The Los Angeles City Council is advancing steps toward phasing out the use of a variety of single-use plastic items, after greenlighting multiple related directives on Feb. 16. It’s one push amid a broader movement in the LA area and throughout the state of California to reduce reliance on plastics and promote reuse systems.
Near-term policy options the city is exploring further, stemming from recommendations put forth by LA Sanitation & Environment (LASAN) at the end of last year, include a citywide ban on expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam foodware and pushing city facilities and events toward zero waste by phasing out purchase and use of single-use plastics.
LASAN’s November report also outlined a slate of potential policies that could possibly occur within a one or two year time horizon. They include mandating reusable foodware for dine-in services, adding fees for disposable items like cups and straws, and banning water in plastic bottles unless refillable.
The National Academies Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communication encourage high-quality science communication and help build a diverse community of science journalists, research scientists, and institutions, which will help society meet the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change, future pandemics, human genome editing, and other issues that can only be understood and navigated with the help of effective science communication.
The awards present prizes to science journalists and research scientists who have developed creative, original work that addresses issues and advances in science, engineering, and/or medicine for the general public.
Submissions are accepted in six categories: freelance journalists, early career journalists, reporting at the local/regional level (science journalism); and graduate students, early career researchers, and later career researchers (science communication by research scientists).
Editor’s note: Following action by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Illinois is investigating the occurrence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in community water supplies across the state, with an eye toward developing policies to reduce their use. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to increased risk of certain cancers and potential developmental problems in children. News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates spoke about the issue with John Scott, a senior chemist with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
Why are PFAS used in so many products?
PFAS are used in packaging, nonstick cookware, water-resistant carpeting, construction materials, firefighting foam, and personal-use products like shampoos and dental floss.
PFAS have unique properties. They are very resistant to water, oil and most things that would stain surfaces. They also are thermally stable, resistant to degradation and great friction reducers.
Why are they so problematic?
There are more than 5,000 compounds classified as PFAS, and the list seems to be growing every day. This makes monitoring, regulating and treating them a much more difficult task.
What makes PFAS so useful is also what makes them so problematic. For starters, they are very water soluble, which means they can reach very high concentrations in surface and groundwaters contaminated by them. This also makes them very mobile in the environment, so they can readily move from soil to water to organisms. PFAS also are known to bioaccumulate. This means they can be present at higher concentrations in wildlife and humans than in the surrounding environment.
Since PFAS are so stable, they are extremely persistent in the environment. Carbon-fluorine bonds are some of the strongest chemical bonds known. This is why these compounds are so hard to break down. Once they get into the environment, they pretty much stick around forever. This is also why treatment of PFAS is so difficult. We can readily get PFAS to adsorb to many materials, but it isn’t clear what to do with those materials afterward. It requires a great deal of energy and cost to destroy PFAS, and the process may create even more potentially toxic degradation products or hazardous air pollutants. The only alternative is to landfill these materials, but that gives them the potential to be released back into the environment.
How widespread is the problem in Illinois?
In reference to PFAS, one will typically hear the word “ubiquitous.” It seems that everywhere we look for PFAS, they turn up. This is true in Illinois.
Illinois does have some “PFAS hot spots” that I am aware of. These sites are typically where fires have been treated with aqueous firefighting foams, locations where training with these foams has occurred and air force bases. These hot spots usually have very high concentrations of PFAS in their soils and nearby groundwaters and surface waters. Michigan has many sites where illegal dumping of PFAS occurred, but I am unaware of any sites like that in Illinois. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Many PFAS-laden materials are dumped in landfills and, as a result, high concentrations of PFAS can end up in landfill leachates. These leachates are commonly sent to wastewater treatment plants, which are not currently designed to treat PFAS. This means the PFAS are either directly discharged to the environment via effluent or they contaminate the sewage sludge, commonly referred to as biosolids. Because biosolids from wastewater treatment plants are sometimes used as fertilizer on agricultural crops, the PFAS are then released back into the environment. When considering the potential impact, it’s good to keep in mind that Illinois has 37 active landfills and many more that are inactive or closed.
Are there safer alternatives to PFAS?
Many alternative chemicals have been developed and implemented to replace the traditional PFAS. However, the consensus of the scientific community is that they are just as problematic as the compounds they replaced. The Department of Defense is aggressively looking for fluorine-free alternatives.
How might the state of Illinois address the problem?
In the hierarchy of pollution prevention, source reduction is the most efficient approach. We need to reduce the amount of PFAS we produce and the amount of PFAS we use, and find safer alternatives that have minimal environmental impact. Education is an essential part of this process. Making the public aware of the issue would be a great place to start.
I suspect that many people purchasing materials containing PFAS are not even aware of it. A requirement for labeling of materials that contain PFAS may provide consumers with a means to make the right decision with their purchasing power. This also could provide a way for solid waste managers to divert these materials so that they are not released back into the environment. Even if we stopped all use of PFAS tomorrow, however, I suspect that we will be dealing with their legacy for decades to come.
Lake Michigan is a major resource for drinking water, manufacturing processes, and other economic gains for the state of Michigan and surrounding areas. However, it’s no secret that human activities have affected water quality in the Great Lakes, particularly in recent years. A recent study in Limnology and Oceanography Letters is now showing by just how much.
The next 30 years of solar energy is likely to look very different than the past 30. Photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar power are likely to continue to grow rapidly—the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects solar energy could provide 45% of the electricity in the United States by 2050 if the energy system is fully decarbonized—and technology costs are projected to continue to decline.
But in the coming decades, the evolution of solar energy technologies could be defined more by how they interact with other energy technologies, like wind and storage. Changes across the wider energy system, like the increased electrification of buildings and vehicles, emergence of clean fuels, and new commitments to both equitability and a more circular, sustainable economy, will shape the future of solar energy. These are just some of the key findings of the Solar Futures Study, published by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and written by NREL. The study is based on extensive analysis and modeling conducted by NREL and synthesizes analysis across many domains to provide a balanced and rigorous assessment of the future of solar power.
Michigan’s new economywide 2050 carbon neutral proposal vaults it into the vanguard of United States climate ambition. It’s just the fourth such goal nationwide with interim targets of 28% carbon reductions compared to 2005 by 2025, 52% by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050, going net negative thereafter.
The MI Healthy Climate Plan draft aims for 50% renewable energy by 2030, closing all coal plants by 2035, building charging infrastructure to support 2 million electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030, and directing at least 40% of all investments toward vulnerable communities.
The temperature had finally crept above zero on a recent morning as Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell walked along the snowy path leading to one of three greenhouses on their organic farm.
The unheated, 3,000-square-foot greenhouse was less frigid, but still cold. Adam sang the praises of spinach as Johanna pulled back fabric to reveal rows of baby plants growing in Unity, Maine – in the middle of a winter.
“Spinach is amazing,” Adam said. “Spinach can just hang out in the bone-cold frozen soil at 15 degrees below (zero) and once it warms up, it is able to move water around and perk right up. And it’ll go all winter. It gets incredibly sweet.”
Adam and Johanna had planned to sell spinach and other leafy greens this winter from Songbird Farm. But now those plans are on hold along with everything else on the 20-acre organic vegetable and grain farm where they live along with their 3-year-old son.
The couple hired a private laboratory last fall to test their water, soil and some crops after learning that the land had been repeatedly fertilized – decades before they purchased it – with municipal sludge that was potentially laced with forever chemicals known as PFAS.