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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: What are we doing about getting rid of all the plastic floating in the ocean and forming giant gyres far from land? -- Jake Johnson, Merrimack, NH

Plastic in the ocean is a big problem that first came to widespread public attention in the late 1980s when mariners began sharing reports of what turned out to be a 1.6 million square kilometer garbage patch (that’s about three times the size of France) floating in the middle of the North Pacific about halfway between Hawaii and California.

When this news broke, researchers started looking deeper into the problem, and found that perhaps even more troubling than plastic chunks and pieces floating on the surface that you could see with the naked eye was the fact that even more plastic had broken down into tiny particles that would sink in the water column and get eaten by marine wildlife, in turn getting passed up the food chain, in some cases right onto our own dinner plates.

While reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean is more up to the individual than most environmental challenges—we can just stop buying and using plastic—it may be easier said than done. Plastic is a miraculous material that has made many consumer and industrial products easier to fabricate and afford. The result has been a huge quality of life improvement for billions of us on the planet.

Governmental efforts to ban disposable plastic bags in grocery stores—such as in Kenya, Chile, China, Australia and the UK, as well as in several U.S. cities including Washington D.C., San Francisco, Seattle and Boston—are no doubt a step in the right direction. And while these bans have proven highly successful in keeping plastic litter out of waterways, they represent merely a drop in the bucket of what we could do societally to ditch plastic.

As for cleaning up the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, technology could come to the rescue. Dutch inventor Boyan Slat had a vision as an 18-year-old back in 2013 that a passive drifting system could autonomously collect plastic and other types of marine debris so we could get it out of our oceans, and today his vision has become a reality. Along with a team of 60 engineers, Slat has created a 2,000-foot-long U-shaped floating plastic tube (with a 10-foot curtain dragging underneath) that can float through the water pushed by the wind and currents, entrapping plastic and other fragments along the way.

Periodically, manned boats can catch up with the device and skim the debris for recycling or disposal in landfills back on shore. Slat and crew, incorporated as the non-profit The Ocean Cleanup and funded in large part by Salesforce founder and high-tech billionaire Mark Benioff, believe they can shrink the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by half within five years of deploying their new low-tech plastic scooper.

If Slat’s “passive collector” does as well in open ocean trials as its inventors hope, it could be deployed for real next year. This inexpensive low-tech approach is a model for how we can solve other big environmental problems if we put our minds to it.

CONTACT: The Ocean Cleanup, www.theoceancleanup.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m getting ready to join the electric car revolution now that my old clunker is getting on in age. What’s the latest and greatest? And is now a good time to buy an EV?

-- Doug Ellis, Sacramento, CA

Hybrid-electric cars have become more and more common on American roads since the Prius launched here in 2001. Now fully electric vehicles (EVs) are finally coming of age thanks to innovations by Tesla, Nissan, BMW, General Motors and others.

It is not uncommon today to see a zippy little Nissan Leaf or a stately Tesla Model X silently waiting for the light to turn green next to you at an intersection. Believe it or not, some 21 different automakers now have some form of EV for sale in the U.S. And they have big plans—think SUVs—to raise the EV stakes over the next few years, beginning with a raft of new models slated for release in 2019.

Perhaps the biggest new player on the EV scene is Audi. The German company’s new e-tron Quattro SUV can drive for roughly 250 miles between charges and features a styling equivalent to Audi’s luxe gasoline cars. It will be unveiled later in the fall, and American consumers can expect to shell out some $80,000 for a new one. A smaller model, the e-tron Sportback, will ride on the same platform—and get a similar range rating—but will sport a zippier ride and a lower price tag (around $50,000).

On the cuter end of the spectrum, BMW will make an all-electric version of its iconic revamp of the Mini Cooper— the “Mini E”—in 2019. The car will get upwards of 200 miles per charge, and with a price tag around $36,000 will compete directly against the Tesla 3 for customers looking to spend on the lower end for an EV.

Another big emerging EV player is Volkswagen, which is hoping to clean up its reputation after the big emissions cheating scandal that cost the company $30 billion in fines and settlements. By slashing production costs, VW expects to make and sell some of the lowest cost EVs around, with four new models (two crossovers, a hatchback and a sedan) available in 2019 in the vicinity of $35,000.

Of course, Tesla is poised for a big year, having worked out some production issues on its new Model 3 line and settled its financial differences with the SEC (following separate $20 million penalties to both CEO Elon Musk and Tesla the corporate entity). Customers have had to wait upwards of six months to get a new Model 3 once they sign on the dotted line, but Tesla hopes to eliminate the lag time in 2019 and rocket ahead of its competitors in the electric car space.

And yes, now may be the best time ever to buy an EV, given the profusion of advanced and now finally lower cost choices and the fact that there is still a federal tax credit of between $2,500 and $7,500 for doing so (depending on the size of the vehicle in question and its battery). Also, several states offer their own incentives to pile on the reasons to go electric now. That said, these incentives could expire or get cancelled depending on the political winds, so get it while you can.

CONTACTS: Audi e-tron, www.audiusa.com/technology/efficiency/e-tron; Mini E Concept, www.miniusa.com/model/special-editions/electric-concept.html; Volkswagen Electric Concepts, www.vw.com/electric-concepts; Tesla, www.tesla.com; DoE’s Electric Vehicles: Tax Credits & Other Incentives, www.energy.gov/eere/electricvehicles/electric-vehicles-tax-credits-and-other-incentives.

Dear EarthTalk: When will those gasoline driven leaf blowers that gardeners use be outlawed? The noise and toxic fumes they emit can’t be good for us. -- Judy, via email

Those leaf blowers sure can be annoying, just for the noise alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, using a commercial-grade gas-powered leaf blower for just two hours can cause hearing damage, and repeated use is a sure recipe for permanent hearing loss. And when you factor in the air quality nuisance from the inefficient gas motors on the models commonly used by maintenance workers and landscapers everywhere, it gets personal as it becomes a serious health issue.

California’s statewide Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) reports that the best-selling commercial leaf blowers emit as much smog-forming pollution after just one hour of use as driving a 2016 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles. CalEPA adds that landscape workers running a leaf blower are exposed to 10 times more ultra-fine particles—invisible to the naked eye but easily lodged into the lining of your lungs—than someone standing next to a busy road.

And these aren’t isolated, hyper-localized problems, as experts warn that within a couple of years, smog-creating emissions from leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other small gas-powered “off-road” motors will eclipse smog emissions from cars and trucks on the American road.

But rest assured, there are some rumblings of change. Upwards of 170 American cities in 31 states (as well as five cities in three Canadian provinces) have some kind of leaf blower restrictions already in place. LeafBlowerNoise.com maintains a list of cities across North America and beyond that have some kind of restrictions on the books.

And of course, there are cleaner, quieter ways to clear yard debris and leaf litter. Getting out the rake and broom is a sure-fire way to stay on your neighbors’ good side by avoiding all that pollution and noise. And it’s a great way to get some productive exercise on a fall day. Even better, get the kids off the couch and away from the screens to lend a hand.

Another alternative is to use an electric lawn vacuum which sucks up leaf litter and other yard debris (instead of blowing it around) with a lot less noise and without causing smog. That said, an electric leaf blower—either battery-powered or corded to an outlet—can get the job done with less noise and no spewing (albeit with less oomph).

Given recent outcries about leaf blowers, manufacturers have responded with new models that address many consumer—and neighbor—concerns. For example, Echo’s PB-250 was designed from the ground up to eliminate annoying noise frequencies and operate more efficiently while maintaining the flexibility of gasoline as a fuel. Husqvarna, Stihl, Black & Decker and TORO also have newer models which comply with most of the recently adopted leaf blower ordinances around the country. Check out the city of Burlingame, California’s PDF listing all models of leaf blowers that max out at 65 decibels in volume for quieter (and in many cases less polluting) models.

CONTACTS: Leafblowernoise.com; Echo PB-250LN Handheld Gas Blower, amzn.to/2A57UkM; Burlingame’s “65 Decibel Machinery List,” goo.gl/TvE5aE.

Dear EarthTalk: Do environmental factors influence fall foliage colors? – Bess Walker, Clinton, CT

An uptick in the intensity of hurricanes, prolonged periods of drought precipitating wildfires, flooded out coastal regions, melting ice caps—most of us can agree that man-made climate change is at least a contributing factor for these modern-day environmental maladies that seem to be compounding on top of one another in recent years. But another (less serious albeit still troubling) effect of our fossil fuel profligacy might just be compromised fall foliage displays.

The deciduous trees that drop their leaves in the fall rely on cues from the surrounding environment to signal when to stop producing chlorophyll (which turns the leaves green) in order to conserve energy and hunker down for the colder air temperatures of the upcoming winter. When the trees do get the signal, the chlorophyll begins to drain from the leaves, leaving behind carotenoids (in orange and yellow leaves) or anthocyanins (in red leaves) until the they fall to the ground.

But the unpredictability of a fast-changing climate has some species of trees confused about when to drop their leaves as warmer temperatures linger longer into the fall. Some trees are simply producing fewer leaves as a result, while others are thrown out of whack as to when to drop their leaves.

A 2016 study by Chinese researchers and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Global Change Biology found trees changing color (“phenology”) later than in recorded history across 70 percent of the study area (the Northern Hemisphere), presumably due to warmer air temperatures pushing the process back.

Also, drought before and/or during the fall can drastically reduce the foliage show, given trees lack of resources to begin with. Researchers have found that during drought years, trees’ leaves tend to turn color early and peter out sooner, if they don’t skip the color show altogether and go straight to brown. Granted droughts come and go and cannot be pinned directly on global warming, no doubt climate change is increasing their prevalence and intensity.

And at a more macro level, the overall year-by-year warming trend is forcing many species north in search of the right temperature conditions for optimal growth. To wit, some of the stars of New England’s fall foliage show—such as sugar maples, yellow birches and others—are expected to shift their habitat north within the next few decades. Indeed, biologists warn that foliage fans might have to head north of the U.S./Canada border to see these colorful denizens of the autumnal forest by 2100. Meanwhile, other iconic foliage species—such as ashes, elms and oaks—are facing new threats from warming-induced insect outbreaks, with various troops of beetles and borers moving into new habitat with global warming clearing the way for them.

One way you can guarantee some kind of fall color display in your yard is to plant a variety of native plants and trees known to turn bright colors in the fall. If there is enough diversity among them, you’re sure to get some kind of show every year, even if every plant isn’t “turned on.”

CONTACTS: “Delayed autumn phenology in the Northern Hemisphere is related to change in both climate and spring phenology,” onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.13311.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.



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