character means “danger”, and there is certainly danger in the effects of climate change, both now and in the future. The other character stands for “opportunity”. It is the economic opportunity that the U.S. will miss, which China realizes fully. Transitioning from the fossil fuel age represents a great opportunity to create jobs, wealth, and prosperity for our children and for future generations. Iowa has already benefitted tremendously from wind power, turbine manufacturing, and energy efficiency. We stand to profit as well from solar photovoltaics, if we can but understand the crisis of climate change.”

Jerry Schnoor is Professor of Environmental Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. He attended the Paris Climate Convention in December 2015 as an official member of the media.

UI researchers take part in “Lake Michigan Ozone Study”


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2013-2015 graph of ozone in the Midwest showing high ozone levels along the coast of Lake Michigan. Ozone levels above 70ppb violate the new ozone standard established by the EPA. (Rob Kaleel / SSEC)
Jake Slobe | October 17, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the Lake Michigan Ozone Study.

Transcript: Researchers at the University of Iowa are taking part in a collaborative field campaign to better understand the sources and transport of ozone near Lake Michigan.

This is the Environmental Focus.

The Lake Michigan Ozone Study is a joint effort of scientists at the University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and other research institutions to gain useful information about the concentration of ozone along all sides of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, the study’s objectives include an evaluation of current regional ozone models and the effect of Lake Michigan’s breeze circulation on ozone transport.

Communities with little industrial activity on all sides of Lake Michigan have consistently experienced ozone levels higher than the EPA’s limit of 70 parts per billion.

Project organizers are still seeking additional  funding in order to install high tech, real-time monitors at various ground measurement sites in the region.

For  more information about the Lake Michigan Ozone Study, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Iowa State’s agricultural and biosystems engineering program ranks best in country


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Bird’s eye view of Iowa State University’s new Biorenewables Complex which was completed in 2014. (Iowa State University.)
Jake Slobe | October 12, 2016

Iowa State University’s agricultural and biosystems engineering undergraduate program was recently ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges.

The report stated that, “Students who enroll at this major research, land-grant university experience a unique personal, welcoming environment, and a rich collection of academic and extra-curricular programs that help them discover their own individual greatness.”

Department Chair Steven Mickelson credits much of the ranking to the university’s new Biorenewables Complex. The complex, consisting of Elings Hall, Sukup Hall and the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, opened in 2014 and offers cutting-edge classrooms and laboratories.

While the new complex has been significant in boosting the level of ISU’s engineering department, it is just one of many changes within the program in the last few years.

In the summer of 2013, ISU teamed up with the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) to invest in a 3-D metal printer that will contribute to students’ learning. The new laser printer has been building parts for Iowa manufacturers since last fall and allows students to learn about the advantages of adopting metal 3D printing as part of the design and manufacturing process.

The department has also recently acquired a state-of-the-art water flume.  The new water flume allows students to simulate Iowa streamflow which assists them in crop research.

“These two new pieces of technology are used for teaching and learning that gives great experience to help students with jobs and research,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson also attributes the ranking to the program’s growth in undergraduate and graduate students. The program has seen a 46 percent increase in undergraduate students and a 25 percent increase in graduate students over the last 5 years.

He emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning experiences in the classroom. He says hands-on learning curriculum accounts for 38 percent of all classes in the department.

“Hiring high-quality faculty, getting the right people on the bus to being with is what makes this department great.”

Iowa scientists urge action on Climate-Smart Agriculture


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 Jake Slobe | October 5, 2016

Iowa researchers and educators at nearly every college and university in the state have produced annual statements describing the real impacts Iowans are experiencing from climate change.

Released today, the sixth annual statement titled, “Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture,” was signed by 187 science faculty and researchers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities. Listen to the statement here:

This year’s climate statement comes shortly after a month of heavy rain and flooding throughout Iowa.

Director of  Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University David Courard-Hauri has been involved with the Iowa Climate Statement since its inception in 2011. He says,

“Iowa’s recent extreme rainfall events and flooding reminds us that climate change is real and needs to be addressed on both the farm and in our communities.” 

This year’s statement illustrates the need and benefits of more widespread adoption of proven soil conservation practices. Specifically, it discusses U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack’s initiative, Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture. The USDA plans to implement climate-smart agriculture primarily by increasing incentive-based programs allowing farmers to confront these challenges head on.

Co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research Jerry Schnoor said that Iowan farmers are beginning to experiencing real impacts from climate change in the forms heavier rains, increased flooding and soil erosion.

“We believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.  We urge our representatives to help Iowa’s innovative farmers and land managers establish a multi-faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs.” 

More information about this year’s climate statement as well as all previous Iowa climate statements can be found here.