This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how an extremely remote island in the Pacific ocean bares the highest litter density in the world.
Transcript: Henderson Island is one of the most remote islands in the world and is also the most affected by pollution from plastic debris.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
When researchers traveled to the tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the island.
The island is situated at the edge of the South Pacific gyre, where ocean currents meet in a vortex that captures floating trash, carrying some of it from as far away as Scotland.
Over 99 percent of the debris on the island is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments. The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based refuse likely produced most of the debris.
The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Dr. Craig Just is an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. Up for tenure this summer, Dr. Just teaches graduate level courses along with an undergraduate principles of environmental engineering course. His research interests range from freshwater mussels’ impacts on the nitrogen cycles in rivers and streams to the fate of explosive chemicals once they are released into the natural environment. Iowa Environmental Focus caught up with Dr. Just to discuss his research on wastewater treatment in smaller communities.
Jenna Ladd: I wanted to focus on your wastewater treatment research in smaller communities. So, why can’t people in smaller communities flush their toilets affordably?
Dr. Craig Just: So, in a town like Iowa City, we just had an over $15 million expansion to our wastewater treatment plant but that cost was spread, you know, among a population base of 75,000 or 80,000 people so the per person cost for such an advance treatment system is under probably a thousand bucks each, give or take, prorate over a certain amount of time. But for smaller towns, who have increasingly rigorous environmental regulations they have to meet, particularly with respect to the discharge of ammonia and bacteria, they’re small so when you have to do a technology upgrade, it’s more expensive per resident and that’s one of the main issues. The other issue is that it also becomes more expensive then to pay an operator for the plant, someone that has the expertise needed to operate an increasingly more sophisticated treatment system. So, then you have to spread that cost amongst a small population base as well and so both of those factors are really scaling issues that, really, small towns have a problem dealing with compared to some other places. Those are some of the main issues going on there.
Jenna Ladd: How were those issues brought to your attention?
Dr. Craig Just: Sometimes it’s with screaming mayors at small town hall meetings. I’ve been going to Des Moines to talk about this issue since at least 2005. Legislators know it’s a problem, their constitutes tell them it’s a problem. In 2010, I was one of the co-leaders of what’s known as the faculty engagement tour. We get faculty who are typically stuffed in their offices and labs and we stuff them in a bus and took them all around Iowa to say, “You know, here are the people that pay your salaries, really, in a way, and let’s be aware.” So, we had a town hall meeting in Goodell, Iowa, town of about 225 people facing a $2.2 million waste water treatment plant upgrade bill and the mayor of that town and the mayor of three or four other towns came to this meeting. Over 100 people showed up to this meeting in all that was left of the school, the old gymnasium. The school’s gone….Everybody came out, it was such a big deal. People were mad, they were shouting. They viewed me as part of the cultural elite who wasn’t doing enough for them in rural Iowa, and that we were putting unrealistic environmental constraints on them that led them to essentially go bankrupt as a town. So I’ve heard it in casual conversation, I’ve heard legislators talk about it, I’ve heard it in town hall meetings. Candidly, at this point it’s hard for me to get away from. I’m from rural Iowa, you know, that’s where I’m from. So I’ve seen it first hand, it’s not hard to see.
JL: Are these newer wastewater treatment regulations or are communities just kind of playing catch up to those regulations that were already in place?
CJ: They’re new, and I would say that they’re based at the federal level. I would say one of the things that’s happening, and it’s a challenge for Iowa in particular, so the population in the U.S. has gone up. I think in just the U.S. alone, we’re up to like 330 million people now, whatever, 50 years ago, I think it was like 200 million or something. I don’t know those numbers, but the point is the overall population density has been going up. Most towns in these watersheds that have a discharge into a stream, most of them have gotten more dense so then you have to have more stringent regulations to not kill the stream. But when you apply those things at the federal level for the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, it kind of puts a disproportionate burden on the places that haven’t grown. In fact, in rural Iowa, it’s less dense but then you still have to meet these federal standards which are somewhat one-size-fits all and so, I don’t disagree with the fact that the federal standards have become more strict but it’s difficult to apply it in a place that’s population and tax base isn’t growing. It puts rural Iowa at a very special pinch point where those two things converge.
JL: Are there any solutions you’ve come up with for this problem?
CJ: Well, first of all, there are already some alternative technologies, they’re called, that are approved in Iowa that are robust and more affordable, not as affordable as you might like but still more affordable. So, one of the things that we’re doing in partnership with H.R. Green Consulting Engineers, one of our alums there Matt Wildman has really kind of led the use of this technology in Iowa. We’ve partnered with them and the community of Walker, Iowa to extensively test one of these alternative technologies called—it’s a lagoon modification—a submerged attached growth reactor, essentially rocks in a box. A couple lagoons. The lagoons are aerated, they take care of some of the wastewater issues and then it goes to these rocks in a box where the bacteria then are attached to the rocks, they further covert the ammonia with aeration to nitrate, which you can still legally discharge in Iowa—it’s a fertilizer though. It doesn’t solve all of our problems if you look at the broader watershed problems with respect to nutrient discharges, but yet it removes the acute toxicity associated with ammonia discharges. So, that works out well in many regards. It still doesn’t solve all the problems because at least, approximately half the cost of the system is just the pipes that collect the waste from each house and those systems are deteriorating in these towns as well. So, even if we’re improving the system at the end of all those pipes it still kind of tricky to deal with that.
I’m even thinking of almost having your toilet be more like an appliance where you don’t have to convey your waste someplace else. If we could find a way to do that, almost like a compost toilet would work, the composting waste you’d have to collect. The nice thing about that sort of a mentality is you could then use that waste as a resource because there are nutrients in there, there is energy value in that waste. Right now we send it to a lagoon and then one of these box of rocks with bacteria, we treat it but we don’t harvest any of the energy…in fact, we have to put energy in. I think if we could find ways to do that, even in these small towns, then it would make them more sustainable. It would give them extra resources that I think would be valuable. So in the future, I think it would be valuable to maybe not have these lagoons at all. Especially for these towns that are increasingly small, you know, like 600 people or less.
But anyway, so I’m thinking even longer term, but in the short-term, these alternative technologies are better. One of the things that we’ve been able to do then, with all this data collection that’s been going on in Walker since 2013 is now, we can more appropriately size the technology. Since we didn’t have very much data before, we kind of over-sized it in the name of kind of a safety factor. Now with data, we can shrink the size which then makes it cheaper. So that’s where the researcher comes in. As a researcher, I can come in, get this data, say “No, it doesn’t need to be this big” and then work with Iowa Department of Natural Resources to get that approved. That just recently happened. So, now going forward this particular technology can now be about a third smaller, which would have saved Walker, Iowa about $150,000 on a 2.5 million project. That’s real money. 750 people and $150,000 saved, that would be a lot. You multiple that across the nearly 800 or 900 communities these technologies are targeting so that’s a lot of money that Iowans can save. That’s kind of where research and the practical nature of trying to make things affordable come together. Sizing things appropriately so they still work and then making sure the operators still know how to handle any disruptions and understand why things do get disrupted from time to time.
JL: Are you communicating with people working to solve these problems in rural communities in other states?
CJ: In general, Iowa is a little bit behind. Even our peers on our borders: Minnesota would be ahead of us in many regards, some other places too. A lot of these alternative technologies have been utilized in warmer climates. Since they’re biological processes, the bacteria work better when they’re warm, just like you or I do. I don’t move so fast when I’m cold and neither do bacteria. So the challenge for Iowa has been even though some other states have been embracing these alternative technologies more readily, they are easier case studies too. So really, for Iowa, it’s been “How do we manage the cold weather?” that we have and “Will these systems still work when it’s cold?” So, we’ve applied what we can from other states in trying to catch up and now we have to deal with that in our own Iowa circumstance going forward. So yeah, we’ve learned from other places, but we still have to make sure we deal with, you know, Iowa’s situation.
JL: In what ways does this research relate to your teaching?
CJ: Increasingly, developing countries, where again you lack a population base and kind of a resource base and a tax base, some of the challenges are like rural areas in the United States. They’re kind of falling into some of those same categories sometimes so I want our engineers that graduate from our program to understand the rural dilemma. It’s relatively easy to be an engineer when you have all the resources you need, you got money. Yeah, shoot, design away, and it’s fun to kind of do it like that, but when you have to apply your engineering skills and really your community engagement skills at the same time to try to make a difference in a community that’s struggling just to keep their doors open, that’s a cool place. That’s very satisfying and rewarding for an engineer to be operating there. So I’m encouraging our students to do that in some way or another so when they go out into engineering and consulting, they’ll be aware of the issues that small rural communities face in contrast to what growing, urban areas face: fundamentally different engineering problems.
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.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is working to win over some U.S. homeowners who may be hesitant to install solar panels because of their bulky appearance. The company is introducing solar cell roof tiles to the market this summer that look just like conventional roofing options. The tiles are made of tempered glass, allowing the sun’s rays to reach solar cells tucked away within them. With four styles available: textured, smooth, tuscan and slate, the tiles are made to please the style-conscious homeowner.
The glass tiles come with a lifetime warranty and can allegedly handle hailstones traveling at 100 miles per hour with ease. Tesla compared this to conventional roof tiles, which shattered under the same conditions. Each tile’s solar cell is guaranteed to last 30 years.
The company started taking preorders in early May. It will begin installing roofs in California this June and complete installations throughout the country in the months that follow.
Environmental conservationists and hunters joined forces to oppose House Bill 621 after Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz announced it last week. The bill would have ordered the Department of Interior to immediately sell off 3.3 million acres of “disposable” land across ten western states, claiming that the land served “no purpose for taxpayers.”
Jason Amaro is a sportsman with the south-west chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said, “Last I checked, hunters and fishermen were taxpayers. That word ‘disposal’ is scary. It’s not ‘disposable’ for an outdoorsman.” Public lands in the Western U.S. provide habitat for elk, gray wolves, and grizzly bears, a vast playground for outdoor enthusiasts, and can be leased out for timber, oil, and gas extraction. The Wilderness Society values the national outdoor recreation economy at just over $646 billion.
Chaffetz said he feared the bill “sent the wrong message” on Thursday and pledged to rescind it on Friday. The Tea Party Republican commented below an Instagram photo of himself wearing hunting gear outdoors. He said, “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.” Chaffetz’s comment came after many opponents of the bill overwhelmed his Instagram account with comments asking him to “#keepitpublic” and “say no to HR 621.”
Although President Trump is in favor of utilizing more public lands for oil and gas extraction, he has stated that he is opposed to selling off federally owned lands. In an interview with Field & Stream, he said, “I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.” The President is also opposed to giving states ownership of public lands. He added, “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”
The report states that despite Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction plan, recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that the size of the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico has shown no improvement. Iowa Policy Project, an Iowa City-based research group, also posits that the latest annual report from NRS overstates progress that has been made in the state. The NRS report notes that some producers have implemented conservation land-use practices such as cover crops and buffer zones, but doesn’t emphasize that others have failed to maintain or eliminated conservation areas. Among other criticisms, IPP points out that while the Iowa acres in cover crop did increase by 125,000 acres from 2014 to 2015, these improvements must be considered in context. There are a total of 400,000 acres currently in cover crop, but this only represents less than 2 percent of Iowa’s 24 million acres of row crop land.
Many of the conservation efforts are voluntary for farmers in Iowa. IPP reports that more than 40 percent of farmers spent less than $500 a year in conservation practices in the ten year period prior to a 2014 Farm and Rural Life Poll by Iowa State University. Another report released by the Mississippi River Collaborative in November said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to establish “enforceable regulations, specific deadlines or funding” to help Iowa and other agricultural states mitigate their nutrient pollution. Kris Sigford, water quality director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and member of the Mississippi River Collaborative said, “The results of the EPA’s hands-off approach with the Mississippi River basin states are massive algae blooms and nitrate contamination that make our drinking water unsafe and render lakes and rivers unfit for recreation.” EPA responded with a statement on Thursday stating that the agency has “called upon states and stakeholders to intensify their efforts” to address the issue, one of America’s “most widespread and costly environmental and public health challenges.” They added, however, that they “cannot solve nutrient pollution by top-down federal action.”
EPA’s comments follow a record-breaking summer of Iowa beach closures due to toxic algae blooms. The Mississippi River Collaborative, which has sued EPA for its lack of enforcement, and other environmental groups call the federal agency to set limits on nutrient pollution for states, improve nutrient assessment and water-quality monitoring for Iowa’s waterways and to clearly establish goals and funding for nutrient-reduction initiatives. The collaborative also supports a sales tax increase of three-eighths of one cent to fund water quality projects through the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Susan Heathcote, the Iowa Environmental Council’s water program director, points out that if the sales tax revenue is established, “we need to pair that with good accountability measures so we can tell the taxpayers that these dollars are being invested wisely — that we have a plan.”
Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of ISU’s Center for Building Energy Research, is the lead faculty researcher. Passe said, “There’s so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model.” Passe added that city planners and officials need to have “a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management.”
Passe’s team of 16 researchers from over a dozen disciplines is working closely with Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager. Sanders said, “The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities.” Sanders noted that citywide interest in sustainability is on the rise, he said, “The demand far outweighs the city’s ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints. The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritize the city’s investments has never been higher.”
The project is focusing its efforts on communities in east Des Moines such as Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park. Linda Shenk, associate professor of English at ISU, is also involved in the study. She said, “We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection.” For her part, Shenk has been discussing climate change and brainstorming local solutions with neighborhood groups and high school students. Meanwhile, other researchers in the neighborhoods are gathering data about how citizens interact with their city, communities, and homes using computational thermal-physical models.
Other ongoing projects include a tree inventory in the Capital East neighborhood and energy efficiency research through controlled experiments at ISU’s net-zero energy Interlock house located at Honey Creek Resort State Park. The study’s goal for this year is to compile data about human behavior related to energy use. Moving forward, Passe said, “Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience.”