Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — These lake bacteria like eating plastics

Some forms of aquatic bacteria will happily chow down on plastic pollution, potentially providing a new mechanism for cleaning up lakes, according to a new study. 

Bacteria extracted from 29 Scandinavian lakes grew faster and more efficiently on the remnants of plastic bags than on leaves and twigs, researchers revealed in a Nature Communications paper on Tuesday. 

The findings raise the possibility of new forms of environmental cleanup, University of Cambridge professor David Aldridge said in a statement. 

“Our study helps to identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution,” Aldridge said. 

The Cambridge team found that the simplified forms of energy provided by the plastics also helped “prime” the bacteria to tackle more complex organic molecules in lakes. 

This added boost to the bacteria also has knock-on effects for the broader ecosystem, Cambridge coauthor Andrew Tanentzap said. 

“It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going,” Tanentzap said, noting that digesting the plastic seemed to give the microbes the energy to break down more complex, natural food sources in the lake.  

That means “plastic pollution is stimulating the whole food web in lakes, because more bacteria means more food for the bigger organisms like ducks and fish,” Tanentzap added.

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 how the European Union is moving to save its limited gas supplies and examine the high costs to the U.S. posed by exposure to “forever chemicals.” Plus: Why farmers on the Southern Plains are racing to sell cattle.

EU to conserve gas amid fears of Russian cuts

Members of the European Union agreed on Tuesday to decrease their consumption of natural gas this winter — a day after Moscow announced further gas supply cuts to the bloc.  

EU energy ministers approved a draft law aimed at lowering demand for gas by
15 percent
 from August through March, The Associated Press reported.  

Voluntary, at least for now: While this legislation involves voluntary measures, it could lead to mandatory actions if the move does not yield enough savings, according to the AP.  

  • “Today’s decision has clearly shown the member states will stand tall against any Russian attempt to divide the EU by using energy supplies as a weapon,” Jozef Síkela, Czech minister of industry and trade, said in a statement. 
  • “Adopting the gas reduction proposal in record time has undoubtedly strengthened our common energy security,” Síkela added. 

Preparing for cuts: The EU’s declaration comes with the knowledge that significant gas reductions are on the way.  

On Monday, Russian state-controlled Gazprom had announced that it would be cutting gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20 percent capacity beginning on Wednesday, the AP reported.  

A ‘gas war’: After Gazprom announced the intended cuts, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a “gas war” against the continent, according to CNBC. 

“They don’t care what will happen to the people, how they will suffer from hunger due to the blocking of ports or from winter cold and poverty,” Zelenskyy said during his nightly address on the Telegram messaging app.  

Saving now, for later: But Síkela, the Czech minister, maintained on Tuesday that the EU’s voluntary measures of “saving gas now will improve preparedness.” 

“The winter will be much cheaper and easier for EU’s citizens and industry,” he added.

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‘Forever chemicals’ exposure could cost US billions

Daily exposure to toxic “forever chemicals” is expected to cost Americans billions of dollars over the current population’s lifetime, a new study has found. 

The associated increase in medical bills and decrease in worker productivity could generate economic losses between $5.52 billion and $62.6 billion, according to the study, published in the journal Exposure and Health on Tuesday.  

Forever chemicals refresher: Also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), these compounds are linked to a variety of illnesses, such as thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer. 

  • Known for their tendency to linger in the human body and in the environment, PFAS are most notorious for their presence in industrial discharge and firefighting foam. 
  • There are thousands of types of PFAS, many of which are also key ingredients in common household items.   

Harming health and the economy: “Our findings add to the substantial and still-mounting body of evidence suggesting that exposure to PFAS is harming our health and undermining the economy,” study co-author Linda Kahn, an assistant professor of pediatrics and population health at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement

Linking exposure to expenses: Kahn and her colleagues first determined approximately how many Americans were likely exposed to two types of PFAS in 2018.  

  • They identified exposures by using blood samples from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
  • Probing previous studies on links between specific diseases and PFAS, they narrowed their focus to five conditions: low birth weight, childhood obesity, kidney and testicular cancers and hypothyroidism. 
  • The authors then used existing models to quantify the national economic cost of medical bills and lost worker productivity associated with those conditions.   

What conditions took the greatest toll? Their research revealed that childhood obesity resulting from PFAS exposure was the biggest contributor, costing about $2.65 billion. 

Hypothyroidism in women, a condition in which the thyroid fails to release sufficient hormones into the bloodstream, cost about $1.26 billion, according to the study. 

The costs could be even higher: When expanding the scope of their research to include eight other conditions that only have preliminary links to PFAS exposure, the authors estimated that the financial burden could soar as high as $62.6 billion. 

Some such conditions included endometriosis, obesity in adults and pneumonia in children. 

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Drought has cattle ranchers rushing to sell off herds

The ongoing drought is pushing cattle ranchers across the Southern Plains and Southwest to sell off their herds — a sign that farmers are losing faith that rains will come. 

That widespread selloff is causing prices to fall, meaning that farmers hoping for short-term relief to offset falling grain yields are unlikely to find it. 

By the numbers: The cattle herd is down 2.4 percent nationwide this year compared to last, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) July Cattle Report found. 

  • That represents a decrease of 750,000 cattle since last year — and 2 million since herd size peaked in 2018, according to the USDA. 
  • The number of cattle sold at auction jumped to 124 percent above 2021 levels over the past two weeks, the USDA found.

Putting that in context: These sale volumes rival the effects of past droughts, CNN reported. 

Nearly 80 percent of the West is under “severe drought,” a survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found last week.

  • Last year, 40 percent of Western farmers had to sell part of their herds, according to the survey. 
  • This year more than 85 percent were selling off cattle — and 77 percent were taking land out of use.  

Big moves: “We haven’t had this kind of movement of cows to market in a decade, since 2011, which was our last really big drought,” David Anderson, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M, told CNN. 

Making matters worse are soaring prices for fertilizer, fuel and feed — the latter of which is also increasing in price due to the drought, according to the Texas Farm Bureau. 

Regional variation: While 2.4 percent may not sound like much, that number reflects a national-level trend — meaning sale numbers are likely much higher where the drought is worst, commodities strategist Walter Kunisch of Hilltop Securities told Equilibrium. 

  • One sign of the drought is increased numbers of sales of cattle weighing less than 700 pounds and a decrease in sales of those that weigh more — a sign that farmers weren’t willing to wait to get a better price, according to cattle industry publication Beef Magazine. 
  • Anecdotal reports suggest that auction-houses and slaughterhouses across the Southern Plains are being overwhelmed, Beef Magazine reported.  

Price declines: That glut in cattle means that prices are falling just as farmers are depending on them to help make up for losses in crops like wheat. 

In Oklahoma, for example, cattle prices are down 4 to 8 percent, depending on the type of cattle, according to the Oklahoma Farm Report.

Can clean energy tax credits combat inflation?

A coalition of clean energy companies called on the Senate to include clean energy tax credits in their forthcoming budget deal — which they say will help cut inflation. 

The petition from Clean Energy for America aims to resurrect a key element of the Biden administration’s climate policy generally thought to be moribund. 

Death of a tax credit: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) earlier this month announced his opposition to the credits and broader clean energy stimulus measures, our colleague Alexander Bolton reported for The Hill. 

  • Manchin has said that such spending would increase inflation, Bolton reported. 
  • But many economists argue that it actually would have combatted inflation by taxing large corporations and the rich, according to E&E News. 

That’s part of the Clean Energy pitch: “A deal on clean energy investments will simultaneously combat inflation through the production of the lowest cost energy via renewables,” CEO Thomas Houghton of Adapture Renewables said in the statement. 

Doing so would also ”avert long-term inflation by combating the effects of climate change,” according to Houghton.  

“This is an opportunity to create thousands of good paying jobs,” he added.

Transit Tuesday

UN launches new guidelines to protect migrant children in a changing climate  

  • The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration has launched guidelines to “help protect, include and empower children on the move” due to climate change. “We cannot endanger future generations,” Director-General António Vitorino said in a statement, urging greater focus on children’s needs in policy debates and programming.   

Port of Oakland reopens with the end of a trucker blockade 

  • California’s shuttered Port of Oakland resumed operations on Monday, after independent truck drivers who had been protesting for nearly a week ended their blockade, The Wall Street Journal reported. The truckers had been battling a new state law that toughened the definition of independent contractors, according to the Journal.   

Biden administration faces railroad labor dispute 

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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