A landfill is a man-made structure to store trash that cannot be reused or recycled and is designed to be isolated from air, rain, and groundwater. The purpose is to prevent the waste from coming into contact with the environment, but a lack of oxygen causes the rubbish to decay. This produces gases such as methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report detailing the impact landfills are beginning to have on drinking water. Landfills have also been linked to birth defects and the rise of methane emissions.
An expert solution
Qiang He, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, worked with colleagues from various departments to design and begin testing a solution to the endless toxic landfills.
Their plan involves placing microbes into an anaerobic digester, which is a system that breaks down organic matter to create fertilizer. By doing this, they will be able to convert carbon from food waste into methane, which in turn can be made into electricity. Any leftover residue would be used as a soil supplement for farmers.
While this solution is not yet being implemented, there are some things that you can do to reduce the impact landfills have on the Earth:
A pesticide is a substance used to control or repel animals or plants that are considered to be pests. There are different types of pesticides for different purposes:
What's in a pesticide?
Pesticide products contain active ingredients and inert ingredients. The active ingredient is the main chemical that kills the target -- whether it's a plant, insect, or animal. Inert ingredients are less important, but help with product performance and usability.
There are several categories of active ingredients, including biopesticides (derived from natural compounds) and antimicrobial (supress growth of harmful microorganisms).
Some functions of inert ingredients are to improve safety for the applicator, extend the product's shelf life, and act as a solvent.
Effects of pesticides
Pesticides can cause immediate health effects, or long-term ones that may not be apparent until years later. Immediate health effects include irritation and nausea, and long-term ones include cancer, birth defects, reproductive issues, and brain damage. Children are more susceptible to the effects of pesticides because they're still developing.
In addition to affecting humans, pesticides also have a major impact on the environment. Events like the bat and frog die-offs and the collapse of bee colonies have been directly linked to the usage of neonicotinoid pesticides. These pesticides accumulate in the soil and harm animals' immune systems and limit soil nutrients.
What you can do
Though the effects of pesticides are globally recognized, their usage is not slowing down anytime soon. To reduce your risk of harm from pesticides, there are some steps you can take:
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of marine debris on the planet, and is located between the west coast of the U.S. and Japan. It is made up of two smaller garbage patches -- the Eastern Garbage Patch, which is between Hawaii and California, and the Western Garbage Patch, off the east coast of Japan. There is approximately 79,000 tons of plastic floating in this area.
What do garbage patches contain?
Some of the debris is made up of microplastics, which are very small pieces of plastic. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it never fully breaks down but instead splits into smaller and smaller pieces. These microplastics often make the water look like a cloudy soup because they're so small! Microscopic organisms such as plankton are at risk of ingesting microplastics.
Other debris found in garbage patches include larger pieces of plastic that have drifted out to sea from land activities, or that have broken off of boats or oil rigs.
A study conducted by researchers at the Ocean Cleanup Foundation surveyed the patch to determine the amount and types of plastic in the GPGP. To do this, they attached sensors to an aircraft to take 3D scans of the plastic samples. Once the scans were completed, they calculated that there were approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, and estimated that 92% of the mass is larger pieces of plastic, with 8% being microplastics. They then compared their measurements with past studies of the GPGP, finding that plastic pollution levels have increased exponentially over the years and that the amount of plastic being deposited into the water continues to exceed the plastic being taken out.
Impacts of garbage patches
Ingestion: Marine animals often eat plastic and other debris by mistake. In addition to being toxic, these items also take up room in their stomachs, preventing them from eating food they should. One example is the Laysan albatross chicks residing in Oahu, Hawaii: 45% of their wet mass is composed of plastics from the GPGP.
Plastic is especially harmful for sea surface feeders migrating through the GPGP, since there is 180x more plastic floating above the ocean in this patch than marine life. 84% of this plastic is found to contain at least one toxic biochemical.
Entanglement of animals: Fishing nets make up a significant portion of garbage patches. These nets can become tangled around dolphins, seals, turtles, and other animals in a way known as "ghost fishing," which can often drown them.
Bioaccumulation: Microplastics accumulate inside small organisms through ingestion and make their way through the marine food chain, eventually ending up on our plates. This can affect food safety and different food industries.
Multiple organizations are dedicated to working towards cleaner oceans and preventing the patch from expanding. However, cleaning up the plastic is not as easy as it may seem. Microplastics are too small to be caught in nets, and the sheer size of the patch makes it challenging to contain all the debris. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program estimates that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean.
While cleanup efforts are difficult, scientists are working towards sustainable solutions. Many recommend limiting your use of plastic bottles, or moving to using more biodegradable plastics. Organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition are using direct action campaigns to support businesses in their transition to biodegradable plastics.
Forest fires are important in wooded ecosystems because they help the regeneration of healthy plants and growth. However, too much fire can destroy biodiversity and the smoke can contribute to air pollution. Forest fires are caused by many different factors such as lightning strikes and brush fires sparks, but human error is the leading cause of these devastating wildfires.
The main causes of forest fires
85% of wildfires are caused by humans. While natural activities such as lightning and brush/grass fires can spark a raging fire, they are much more likely to come from human activities like abandoned campfires and arson.
Prominent historical fires
Throughout history, there have been thousands of major wildfires. However, there are five that stand out for their size and/or impact:
Saddleworth Moor Fire - United Kingdom (2018)
Over the years, the number of forest fires in the U.K. have been increasing. The recent fire in Saddleworth Moor was one of the most impactful in the country's history, resulting in 150 people being evacuated from their homes. The fire was reportedly started by a group of bikers early in the day, and although it was responsibly put out, smoldering peat hidden under the ground's surface caused a reignition of the flames. The military was brought in to contain the blaze, and the leftover ash and other particles created a low-hanging haze that swept across the nearby city of Great Manchester, resulting in a spike in respiratory issues of the area's inhabitants and increased air pollution levels.
Wallow Fire - U.S.A. (2011)
The Wallow Fire was sparked by two men camping in Arizona's Bear Wallow Wilderness. The campfire accidentally blew out of control, burning through half a million acres of land. 6,000 people had to be evacuated and over $100 million was spent on cleanup and recovery efforts.
Brandenburg Fire - Germany (2018)
Across Europe, wildfires have been rapidly increasing due to longer, hotter, and drier summers. The Brandenburg Fire's cause was never determined, but local authorities linked it to a likely case of arson. Three villages had to be evacuated, and the smoky haze drifted all the way to Berlin, causing residents to lock themselves inside to avoid the toxic smoke. To make matters worse, there were leftover undetonated munitions from WWII around the area, which began to explode from the heat of the fire.
Uttarakhand Fires - India (2016)
Uttarakhand is a forest-covered region in northern India. Throughout 2016, these forests were plagued with man-caused fires -- over 1,600, to be exact. This drastic number was suspected to be due to people concealing illegal timber activity or seed collectors attempting to scare away animals.
Impact of forest fires
Fires often bring ecological and infrastructure damage, such as buildings burning down or forest devastation. Thousands of people die every year to these fires, but the damage and death often brings important policy discussions to the tables of local and federal government agencies. One example is the Black Saturday fires of 2009, which led to a reconsideration of landscape-related fire policies. Forest fires often come with hefty financial costs that are placed on cities or the government, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to contain and cleanup.
Fires also may lead to health effects for people who were involved with them, a reduction in tourism near the affected area, decreasing nearby home values, and disruption to local traffic.
While forest fires are a concerning issue and are becoming more prominent around the world, there are things that you as an individual can do to make sure you do not contribute to the statistics by starting an accidental fire. Ensure that you never start a fire on a windy day, or leave one unattended. If you're burning waste, never burn anything highly combustible near brush or other flammable material.
Air pollution is the release of toxic pollutants into the air. These pollutants can come from factories and energy use, and is usually in the form of carbon dioxide or smog. However, chemicals such as mercury, lead, and benzene are often released into the air as well from gas combustion.
Pollution leads to many detrimental health effects in humans, the biggest of which is severe respiratory issues such as cancer, asthma, and bronchitis. Air pollution can also lead to cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks, and a variety of cancers.
A creative solution
Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch artist, inventor, and engineer. He works with a team of innovators at Studio Roosegaarde, a design lab creating projects and solutions to global climate problems.
One of Studio Roosegaarde's biggest projects is known as the Smog Free Project, a group of inventions that contribute to cleaner air.
Smog Free Tower: The Smog Free Tower is the most ambitious solution that the group has come up with so far. It is a 21-foot tall aluminum tower, powered by wind energy, that uses positive ionization technologies to purify toxins in the air that is cycled through it and blown back out. Each tower can provide clean air for over 100,000 people per day, and its award-winning design and technologies have been praised by scientists and research labs around the world.
Studio Roosegaarde has also created similar products such as the Smog Eating Billboard, which has a similar technology as the tower but is meant to be incorporated into existing billboards around the world, and the Smog Free Bicycle, which is currently in development.
Air pollution is a pressing problem facing our world today, but with the introduction of pioneering technologies from labs and companies like Studio Roosegaarde, people around the world are finally able to take truly clean breaths of air.
An oil spill is an uncontrolled release of oil, gasoline, or any kind of fuel into the environment. Oil spills can happen on land or in the water, and harm the species who come into contact with the polluted area. The recovery time from an oil spill can be anywhere from a few days to years.
How oil spills happen
Oil spills can happen in many different ways, including the release of crude oil from tankers and offshore drilling rigs, equipment breaking down, or even from natural disasters such as hurricanes. Once spilled, the oil floats on top of the water and thins out as it spreads rapidly, creating a layer called an oil slick.
The effects of spills
In the water, oil spills can be extremely harmful and even deadly to marine animals. Oil destroys the ability to insulate by mammals such as otters, and the water-repelling ability of bird feathers, exposing them to the elements. Animals also may swallow the oil when trying to clean themselves, which is poisonous.
On land, oil spills can harm crops, plant life, and seep into waterways as run off. Protecting human health is the top priority when cleaning up a land oil spill, since oil can spread quickly and contaminate food and water sources.
A study by Mace Barron, Adriana Bejarano, Robyn Commy, Devi Sundaravadivelu, and Peter Mayor, research ecologists for the Environmental Protection Agency looks at the toxicity of oil spill cleaning chemicals and their effect on wildlife. To do this, they selected three chemical agents commonly used in oil spill cleanups (Accell Clean, CytoSol, and Gelco200) and three crude oils differing in their chemical composition. They tested how mysids (a small, shrimp-like organism that resides in estuaries, shown to the left) and inland silversides (a fish) reacted to these agents, observing that the chemical agents were often more toxic than the oil itself. Freshwater species were also affected at the same level as saltwater species, showing that no organisms were safe from the toxicity of chemical agents.
Other ways to clean oil spills include booms (floating barriers), skimmers (machines that remove the oil from the top layer of the water), and hydrocarbon pads that absorb oil on land.
Oil spills are toxic, not only from the oil but the cleanup too. Crops, coral reefs, and many lifeforms are harmed by this environmental destruction. Fortunately, organizations such as the EPA and the Coast Guard are diligent about cleaning up the spills as quickly and safely as possible, and safer alternatives to the chemical agents are being developed.
The human race depends heavily on forests. Forests make up 31% of the Earth’s land and house half of the planet’s species and approximately 300 million people. The trees provide us with oxygen and timber, and muffle noise pollution. Clearly, these are crucial parts of our planet. So why are they disappearing at a rapid rate?
What is deforestation?
Deforestation refers to the removal of forest lands for other uses such as urbanization, mining, or farmland. The rate of deforestation has been growing since the 1960s due to human activity, and according to The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, the deforestation rate is 10 million hectares per year.
Main causes of deforestation
Deforestation is either caused by natural factors or human activities. Natural factors include forest fires not caused by humans or parasitic diseases. Human activities are the main cause of deforestation, though, including the expansion of agriculture and infrastructure construction.
1) Agriculture (~80%)
Large-scale agriculture (particularly cattle-ranching and the production of soy beans and oil palm) accounts for 40% of deforestation, and local agriculture makes up the other 40%.
2) Construction (15%)
Construction makes up for 15% of deforestation. Infrastructure being built such as roads, airports, and rails often take up large amounts of space and require forests to be bulldozed to make room.
3) Urbanization (5%)
People are moving from rural to urban areas at an increasing rate. The urban growth is leading to an increase in housing, requiring more land and therefore more deforestation happens.
The effects of deforestation
The biggest effect is the threat to biodiversity. Since many species live in the forests, they all have to face the threat of deforestation to their habitat. As species go extinct, natural imbalances occur and the entire ecosystem is at risk.
Animals aren't the only creatures at risk, though. 1.6 billion people have forest-related jobs, especially in developing countries. There is also the consequence of soil erosion, which can result in an increase in natural disasters like landslides and floods.
Another severe consequence of deforestation is increased greenhouse gas emissions. When forests are cut or burned they emit carbon instead of absorbing it. Because of this, deforestation is responsible for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, which can lead to an increase in extreme weather events such as floods and rising temperatures.
Solutions to deforestation
A simple way that you can help stop deforestation is to consume less meat and dairy products. Studies have shown that by lowering your consumption of these foods, global farmland use could be reduced by over 75%. You can also be conscious on other products you use, especially ones that use palm oil, and try to buy as much as possible from eco-friendly brands and smaller, local farmers.
We can educate local communities about the need to protect forests, enact laws and policies to ensure the conservation of these areas, and fight illegal logging. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund are also actively working to combat deforestation by promoting sustainable bioenergy and working towards sustainable infrastructure.
Deforestation is a global problem, and is threatening our environment and the livelihoods of many. However, now that you know the causes and effects, you can make the decision to do your part to curb this environmental destruction.