I hold the burger with both hands and bring it, somewhat trepidatiously, to my mouth. I commit myself to at least one bite. As I close my eyes and chew, some long dormant receptor in my mind comes alive and for a split second it’s 1986 again and I am eating a hamburger at a family cookout in Chicago.
This is the first time I’ve eaten meat in 30 years – except, this is not meat.
I open my eyes and remember that I am standing in a wine bar in San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood, surrounded by other reporters, all of us sampling our first Impossible Foods plant-based burger, which is making its West Coast debut. I’m far from the only person convinced that this mixture of potato and wheat, coconut fat, Japanese yam, vegetable broth, xanthan gum, sugars and amino acids and a key protein called leghemoglobin is a dead ringer for the dead animal version of a hamburger. Three renowned chefs – Chris Cosentino, Traci Des Jardins and Tal Ronnen – are also convinced, and are here to announce that they are bringing the Impossible Burger to some of their respective eateries in California. (Chef David Chang became the first in the country to serve it this summer at New York City’s Momofuku Nishi.)
You might have missed it, but last month President Obama signed into law a bill that many consider the most significant environmental legislation to pass Congress in 25 years. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act overhauls the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a 40-year-old statute that, in theory, empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the use of toxic chemicals in the stuff we buy. In practice, it failed miserably.
If you ask environmental and public health advocates what was wrong with TSCA, they’re likely to respond with another question: what wasn’t? The Environmental Defense Fund posted a good run-down here, but the highlights are that TSCA gave the EPA very limited powers to test chemicals for toxicity and that even when the science showed clear hazards—i.e., “this stuff causes cancer”—the agency often failed to get a ban to stick because a federal court might side with industry groups that complained the ban would hurt their business. That’s what happened when the EPA tried to ban asbestos.
The reforms allow the EPA to evaluate the environmental and health risks that chemicals pose based only on the best available science, without having to also show a cost-benefit analysis of a proposed ban. The new law also includes an important change that can impact outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers, because while the old TSCA allowed the EPA to regulate the sale and use of discrete chemicals, it did not require it to regulate the products in which those chemicals are used. Now, the EPA is tasked to do so, in order to limit consumers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals through the use of those products—and this is important for all manufacturers of non-consumables (products other than food and drugs, over which the FDA has purview). Gear and apparel manufacturers are actually big users of chemicals, so these new regs may impact what chemicals go into their products.
The brand commissioned a study to find out how many synthetic microfibers—the tiny bits of plastic that marine scientists say could be jeopardizing our oceans—are shed from its jackets in the wash. The results aren’t pretty.
It all started on a beach in southwestern England in the early 2000s. Richard Thompson, then a senior lecturer at Plymouth University (where he now serves as professor of marine biology), was leading a team of graduate students researching microplastics in marine environments. Examining samples of sandy sediment, they expected to find degraded bits of marine plastic from decades-old flotsam or plastic beads that were becoming widely used in cleaners. To their surprise, most of the plastic fragments were fibrous, which meant they likely came from clothing, rope, or some types of packaging.
Then, in 2011, Mark Browne, one of Thompson’s former graduate students, published a study in which he examined sediment sampled from 15 beaches around the world. He found high concentrations of polyester and acrylic fibers in samples taken near wastewater treatment plants. He then ran a polyester fleece jacket through the wash and filtered 1,900 fibers from the wastewater—fibers that otherwise would have gone to the local wastewater treatment plant. Browne started reaching out to apparel makers to see if they’d help fund research to study this issue more deeply—eventually, he hoped, finding tweaks to fabric design or apparel construction that would stop the microfibers from entering wastewater. He received one offer of help—from women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher—but Patagonia, Columbia, and other big brands declined, saying they didn’t know if the fibers were anything they needed to worry about.
Fast-forward four more years, and the fibers finally got everyone’s attention. The science was piling on, showing that wastewater treatment plants couldn’t filter out all synthetic fibers, and that toxins such as DDT and PCBs can bind to them as they make their way into watersheds. It also showed that small aquatic species ingest the fibers, and that fish and bivalves sold for human consumption also contain microfibers. Experiments have shown that microplastics can lead to poor health outcomes in some species, and research is underway to find out how the plastics affect humans.
Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at Patagonia, was one of the people paying attention to all the news. In early 2015, she and the company’s leadership decided to commission a study to find out if and how Patagonia’s iconic and well-loved fleeces and some other synthetic products were contributing to the problem. The results recently came in, and they’re not good.
It’s a tantalizing vision: Bright and shiny factories where robotic arms and conveyors never break down and production goals are never missed—all thanks to internet-connected sensors that monitor machine health and respond to the slightest supply or logistics hiccup.
But for the vast majority of factories today, the reality could hardly be more different. They’re still running on decades-old machinery that isn’t outfitted with sensors.
Getting from where we are now to the factory of the future can be done—has been done—but it isn’t as easy as strapping the industrial equivalent of a Fitbit onto each piece of old equipment in a plant and calling it a day. It’s costly. There are no ready-made solutions—each case is different. And it requires a deep understanding of each machine’s functions and the metrics to be tracked; trial and error to determine the right sensor to use and the best place to put it; and a plan for collecting, filtering and making sense of the collected data.
“Many shop floors are covered in machines from 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Isaac Brown, an analyst at Lux Research. “Plugging them into the internet is totally not trivial—it’s not like plugging in a PC.”
Journalists like to lean on anecdotes to tell stories about climate change, but for climate scientists, data is everything. But data collection is seldom a quick or inexpensive task, especially when that data is best acquired via a bird’s eye view of, say, an undulating coastline or a vast expanse of ice.
Fortunately, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], or unmanned aerial systems [UASs]) can serve as robotic avian minions, filling niches for which the conventional methods of aerial data collection — like chartering planes or tapping into satellite data — are poorly suited.
Drones are not new, nor are climate scientists only now discovering their utility as research tools. “Back in 1998, we used what was considered a smaller UAV at that time” for studying ice cover in the Arctic, says James Maslanik, a research professor emeritus from the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “It was a cutting-edge system, it was way ahead of its time,” he says of the fixed-wing UAV they employed. It had a three-meter wingspan, a four-kilogram payload limit, and was gas-powered. Maslanik recalls having to drag 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel up to their research station in the Arctic just to get the UAV in the air.
Everyone agrees that nature has value. It clothes, feeds and shelters us – and provides a spectacular playground. Yet we have never put a value on everything nature offers.
Now, environmental and sustainable business consultants want to change that by forcing corporate leaders to take stock of the economic impact of how they manage natural resources. By accounting for this so-called natural capital, the advocates hope to see more businesses adopting practices that are both good for the environment and long term profitability, especially as climate change will further deplete natural resources, causing their values to climb and increase the cost of running business. In a 1997 paper in Nature that first introduced the natural capital concept, the 13 researchers involved pegged the Earth’s worth at $33tn. A 2014 revision raised that figure to $134tn.
Assigning values to nature isn’t just good for business – the public and wildlife benefit too. Take the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, which is nearly wholly dependent on tourism. Revenue from scuba diving to view sharks alone accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. That means the small number of sharks in the prime dive areas are worth a great deal. In 2011, researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science calculated that a shark’s natural capital to the tourism industry is a remarkable $1.9m over its lifetime. The lifetime value of the sharks if they were part of a legal fishery would be less than 1% of that figure.
Humanity dumps 8 million tons of plastic into the oceans each year, according to a study published early this year in Science. That’s a mind-blowingly large figure, but it still doesn’t account for the untold billions of tiny plastic fibers from synthetic apparel that leave your washing machine and enter rivers, lakes, and oceans through wastewater treatment plants.
These fibers, as well as tiny bits of degraded trash and microbeads from personal care products, have generated a long list of questions and concerns among environmental scientists. In a new study in Nature, Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecotoxicologist from the University of California, Davis, addressed one of the chief concerns: Are those fibers and other microplastics getting into our food system? The answer: Yes.
To reach this conclusion, Rochman and her colleagues purchased and dissected fish and bivalves from markets near Half Moon Bay, California, and compared their contents to those of fish and bivalves purchased from a market in Makassar, Indonesia. In both locations, more than half of the species and roughly a third of the individual fish and shellfish contained foreign objects—most of which were microplastics—that the fish and shellfish filtered from the water or mistook for food. But while none of the debris collected from the Indonesian samples were fibers, the researchers concluded that the majority of debris collected from fish and shellfish caught along the California coast were fibers from textiles. (The study did not distinguish between cotton and synthetic fibers, the latter of which are so prevalent in outdoor performance wear.)
Gregg Treinish is dismayed about what is coming out of his washing machine.
“What I’m seeing is shocking. Every couple of weeks, I clean out the filter and put the contents in a 32-ounce Ball jar,” says the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a nonprofit that trains outdoor enthusiasts to collect data for environmental researchers. After roughly two months, Treinish says, “the bottle is more than half-full of the crap that would have otherwise been shed right into the waterway.”
That crap is thousands of synthetic fibers shed from Treinish’s clothing during wash cycles (he captures them in an aftermarket filter), and the waterway is Montana’s Gallatin River. Treinish, whose organization receives financial support from a number of outdoor-gear companies, recently launched a campaign to track the flow of those fibers into fresh water. He plans to share that data with his funders.
What’s so bad about a few plastic threads? In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published a study describing the discovery of micron-scale synthetic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, in sediments along beaches the world over, with the highest concentrations appearing near wastewater-disposal sites. That strongly suggested that the micro-fibers came from apparel, a hunch he checked by filtering 1,900 fibers found in the waste-water from washing a single fleece jacket. A similar study at VU University Amsterdam in 2012 estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.
You’ve heard of Cecil’s dentist killer, but for many other lions, elephants, rhinos and tens of thousands of other exotic animals, internet marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist are the biggest threat.
If you live in the continental US, have $4,850 and an internet connection, this large, full-body, mounted African lion, with a shaggy red mane, can be yours.
“This is a fantastic buy for someone who wants a good Lion,” the eBay ad reads. “This mount will make an awesome decoration in any home, office, hunting lodge, lake house, lodge homes, cabin, bar, etc.”
The listing makes no mention of how the animal was procured, nor whether it was legally imported. So perhaps this stuffed, reclining lion for $870 is better suited to the discerning trophy-buyer. Its seller, African Game Industries, assures you that this lion was imported with all of the necessary permits and was inspected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It does not offer to produce the paperwork.
But controlling wildlife trafficking is increasingly difficult for law enforcement, in no small part due to online marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist. Although many popular digital trading posts have adopted regulations to attempt to curtail illegal sales of plants and animals, enforcement can be a nightmare.
The Office of the US Trade Representative estimates that wildlife trafficking and related environmental crimes are worth anywhere between $70bn and $213bn annually.
The Obama administration’s attempt to fight trafficking has been frustratingly slow, as far as animal welfare groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are concerned.
Last year, pointing to the catastrophic uptick in the slaughter of African elephants and the US’s position as the world’s second largest ivory market, FWS said it would ban the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. It wasn’t until last weekend, however, while visiting Kenya, that Obama formally proposed the new restrictions, which are now subject to a 60-day comment period.
It is currently legal in most states to sell lawfully-imported ivory acquired before a worldwide ban in 1989.
Big game hunting groups and the National Rifle Association are likely to fight the ban, despite an exemption that allows individuals to bring two “sport-hunted African elephant trophies” into the US per year.
Proponents of the ban say a legal ivory trade will never work because of corruption. Opponents say corruption will make a ban on ivory unworkable.
The impact of the internet
While the wrangling over ivory drags on, wildlife traffickers continue to ply their trade, using channels that are increasingly internet-based.
It maps waves, predicts conditions, turns surfers into citizen scientists, and could be the data-collecting tool climate scientists need to study our rapidly acidifying oceans.
As the Internet of Things inches its way into every corner of our lives, no one would blame you for rolling your eyes at the suggestion that even a surfboard should be embedded with sensors and smartphone connectivity.
Don’t. That surfboard is real. And it’s helping scientists better understand the impact climate change is having on our oceans.
In 2010, Andrew Stern, a former professor of neurology at the University of Rochester who’s now an environmental filmmaker and advocate, realized that surfers could serve as citizen scientists. Simply based on how much time they spend in the ocean, they could help collect data while on the water.
One of his filmmaker friends had recently met Benjamin Thompson, a surfer pursuing a PhD in structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Thompson was studying fluid-structure interactions, research that involved embedding sensors into boards. “It was mostly about tracking the performance of board,” he says. Thompson’s goal: to help the surfboard industry make better boards, and maybe use sensors to help surfers better understand (and improve) how they surf.