Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Scientists grant a second life to durable plastics

Researchers have found a way to break down certain durable plastics — used in aerospace and microelectronics — into their most basic buildings blocks for potentially limitless reuse. 

Their new method, published on Monday in Nature Chemistry, could help give a second, third or hundredth life to a difficult-to-recycle type of plastic that is built to withstand extreme conditions.  

The scientists, based at the University of Colorado Boulder, used an innovative chemical process to break down “thermoset polymers” — those that strengthen permanently when heated and cannot be remolded — into their simplest components.  

In doing so, they made a typically irreversible process reversible, according to the study.  

Conventional recycling usually involves breaking down polymers into powders and using those materials to make something totally different — such as a shoe made from a rubber tire, the authors explained. 

But their technique gives thermoset polymers the chance to be broken down and remade into new products, without sacrificing their physical properties, according to the scientists.  

“We are thinking outside the box, about different ways of breaking chemical bonds,” lead author Wei Zhang, chair of the CU Boulder chemistry department, said in a statement.  

“Our chemical methods can help create new technologies and new materials, as well as be utilized to help solve the existing plastic materials crisis,” Zhang 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 revisit the disaster that Hurricane Fiona has wrought and what’s in store this week for Hurricane Ian, followed by a look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s new civil rights office. Plus: Focusing on firefighters’ mental health advocate.  

Fiona’s trail of damage from Puerto Rico to Canada 

About 746,000 residences and businesses in Puerto Rico still had no power on Monday morning, a week after Hurricane Fiona battered the island and other parts of the Caribbean, Reuters reported.  

Fuel issues abound: The storm killed at least eight people in the region, rekindling memories of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria just five years ago, according to Reuters. 

Ongoing power outages over the past week have led to numerous problems for Puerto Rico, where a rising demand for fuel to run backup generators has left many gas stations empty. 

Where did Fiona go next? After traveling north through the Atlantic Ocean, Fiona struck Canada’s eastern seaboard this weekend at hurricane strength, CNN reported

  • The storm made landfall in Nova Scotia on Saturday, cutting power for hundreds of thousands of residents and destroying some coastal homes.
     
  • Fiona “left a trail of devastation” in the coastal town of Channel-Port aux Basques, before weakening on Saturday night‫.

‘Unprecedented’ damage on Canada’s Atlantic coast: The extent of the damage Fiona brought to Canada’s coast was unlike anything the region has seen before, the country’s emergency preparedness minister, Bill Blair, told Reuters on Saturday. 

  • “The scale of what we’re dealing with, I think it’s unprecedented,” Blair said.
     
  • It could take months to rebuild the critical infrastructure destroyed by the storm, according to Blair.  

Boats and cars tossed like toys: Both federal and provincial leaders pledged financial assistance to those affected by Fiona, which killed at least one resident of Port Aux Basques, The Globe and Mail reported.  

Residents described winds that “swept houses into the sea, uprooted trees like twigs, snapped telephone poles, washed away roads and tossed boats and cars aside as if they were toys,” according to The Globe and Mail.  

MORE DEVASTATION COULD BE IN STORE  

As Puerto Rico and eastern Canada were picking up the pieces in Fiona’s stead, Cuba and Florida were bracing for the possible impact of Hurricane Ian in the coming days. 

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued a statewide emergency order after Ian had strengthened from a Tropical Depression into a Tropical Storm.  

Some Tampa area residents received mandatory evacuation orders already on Monday, as DeSantis warned that more such orders are likely on the way, our colleague Zach Schonfeld reported for The Hill.  

Picking up speed: As of Monday morning — by which time Ian was already a hurricane — the system was sustaining winds of up to 80 miles per hour, AccuWeather reported, citing the National Hurricane Center.  

The system was about 100 miles west of Grand Cayman Island and 240 miles southeast of Cuba at the time, per AccuWeather.  

Coming to Cuba — then Florida: The Center warned that a “life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds, flash floods and possible mudslides” could already hit western Cuba by Monday evening and into Tuesday.  

  • “Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” a statement from the Center said. 
  • A similarly life-threatening surge was also deemed “possible” along much of Florida’s west coast, with the highest risk impacting the Fort Myers to Tampa Bay region.  

Hurricane watch for Wednesday: A hurricane watch is in store for west-central Florida beginning on Wednesday morning, by which time hurricane-force winds could reach the area, according to the National Hurricane Center.  

  • Heavy rainfall will also likely increase across the Florida Keys and South Florida on Tuesday, spreading to northern Florida Wednesday and Thursday. 
  • Potential flash-flooding, as well as prolonged river flooding could also occur.  

EPA launches civil rights office  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is deploying a new office aimed at tackling environmental issues in historically underserved communities, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported for The Hill.  

Elevating environmental justice: The “Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights” will be focused on “elevating” environmental justice and civil rights issues, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced at a ceremony this weekend.

  • Regan said that the EPA would put these issues on “equal structural footing” with those in its air and water offices. 
  • “If we’re going to change how the system works, we have to change the structure of the system,” he said. 

What will the new office do? About 200 staff members will work toward solving environmental problems in underserved communities, Frazin reported.  

  • These individuals will work with other agency offices to include environmental equity concerns into their programs and ensure that funding recipients adhere to civil rights laws.  
  • The office was created by merging three existing EPA programs: the Office of Environmental Justice, External Civil Rights Compliance Office and Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center. 

Growing fires afflict fighters’ mental health

Entrenched “cultural brainwashing” is having deadly impacts on wildland firefighters long after the fires are put out, a leading firefighter mental health advocate told Equilibrium. 

A culture of stoicism and independence keeps many firefighters from seeking care and counseling — particularly as a now-perpetual fire season batters their nerves, psyches and families, according to Jeff Dill, founder of the nonprofit Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.

  • The combination of fire culture and a worsening fire regime has left firefighters dealing with a cavalcade of issues, including depression, broken marriages and even suicide.
  • Dill said that about 20 firefighters — both structural and wildland — have died by suicide this year nationwide. That is approximately the same number as the 21 who have died in the field. 

Heavy costume: As a retired Illinois fire captain with nearly 30 years in the field, Dill emphasized the often-crushing weight of firefighters’ societal role. 

  • We put this uniform on, and we have to be that person: brave, strong, courageous, good. ‘Help? I don’t ask for help. I handle all things.’ We don’t want to be the weak link of the company,” he said. 
  • “We’re not supposed to admit we have those emotions, so you bury it deeper and deeper,” Dill added.  

Partial progress: There has been a growing awareness in the past decade of the mental health challenges that firefighters and other first responders regularly experience on the job, Dill noted. 

  • For example, more than half of states now offer some sort of workman’s compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to industry news site Business Insurance. 
  • Firefighters have also begun to adopt structures like “peer support networks,” in which members can seek help from trained coworkers in processing difficult experiences, according to trade magazine Fire Engineering.

Constant stress: But cutting against this progress is a fire regime that has become ever more brutal and overwhelming, Dill said. 

NEVER HOME

A continuous fire season has meant continual stress on firefighters themselves, Dill said. An increase in winter fires has provided more work — and pay — to firefighters in what’s generally a slow season, but these benefits have come at a steep cost. 

  • “Now they’re gone all the time and they are just being physically and mentally, mentally abused on a yearly basis,” Dill said. 

Houses in the trees: Wildland firefighting has become all the more stressful due to the rapid expansion of suburbs and exurbs into the forest, Dill argued.

  • The expansion of this “wildland-urban interface” has led to significant increased risk both that wildfires will start and that they will be dangerous and damaging, according to a 2018 Forest Service study. 
  • Where once wildland firefighters were fighting fires in isolated areas, now they often must fight in towns — as in the fires that killed 84 people in the mountain community of Paradise, Calif., in 2018.  

Forest fires breach cities: Now wildland firefighters “have to walk up and down the streets, and see each and every home, each and every family,” according to Dill.  

“It just gets to be such an impact,” he added. 

Dill said that one particularly worrying aspect of the firefighter and first responder suicides is that at least 40 of those who died had received inpatient treatment. 

Suicide is also spreading among the “peer support teams,” he said.  

An insufficient diagnosis? To Dill, these deaths suggest that simple PTSD treatment isn’t enough.

  • He posited that some may die due to “moral injury,” or a shock, betrayal or damage to one’s sense of right and wrong. 
  • A 2018 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study flagged moral injury as a potential suicide risk in soldiers. 

“You’re trained to do good, save lives and save property — and over time in your career, you start losing more and more people,” Dill said. 

Unfair conditions: But some amount of moral injury also stems from betrayal by management, he said.  

“It can be, you promised us an extra 60 workers, and now we’re working overtime, and now we can’t see our families.” 

Monday Miscellanies 

African carnivores are losing their land, underwater cameras can combat climate change and European armies are torn between war and wildfire.  

All African carnivores at risk of range loss: study 

  • All African species studied in a new Yale School of Environment-led analysis were at least partially at risk of losing their range. Africa contains a third of global carnivore species, which are persisting in a landscape riddled with anthropogenic and environmental pressures, according to their analysis, published on Monday in PNAS

MIT engineers build wireless underwater camera to track climate change 

  • Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have engineered a battery-free, wireless underwater camera that could help scientists monitor the effects of climate change and marine pollution. Their camera, highlighted in a Nature Communications article, is 100,000 times more energy-efficient than other undersea cameras, the scientists stated.  

European armies caught in the middle of combat and climate change 

  • European militaries battled blazes of record intensity this summer, while also grappling with the need to defend the continent against an increasingly threatening Kremlin, The Washington Post reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is making it more difficult for Europe’s armies to fight wildfires, while these same fires are making it harder for the militaries to fight against Moscow, according to the Post.  

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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