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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What are some examples of ways food and drink producers are fighting the ever-growing torrent of plastic waste they have helped create? -- Stacy Y., Raleigh, NC

As more people become aware of the extent of plastic waste clogging up our environment, cutting back on plastic use is fast becoming a key environmental priority around the world. According to a 2017 study by researchers from the University of Georgia, UC Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since mass-production started in the 1950s. While we’ve recycled about nine percent of all that plastic and incinerated another 12 percent, as much as 75 percent has been discarded into landfills or, even worse, set adrift into the environment. If we don’t slow down our current run rate of producing new (“virgin”) plastic, we can expect to add another four billion metric tons of it to our global environment by 2050.

With no cheap and scalable way to collect and get rid of all this plastic, the best we can hope for is to not make the problem worse. Luckily sustainable alternatives to plastic are coming on strong. PLA plastic, which is derived from plants and functions like conventional plastic, is promising but needs to scale up to become economically viable as it requires dedicated recycling/processing systems to truly “close its loop.” Likewise, paper or cardboard cartons could be a viable alternative to plastic food and drink storage containers if they are produced at great enough scale to justify dedicated facilities to process them for recycling, given that they are also infused with non-recyclable layers for strength and to prevent seepage.

PLA and cardboard are just the beginning of what is possible. Food producers and chemists are experimenting with making containers out of biodegradable plant products like corn starch, cassava and even algae. And just this spring, tens of thousands of runners participating in the London Marathon were given water out of edible pods made from seaweed and plant extracts instead of plastic bottles. Skipping Rocks Lab, the London-based startup behind the newfangled containers, reports that they’re not only cheaper to produce than plastic but are also biodegradable, breaking down completely within a month, while not imparting any flavor or taste to the water or whatever else is inside.

While there’s something to be said for technology, an older school “alternative” to plastic is all-natural plant material. American supermarkets could learn a lot from some Southeast Asian grocers, for instance, that wrap up produce for sale in biodegradable banana leaves instead of plastic bags. These all-natural wrappers can be thrown into the compost pile or yard waste bin and become rich soil without ever having to be processed using fossil-fuel based energy (like traditional recyclables).

You can do your part by telling your friends, neighbors, store managers, policymakers, elected officials and anyone else within hearing distance that you and millions of others like you don’t want any more single use plastics in your town, county, state or country. And if you haven’t already done so, get yourself a reusable water bottle and reusable shopping bag(s) so you can start being part of the day-to-day solution.

CONTACTS: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782; Sea Education Association, www.sea.edu; Skipping Rocks Lab, www.skippingrockslab.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Why are so many gray whales washing up dead on west coast beaches this spring?

—Bill W., Camden, ME

It’s definitely been a rough spring for Northern Pacific gray whales making their annual 5,500-mile trip from Mexico’s Baja California to the Alaskan arctic. Forty-eight of them, emaciated but otherwise showing no overt signs of any known disease, have “stranded” themselves along west coast beaches so far this spring, and researchers expect dozens more before the migration wraps up in June.

The last year when such large numbers of gray whales showed up dead along their migration route was 2000, but that year’s severe El Nino had sent lots of warm water into the Pacific and disrupted food webs accordingly. While a much more mild El Niño this time around probably has contributed some warmer water into the mix, other factors are definitely contributing to the increased strandings.

One optimistic view is that the whales’ very success in rebounding from near-extinction a century ago means more competition for finite amounts of food, leaving those individual whales less skilled at feeding themselves doomed to starvation. Unregulated commercial whaling had decimated Northern Pacific gray whales, with their population dwindling to just a few thousand individuals by the 1930s before an international ban on commercial whaling and other conservation measures kicked in to help spur their recovery. These days some 27,000 of them ply the Northern Pacific.

“The more whales you have, the more whales that are going to die,” NOAA Fisheries’ Michael Milstein tells Seattle-based news service Crosscut. “So, it's not totally unexpected that we'd see an increasing trend in whale strandings.”

According to this theory, the whales may have rebounded to the point where they are bumping up against the Northern Pacific’s “carrying capacity” (defined as the maximum population size of a given species that the environment can sustain indefinitely given the availability of suitable food and habitat).

But there is likely still more to the story. Global warming has led to retreating polar ice and algae die-offs in the Arctic, key habitat where the whales go every summer to stock up on nutrients before their long commute back to Mexico. These changing conditions have also led to a decline in benthic amphipods, the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that form the basis of the gray whales’ diet, which would explain why so many more of them are starving to death as they try to make the long journey north. And/or something could be wrong with (or contaminating) amphipods, in turn hurting gray whales.

Scientists worry that the troubled grays could be “canaries in the coalmine” for more widespread problems in marine ecosystems in the coming years, especially if this recent uptick in strandings is fundamentally tied to things wrong at the very bottom of the marine food chain.

“The same thing that’s affecting [gray whales] may affect other species in different ways,” adds Milstein, “if they either depend on the same food sources, or depend on food sources higher in the food web.”

CONTACTS: NOAA’s Gray Whale Info, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/gray-whale; “Why are so many gray whales dying in WA?” crosscut.com/2019/05/why-are-so-many-gray-whales-dying-wa; Michael Milstein, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/node/2226.

Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called Forest Therapy?

—Larry Schwarzwald, Page, AZ

Forest therapy uses immersion in nature to help soothe frayed nerves and restore a sense of mental well-being — and has even been shown to boost our immune systems and help us recover faster from physical maladies. The modern forest therapy movement is rooted in the Shinrin-yoku “forest bathing” practice developed in Japan in the 1980s that has since become a central part of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine.

“There are an infinite number of healing activities that can be incorporated into a walk in a forest or any other natural area,” reports the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT), which trains students to become certified forest therapists. “An activity is likely to be healing when it makes room for listening, for quiet and accepting presence, and for inquiry through all eight of the sensory modes we possess.”

Practitioners insist that forest therapy is rooted in science, citing dozens of research papers documenting the healing powers of something as simple as a stroll in the woods. According to ANFT, forest bathing seems to significantly mitigate the root cause of a multitude of ailments: stress. Given the role of stress in everything from headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis and other health problems, forest therapy could be an important part of staying or getting healthy.

Levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased in test subjects after a walk in the forest, when compared with a control group of subjects who engaged in walks within a laboratory setting,” adds ANFT. “Forest bathing catalyzes increased parasympathetic nervous system activity which prompts rest, conserves energy, and slows down the heart rate while increasing intestinal and gland activity.”

The research bears out the theory: the average concentration of salivary cortisol — a stress hormone — in people who gazed out at forest scenery for 20 minutes was 13.4 percent lower than those in urban settings. Meanwhile, leisurely forest walks were measurably better than urban walks at reducing cortisol levels and sympathetic nerve activity and decreasing blood pressure and heart rate. Meanwhile, other research shows we are better at creative problem-solving after time spent in the wilderness. Additionally, nature immersion has been linked to an increase in immunity boosting “killer T” cells, which the body uses to stave off infections and even possibly to fight the growth of cancer cells.

While anyone can take a hike through the woods and indulge in their own form of forest bathing, going with a guide can make the experience that much more meaningful. And you no longer have to go to Japan to find someone experienced in Shinrin-yoku. ANFT has trained more than 600 forest therapy guides working in 40 countries across six continents to date. Check out its map and directory to find one near you, whether you’re in North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia or South America.

CONTACTS: Shinrin-Yoku.org, shinrin-yoku.org; ANFT, natureandforesttherapy.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To read more, check out https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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