Day: March 8, 2021

Healthy rivers: Communities use DNA tool to keep tabs on freshwater quality

Community members from Blueberry River First Nations collect STREAM samples in Fort St. John, B.C. (Raegan Mallinson/Living Lakes Canada), Author provided

by Chloe V. Robinson and Mehrdad Hajibabaei (University of Guelph)

Photos of Canada often show the Great Lakes, expanses of wetlands and scenic rivers. The country is described as a water-rich nation, and it is, with seven per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater supply. However, freshwater sources are far from endless.

Many of Canada’s 25 watersheds are under threat from pollution, habitat degradation, water overuse and invasive species. For example, more than half of Canada’s population lives within the Great Lakes watershed, Ottawa basin and St. Lawrence basin, which face multiple threats that degrade water quality and undermine the ability of freshwater ecosystems to keep functioning.

A creek courses through a forested area
Curtis Creek, one of the tributaries within the Columbia Basin, B.C. (Salmo River Streamkeepers)

The story of the Great Lakes watershed is not unique in Canada. Ten additional watersheds, from the Winnipeg to the Fraser-Lower Mainland watershed, face high or very high levels of threats. The water quality in more than half of Canada’s 167 sub-watersheds (smaller freshwater systems that drain into a specific watershed) score poor or fair.

In Canada, these watersheds are vast and often inaccessible, making it difficult to monitor the health of these ecosystems. But with the help of a new tool, scientists and community members are collecting data to better understand the state of Canada’s rivers.

Data deficiencies

Rivers are full of all kinds of small creatures that are highly sensitive to environmental threats. The worms, fly larvae and snails — collectively called macroinvertebrates — that live in the sediment at the bottom of a river (the “benthos”) can serve as biological monitors for water quality. The presence of biological monitor species that are less tolerant of poor water quality is suggestive of a healthy river.

But it can be challenging to sample and identify these macroinvertebrates. Even when there is some data on them, the quality of the data may not be good enough to determine the health of the watershed. To date, 64 per cent of sub-watersheds in Canada lack data on these species.

Left to right: Flatheaded mayfly larvae, green sedge caddisfly larvae and golden stonefly larvae. These species are macroinvertebrates known to be sensitive to changes in environmental conditions. (Chloe Robinson)

Gathering data on these species is challenging: Many watersheds are remote and difficult to access, and the cost of flying to them limits the amount of data that can be collected. We partnered with local community groups to collect river samples so that we could understand river health by identifying macroinvertebrates from their DNA.

DNA profiling

DNA technologies have revolutionized the amount of data we can generate from a single river sample.

For example, one technique called “environmental DNA metabarcoding,” or eDNA for short, involves taking samples of soil or water and searching for fragments of DNA specific to certain species. This method eliminates the time-consuming process of sorting individual samples and enables us to identify the different species present in a river system.

A flow chart showing two different processes for identifying species in environmental samples
The process of manually sorting and identifying macroinvertebrates (top) versus eDNA metabarcoding approach of species identification (bottom). (Chloe Robinson)

Once you’re at a river, collecting samples is fast and easy — all it takes is three minutes of kicking river sediment into a net to capture the macroinvertebrates that live in the benthos. We taught this technique to people involved in a community-based monitoring network called CABIN to create a new biomonitoring project: STREAM (Sequencing the Rivers for Environmental Assessment and Monitoring).

Since 2019, STREAM scientists have trained more than 100 community members who have gone on to collect almost 1,000 samples across 10 watersheds. We’re close to our goal of 1,500 samples in 15 watersheds in Canada. Yet we’re already beginning to see how the STREAM project is filling in the blanks for freshwater health across Canada.

STREAM video produced by Living Lakes Canada.

STREAM case studies

Not only has the STREAM project provided data on the health of the Great Lakes and Ottawa River watersheds — and the threats to them — it has enabled communities to ask questions about their aquatic ecosystems.

A woman kicking muddy water into a net
Darcie Quamme from Integrated Ecological Research collecting a wetland benthic kick-net sample. (Darcie Quamme)

In collaboration with Slocan River Streamkeepers, an environmental stewardship group based in Winlaw, B.C., and Integrated Ecological Research, an environmental consulting service based in Nelson, B.C., STREAM has been able to assess changes in macroinvertebrate communities after the completion of a wetland restoration project. Although this project is ongoing, early results show the wetlands already have a high variety of macroinvertebrates, with 178 species identified. A quarter of these species are indicators of good wetland health, meaning water quality in the area is likely improving.

With Living Lakes Canada and the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society, parts of the Bow River, in Alberta, are now being screened for sludge worms, which can carry the parasite that causes whirling disease, an infection that can wipe out up to 90 per cent of young salmon, trout and whitefish. Loss of these fish has ecological, economic and social consequences in Alberta, where they are important recreational and sustenance fisheries. DNA results from 2019 indicated that the host sludge worms had not spread beyond the known whirling disease zone.

Members of Ghost Watershed Alliance Society at CABIN Training and Certification event with WWF-Canada Freshwater Specialist, Catherine Paquette (left) and Living Lakes Canada STREAM program manager, Raegan Mallinson (second from right). (Ghost Watershed Alliance Society)

STREAM provides a unique opportunity to bring benefits to both people and the environment. Through using DNA-based technology, it is possible to determine changes in water quality at local, sub-watershed and watershed levels. For continued monitoring of the Bow River for example, the rapid result turnaround provided by STREAM means any indications of sludge worm dispersion can be dealt with by closing angling access to the area to prevent potential spread.

STREAM empowers local communities to lead freshwater research and equips people to address their own environmental questions — and it can easily be applied to other countries as a means to monitor freshwater systems.

Chloe V. Robinson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph and Mehrdad Hajibabaei, Associate professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tightening the Nitrogen Cycle in Organic Agriculture

Read the full story at Organic Farmer.

How to meet crop nitrogen needs without adverse environmental impacts.

Closed Loop Partners Announces Winners of Beyond the Bag Innovation Challenge

The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners has announced the nine winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge: ChicoBag, Domtar, Eon, Fill it Forward, GOATOTE, PlasticFri, Returnity, SmartC and Sway. The winning solutions fall into three categories: Reuse and Refill; Enabling Technology; and Innovative Materials. Their work ranges from reusable packaging systems, to technology that incentivizes consumers to make the sustainable choice, to bags derived from seaweed or agricultural waste. The winners now enter the next phase of the initiative: working closely with the Consortium to prototype, refine and test the viability of their designs to scale as long-term solutions.

It is estimated that we use 100 billion plastic bags per year in the U.S. alone and less than 10 percent are recycled; the convenience of single-use plastics has had far-reaching consequences for the planet. Single-use plastic bags continue to be one of the top 10 items found along beaches and waterways according to data from Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. The global threats brought about by climate change and the pandemic have only underscored the urgency of addressing our current system.

The Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag is a pre-competitive collaboration committed to reimagining the retail bag and creating a more circular delivery system. Unveiled in July 2020, the Consortium’s Beyond the Bag Initiative is an ambitious three-year undertaking that aims to identify and scale innovative alternatives to the single-use plastic retail bag. Consortium Founding Partners CVS Health, Target and Walmart committed $15 million collectively to the bold collaboration, with the goal of driving transformational change. The Consortium has welcomed additional partners DICK’S Sporting Goods, Dollar General, The Kroger Co., The TJX Companies, Inc., Ahold Delhaize USA Brands, Albertsons Companies, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Wakefern Food Corp., and Walgreens, who have joined in its mission.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle a problem as complex as our reliance on single-use plastic bags,” says Kate Daly, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “The diversity of our winners underscores how businesses and consumers alike need to employ a range of solutions to fit different geographic, social and economic contexts. We’re thrilled to announce these companies entering the next phase of the initiative, as we continue to support their growth and begin to implement select pilot programs.”

The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners offers a holistic approach to tackling complex challenges to the circular economy, by operating across every point of the value chain. This enables the Center and its partners to better understand the diversity of needs across multiple sectors, enhance buy-in from key players and identify opportunities. The Center is a place where competitors and peers alike can join for a common purpose.

“It is exciting to see the potential of our efforts to reimagine the single-use bag in action as we unveil these innovative solutions,” says Eileen Howard Boone, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropy, CVS Health. “We look forward to exploring opportunities to pilot these solutions at CVS Pharmacy locations.”

The Beyond the Bag Challenge is only the first step. The Center and its partners are committed to a measured, data-driven approach to test and scale viable, long-term solutions that bring value to the entire system.

“We know that tackling this challenge requires a holistic approach to best serve the needs of people, the business, and the planet,” says Amanda Nusz, Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility, Target. “We’re excited by the nine winners – together they offer a compelling range of possibilities and inspiring potential solutions to this urgent and necessary work.”

“We’re proud to be part of a collaborative endeavor like the Beyond the Bag Initiative,” says Jane Ewing, Senior Vice President Sustainability, Walmart. “The Beyond the Bag Challenge winners inspire us to reimagine a more sustainable future, showcasing the breadth and tangibility of innovative solutions and we look forward to supporting them in their development.”

The Selection Process
The Beyond the Bag Challenge, in partnership with the global design firm IDEO, sought to identify long-term solutions that reimagine how to get goods home from an in-store purchase, from curbside pick-up, and in-home delivery. Over 450 innovators from around the world submitted their ideas on how to reinvent the retail bag. The Consortium then selected a shortlist of 58 concepts to explore deeper, and ultimately selected a cohort of 9 Winners.

Winners were chosen through a collective process by a panel of 10 subject matter experts alongside the Consortium’s Founding Partners, Sector Lead Partners, Environmental Advisory Partners and the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. A comprehensive set of criteria addressed three overarching areas:

  • People: it must maintain the convenience, efficiency and effectiveness of the single-use plastic bag for customers and retail employees alike. It must take into account accessibility and inclusivity.
  • Business: it must have attainable, long-term value for retailers in a variety of environments.
  • Planet: it must operate within a circular system and lessen or eliminate environmental and social harm in its sourcing, production, useful life and end-of-life.

These principles are equally important when looking to scale and implement systems that change how we transport items from businesses to home. The Beyond the Bag Initiative thinks outside the box, seeking solutions that align the interests of people, the planet and business.

The Next Phase
Winners will receive a portion of $1 million in prize money and are eligible for additional financial support to support testing, piloting and scaling efforts. Depending upon the type of solution, they will either be invited to join the Circular Accelerator, a mentorship program to further hone and advance their solutions, or begin product testing to improve performance, customer experience and more. The Consortium will work closely with winning solutions throughout 2021, supporting design research, prototyping, mentoring and iterative developments toward piloting select solutions in-market.

About the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners
The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners unites competitors to tackle complex material challenges and to implement systemic change that advances the circular economy. Adept at navigating every step in the value chain, Closed Loop Partners brings together designers, manufacturers, recovery systems operators, trade organizations, municipalities, policymakers and NGOs to create scalable innovations that target big system problems.

The Center’s first initiative, the NextGen Consortium, assembled leading food and beverage companies, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, to identify and commercialize a widely recyclable, compostable and/or reusable cup. 12 winning cup solutions were selected and the Consortium is supporting the testing of these new solutions as well as conducting select pilots to accelerate their path to scale. Learn more about the Center’s work here.

About the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag
The Beyond the Bag Initiative, launched by the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, aims to identify, pilot and implement viable design solutions and models that more sustainably serve the purpose of the current retail bag. Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy launched the initiative with Founding Partners CVS Health, Target and Walmart. The Kroger Co. joined as Grocery Sector Lead Partner, DICK’S Sporting Goods joined as Sports & Outdoors Sector Lead Partner, Dollar General as Value Sector Lead Partner and TJX as Apparel & Home Goods Sector Lead Partner. Ahold Delhaize USA Brands, Albertsons Companies, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Wakefern Food Corp., and Walgreens are Supporting Partners, and Conservation International and Ocean Conservancy serve as Environmental Advisory Partners. IDEO is the Consortium’s Innovation Partner. Learn more about the Consortium here.

An American Version of EPR

Read the full story at Waste360.

“Make the manufacturers pay” has become a popular solution for recycling’s problems. It seems simple after all, that if producers pay for recycling instead of local governments, taxpayer money can be used on other services.  Moreover, by “internalizing” the recycling cost, manufacturers will find ways to make their packaging and products more easily recyclable.  Sounds great doesn’t it?

These product stewardship laws, also known as “EPR” for “extended producer responsibility”, are somewhat common in the United States.Thirty-three states have laws covering products that are hard to recycle or contain hazardous constituents. They include, for instance, electronics, paint, carpets, mattresses and mercury-containing thermostats. The programs have been somewhat successful in increasing recycling of those products but have done little to make them more easily recyclable or otherwise change their design. 

Product stewardship for packaging and paper products can be found throughout Europe, in five of Canada’s ten provinces, and in other parts of the world. They cannot be found in any American state. Perhaps, that is, until now. Legislators in nine states are likely to consider statewide producer responsibility legislation this year.  But as they try to establish these programs, they will struggle with the reality that, as the head of the Product Policy Institute said years ago, this type of EPR is “simple in concept, complex in execution”.

Accelerating Recycling: Policy to Unlock Supply for the Circular Economy

Download the document.

This report offers a collaborative public-private policy solution that includes:
  • a packaging and printed paper fee paid by private sector brands to support residential recycling infrastructure and education and
  • a disposal surcharge on waste generators to help defray recycling operational costs for communities.

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