Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — 5.3 billion phones to become waste in 2022 

About 5.3 billion mobile devices worldwide are expected to fall out of use this year — and in most cases, experts believe they will end up in the garbage.  

The amount of resultant waste is so massive that if these smartphones were stacked on top of each other, they would climb about 31,000 miles, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum warned.  

That monumental distance is about 120 times higher than the International Space Station, or one-eighth of the way to the moon, according to the Brussels-based nonprofit forum.   

While phones contain valuable gold, copper, silver, palladium and other recyclable components, many households and businesses neglect to bring in such small equipment for repair or recycling, the WEEE forum found in a new survey.  

Experts anticipate that most phones abandoned this year will “disappear into drawers, closets, cupboards or garages, or be tossed into waste bins bound for landfills or incineration,” a statement from the group said.   

In the survey — consolidated by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research — the forum found that the average household surveyed in six European countries contains about 74 electric products.  

Of these products, about 13 are being hoarded, per the survey. And mobile devices only ranked fourth among the top-five hoarded small electronics products, after accessories like headphones, household items like clocks and irons and technology equipment like hard drives, keyboards and mice.  

Small electronic waste items very easily “accumulate unused and unnoticed in households” or end up in the garbage bin, Pascal Leroy, director general of the WEEE Forum, said in a statement.  

“People tend not to realize that all these seemingly insignificant items have a lot of value, and together at a global level represent massive volumes,” Leroy added. 

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

Today we’ll look at a federal government decision to pay farmers to save water, followed by a call from the U.N. chief for investments in disaster warning systems. Plus: national park animals are changing their behaviors even when they meet up with just a few humans. 

Farmers paid to conserve Colorado River water

The federal government is offering to pay Colorado River basin farmers to forego their water delivers, part of a $4 billion effort to tackle regional drought, KUNC reported.  

Paid to give up water: The $4 billion allocation will come from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, according to the Northern Colorado NPR affiliate.  

  • $500 million will go to efficiency upgrades in Upper Basin states, which include Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. 
  • An unspecified total amount of money will be set aside for direct payments to farmers and ranchers who forgo water relievers from the basin’s largest reservoir: Lake Mead. 
  • Those individuals are located in the river’s Lower Basin, primarily in Arizona and California.    

Incentives increase with time: The funding initiative, announced by the Interior Department, will pay applicants a fixed sum per acre-foot of water that they relinquish, CNN reported.  

  • An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, or half of an Olympic-sized pool. 
  • The longer the farmers agree to slash their water consumption, the more money they will receive: $330 per acre-foot for one year, $365 for two years and $400 for three years. 

A rare opportunity: The funding is what KUNC described as “a rare infusion of federal money for a climate change-fueled crisis that is plaguing the Southwest’s water supply.” 

  • Some 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado River. 
  • While the system’s governance is typically left to the states, they failed to conserve enough water to keep the basin’s reservoirs full.  

Making it count: “It’s a big deal, but I think it’s only a big deal if we make this
$4 billion count,” Alex Funk, director of water resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation partnership, told KUNC.  

“Crystal balling here a little bit, I don’t think we’re going to see something of this scale of an investment to address this problem again anytime soon,” Funk added. 

Nations should invest in systems to avert disaster

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Thursday called upon countries to invest in universal early warning systems, which he described as “proven life-savers” during extreme weather events. 

The most vulnerably are paying the price: “The world is failing to invest in protecting the lives and livelihoods of those on the front line,” Guterres said in a speech commemorating International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. 

“Those who have done the least to cause the climate crisis are paying the highest price,” he added.  

What’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction? International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, which falls on Oct. 13, began in 1989 following a call from the U.N. General Assembly.  

The need for universal coverage: Half of humanity now lives within “the danger zone,” Guterres said in his Thursday speech.  

  • “Entire populations are being blindsided by cascading climate disasters without any means of prior alert,” he added.  
  • Such systems, the U.N. chief explained, can prevent extreme weather events from becoming “deadly disasters.” 

“That is why I am calling for universal early warning coverage in the next five years,” he said.  

The status quo is grim: A mid-term report released on Thursday warned that half of countries globally are not protected by multi-hazard warning systems.  

  • Conditions are worse for developing countries on the frontlines of climate change, according to the report, published by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.  
  • Nations with limited early warning coverage have disaster mortality rates that are eight times higher than those of countries with substantial to comprehensive coverage.  

A call for early action: “The number of recorded disasters has increased by a factor of five, driven in part by human-induced climate change,” Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement.   

“We need to ensure that early warnings reach the most vulnerable and that they are translated into early action,” he added.  

To read the full story, please click here.  

Park animals affected even by rare human visits 

The presence of even a few humans in national parks can have significant impacts on the behavior of the wildlife that live there, a new study has found.    

Defying expectations: People might already expect that animals would change their routines to avoid humans at popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the study authors surmised. 

  • Such places can see more than a million visitors each year. 
  • But the researchers found that even in remote, rarely visited parks, these rules apply.  

A little bit matters: Almost any level of human activity in a protected area can alter the behavior of animals who inhabit the territory, according to the study, published on Thursday in People and Nature.    

“There’s been increasing recognition of how much just the presence of humans in these places, and our recreating there, can impact wildlife,” senior author Laura Prugh, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said in a statement.  

Heading to Alaska: The researchers focused their attention on Glacier Bay National Park, a coastal region in southeast Alaska accessible by only plane or boat.  

  • While visitors arrive on cruise ships, the boats don’t dock on shore. 
  • Because so few people visit the park each year — only about 40,000, although the number is rising — this location was an ideal testbed for the study, according to Prugh.  

Signpost: Prugh and her colleagues conducted an experiment that compared wildlife activity in areas often frequented by humans to those in which people were absent.  

  • They installed 40 motion-activated cameras across 10 sites to track people and four animal species — wolves, black bears, brown bears and moose — over two summers.  
  • The researchers controlled where and when people could access certain parts of Glacier Bay and then measured wildlife responses. 

What did they find? The scientists observed that if humans were present in an area, the cameras spotted fewer than five animals per week across all species studied.  

  • Wildlife detections dropped to zero when outdoor recreation levels reach about 40 visitors weekly. 
  • Wolves were most likely to disappear from cameras when people were present, while brown bears were least affected.  
  • Moose, on the other hand, were more active around people — leading the authors to believe that moose might be using humans as shields from predators.  

To see what advice authors had for park managers, please click here for the full story.  

Scientists work to make plastics more recyclable 

A team of scientists has combined chemical and biological techniques to “valorize” — or give value to — mixed plastic waste. 

Breaking it down: Their proof of concept, published in Science on Thursday, builds upon the use of chemical oxidation to break down different types of plastics, according to the team.  

  • The scientists used oxygen and catalysts to break down plastics into small, biologically friendly building blocks, Lucas Ellis, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University, said in a statement
  • Then they used a biologically engineered soil microbe to consume those building blocks — and repurpose them into either biopolymers or components for advanced nylon production, Ellis added.  

A new entry point: This advancement could provide “potential entry point into processing plastics that cannot be recycled at all today,” co-author Gregg Beckham, a senior researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said in a statement.    

Today, he explained, recycling technologies can only run effectively if plastic inputs are clean and separated by type. 

Trying it out: While they plan to try out the process on other types of plastics, the researchers said they have applied the technique thus far to a mix of three common plastics:  

  • Polystyrene, used in disposable coffee cups  
  • Polyethylene terephthalate, the basis for carpets, polyester clothing and single-use beverage bottles  
  • High-density polyethylene, used in milk jugs and many other consumer plastics 

Speeding up nature: “The chemical catalysis process we have used is just a way of accelerating a process that occurs naturally,” co-author Kevin Sullivan, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said in a statement. 

“So instead of degrading over several hundred years, you can break down these plastics in hours or minutes,” Sullivan added. 

Thursday Threats

Scientists demand protections for newly identified whale species, cyclones exacerbate the risk of forest fires and oil supply cuts threaten to push the economy into recession. 

Scientists concerned that a newly discovered whale could go extinct 

  • Marine scientists are concerned that Rice’s whale — a Gulf of Mexico species identified last year — could go extinct, according to The Washington Post. In a letter to the Biden administration on Thursday, more than 100 researchers requested additional protections for the whales, who face hazards such as offshore drilling, the Post reported.    

Cyclones make forests more vulnerable to wildfires: study 

  • Cyclones — storms that originate in the South Pacific and deliver gale-force winds — can damage forests and prime them for wildfires, according to a study in Trends in Plant Science. The winds can open the canopy and bring down logs that fuel future blazes, while those fires can weaken trees ahead of future cyclones, the study found. 

Oil production cuts could push the economy into recession 

  • A decision from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to slash oil production could deepen the global energy crisis by raising oil prices during a time of inflation, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing the International Energy Agency. The cut could weaken economic growth and therefore threaten future demand for oil — tipping the global economy into recession, according to the agency. 

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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