Equilibrium/Sustainability — Solar wind seeds 'airless worlds' with water

Today is Wednesday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Earth’s water may have originally come from the Sun, according to a recent international study published in Nature Astronomy. 

Scientists at Australia’s Curtin University found that “solar wind” — charged hydrogen particles streaming out from the sun — creates water on the silicate rocks found on the surface of extraterrestrial asteroids, which slammed into Earth in the early days of the solar system.

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The researchers surmised that “such water reservoirs are probably ubiquitous on airless worlds throughout our Galaxy,” with about 20 liters of potential water per cubic meter of rock, a news release accompanying the study said.

These findings could help future astronauts live off the land of other celestial bodies, according to lead author Luke Daly. “Astronauts may be able to process fresh supplies of water straight from the dust on a planet's surface, such as the Moon," he said.

Today we’re looking at two forms of hidden pollution far less benign than watery asteroids. First, we examine a plea from the National Academy of Sciences to cut U.S. plastic pollution, which they say can only be done by cutting plastic production. Then we look at the deadly, but often ignored, effects of car exhaust on Los Angeles.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

US must cut plastic waste to save oceans

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The United States must act to curb plastic waste in oceans, by developing a comprehensive national strategy that includes reducing plastic production, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has determined. 

While only 4.3 percent of Earth’s population resides in the U.S., the country was the world’s “top generator of plastic waste” in 2016, exceeding all European nations combined — generating a total of 42 million metric tons of such waste that year, the report found. 

The entire world produces about 242 million metric tons of plastic waste annually, of which an estimated 8 million metric tons enters the oceans, according to the NAS, an independent body of scientists established by former President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. 

First words: “Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the U.S. needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” Margaret Spring, chair of the committee behind the report and chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium, said in a statement. 

A “garbage truck” a minute: So much plastic waste flows into the ocean worldwide that the quantities are equivalent to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute, the report said. 

This waste devastates the ocean’s health and marine wildlife. Without swift changes in current practices, the authors warned, plastics will continue to accumulate with adverse effects. 

And if current increases in production hold, the amount of plastics discharged into the ocean could climb from the current 8 million metric tons to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030 — or “roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually,” the study found.  

What does the report recommend? That the U.S. establish “a coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting federal research and policy strategy” to slash plastic waste. That policy, according to the authors, should be developed by a group of experts or an external advisory body by the end of 2022, with its implementation assessed by the end of 2025. 

The authors also called for improved data collection to better understand the sources of plastic waste in the ocean, advising the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct a national shoreline survey every five years.

But one piece of advice is tough for industry to swallow: The U.S. should also substantially reduce its solid waste generation, the report said, adding that today’s recycling processes remain “grossly insufficient” to manage U.S. plastic waste.

 

INDUSTRY REACTS

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The American Chemistry Council (ACC) — a trade group that includes major plastic makers — agreed that a comprehensive policy strategy to reduce plastic waste is necessary.

“There is significant alignment in what the plastics value chain and NAS report are calling for, particularly in improving access to waste collection and recycling infrastructure,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the ACC, said in a statement.

Since 2017, he noted, more than $7.5 billion in advanced recycling projects have been announced or are already operating.

But the ACC doesn’t support slashing production: Baca voiced concern about the report’s call to restrict plastic production, which he described as “a valuable resource that should be kept in our economy and out of our environment.”

“This is misguided and would lead to supply chain disruptions, economic and inflationary pressure on already hurt consumers, and worse environmental outcomes, particularly related to climate change,” he said. 

Last words: While plastics may have been a “20th century miracle invention,” this innovation “has also produced a global scale deluge of plastics waste seemingly everywhere we look,” report author Spring wrote in a preface to the study. 

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“The ocean plastic waste problem is linked inextricably to the increasing production of plastics and how we use and treat plastic products and waste from their beginning to well beyond the end of their useful lives,” she added. 

To read the full story, please click here.

Quantifying car-linked pollution deaths 

The pandemic lockdowns of 2020 provided scientists with the chance to perform an unprecedented “natural experiment” to crack one of public health’s greatest mysteries: How much toxic ammonia gas is released into the atmosphere from cars — as opposed to other sources, like agriculture?

Turns out that it’s not even close, according to a recent study in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. In the Los Angeles area, the study found, as much as 95 percent of the gas comes from cars — two to five times what federal and state regulators had assumed and the likely cause of uncounted deaths.

First words: If scientists have been underestimating ammonia emissions from cars, “then previous estimates of premature deaths owing to ammonia emissions might also be underestimated,” lead author Hansen Cao, from the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement.

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What is ammonia? Ever smelled the sharp chemical reek of a pig or chicken farm — or a cat’s litter box?

That’s ammonia: a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3, technically) that’s commonly found in both animal waste and gasoline fuel additives — where ammonia derivatives like polyether amine are used, among other things, to break down the sludge left by improperly combusted fuel, according to Chemical and Engineering News.

Deadly combinations: We’ve long known that ammonia evaporates into the air, where it combines with other pollutants — like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — to form the dangerous fine particulate matter called PM 2.5, according to New Scientist.

These particles, which have a diameter of just 2.5 microns — 0.0025 millimeters — can bypass the fine protective hairs and mucus in the lungs and sinuses and slip straight into the bloodstream, causing dementia, heart and disease and hypertension, according to Wired.

A mysterious killer: Ammonia emissions lead to about 15,000 ammonia-related deaths per year, according to the CU Boulder study — and airborne ammonia levels are the determining factor in deaths from PM 2.5 more generally, according to a study from a research team at Zheijang University. 

But cutting emissions requires regulators to know where they’re coming from — which involves the difficult task of separating “ammonia concentrations owing to traffic from the ammonia emitted from sources like agriculture,” Daven Henze, co-author of the new study, said in a statement.

‘A NATURAL EXPERIMENT’

LA freeways go quiet: The March 2020 pandemic lockdowns took almost three-quarters of the cars off Los Angeles’ usually packed freeways. But it left the farms of nearby Riverside operating — and emitting — full-tilt.

The sudden absence of cars gave researchers what Henze called “a natural experiment,” by letting them take before- and after- satellite snapshots of the Los Angeles area’s ammonia concentrations.

Unsettling findings: The CU Boulder team found that at least 60 percent of Los Angeles’s ammonia emissions came from cars, and sometimes up to 95 percent.

State and federal regulators, by contrast, had assumed the contribution was less than 25 percent. If other cities are similarly undercounted, study author Cao said, then the 15,000 estimated U.S. lives lost to ammonia pollution could be seriously undercounted.

Wednesdays around the World

India considers electric scooters; U.N. backs cash handouts in poverty stricken Afghanistan; Bali suffers pandemic-era tourism losses; and a plight to save Africa’s white rhinos.

India considers electric scooters

  • India is the largest market for two-wheeled transit, and while it suffers similar infrastructure road-blocks as the U.S. for four-wheeled electric vehicles — an often-iffy coal-dependent grid, high prices and a lack of charging infrastructure — the math is different for Vespa-type electric scooters and three-wheelers.
  • Electric bikes could rise from their current 1-percent market share to 8 or 10 percent by 2025, according to Indian financial information firm ICRA. 
  • "The reason is quite clear, increasing petrol price,” said longtime Honda motorcycle rider Tejas Rane, explaining why he was considering the switch off gas. “Furthermore, we can reduce pollution [with a] small contribution toward electric vehicles.”

U.N. backs cash handouts

  • Hundreds of millions of dollars in direct cash transfers are the best way to avoid economic collapse and “near universal poverty” in Afghanistan, a United Nations representative told Reuters. 
  • The collapse of the economy is tied to the sudden withdrawal of international development money — on which it was dependent — after the Taliban victory in August, coupled with impacts of severe drought and the pandemic, Reuters reported.
  • The U.N. is proposing $300 million in direct aid, $100 million to pay wages and $90 million in small business grants. 
  • So far, a U.N. fund has received pledges for $170 million.

Bali suffers tourism losses

  • Just before the coronavirus pandemic ravaged global travel, the Indonesia island of Bali was confronting “bumper-to-bumper traffic,” tidal “waves of plastic garbage” and “a decade long building binge,” according to The Wall Street Journal. 
  • But only 43 travelers from abroad visited Bali during the first nine months of 2021 — down from 6.3 million in 2019 — and monkeys that had once enjoyed tourist offerings are now “raiding local restaurants,” the Journal reported.
  • With ongoing pandemic constraints, and now the emergence of the omicron variant, destinations once subject to ‘overtourism’ are now facing years of recovery, according to the Journal. 
  • “This is a lesson for us,” a local artist told the Journal. “We can’t stay so dependent on tourism.”

In bid to save species, 30 white rhinos airlifted from South Africa to Rwanda

  • A conservation group has executed the largest-ever single translocation of white rhinos — flying 30 members of the threatened white rhino species from South Africa to the Akagera national park in Rwanda, The Guardian reported.
  • To prevent aggressive behavior aboard, the animals “were partly drugged, so they could still stand up and keep their bodily functions normal, but enough to keep them calm and stable,” Jes Gruner, of African Parks, told The Guardian. 
  • Because the white rhino population is down to about 18,000 animals across Africa — largely due to poaching and demand for horns — the group is aiming to create a new breeding colony to bolster the survival of the species, according to The Guardian. 


That's it for today. Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you Thursday.