Category Archives: Sustainability

Warming of the Earth’s Oceans Leads to Worldwide Decline of Fish Populations

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

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Longline commercial fishing hooks. Credit: Isaac WedinCC BY 2.0

Overexploitation—the unsustainable use of natural resources—is one of the greatest pressures that human populations force upon ecosystems worldwide. Overfishing, a type of overexploitation based on “catching too much fish,” contributes to the well-established decline of fish stocks.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), globally, the fraction of fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels has exhibited a decreasing trend, from 90.0 percent in 1974 to 66.9 percent in 2015. Further compounding this, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 33.1 percent in 2015, with the largest increases in the late 1970s and 1980s, and a slight decline in 1996. However, a study published in 2016 shows that we catch much more fish than estimated by the FAO. Daniel Pauly, lead author of the study, told The Guardian: “Our results differ very strongly from those of the FAO. Our results indicate that the decline is very strong and is not due to countries fishing less. It is due to countries having fished too much and having exhausted one fishery after another.” Continue reading

Environment Exposure to Microplastics and Affiliated Toxic Chemicals

A guest post by Mai Lei

The following post is one of a series previewing the research that will be presented at the SETAC North America 29th Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California (4–8 November 2018).

Can you imagine our beautiful planet becoming a “plastic planet”? In the BBC documentary film Blue Planet II, members of the producing team noted that plastic waste is ubiquitously floating in the sea, including fishing lines, plastic packages, and plastic bottles. Marine organisms can be trapped by plastic waste that is everywhere in the oceans, even in the deepest and most remote parts. So it is essential to carry out intensive studies of plastic waste. Large plastics can either be physically or chemically broken into fragments after having been in the water a long time, traveling long distances. Such fragments, coupled with ones that were released into seas as fine plastic particles (smaller than 5 mm), are collectively called microplastics.

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Surface water trawling for floating microplastic collection on the Pearl River estuary in China.  Inset pictures are pieces of microplastic (fragments, pellets, and lines) from the trawl.  Credit: Lei Mai.

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Science, Sustainability, and the Science of Sustainability and the Failures of Economists

Stop speaking of the three pillars or triple bottom line of sustainability

A guest post by Ron McCormick

The following post is one of a series previewing the research that will be presented at the SETAC North America 29th Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California (4–8 November 2018).

The original dream of three separate but equal pillars of sustainability has become a fallacy; the triple bottom line is dead. The essence of sustainability in practice is to act with increased resilience in mind, and in all aspects of living, working, and playing in a social-ecological landscape. The thrust of the Sacramento meeting is to seek a realignment between economic development and ecological and societal stewardship. Our session, to be held Tuesday afternoon, will present practical and theoretical aspects of corporate and community approaches to sustainability and resilience. I encourage you to read the abstracts available on the meeting website. For this blog I’d like to speak more to the topic of the ending segment of our session, a debate titled “The sustainability triple bottom line is dead—should we take it off the respirator?” We won’t actually be debating the topic in depth, as it is much too late to rehabilitate the idea. Instead, we will Slide2host an Irish wake for the triple bottom line (TBL), and toast an old friend whose time has come and gone. Why we feel this way will take some explanatory background on economics, ecology, societal equity, and systems approaches. Continue reading

Market-Based Environmental Policies: Providing Incentives That Minimize Costs

A guest post by Garth Heutel

Many advocates of environmental policy see the Trump administration’s view of the environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a setback that dims the prospects for new and stronger environmental laws. Consequently, some state and local governments are picking up the slack. For example, California recently expanded its cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, and the mayor of Atlanta vowed to meet his city’s commitments to lower carbon dioxide emissions, despite the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. In this current complex landscape, economic theory can contribute valuable insight when designing climate and environmental policies at the federal, state, or local level. In particular, economic theory suggests that market-based environmental policies may provide clear advantages when compared to command-and-control policies. Let me explain why.

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Illustration credit: Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0.

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A Twist to the Great Story of Plastic-Eating Caterpillars

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

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Wax worm (Galleria mellonella). Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, public domain.

“Like diamonds, plastics are forever,” began a recent New York Times editorial. Or are they? No one knows exactly how long it takes for conventional plastics to completely degrade—it could be hundreds or thousands of years. In other words, a very long time. Even when broken down, plastics persist as tiny bits called microplastics.

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Beach plastic, Otter Rock, Oregon, USA. Credit: Jason Karn, CC BY-ND 2.0.

The first global analysis of the production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made was published in July 2017. The study shows that by 2015, humans generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics. Of these, 6.3 billion tons had already become waste. Only 9% of the waste was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. These staggering numbers explain why it is necessary to find strategies to degrade accumulated plastics.

A 2017 study published in Current Biology raised considerable interest in those seeking to limit the impact of plastic pollution. Science journalists jumped on the wagon, and rightly so—the study results promised a possible solution to the accumulation of plastic bags. Worldwide, one trillion plastic bags are used each year, 380 billion of which are used in the United States alone. Most plastic bags are not recycled. Journalists were also captivated by the story leading to the study, which was widely reported in the news.

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Small but Mighty: New Research on the Impacts of Microplastics

A guest post by Erica K. Brockmeier

The following post is one of a series generated from research presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Brussels, Belgium (7-11 May 2017). Each post features the latest research findings from SETAC scientists on emerging topics of interest.

What are microplastics and why should we care about them?

Microplastics are pieces of plastic or polymer debris that are very small in size, ranging from a shard as narrow as the width of a hair to a piece as large as a marble. Microplastics include pieces of plastic that are broken down from larger items, such as single-use water bottles, or ‘microbeads’ that are added to certain soaps and exfoliators.

Even though microplastics are small, there are concerns they can cause serious damage. Animals that confuse microplastics for food can end up with internal lacerations, inflammation, and nutrient deficiency caused by eating too much inedible material. Microplastics are also widely spread across the globe—scientists calculated that up to 90% of marine birds have ingested microplastics.

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Microplastic particles among sand grains. Credit: 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Circular Economy, Life Cycle Analysis, and Environmental Science unite at SETAC Brussels

A guest post by Erica K. Brockmeier

The following post is one of a series generated from research presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Brussels, Belgium (7-11 May 2017). Each post features the latest research findings from SETAC scientists on emerging topics of interest.

Circular economy, LCA, and the environment

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General materials life cycle. Credit: EPA, accessed from: Wikimedia Commons.

As we consumers become more aware of how the products we buy and use impact the health of the environment, companies are also looking for ways to make more sustainable products using materials with a more positive environmental impact. Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a way for environmental scientists to clarify the environmental impacts of a material or product. A circular economy is a system of production and consumption that is powered by renewable energy. A clean circular economy also focuses on eliminating toxic chemicals and closing material loops through better design, maintenance, repair, reuse, refurbishing, and recycling. Continue reading

Pesticides and Pollinators: New Research on the Impacts of Farming Activities on Bee Populations

A guest post by Erica K. Brockmeier

The following post is one of a series generated from research presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Brussels, Belgium (7-11 May 2017). Each post features the latest research findings from SETAC scientists on emerging topics of interest.

Are pesticides hurting pollinators?

The widespread loss of honeybee populations in Europe and the reduced numbers of wild bees in other countries sparked concern among scientists, policymakers, and farmers all across the world. Recent research conducted on historical field data found a potential connection between the use of certain insecticides and changes in wild bee populations. This was especially true for species that are known to visit flowering crops like oil seed rape.

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Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on oil seed rape, England (cropped from original). Credit: Dean Morley, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Linking Oceans and Human Health: How Are We Connected?

A guest post by Erica K. Brockmeier

The following post is one of a series generated from research presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Brussels, Belgium (7-11 May 2017). Each post features the latest research findings from SETAC scientists on emerging topics of interest.

Why does oceans health matter?

Oceans provide more for us than just the backdrop of our annual summer holidays—they provide food and medicine, help connect people and provide a means to deliver materials across the world, are a source of economic growth for coastal communities, and help moderate climate change. But our strong connection to the marine environment also comes with some drawbacks. Seafood contamination, marine pollution, biological hazards such as red tides and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and rising sea levels are just a few of the examples of how our own health is closely linked to that of our environment. Continue reading

Despite Major Improvements, Levels of Air Pollution in the U.S. Are Still Unsafe

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

Air pollution not only threatens the future of our climate by significantly contributing to global warming, it also causes some of our most common illnesses, accounting for 1 in 8 deaths worldwide.  It’s an invisible killer that is globally responsible for 36% of deaths from lung cancer, 35% of deaths from pulmonary disease, 34% of deaths from stroke, and 27% of deaths from heart disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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