Friday, March 27, 2015

Whatever Happened to Recycling?

This was the original slogan of the environmental movement that led to recycling becoming public policy in many if not most US municipalities: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."

It was the "recycle" that dominated, perhaps to its own detriment.  But what seemed like environmental idealism became a surprising reality.

I remember when the city of Pittsburgh was about to begin mandatory recycling in the 1980s.  One of the city's newspapers editorialized that it would never work, we lived in too much of a "throwaway society."  I wrote an oped piece for that newspaper, claiming that it would work--that a combination of youthful idealism and especially a cultural resistance to waste in Pittsburgh's traditional, immigrant culture, reinforced during the Depression and World War II recycling, would make it feel natural.

It was quickly clear that I was right--people did recycle in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.  The problem has seldom been compliance.  But especially once it seemed there was money to be made doing it, the problems were economic.

When we moved to the North Coast almost 20 years ago, Arcata had no curbside recycling.  What they had instead was a Recycling Center, and a strong environmental ethic.  Like other citizens, we separated recyclables in our kitchen and garage, and periodically I would load up the Volvo and take everything to the Recycling Center.  I'd drive into it, park, haul out my boxes and stuff recyclables into the appropriate bins.  We separated newspaper from cardboard, and glass bottles by their color.  Plastics were a pain--all those numbers--but I could also easily recycle batteries and other somewhat exotic materials.

It was kind of a fun place, too.  People were friendly, and there was a shop with donated--hence recycled--items, including books, records, clothes, stereos, lamps etc. but mostly elements people used to build and replace things.  For awhile there was a free bin of books, where I found a rare book I truly treasure (Fernald's English Synonyms that separates them by shades of meaning, instead of jumbling them together Roget-style, as if they actually all meant the same thing.)

But then Arcata Garbage got the contract for curbside recycling, and the Recycling Center faded and closed.

  At first, Arcata Garbage supplied us with a reycling bin with two sides: one for paper and cardboard, the other for metal and plastic.

In the past few weeks, they've replaced the two-compartment bin with one, and it's no longer necessary to separate at all.  The latest communique from Arcata Garbage describes what is recyclable and what isn't.  But if you're uncertain what qualifies, they have a new slogan: When in doubt/throw it out.

So there it is: 20 years from Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to When in doubt/throw it out.  I've read recently of consternation in the recycling/garbage business because China is no longer accepting certain plastics---apparently they were taking most of it, so few US companies invested in processing here.  I suspect that's true of more than certain plastics.  It really would not surprise me if everything in our recycling bins ends up in landfill.  But I keep doing it anyway, whispering those erstwhile magic words to myself.  Reduce.  Reuse. Recycle.

Update: An NPR report on "single stream recycling" of this kind says that about a quarter of it winds up in landfill, 40% of the glass.  Some due to consumers recycling wrong stuff but also due to breakage and cross-contamination.  One enviro quoted as saying:"In terms of preserving the quality of materials so that the maximum materials collected can actually be recycled, single-stream is one of the worst options," she says.  The report concludes that while single stream may be more "convenient":"But as single-stream processing continues to increase in popularity, the trade-off will be fewer recyclables recycled."  Here in Arcata I don't recall being given a choice.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hope on Monday

So what was the most inspiring, hopeful and useful for the future event of Monday March 23?

Well, it sure wasn't this guy announcing he's running for President.  Although the Onion's story about announcement took a little of the edge off. Tues. Update: Not to mention this classic Borowitz.

Nor was it even the 5th anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Not that it shouldn't be celebrated--so far it has been very successful, and will very likely be seen in the future as one of President Obama's most significant achievements.  And just as it took a generation before the transformational success of aspects of the New Deal, of the G.I. Bill of Rights after World War II--to name two programs opposed by "conservatives" that either barely made it into law (the G.I Bill) or were prematurely destroyed (the New Deal)--were widely acknowledged through real life testimony, it may take that long for this program to take its place next to Medicare (another program opposed then and still in essence opposed by--well, that guy who announced Monday) as crucial to the American future.

No, the big event Monday was the White House Science Fair.

For those of us whose memories of school science fairs involve sweating over a half-assed and embarrassing exhibit the night before it was due, this is nothing like that.  These kids are more than awesome--they are awe-inspiring.

Here briefly are some of their projects:

 Kelly Charley, 15, noticed that communities lacking electricity often build fires to stay warm, but that particles and ash from wood-burning fireplaces can be dangerous to breathe. She developed a solar-powered radiation system that circulates air and heats the interior of buildings. It can run without access to electricity or running water. Kelly, a sophomore at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico, received a United National Indian Tribal Youth 25 under 25 Youth Leadership Award for her work to promote spiritual, mental, physical, and social well-being. Her heater design made her a finalist at the 2014 International Science and Engineering Fair.

Inspired by the global energy crisis and the lack of electricity around the world, Pittsburgh ninth-grader Sahil Doshi designed an innovative carbon-dioxide powered battery called PolluCell. Comprised of multiple electrochemical cells wired in parallel circuits, PolluCell harnesses the power of carbon dioxide and waste materials to generate electricity, reducing the environmental effects of pollution.

Jose Valdez, Casandra Dauz, and Jaleena Rolon are a team of elementary school students who competed in last year’s Future City Regional Competition, which challenges students to tackle infrastructure and natural resource challenges by designing cities of the future. The team created the “City of Crystal Water,” where agricultural “fish pens” separate industrial, commercial, and residential zones and vehicles travel along dams equipped with paddles that produce hydro energy. Recognizing the importance of connecting their idea with their rural, desert community’s cultural diversity, the team incorporated four languages into their City presentation: Spanish, English, American Sign Language, and Tewa, a Tanoan language spoken by Pueblo Native Americans.

During the summer before ninth grade, Bluyé DeMessie, 18, visited his relatives in Northern Ethiopia and was shocked by the lack of clean water. Over the last four years, Bluyé developed a novel method to convert agricultural waste into a bio-charcoal that is capable of removing pollutants from water within a short contact time.

When Sophia Sánchez-Maes learned that algae has the potential to yield 5,000 gallons of biodiesel annually per acre, she wondered how best to harness that promise. She computationally modeled algae growth in order to optimize that phase of the biofuel production process. Then she began work as a National Science Foundation Young Scholar, investigating how to convert a particular extremophile algae from Yellowstone into biofuel, with promising results.

A team of Ohio 6th graders got inspired after befriending some Haitian students in 2010, right before the region’s devastating earthquake. Team “Quake Safe” wanted to find a solution to help make the many structurally unsound buildings in Haiti safer. The students experimented with materials that could withstand pressure and unique construction shapes to find a building design that would be both cost effective and structurally sound. Their hyperbolic bamboo creation takes on a paraboloid shape, inspired by the shape of Pringle chips, and uses bamboo – a fast growing renewable resource that is easily accessed by most in the region.

And listen up, California:

A team of Florida grade schoolers set out to find a renewable way of generating safe drinking water from ocean water – currently a costly process. The team designed WateRenew, a conceptual system that uses wing-like structures to harness energy from the vacillating hydroelectric forces of the underwater swells. WateRenew converts energy from the elliptical motion of waves into electrical energy that can power desalination of ocean water into drinking water. The desalination process incorporates a special “reverse osmosis” membrane made out of graphene to trap salt while allowing water molecules to flow through.

A number of participants developed projects to respond to mental and emotional needs of children and adolescents. Some invented projects inspired by medical conditions of grandparents, family members or themselves.  For example:

Emily Bergenroth, Alicia Cutter, Karissa Cheng, Addy Oneal, and Emery Dodson, 6 (Tulsa, OK). After chatting with their school librarian, the “Supergirls” Junior FIRST Lego League Team from Daisy Girl Scouts’ troop 411 discovered that some people have disabilities that make it difficult to turn the pages of a book. They came up with the concept of a battery-powered page turner that could turn pages for people who are paralyzed or have arthritis.

Looking for a little hope?  Look no further than these.

The Real Climate Day After Tomorrow

A little more than a decade ago, the first and so far only climate crisis disaster movie called The Day After Tomorrow based its disasters on the effects of a slowdown of major ocean currents caused by an influx of fresh water from Arctic melting.  (The same mechanism figures in the contemporaneous but much more scientifically realistic climate trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.)

Today the climate sci world has been buzzing about evidence that this phenomenon is happening, much faster than models predicted.  The video above, and the most mainstream story about it so far (in the Washington Post), referenced the climate sci-fi of that movie.

The Post piece begins: "Last week, we learned about the possible destabilization of the Totten Glacier of East Antarctica, which could unleash over 11 feet of sea level rise in coming centuries.

And now this week brings news of another potential mega-scale perturbation. According to a new study just out in Nature Climate Change by Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a group of co-authors, we’re now seeing a slowdown of the great ocean circulation that, among other planetary roles, helps to partly drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast. The consequences could be dire – including significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities like New York and Boston."

The consequences, unlike in the movie, aren't going to cause a sudden new Ice Age (the scientists say), although they could bring colder weather to specific places, such as the US East Coast--and maybe, says one blogger on the subject today, they already have:

As such, cold water bleeding from the great glaciers of Greenland not only poses a threat to ocean circulation, it also poses a risk for generating significant disruptions to atmospheric winds and related weather as well. Ones that could set off increasingly intense storm events in the Northern Hemisphere similar to what was seen for the US Northeast this winter (but likely worsening with time) and the extraordinarily powerful barrage of storms hitting England during the winter of 2013-2014."

So it's today as well as the day after tomorrow, though it may just be getting started. Notes another climate blogger, it "is expected to continue, even intensify through year 2100..."

Though the original research is published in a scientific journal, the authors summarize it at Real Climate.  Another relevant blog post adds some more scientific chatter and more links.

Finally, I had cause recently to look up my San Francisco Chronicle Insight piece of 2004 about The Day After Tomorrow, though it was published days before the movie came out.  I found it interesting to read now, given all that has happened and has not happened in the decade since.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Humboldt Bay North Coast Weather Report

Friday night we had a relatively brief but intense rain shower here in Arcata.  I went out on both porches to listen to it, this rare event.  Saturday was sunny but with low cumulus clouds and wisps of mist all day.  We visited northern Humboldt Bay at Manilla. The Bay was turquoise (see above), which must have pleased photographers for post cards, among others.  At the Manilla Dunes recreational area, people walked their dogs, fished, and in one case, fished with their dogs (see below. Click on the photos to see more clearly what I mean.)

 Saturday night it rained, lighter but steady, and Sunday it has been raining like that until evening.  It's the first day of steady rain this month, and one of the few such days since December.  March is usually considered the last month of our rainy season.

Climate News: The Long and the Short

In terms of scope and long-term effect, the biggest climate news of the past week was about East Antarctica, contained in research by an international team published in Nature Geoscience.  The Washington Post summarized the import:

"A hundred years from now, humans may remember 2014 as the year that we first learned that we may have irreversibly destabilized the great ice sheet of West Antarctica, and thus set in motion more than 10 feet of sea level rise.

Meanwhile, 2015 could be the year of the double whammy — when we learned the same about one gigantic glacier of East Antarctica, which could set in motion roughly the same amount all over again. Northern Hemisphere residents and Americans in particular should take note — when the bottom of the world loses vast amounts of ice, those of us living closer to its top get more sea level rise than the rest of the planet, thanks to the law of gravity."

This research is preliminary, requiring data that now is likely to be sought before this year is out.  But the implications of greater than previously estimated melting in Antarctica adding some 20 feet to sea level rise expected before last year are enormous.  These levels will not be totally achieved for decades, perhaps a century or more, but they suggest profound changes to our coasts and everything now on them well before that.

At the Earth's opposite pole, the accelerating loss of Arctic sea ice--which hit a record low winter peak this year, it was revealed a few days ago--has both long term implications for sea level rise and short term relationships to our weather, as seen the past several winters in the US and elsewhere.

The likelihood that weather patterns now and in the near future are changing due to climate crisis phenomena, perhaps for a long time to come, received more support this past week.  According to one report, the nature of the new El Nino adds to suggestions that we're about to jump into a new climate and weather reality, characterized by global heating and local effects including more violent storms with more precipitation, and continued drought where this is drought now:

“One way of thinking about global warming from the human influences is that it's not just a gradual increase, but perhaps it's more like a staircase, and we're about to go up an extra step to a new level,” says climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research."

Though heat released from the Pacific is more and more predicted to have this temperature jump effect, that's on top of a very consistent pattern of increasing global temperatures.  Last week NOAA announced February 2015 was among the hottest Februarys on record, and the first two months of this year suggest 2015 will be hotter than the record-breaking 2014.  But February is notable for another historical reason, this article in Slate notes:

"It’s been exactly 30 years since the last time the world was briefly cooler than its 20th-century average. Every single month since February 1985 has been hotter than the long-term average—that’s 360 consecutive months."

The China Signal

A forthright statement on the climate crisis by China's top weather scientist made the news on Sunday. It included specific warnings about expected effects in China itself.

According to regional experts quoted in reports, China has avoided and even suppressed media reports on the climate crisis except in general terms.  But apparently the situation is now so dire that this officially sanctioned statement was made, and it pulled few punches.

 Different news organizations emphasized different aspects of the statement.  International Business Times for example highlighted the statement that Chinese "wealth accumulation" adds to the problem.  (This article however provides interesting details and background.)

Interestingly, the BBC report included this quotation from the statement:"To face the challenges from past and future climate change, we must respect nature and live in harmony with it," the Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying. "We must promote the idea of nature and emphasise climate security."

There's a certain philosophical basis in Chinese culture for the idea of respecting nature and living in harmony with it that may well resonate. The phrase "climate security" may appeal to Chinese cultural as well as political nationalism.  It seems possible if not likely that this statement is creating groundwork for some actual changes that the Chinese government has in mind.