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Could Worms and Bacteria Offer a Solution to Plastic Pollution?

Research suggest that plastic-eating caterpillars and mutant enzymes could help break down trash

Each year, the world produces 300 million tons of plastic — an incredibly resilient synthetic product that pollutes every corner of the globe. Plastics are regularly ingested by wildlife on land and at sea, and eventually end up in the food on our plates.

photo of plastic on beachPhoto by Bo Eide Hard-to-break-down plastic waste poses threats to wildlife and humans alike. Scientists, however, think wax worms may hold some clues as to how to degrade this troubling type of trash.

In 2012, Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at Spain's Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, accidentally uncovered some wax worms while managing her beehives. Wax worms are the larvae of Galleria Mellonella, or the greater wax moth. They are commonly found in beehives, where the moth lays her eggs and the larvae feed on the wax produced by the bees — hence, the caterpillar's common name.

Bertocchini cleaned out her hives and placed the wax worms in a plastic bag, setting them aside for disposal. But when she returned to the bag later, the caterpillars had eaten their way out, creating multiple holes.

In order to make sure the wax worms were not just chewing holes in the bag but were actually digesting the plastic, Bertocchini designed a simple experiment: She mashed up the larvae and applied the resulting paste to polyethylene plastic bags. This would test whether or not the enzymes produced in the caterpillars' stomachs, or possibly the bacteria living within and on their bodies, could truly break down the plastic. After half a day, approximately 13 percent of the plastic had disappeared.

Like plastic, wax is a polymer consisting of a complex string of carbon atoms. "Since they eat wax," Bertochhini told National Geographic, "they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic.”

To explore her findings further, Bertocchini teamed up with biochemists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge to analyze the chemical composition of plastic as it reacted to wax worm paste. More specifically, the researchers used spectroscopy to look at how the polyethylene absorbed or reflected infrared radiation during the reaction. This analysis showed that some of the plastic was converted into ethylene glycol — a sign that it was being genuinely degraded.

"It’s extremely, extremely exciting, because breaking down plastic has proved so challenging," Bombelli told The Telegraph. When his team …more

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Elite Rock Climbers Push for Public Lands Protection on Capitol Hill

In 62 separate meetings, athletes and advocates asked politicians to protect the great outdoors

Alex Honnold was stuck in traffic.

The world’s most renowned rock climber was due on Capitol Hill for a US Senate reception with other top climbers from around the country, who had descended en masse on Washington to lobby for greater protections for public lands.

photo of climberPhoto by tony puyol / Flickr Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, organizers invited rock climbers to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

Honnold, the subject of an upcoming film documenting his ropeless climb last year of the 3,000 ft El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, had run out for a quick meeting with the National Park Service. But then he hit Washington’s notorious rush hour.

“It’s taking Alex longer to get here from the Department of the Interior than it takes him to climb El Cap,” quipped Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, which organized the climbers’ lobbying event with the not-for-profit Access Fund.

Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, and empowered by the roaring growth of the outdoor recreation industry, organizers had invited the athletes to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

In 62 separate meetings, 13 teams of athletes and advocates made their ask of politicians and regulators: protect public lands by supporting funding for things like land and water conservation, firefighting, research, and staffing. Resist future attempts to remove federal protections from public lands. And support the sensible acquisition of new public lands to preserve irreplaceable ecosystems.

While the outdoor industry has lobbied legislators along similar lines for years, the Trump administration’s decision last year to radically shrink Bears Ears national monument and halve the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument has sharpened focus on what is at stake.

“The political climate around outdoor recreation and public lands has changed dramatically in just the last year,” Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, told The Guardian.

So the call went out to California, Colorado, Washington state, Utah, New Hampshire and other outdoor playgrounds. And on Thursday, some of the biggest names in rock climbing turned up in a hearing room in the Russell Senate office building, which was suddenly filled with backpacks by Patagonia, North Face, Osprey, Burton, and Jansport, rather than briefcases.

photo of el capitanPhoto by more

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Catch and Release Is No Fun for the Fish

A once-impassioned angler rethinks his relationship with sport fishing

There was a time in my life when fly-fishing was my life. I was a true fish bum. My entire existence revolved around the “sport.” I fished more than 150 days a year and had an unhealthy obsession with wild and native trout. There was something enchanting about those beautifully speckled, mysterious creatures. Their habits, their history, their habitats — all this intrigued me. I didn't neglect the warm water species, either: the bass, pike, muskies, walleye, carp, catfish, and so on. I owned a respectable collection of fly-rods. I tied my own flies and was damn good at it. My bookshelf was filled with fly-fishing books. I had hundreds of pictures of myself holding my “trophies,” and was proud of the 2-foot wild brown trout, the 20-inch smallmouth, the gorgeous little native brookies, the 30-inch walleye. But as time went on, something changed within me. It was a gradual change — a slow raising consciousness, if you will. I fought it at first, and even tried to block it out, but eventually I had to face it. I knew what I was doing was wrong.

photo of ticksPhoto by smuzz / Flickr Most fishermen and fisherwomen truly care about fish and the habitats in which they live. But sports fishing inflicts pain on the fish who are caught.

What was I doing? I was having fun, which is a poor excuse for torturing a living creature. This is the part where most people roll their eyes and sigh at the crazy “animal rights extremist” and say something like, “it's just a fish.” What exactly does that even mean? So, because it's a fish, it deserves no respect or empathy?

Let’s go back to that word, “torture.” Torture: The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. For the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. That right there is a good description of sport fishing. Now to be clear, I am not saying that all fisherman are sick people who knowingly and deliberately go out to torture or injure fish. On the contrary, I would say the exact opposite is true. Most fisherman are good people who truly do care about  fish and the habitats in which they live. But the fact of the matter is that sport fishing has become such a cultural norm …more

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How Artists and Neighbors Converted a WWII Bomb Site into a Medicinal Garden

London community found a way to protect a rare parcel of rewilded land

It was a fenced-off World War II bomb site that had rewilded, and a team of London artists decided it was the perfect place to grow a medicine garden. The site is in the middle of a social housing complex in the Bethnal Green neighborhood of Tower Hamlets, a London borough that has become the UK’s second most densely populated local authority, the basic unit of local government.

photo of London medicinal gardenPhoto courtesy of Michael SmytheThe Bethnal Green Nature Reserve is home to more than 30 edible or medicinal plants indigenous to London.

For the artists, the hardest part of getting the project off the ground turned out to be finding space. Before they found the old bomb site, they spent 2010 to 2012 in negotiations over another piece of land in Tower Hamlets. But it was “the size of a garage” and involved eight different landowners, said Michael Smythe, the founder of Nomad Projects, an independent art commissioning foundation that focuses on socially relevant public art. Then their funders got antsy.

That’s when one artist reached out to Margaret Cox, the chair of the nearby Teesdale & Hollybush Tenants and Residents Association, which had taken stewardship of the 1-acre parcel, known as Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, in the late 1990s. The association maintained the space by removing litter and planting. Cox, who is 62 now and has lived in the neighborhood since she was 9, said she had been visiting and caring for the land for the past 18 years. She referred to herself as its “mum.”

Cox said there were always concerns that the reserve, which is partly owned by the local government of Tower Hamlets, would be developed. Tower Hamlets is experiencing a housing crisis: The borough has the highest poverty rate in London, yet, at the same time, property values and rents have been going up. According to the Tower Hamlets council, 19,000 families are on a waiting list for 1,800 affordable housing slots.

Adding to those concerns, reported Vice in 2016, then-Mayor Boris Johnson had a history of overriding the decisions of local London councils, including Tower Hamlets, to greenlight development projects.

“The mayor’s plan at the time was to build, build, build without any consciousness of the impact that it has,” Cox said.

Smythe and Cox saw the partnership between artists and local stewards as a chance to protect the space. Smythe in particular …more

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The EPA Says Burning Wood to Generate Power Is ‘Carbon-Neutral.’ That’s Not True.

Converting forests into fuel will not help us avoid disaterous climate change

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently told a group of forestry executives and students that from now on the US government would consider burning wood to generate electricity, commonly known as forest or woody biomass, to be “carbon neutral.”

photo of biomass energy facilityPhoto courtesy of PSNH Biomass power doesn't introduce new carbon into the system, but it does transfer carbon from forests to the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change.

The executives, who had gathered at an Earth Day celebration in Georgia, greeted the news with enthusiasm. But I did not.

Biomass does not introduce new carbon into the system, as its supporters point out. Yet it does transfer carbon from forests to the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to climate change.

As a scientist and the coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on renewable energy, I have concluded from extensive scientific studies that converting forests into fuel is not carbon neutral. I have also been working with many other scientists to inform governments about the potential for forests to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the climate perils of burning wood and forestry waste at an industrial scale for electric power.

Turning forests into fuel

Energy can be renewable. Or sustainable. Or carbon neutral. Or some combination. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean quite different things. Wind power and solar energy clearly have all three attributes. What about bioenergy — the heat released from burning wood and other plants?

Trees can eventually grow to replace those that were felled to produce wood pellets that are burned to produce electricity. That makes biomass very slowly renewable, if the replacement trees actually do grow enough to absorb all the carbon dioxide previously discharged.

Environmentalists generally oppose forest biomass because it contributes to climate change while disrupting important ecosystems and the biodiversity they support. They also object to this source of energy because it appears that burning biomass releases pollutants that endanger public health.

The scientists who study climate change, the global carbon cycle and forest ecology tend to reject the notion of biomass carbon neutrality. Some forest economists and forestry scientists, however, support the notion of carbon neutrality, depending on the circumstances.

Carbon accounting

To settle this debate, many of my colleagues and I believe it is essential to accurately account for all …more

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Wolves Are Losing Ground to Industrial Logging in Southeast Alaska

Clear-cuts reduce security and prey for a struggling wolf population on Prince of Wales Island

For 12,000 years, wolves have roamed Southeast Alaska’s rugged Alexander Archipelago — a 300-mile stretch of more than 1,000 islands mostly within the Tongass National Forest. Now, their old-growth forest habitat is rapidly disappearing, putting the wolves at risk. As the region’s logging policies garner controversy, a new study examines what the wolves need in order to survive.   

photo of wolf on Prince of Wales IslandPhoto courtesy of ADF&GThe Alexander Archipelago wolf is widely considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf genetically distinct from other North American populations. The wolf faces threats from logging and trapping on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.

Largely isolated from mainland wolves by water barriers and the Coast Mountains, the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) is widely considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf genetically distinct from other North American populations. In the 1990s and again in 2011, conservationists sought to protect the island wolves under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) denied these petitions — most recently, in January 2016.

Despite their decision not to list the subspecies, in their analysis, the FWS highlighted Prince of Wales Island as the area of greatest concern for the archipelago wolves, due primarily to impacts of logging and trapping. Bigger than the state of Delaware, Prince of Wales is the largest island in Southeast Alaska and the fourth-largest island in the US, after Hawaii, Kodiak Island, and Puerto Rico. The island's lowland hills are blanketed with temperate rainforests of spruce and hemlock and strewn with winding rivers and fjords.

Much of Prince of Wales' scant human population of fewer than 5,500 residents makes its living from the island’s natural resources — uranium mining, commercial fishing, hunting, and harvesting timber. The Tongass, which covers most of the island, is the last national forest where the logging industry can legally clear-cut old-growth timber. “The trees are huge… it’s been the epicenter for the logging industry in Alaska,” says Gretchen Roffler, a wildlife research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).

When commercial logging reached Prince of Wales in the 1950s, it hit full force. Between 1954 and 2004, 94 percent of the "contiguous, high-volume old-growth —  the big trees, the really high-quality timber — was harvested,” according to John Schoen, retired senior conservation biologist with ADF&G. “That’s a huge impact.”

“Prince of Wales Island is basically a patchwork of the …more

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An Environmental Leader Is One Who Strives to Inspire, not Impress

Anyone can become a leader by creating awareness and taking action to reduce harm to our planet

When bumblebees pollinate flowers, they don't realize what they do. Without bees we wouldn't have beautiful flowers with bright colors to smell and look at everyday.

A bumblebee does not strive to impress others with his skills, but to complete his job on Earth. To me, every human on this planet holds this same task in their life.

bumblebeePhoto by Elena Ilyinskaya Like bumblebees, we all must contribute to doing good and working hard so that Mother Nature can thrive

Like bumblebees, we all must contribute to doing good and working hard so that Mother Nature can thrive. If we do not, like flowers, our Earth will perish. And there is nothing more sad than for something so beautiful to wilt away.

To me, a leader is not a boss or even a decision maker. A leader is someone who takes the first step as an example and model to others. Environmental leadership is something that anyone can do by taking the first step in creating awareness, consciousness, and action on reducing harm to our planet.

In my personal experience, environmental leadership helped me find my passion to further my knowledge on sustainability and become an activist myself. Once I learned and became aware of the damages mankind performs on Earth, I felt it was my task to do something about it. I joined the environmental club at my school and became passionate on topics such as reducing waste and composting. This started my journey on environmental leadership, as the following year I became president of the club. I never wanted to force facts on to anyone, but continue pursuing sustainable projects to improve my school’s environmental footprint. That year I led a pilot project for a three-bin system to be installed in my school, which was later formally enforced. Taking the first step had led me to my passion.

With my environmental club, I have seen my friends become leaders. I have seen how each of us teaches our classmates and families about saving water, using reusable containers, or going vegetarian. I have seen the different approaches, some more persuasive than others, but all inspiring.

Being able to witness and experience this at my age has given me confidence that I am not only an environmental leader, but that I am surrounded by passionate leaders who are all striving for the same goal. This goal, just like a bumblebee’s, is to contribute what we can. And if we happen to …more

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