Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Support for plant meats doesn’t translate to buying

More people support plant-based meats in theory than are willing to buy them in practice, a survey of Finnish shoppers has found. 

The survey determined that while shoppers at Finland’s largest grocery chain tended to agree that they should eat less red and processed meat — and more legumes and fish — red meat still accounted for about 63 percent of their protein purchases, according to the study in PLoS Sustainability and Transformation. 

Plant-based proteins made up only 8 percent of weekly purchases, the study found. 

“Despite the media hype and accumulating evidence supporting sustainable protein sources” consumer purchases were dominated by “red meat preference and low regard for plant-based options,” the authors said in a statement

Red meat, particularly beef, generates the most greenhouse gas emissions of any food, according to Our World in Data.

Two wrinkles: The study looked only at people in Finland and included disproportionately more highly educated and high-income people — as well as more women — relative to the population at large. 

The barrier is preference, not price: “Low income does not appear to be a barrier to buying more sustainable alternatives, as there is a wide price range within all protein sources,” researchers found. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at this week’s second oil spill in Michigan’s Flint River. Then we’ll take a look at how geothermal energy in Iceland has powered a circular economy of related businesses, from fish and algae farms to swimming pools and breweries.

Oil seeps into Flint River

For the second time in one week, thousands of gallons of a still-unidentified oil-based material spilled into Michigan’s Flint River on Wednesday, raising the concern of environmental activists in the region.   

  • Officials from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy estimated that the spill amounted to several thousand gallons and that first responders were deploying a boom across the river to absorb the material, MLive reported. 
  • The spill spanned about 5 miles long, according to the outlet.    

Activists fear for safety: “For the second time in one week, we have infrastructure that has been called safe and has failed, leaking oil into our waterways and we know it’s not going to be able to be fully cleaned up,” Sean McBrearty, coordinator of the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, told MLive. 

A slippery history: “No oil spill has ever been fully cleaned up,” added McBrearty, whose campaign is fighting to shut down Enbridge Line 5, a pipeline that sends crude oil and natural gas from western to eastern Canada via the Great Lakes states.  

The previous spill, which originated at the Algoma Steel Mill in Ontario, dumped about 5,300 gallons of machine-lubricating oil into the river about a week ago, MLive noted.

Drinking water not in danger: Officials said that the region’s drinking water was not threatened as a result of the spill, The Associated Press reported.  

Flint last used the river as a drinking water supply in 2014-15, until contamination  from lead prompted the city to return to a regional water supplier.

Ticking time bomb: Following Wednesday’s spill, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters described the consecutive events as “a wakeup call” that the government should shut down the pipeline.  

The two spills “should be taken as a clear warning of the danger of oil pipelines in our waters,” Bentley Johnson, federal government affairs director for Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.  

“Our water and our health are clearly threatened,” Johnson added, describing the system as a “ticking time bomb in our Great Lakes.”


Humans are responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s oil slicks, a new study has found. 

These findings represent a significant shift from previous investigations, which estimated that about half came from human sources and half from natural ones, according to the study, published on Thursday in Science.  

  • Researchers from the U.S. and China said they teamed up to map oil pollution across the Earth’s oceans, using artificial intelligence to scrutinize more than 560,000 satellite images from 2014 to 2019.
  • Because oil slicks are made of microscopically thin layers on the surface of the ocean, short-lived patches are constantly moving around with the wind, currents and waves, according to the scientists. But artificial intelligence enabled the researchers to analyze the huge collection of radar images. 

Oil spills big and small: “What’s compelling about these results is just how frequently we detected these floating oil slicks,” co-author Ian MacDonald, a professor at Florida State University, said in a statement.  

The slicks came “from small releases, from ships, from pipelines, from natural sources such as seeps in the ocean floor and then also from areas where industry or populations are producing runoff that contains floating oil,” according to MacDonald.  

  • The researchers found that most were near coastlines — about half were within 25 miles of the shore and 90 percent were within 100 miles, according to the study. 
  • They observed fewer slicks in the Gulf of Mexico in comparison to the rest of the world, which they attributed to the effectiveness of government regulation and enforcement.   

Importance of our coasts: In the U.S., coastal waters support many key fish species and provide habitat for 85 percent of migratory bird species to breed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

A potential global solution: “If we can take those lessons and apply them to places globally, where we have seen high concentrations of oil slicks, we could improve the situation,” MacDonald said. 

Geothermal energy powering the circular economy

Using the byproducts of one industry to help support the green development of others is a central component of the circular economy.

The Hill this week visited two Iceland “resource parks” built around geothermal energy to see this process in action.

  • What’s geothermal again?: This type of energy relies on tapping heat from deep within the Earth for power. (For more on geothermal energy and its central role in Iceland, check out our dispatch from Wednesday.) 
  • Why it’s key: Optimizing geothermal resources and creating markets for material that would otherwise go to waste are essential in places like Iceland, which fulfills nearly all its electricity and heat demand from renewable energy.

By taking a circular approach to geothermal energy, Iceland’s power producers turn the resource’s waste products into ingredients — and revenue streams — for other industries.

Multiple use: “You can imagine it as we use the same drop of water many times,” Árni Magnússon of GeoSurvey, which develops geothermal resources, told Equilibrium. 

  • For example, the nearly 400-degree Fahrenheit steam that powers the HS Orka’s Svartsengi power station goes first to turn a turbine.
  • Then, once it has cooled to below the boiling point, the heat is drawn off through heat exchangers and used for applications like warming greenhouses and fishponds or processing cosmetics.  

How do you draw off heat? The process is completed by using a heat exchanger, where a pipe containing cold water runs next to — and draws heat from — a closed loop of hot water. 

The heat from the geothermal water warms up the cold water — which can then be used to move heat energy to houses, factories or businesses. 

Practical benefits: The exchange of heat without mixing water means that brewery Ölverk can use geothermal waste heat to boil water “without our beer smelling of farts,” CEO Laufey Sif Lárusdóttir told Equilibrium, referring to the characteristic hydrogen sulfide smell that can accompany geothermal steam. 

Baths and tomatoes: In many parts of Iceland, for example, the heat serves to warm swimming pools and the country’s famous thermal baths or power commercial greenhouses that grow peppers and tomatoes.  

Sharing streams: The particular needs of geothermal energy provide many niches for other businesses to fill, creating new economies of scale. 

  • For example, geothermal plants draw cold water out of the ground to cool their turbines — and inject the warmed-up water back into the ground where it can replenish the pressure in the steam chambers below.
  • This cycle yields additional products — from brine, cold water, steam and even carbon dioxide — that other businesses can use.


By placing many different industries near geothermal plants, plant operators are able to create “ecosystems” of green businesses that use each other’s byproducts or infrastructure to lower costs and raise profits. 

  • For example, startup Vaxa grows algae to produce protein and Omega-3 fatty acids for use in supplements and by lab-grown meat products using water, electricity and waste heat from the Hellisheiði Power Station power plant in southwest Iceland.
  • Most indoor algae farms struggle with discharging excess heat from their LED grow lights — but Vaxa is able to dump its heat into cold water drawn by the plant, rather than having to pay for electricity to cool it.  

The warmed-up water then rejoins, and is sent back underground along with, the wastewater stream from the power plant, where it helps maintain the pressure that drives the geothermal energy process.  

“The science we use would work anywhere, but the economics depend on geothermal,” Vaxa founder and CEO Kiddi Hafliðason told Equilibrium. 

  • Amid the lichen-covered lava fields around the Svartsengi power station, about 30 miles from Reykjavik —  which is owned by HS Orka, Iceland’s largest private geothermal company — several businesses turn the plant’s waste streams into profit.
  • Land-based aquaculture firms like nearby Samherji fish farm, for example, draw heat from the water leaving the plant — allowing the farm’s managers to run operations 30 to 40 percent cheaper than if they had to buy electricity to heat the water themselves. 

Expanding further: These economies of scale have helped HS Orka to host a mutually-reinforcing array of businesses at their Resource Park, manager Dagný Jónsdóttir told Equilibrium, noting that they are looking for additional businesses that can make use of the waste from existing businesses. 

The Resource Park is in talks with fertilizer producers, who could buy the waste from fish farms, Jónsdóttir added — describing the fish feces from land-based arctic char and steelhead farms as an additional revenue stream. 

Why bother capturing that waste? The answer may be obvious. “We make money off it,” Jónsdóttir said. “Every stream, we sell for money.”  

Among the most problematic waste streams to come off a geothermal power plant — or any other thermal plant — is carbon dioxide, a primary culprit in global warming.

On Friday, Equilibrium will explore efforts to capture the gas and turn it into stone. This reporting is supported in part by Green by Iceland, a public-private partnership.

Water Wednesday

Heat kills thousands of Kansas cattle, residents without tap water in West Texas and feral cats threaten the tiny marsupials of Kangaroo Island. 

Extreme heat kills Kansas cattle 

  • Thousands of Kansas cattle have died in the past few days due to high heat and humidity, further straining an industry that is struggling amid extreme weather and escalating production costs, The Washington Post reported. 

West Texas town waterless in a heat wave 

Feral cats threatening Australian marsupial: study 

  • Predatory cats are threatening the survival of the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart — a mouse-sized marsupial found only on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, a new study in Scientific Reports has found.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.



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