Category Archives: Environment

Pacific “Garbage Island” Stretches from Hawaii to Japan

A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.

The vast expanse of debris – in effect the world’s largest rubbish dump – is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.

Charles Moore, an American oceanographer who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “trash vortex”, believes that about 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region. Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which Mr Moore founded, said yesterday: “The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and leading authority on flotsam, has tracked the build-up of plastics in the seas for more than 15 years and compares the trash vortex to a living entity: “It moves around like a big animal without a leash.” When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic,” he added.

The “soup” is actually two linked areas, either side of the islands of Hawaii, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

Mr Moore, a former sailor, came across the sea of waste by chance in 1997, while taking a short cut home from a Los Angeles to Hawaii yacht race. He had steered his craft into the “North Pacific gyre” – a vortex where the ocean circulates slowly because of little wind and extreme high pressure systems. Usually sailors avoid it.

He was astonished to find himself surrounded by rubbish, day after day, thousands of miles from land. “Every time I came on deck, there was trash floating by,” he said in an interview. “How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?”

Mr Moore, the heir to a family fortune from the oil industry, subsequently sold his business interests and became an environmental activist. He warned yesterday that unless consumers cut back on their use of disposable plastics, the plastic stew would double in size over the next decade.

Professor David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, said more research was needed to establish the size and nature of the plastic soup but that there was “no reason to doubt” Algalita’s findings.

“After all, the plastic trash is going somewhere and it is about time we get a full accounting of the distribution of plastic in the marine ecosystem and especially its fate and impact on marine ecosystems.”

Professor Karl is co-ordinating an expedition with Algalita in search of the garbage patch later this year and believes the expanse of junk actually represents a new habitat. Historically, rubbish that ends up in oceanic gyres has biodegraded. But modern plastics are so durable that objects half-a-century old have been found in the north Pacific dump. “Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,” said Tony Andrady, a chemist with the US-based Research Triangle Institute.

Mr Moore said that because the sea of rubbish is translucent and lies just below the water’s surface, it is not detectable in satellite photographs. “You only see it from the bows of ships,” he said.

According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic,

Dr Eriksen said the slowly rotating mass of rubbish-laden water poses a risk to human health, too. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles – the raw materials for the plastic industry – are lost or spilled every year, working their way into the sea. These pollutants act as chemical sponges attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. They then enter the food chain. “What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple,” said Dr Eriksen.

– This aritcle originally appeared in The Independent and was written by Kathy Marks, Asia-Pacific Correspondent, and Daniel Howden

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How Plastic We’ve Become: Our Bodies Carry Residues of Kitchen Plastics

In the 1967 film classic The Graduate, a businessman corners Benjamin Braddock at a cocktail party and gives him a bit of career advice. “Just one word…plastics.”

Although Benjamin didn’t heed that recommendation, plenty of other young graduates did. Today, the planet is awash in products spawned by the plastics industry. Residues of plastics have become ubiquitous in the environment—and in our bodies.

A federal government study now reports that bisphenol A (BPA)—the building block of one of the most widely used plastics—laces the bodies of the vast majority of U.S. residents young and old.

Manufacturers link BPA molecules into long chains, called polymers, to make polycarbonate plastics. All of those clear, brittle plastics used in baby bottles, food ware, and small kitchen appliances (like food-processor bowls) are made from polycarbonates. BPA-based resins also line the interiors of most food, beer, and soft-drink cans. With use and heating, polycarbonates can break down, leaching BPA into the materials they contact. Such as foods.

And that could be bad if what happens in laboratory animals also happens in people, because studies in rodents show that BPA can trigger a host of harmful changes, from reproductive havoc to impaired blood-sugar control and obesity (SN: 9/29/07, p. 202).

For the new study, scientists analyzed urine from some 2,500 people who had been recruited between 2003 and 2004 for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Roughly 92 percent of the individuals hosted measurable amounts of BPA, according to a report in the January Environmental Health Perspectives. It’s the first study to measure the pollutant in a representative cross-section of the U.S. population.

Typically, only small traces of BPA turned up, concentrations of a few parts per billion in urine, note chemist Antonia M. Calafat and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, with hormone-mimicking agents like BPA, even tiny exposures can have notable impacts.

Overall, concentrations measured by Calafat’s team were substantially higher than those that have triggered disease, birth defects, and more in exposed animals, notes Frederick S. vom Saal, a University of Missouri-Columbia biologist who has been probing the toxicology of BPA for more than 15 years.

The BPA industry describes things differently. Although Calafat’s team reported urine concentrations of BPA, in fact they assayed a breakdown product—the compound by which BPA is excreted, notes Steven G. Hentges of the American Chemistry Council’s Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. As such, he argues, “this does not mean that BPA itself is present in the body or in urine.”

On the other hand, few people have direct exposure to the breakdown product.

Hentges’ group estimates that the daily BPA intake needed to create urine concentrations reported by the CDC scientists should be in the neighborhood of 50 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight—or one millionth of an amount at which “no adverse effects” were measured in multi-generation animal studies. In other words, Hentges says, this suggests “a very large margin of safety.”

No way, counters vom Saal. If one applies the ratio of BPA intake to excreted values in hosts of published animal studies, concentrations just reported by CDC suggest that the daily intake of most Americans is actually closer to 100 micrograms (µg) per kilogram bodyweight, he says—or some 1,000-fold higher than the industry figure.

Clearly, there are big differences of opinion and interpretation. And a lot may rest on who’s right.

Globally, chemical manufacturers produce an estimated 2.8 million tons of BPA each year. The material goes into a broad range of products, many used in and around the home. BPA also serves as the basis of dental sealants, which are resins applied to the teeth of children to protect their pearly whites from cavities (SN: 4/6/96, p. 214). The industry, therefore, has a strong economic interest in seeing that the market for BPA-based products doesn’t become eroded by public concerns over the chemical.

And that could happen. About 2 years after a Japanese research team showed that BPA leached out of baby bottles and plastic food ware (see What’s Coming Out of Baby’s Bottle?), manufacturers of those consumer products voluntarily found BPA substitutes for use in food cans. Some 2 years after that, a different group of Japanese scientists measured concentrations of BPA residues in the urine of college students. About half of the samples came from before the switch, the rest from after the period when BPA was removed from food cans.

By comparing urine values from the two time periods, the researchers showed that BPA residues were much lower—down by at least 50 percent—after Japanese manufacturers had eliminated BPA from the lining of food cans.

Concludes vom Saal, in light of the new CDC data and a growing body of animal data implicating even low-dose BPA exposures with the potential to cause harm, “the most logical thing” for the United States to do would be to follow in Japan’s footsteps and “get this stuff [BPA] out of our food.”

Kids appear most exposed

Overall, men tend to have statistically lower concentrations of BPA than women, the NHANES data indicate. But the big difference, Calafat says, traces to age. “Children had higher concentrations than adolescents, and they in turn had higher levels than adults,” she told Science News Online.

This decreasing body burden with older age “is something we have seen with some other nonpersistent chemicals,” Calafat notes—such as phthalates, another class of plasticizers.

The spread between the average BPA concentration that her team measured in children 6 to 11 years old (4.5 µg/liter) and adults (2.5 µg/L) doesn’t look like much, but proved reliably different.

The open question is why adults tended to excrete only 55 percent as much BPA. It could mean children have higher exposures, she posits, or perhaps that they break it down less efficiently. “We really need to do more research to be able to answer that question.”

Among other differences that emerged in the NHANES analysis: urine residues of BPA decreased with increasing household income and varied somewhat with ethnicity (with Mexican-Americans having the lowest average values, blacks the highest, and white’s values in between).

There was also a time-of-day difference, with urine values for any given group tending to be highest in the evening, lowest in the afternoon, and midway between those in the morning. Since BPA’s half-life in the body is only about 6 hours, that temporal variation in the chemical’s excretion would be consistent with food as a major source of exposure, the CDC scientists note.

In the current NHANES paper, BPA samples were collected only once from each recruit. However, in a paper due to come out in the February Environmental Health Perspectives, Calafat and colleagues from several other institutions looked at how BPA excretion varied over a 2-year span among 82 individuals—men and women—seen at a fertility clinic in Boston.

In contrast to the NHANES data, the upcoming report shows that men tended to have somewhat higher BPA concentrations than women. Then again both groups had only about one-quarter the concentration typical of Americans.

The big difference in the Boston group emerged among the 10 women who ultimately became pregnant. Their BPA excretion increased 33 percent during pregnancy. Owing to the small number of participants in this subset of the study population, the pregnancy-associated change was not statistically significant. However, the researchers report, these are the first data to look for changes during pregnancy and ultimately determining whether some feature of pregnancy—such as a change in diet or metabolism of BPA—really alters body concentrations of the pollutant could be important. It could point to whether the fetus faces an unexpectedly high exposure to the pollutant.

If it does, the fetus could face a double whammy: Not only would exposures be higher during this period of organ and neural development, but rates of detoxification also would be diminished, vom Saal says.

Indeed, in a separate study, one due to be published soon in Reproductive Toxicology, his team administered BPA by ingestion or by injection to 3-day-old mice. Either way, the BPA exposure resulted in comparable BPA concentrations in blood.

What’s more, that study found, per unit of BPA delivered, blood values in the newborns were “markedly higher” than other studies have reported for adult rodents exposed to the chemical. And that makes sense, vom Saal says, because the enzyme needed to break BPA down and lead to its excretion is only a tenth as active in babies as in adults. That’s true in the mouse, he says, in the rat—and, according to some preliminary data, in humans.

Vom Saal contends that since studies have shown BPA exhibits potent hormonelike activity in human cells at the parts-per-trillion level, and since the new CDC study finds that most people are continually exposed to concentrations well above the parts-per-trillion ballpark, it’s time to reevaluate whether it makes sense to use BPA-based products in and around foods.

Source: Janet Raloff – Science News Online

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Bush Plan Could Axe Scientists’ Access to Sensitive Data

Another day, another sound science policy getting Buswhacked: The Bush administration is quietly pushing for the elimination of a committee that provides crucial intelligence data for scientists studying everything from climate change to hurricanes and pollution. The Civil Applications Committee, which is under the jurisdiction of the USGS, reviews civilian requests for classified information and makes recommendations to intelligence officials – who exercise the final say in deciding what gets declassified.

In its place, the Bush administration would establish a new office in DHS to review these requests and others from various law enforcement agencies. “They are worried. The scientists say this information is very valuable to them, and they are concerned this new office will be looking more at homeland security and law enforcement,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USGS and a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

Over the years, this sensitive agency has provided information to U.S. Forest Service officials during the forest fire season; to scientists using classified measurements from nuclear submarines to study how the polar ice cap has thinned; and to USGS officials seeking information about volcanic eruptions in the Aleutian Islands. This information has often proven “critical,” as James Devine, a senior adviser to USGS’s director, explained. “Sometimes this information is critical, and we need to know right now,” he said.As far as he knows, he has never been denied a request from the intelligence community that the Civil Applications Committee had already approved. The government’s spy satellites often provide much better resolution than private ones, in addition to precise IR and electromagnetic activity readings.

The government’s plan to replace the Civil Applications Committee with the National Applications Office in DHS was hatched shortly after the attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration had hoped the new office would already be up and running by now; plans have since been put on hold to tackle new questions about scientific and civil liberties.

 Source: Jeremy Elton Jacqout’s article on Treehugger.com via: McClatchy Newspapers – Scientists fear losing access to intelligence data

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Bush Seeks to Approve 700 Percent Logging Increase in Oregon’s Old-Growth Forests

Under the cloak of bureaucracy, the Bush administration has sanctioned a back-door deal with the timber industry that would see the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) remove protection for old-growth and streamside forests in the Cascade, Siskiyou and Coastal mountains of western Oregon. The preferred alternative of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the “Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR)” would result in a whopping 700% increase in logging of the state’s remaining old-growth forests.

For more information on the BLM plan – and to see how and why you should take action – be sure to head on over to the Oregon Heritage Forests web site to read their Citizen’s Guide.

Source: Treehugger.com

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Solar Cell Production Jumps 50 Percent in 2007

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Production of photovoltaics (PV) jumped to 3,800 megawatts worldwide in 2007, up an estimated 50 percent over 2006. At the end of the year, according to preliminary data, cumulative global production stood at 12,400 megawatts, enough to power 2.4 million U.S. homes. Growing by an impressive average of 48 percent each year since 2002, PV production has been doubling every two years, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy source.

Photovoltaics, which directly convert sunlight into electricity, include both traditional, polysilicon-based solar cell technologies and new thin-film technologies. Thin-film manufacturing involves depositing extremely thin layers of photosensitive materials on glass, metal, or plastics. While the most common material currently used is amorphous silicon, the newest technologies use non-silicon-based materials such as cadmium telluride.

A key force driving the advancement of thin-film technologies is a polysilicon shortage that began in April 2004. In 2006, for the first time, more than half of polysilicon production went into PVs instead of computer chips. While thin films are not as efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, they currently cost less and their physical flexibility makes them more versatile than traditional solar cells. Led by the United States, thin film grew from 4 percent of the market in 2003 to 7 percent in 2006. Polysilicon supply is expected to match demand by 2010, but not before thin film grabs 20 percent of the market.

The top five PV-producing countries are Japan, China, Germany, Taiwan, and the United States. Recent growth in China is most astonishing: after almost tripling its PV production in 2006, it is believed to have more than doubled output in 2007. With more than 400 PV companies, China’s market share has exploded from 1 percent in 2003 to over 18 percent today. Having eclipsed Germany in 2007 to take the number two spot, China is now on track to become the number one PV producer in 2008. The United States, which gave the world the solar cell, has dropped from third to fifth place as a solar cell manufacturer since 2005, overtaken by China in 2006 and Taiwan in 2007.

Strong domestic production is not always a good indicator of domestic installations, however. For example, despite China’s impressive production, PV prices are still too high for the average Chinese consumer. China only installed 25 megawatts of PV in 2006, exporting more than 90 percent of its PV production, mainly to Germany and Spain. But large PV projects are expected to increase domestic installations. China is planning a 100-megawatt solar PV farm in Dunhuang City in the northwestern province of Gansu, which would have five times the capacity of the largest PV power plant in the world today.

Despite its skies being cloudy two thirds of the time, Germany has been the leading market for PV installations since it overtook Japan in 2004. In 2006, Germany, adding 1,050 megawatts, became the first country to install more than one gigawatt in a single year. Driven by a feed-in tariff that guarantees the price a utility must pay homeowners or private firms for PV-generated electricity, annual installations in Germany alone have exceeded those in all other countries combined since 2004. There are now more than 300,000 buildings with PV systems in Germany, over triple the initial goal of the 100,000 Roofs Program launched in 1998. Growth is set to remain strong, as a feed-in tariff of 49¢ per kilowatt-hour will remain in place through 2009.

Japan, the United States, and Spain round out the top four markets with 350, 141, and 70 megawatts installed in 2006, respectively. Thanks to a residential PV incentive program, Japan now has over 250,000 homes with PV systems. But the country is currently experiencing a decrease in the growth rate of PV installations resulting from the phase-out of the incentive program in 2005 and a limited domestic PV supply due to the polysilicon shortage.

 

In contrast, the growth in installations in the United States increased from 20 percent in 2005 to 31 percent in 2006, primarily driven by California and New Jersey. The California Solar Initiative was launched in January 2006 as part of the state’s Million Solar Roofs program to provide more than $3 billion in incentives for solar power. The goal is to generate 3,000 megawatts of new solar power statewide by 2017. New Jersey’s Clean Energy Rebate Program, which began in 2001, offers a rebate of up to $3.50 per watt for residential PV systems, contributing to a more than tripling of installations between 2005 and 2006. Other states, such as Maryland, have passed renewable portfolio standards that mandate a certain percent of electricity generation from solar PV. For Maryland, the goal of producing 2 percent of electricity from the sun by 2022 is expected to lead to 1,500 megawatts of PV installations in the state.

Initial estimates for the United States as a whole indicate that PV incentives, including a tax credit of up to $2,000 available under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 to offset PV system costs, helped to achieve an incredible 83-percent growth in installations in 2007.

Spain tripled its PV installations in 2006 to 70 megawatts. A building code that went into force in March 2007 requires all new nonresidential buildings to generate a portion of their electricity with PV. Spain also initiated a feed-in tariff in 2004 that guarantees that renewable energy will be bought by utilities at three times the market value for 25 years. In September 2007, a 20-megawatt PV power plant, currently the largest in the world, came online in the Spanish town of Beneixama and is producing enough electricity to supply 12,000 homes. By the end of 2008, cumulative PV installations in Spain are expected to exceed 800 megawatts, twice its original 2010 goal.

Of the world’s PV manufacturers in 2007, Sharp (Japan), Q-Cells (Germany), and Suntech (China) claimed the top three positions. But after holding the top spot for more than six years, Sharp, hampered by limited access to polysilicon, is likely to post only a 4-percent growth in production in 2007, well below the 50 percent industry average. However, Sharp’s annual thin-film production capacity is on track to increase from 15 megawatts today to 1,000 megawatts per year in 2010.

Suntech, a relatively new firm started in 2001, was the fourth-largest PV manufacturer in 2006, and eclipsed Kyocera in 2007 to take third place. In the first half of 2007, Suntech produced almost as much PV as it did in all of 2006.

Capitalizing on the polysilicon supply crunch, First Solar in the United States moved into the top 15 global manufacturers in 2006 by producing 60 megawatts of cadmium telluride thin-film PV, triple its production in 2005. In the first half of 2007, First Solar leapt onto the top 10 list, moving up five spots to number eight and continuing its reign as the fastest-growing PV manufacturing company in the world.

The average price for a PV module, excluding installation and other system costs, has dropped from almost $100 per watt in 1975 to less than $4 per watt at the end of 2006. With expanding polysilicon supplies, average PV prices are projected to drop to $2 per watt in 2010. For thin-film PV alone, production costs are expected to reach $1 per watt in 2010, at which point solar PV will become competitive with coal-fired electricity. With concerns about rising oil prices and climate change spawning political momentum for renewable energy, solar electricity is poised to take a prominent position in the global energy economy.

Source: The Earth Policy Institute

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