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Sustainability

Reducing air pollution isn’t so black and white. Cue aerosols.

Austin Wang

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Dialogues surrounding environmental sustainability tend to conflate reducing pollution with stopping global warming. After all, greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and other emissions create holes in the ozone layer. However, not all pollutants have a warming effect. In fact, trying to remove some of the most dangerous air pollution from the atmosphere could actually worsen global warming.

The cooling effect of aerosols

While greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trap heat, aerosols like sulfates are heavier particles that reflect sunlight back into space. Thus, the heavy smog around urban areas is actually often cooling regions down by blocking out sunlight.

When cities say they plan to clean up smog and pollution, they are often targeting these visible sulfates. While greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time after being emitted, sulfates tend to fall back to Earth since they are heavier. That means that stopping emissions right now could significantly lower the amount of sulfates in the air while not having a huge effect on the decades worth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Problematically, scientists from the Center for International Climate Research predict that stopping all air pollution could increase temperatures by one-half to one degree. The cooling effect of aerosols is so significant that some scientists have proposed releasing large quantities of aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the Earth.

Current dangers of aerosols

Despite the cooling effect of aerosols, they are still one of the main types of air pollution and pose an urgent threat. Scientists estimate that air pollution has caused over 7 million premature deaths around the world.

In the U.S., North Carolina saw a significant decrease in respiratory disease-related deaths after air pollution regulation laws passed in 2002. Air pollution has also been linked to a number of other diseases. Many toxic pollutants can cause cardiovascular diseases as well as some forms of cancer. A recent study conducted at the University of Chicago found that air pollution is significantly linked to mental disorders. Scientists found that poor air quality caused up to a 27% increase in bipolar disorder.

But there’s an important Catch-22

Removing sulfates and other dangerous aerosols from the atmosphere could save millions of lives around the globe. However, with climate change being so drastic already, increasing temperatures by half to one degree could spell disaster.

In any case, countries are already moving forward with air-pollution cleaning initiatives. When it comes to galvanizing sustainable action, countries are often prioritizing short-term gains. Stopping life-threatening air pollution is a much more popular position than preventing global warming in many areas. Of course, it won’t vanish overnight and current cleaning efforts won’t increase global temperatures by too much.

Furthermore, in the long run, removing air pollution is definitely beneficial for stopping climate change. Not only do greenhouse gases worsen global warming, but heavier aerosols also prevent solar panels from working at full efficiency.

Sustainability

Climate Change Is Allowing A Deadly Virus To Kill Marine Animals

Avery Maloto

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PDV is killing seals and other marine animals.

As climate change continues to melt sea ice, people, particularly in coastal regions are becoming increasingly worried about being cities going underwater in the future; but now, it appears that there is another problem: melting sea ice is also allowing a deadly virus to spread and kill marine animals. That virus is PDV, or phocine distemper virus, a deadly virus that is spreading among rapidly in the Arctic waters.

While this virus continues to infect rapid and lethal rate, the disease is causing many scientists to scratch their heads. How is it traveling so quickly? And how is climate change playing a role in its rapid spread?

What Is PDV And How Is It Impacting Marine Animals?

PDV has been notorious for infecting seal populations for the last few decades. Since 1988, it has caused multiple mass deaths within the marine animal population. At an alarming rate, tens of thousands of marine animals are falling victim to PDV.

Once isolated, the virus is now circulating in seal species across the globe. 

With the use of 15 years of data that tracked 2,530 live and 165 dead marine animals of multiple regions, scientists began searching for an explanation for PDV’s infectious trend. 

PDV Outbreaks Linked To Reduction Of Sea Ice

In a recent study published by Nature, researchers linked the viral emergence in marine animals to Arctic sea ice reduction. Offering an answer to the head-scratching situation, the authors found that the melting of ice is opening-up previously blocked pathways in the Arctic Circle. 

Throughout their experiment, the researchers focused on samples from animals living in icy habitats. These include spotted seals, bearded seals, steller sea lions, northern fur, seals, and northern sea otters.

In 2003, the scientists identified a widespread exposure to and infection of PDV in the North Pacific Ocean. Six years later in 2009, the second peak of PDV exposure had infected marine animals in connected regions.

These trends were directly related to the reduction of Arctic sea ice.

Many times, Arctic ice acts as a barrier between ocean regions. However, once melted, there is no longer a physical separation between ecosystems.

With new paths of travel, the increase of marine animal mobility leads to the transmission of PDV among sea life. As there becomes more contact between the Arctic and sub-arctic marine animals, the two regions are continuing to infect once-healthy populations.

More Than One Way Of Exposing Marine Animals To Disease

Unfortunately, there is more than one way that the melting of sea ice is introducing diseases into the environment and impacting marine animals.

Through Earth’s rising temperatures, many bodies of ice are beginning to thaw for the first time in decades. Remarkably, viruses have the ability to survive a long time in frigid environments.

Under the right conditions, previously frozen organisms have a high probability of becoming re-exposed to the environment. Despite being dormant for a long period of time, these diseases may return at a similar infectious level as before.

For example, in 2014, two scientists resurrected the largest virus ever seen. After extracting the ancient virus from a 30,000-year-old sample of ice, the disease was still infections despite centuries of lying dormant.  

Summary

Fortunately, PDV-positive marine animals lie in colder waters. As a result, sea animals in warmer regions are most likely safe from PDV.

However, scientists still believe the spread of pathogens could become more common as ice continues to melt with the increased opportunity to affect more species.

To stop this infectious trend, the obvious answer is to put a halt on melting sea ice. In order to do this, each and every population has to become educated on the causes of climate change and preventative solutions.

Instead of having to learn to adapt, let us work to ensure marine animals are able to live in the quality of life they deserve.

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Sustainability

To Truly Be Environmentally Friendly, You Should Know What Your Clothes Are Made Of

Florian Heubrandner

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Most of us want to be more environmentally friendly in our daily lives; plastic straws make us shudder, we take our reusable coffee cup everywhere and haven’t used a plastic bag since 2010. But what about fashion? How do we make the right wardrobe choices for the environment?

Since being named one of the worst polluters, the fashion industry is finding ways to become more environmentally friendly. The various production phases involve making fabrics from harmful chemicals, causing water and air pollution. Some of the large-scale industrial processes even require large amounts of water and energy. Textile waste is another big issue with tons piled into landfill sites taking centuries to biodegrade.

As a result, more brands and companies are choosing cleaner materials and opting for more ethical practices. Fiber manufacturers, who are the start of the production value chain, are also putting more effort to develop sustainable, feel-good fibers from sustainably sourced wood, a renewable and naturally biodegradable material. Top fashion brands and designers, such as Zara, H&M and Stella McCartney are now choosing sustainable fibers in selected collections.

However, there are many unfamiliar names for fabric types and deciphering the sustainable ones can be a minefield.

Knowing What Is Truly Sustainable

It’s confusing. From the origin of raw materials, sourcing process to production, there are many factors determining how sustainable a piece of garment can be.

Some materials such as polyester and nylon are widely known as not sustainable due to their synthetic nature and non-biodegradability.

However, even if the source is botanical, some production processes of the raw material may involve practices that ultimately weaken the industry’s ability to sustain future production. Take cotton for example. While it starts life as a plant and seems to be sustainable, cotton-growing is a water-intensive process and has a very large water footprint.

According to the WWF, companies use up over 20,000 liters of water to produce just 1kg of cotton, equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

Viscose, also known as rayon, is another plant-based fiber. It is popular in the fashion industry as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk. Also, the industry often considers it a sustainable alternative to cotton and polyester.

While viscose is derived from an organic origin, wood pulp from regenerative trees like eucalyptus is manufactured unsustainably. Those processes inevitably contribute to the rapid depletion of the world’s forests.

Estimates show that wood that is sourced from endangered or ancient forests makes up about 30% of viscose used in the fashion industry. Those sourcing methodologies could also pose risks to habitats and endangered species.

There Are Environmentally Friendly Alternatives

There are alternatives. As technology progresses and processes are becoming more advanced, new materials are created. For example, the Lenzing’s ECOVERO™ Viscose fibers are an alternative to common viscose.

During the production of these fibers, it is possible to recover and reuse certain chemicals. And by doing so, it is possible to reduce emissions by 50% and use half as much energy and water than the production of common viscose.

Many fashion brands have started to use eco-viscose fibers in their collections, such as Japan’s Global Work, India’s Max Fashion and Germany’s Armedangels, plus many more.

Check Before You Wreck

From now on, opt for garments made from sustainable or recycled fibers, organic cotton, hemp, and linen with natural dyes. Also, armed with knowledge on common viscose and its issues, you can look for items made from eco-viscose fibers instead.

Bear in mind that some natural materials such as cotton and wool might still have their own ethical issues around environmental sustainability. For instance, those concerns can include labor rights and animal welfare.

To tackle those concerns, more brands and retailers are being more transparent about their supply chains. Specifically, 70 out of 200 major fashion brands published a list of their first-tier manufacturers.

This is an encouraging step towards a more transparent supply chain and materials that are traceable back to their roots. As the call for improved transparency across the fashion industry is stronger than ever, supply chain openness will soon be the norm and definitely something to be proud of. And our own purchase decisions will become more informed and more ethical. 

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Sustainability

The Way We Celebrate Holidays Has Serious Consequences On Environmental Sustainability

Maryanne Derkaloustian

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The holidays have a real bearing on environmental sustainability.

The holiday season is always a great time of the year, with families getting together and celebrating for another year’s worth of progress; but amidst those festivities, it is easy to forget about environmental sustainability. And this consideration applies globally, not just for those celebrating Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the like.

We saw this with this year’s Diwali celebrations in New Delhi, India. Diwali, an important celebration enjoyed by Hindus, showed by example that all of our actions have consequences.

New Delhi is known to have high air pollution levels, but during Diwali this year, they were sky-high even for India’s standards. The countless firecrackers set off for Diwali elevated New Delhi to roughly 20 times the World Health Organization’s “safe” level, sparking even more global concern. Consequently, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) quickly declared it a public health hazard and imposed a ban on bursting crackers during winter.

With many more holidays coming soon, it begs the question: How do holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s impact environmental sustainability?

Holiday Festivities Unusually Pollute The Environment

Because fireworks are the main source of pollution during Diwali, it was easier to pinpoint them as the root cause. Though you wouldn’t necessarily think of Christmas and Thanksgiving as similar holidays, they aren’t innocent of harming the environment either.

Wood burning during the holidays serves many purposes (cooking, warmth, aesthetics, etc.), but sadly, these all come at a price. In London alone, this accounts for 7-9 percent of particle pollution during the season. But this doesn’t go to say that going completely electric will save our lungs.

Holiday Festivities Result Health-Threatening Emissions

Heating cooking utensils and electric stoves lead to ultrafine particle emissions. These particles pose serious cardiovascular and inflammatory risks, especially since their small size allows them to easily penetrate deep into the respiratory tract.

A more hidden threat is the spike in the use of personal care products and cosmetics. It can be incredibly easy to overlook these, especially since their purpose is self-care and enhancement.

Unfortunately, they emit volatile organic compounds that can have a variety of dangerous side effects ranging from dizziness to central nervous system damage when inhaled.

Only a few of the chemicals involved like benzene and toluene have been studied in this light, so the prospect of other compounds used being hazardous is unsettling.

We Leave Other Types Of Waste Too

Waste of all kinds also peaks during the holidays. The scariest part of Halloween, for instance, is the amount of plastic left behind from candy wrappers.

Costumes that are only ever worn once completely go against all the progress made in sustainable fashion. Food waste can also reach dangerous highs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The US wastes roughly 40% of food, but an extra 5 million pounds are added on during the holidays.

Holidays Overseas See Incredible Environmental Impacts Too

Records of deaths by air pollution were already at a fearsome high before Diwali. However, during Diwali this year, people increasingly already felt short of breath and on the verge of choking. Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) levels shot up, reaching 600 micrograms per cubic meter. In context, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee’s data easily deems it an unsafe amount.

The number of people who have to cut back from work due to these conditions is only going up. Although using firecrackers is less common now, families are still buying them in the black market. And that’s a problem that can’t be easily solved.

Summary

As we continue to celebrate the holidays year after year, we can still do so in a way that is conscious of the implications our actions have on environmental sustainability.

And though the holidays are a special part of the year, that doesn’t mean we get to forget about the pressing issues of air pollution and plastic waste, just to name a few.

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