How to cut your fuel bill, clear the air and reduce emissions: stop engine idling



shutterstock.

Robin Smit, University of Technology Sydney and Clare Walter, The University of Queensland

The transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, pumping out almost 20% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. But everyday drivers can make a difference.

In particular, the amount of time you let your car engine idle can have a significant impact on emissions and local air quality. Engine idling is when the car engine is running while the vehicle is stationary, such as at a red light.

Opting for a bike is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Shutterstock

A new Transport Energy/Emission Research report found in normal traffic conditions, Australians likely idle more than 20% of their drive time.

This contributes 1% to 8% of total carbon dioxide emissions over the journey, depending on the vehicle type. To put that into perspective, removing idling from the journey would be like removing up to 1.6 million cars from the road.




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Excessive idling (idling for longer than five minutes) could increase this contribution further, particularly for trucks and buses. When you also consider how extensive idling may create pollution hot spots around schools, this isn’t something to take lightly.

Pollution hot spots

Reducing idling doesn’t just lower your carbon footprint, it can also lower your fuel costs up to 10% or more.

Drivers simply have to turn their engines off while parked and wait in their vehicle. Perhaps crack open a window to maintain comfortable conditions, rather than switching on the air conditioner.

Some idling is unavoidable such as waiting for a traffic light or driving in congested conditions, but other idling is unnecessary, such as while parked.




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When many cars are idling in the same location, it can create poor local air quality. For example, idling has been identified overseas as a significant factor in higher pollution levels in and around schools. That’s because parents or school buses don’t turn off their engines when they drop off their kids or wait for them outside.

Parked you car? Turn off the engine.
Shutterstock

Even small reductions in vehicle emissions can have health benefits, such as reducing asthma, allergies and systemic inflammation in Australian children. In 2019, Australian researchers identified that even small increases of exposure to vehicle pollution were associated with an increased risk of childhood asthma and reduced lung function.

Anti-idling campaigns make a difference

Overseas studies show anti-idling campaigns and driver education can help improve air quality around schools, with busses and passenger cars switching off their engines more frequently.

In the US and Canada, local and state governments have enacted voluntary or mandatory anti-idling legislation, to address complaints and reduce fuel use, emissions and noise.

The results have been promising. In California, a range of measures – including anti-idling policies – aimed at reducing school children’s exposure to vehicle emissions were linked to the development of larger, healthier lungs in children.




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But in Australia, we identified almost no anti-idling initiatives or idle reduction legislation, despite calls for them in 2017.

However, “eco-driving”, as well as a promising new campaign called “Idle Off” is poised to roll out to secondary school students in Australia.

What about commercial vehicles?

Commercial vehicles can idle for long periods of time. In the US, typical long-haul trucks idle an estimated 1,800 hours per year when parked at truck stops, although a significant range of between 1,000 and 2,500 hours per year has also been reported.




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Fleet operators and logistics companies are therefore in a good position to roll out idle reduction initiatives and save on operating (fuel) costs while reducing emissions.

In fact, fleet operators overseas have actively sought to reduce idling emissions. This is not surprising as fuel costs are the second-largest expense for fleets, behind driver wages, typically accounting for 20% of a trucking fleet’s total operating costs.

The transport sector contributes 18.8% of Australia’s total emissions.
Shutterstock

Various technologies are available overseas that reduce idling emissions, such as stop-start systems, anti-idling devices (trucks) and battery electric vehicles.

But unlike other developed countries, Australia doesn’t have fuel efficiency or carbon dioxide emission standards. This means vehicle manufacturers have no incentive to include idle reduction technologies (or other fuel-saving technologies) in vehicles sold in Australia.

For example, the use of stop-start systems is rapidly growing overseas, but it’s unclear how many stop-start systems are used in new Australian cars.

Emission reduction technologies also come with extra costs for the vehicle manufacturer, making them less appealing, although cost benefits of reduced fuel use would pass on to consumers. This situation probably won’t change unless mandatory emission standards are implemented.

In any case, it’s easy for drivers to simply turn the key and shut down the engine when suitable. Reducing idling doesn’t require technologies.

Reducing your carbon footprint

If reducing emissions or saving money at the fuel bowser is not enough incentive, then perhaps, in time, exposing children to unnecessary idling emissions will be regarded in the same socially unacceptable light as smoking around children.




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And of course, there are other measures to reduce your transport carbon footprint. Drive a smaller car, and avoid diesel cars. Despite their reputation, Australian diesel cars emit, on average, about 10% more carbon dioxide per kilometre than petrol cars.

Or better yet, where possible, dust off that push bike, or walk.The Conversation

Robin Smit, Adjunct associate professor, University of Technology Sydney and Clare Walter, PhD Candidate, Honorary Research Fellow, Advocacy Consultant., The University of Queensland

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

More than 1,200 tonnes of microplastics are dumped into Aussie farmland every year from wastewater sludge


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Abbas Mohajerani, RMIT University

Every year, treated wastewater sludge called “biosolids” is recycled and spread over agricultural land. My recent research discovered this practice dumps thousands of tonnes of microplastics into farmlands around the world. In Australia, we estimate this amount as at least 1,241 tonnes per year.

Microplastics in soils can threaten land, freshwater and marine ecosystems by changing what they eat and their habitats. This causes some organisms to lose weight and have higher death rates.

But this is only the beginning of the problem. Microplastics are good at absorbing other pollutants – such as cadmium, lead and nickel – and can transfer these heavy metals to soils.

Wastewater treatment plants create biosolids, which are packed full of microplastics and toxic chemicals.
Shutterstock

And while microplastics alone is an enormous issue, other contaminants have also been found in biosolids used for agriculture. This includes pharmaceutical chemicals, personal care products, pesticides and herbicides, surfactants (chemicals used in detergents) and flame retardants.

We must stop using biosolids for farmlands immediately, especially when alternative ways to recycle wastewater sludge already exist.

Where do the microplastics come from?

Biosolids are mainly a mix of water and organic materials.

But many household items that contain microplastics – such as lotions, soaps, facial and body washes, and toothpaste – end up in wastewater, too. Other major sources of microplastics in wastewater are synthetic fibres from clothing, plastics in the manufacturing and processing industries, and the breakdown of larger plastic debris.

Before they’re taken to farmlands, wastewater collection systems carry all, or most, of these microplastics and other chemicals from residential, commercial and industrial sources to wastewater treatment plants.

To determine the weight of microplastics in Australia and other countries, my data analysis used the average minimum and maximum numbers of microplastics particles, per kilogram of biosolids samples, found in Germany, Ireland and the USA.




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Australia produced 371,000 tonnes of biosolids in 2019. And globally, we estimate between 50 to more than 100 million tonnes of biosolids are produced each year.

Why microplastics are harmful

Microplastics in soil can accumulate in the food web. This happens when organisms consume more microplastics than they lose. This means heavy metals attached to the microplastics in soil organisms can progress further up the food chain, increasing the risk of human exposure to toxic heavy metals.

When microplastics accumulate heavy metals, they transfer these contaminants to plants and crops, such as rice and grains, as biosolids are spread over farmland.




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Over time, microplastics break down and become even tinier, creating nanoplastics. Crops have also been shown to absorb nanoplastics and move them to different plant tissues.

Our research results also show that after the wastewater treatment process, the absorption potential of microplastics for metals increases.

The metal cadmium, for example, is particularly susceptible to microplastics in biosolids and can be transported to plant cells. Research from 2018 showed microplastics in biosolids can absorb cadmium ten times more than virgin microplastics (new microplastics that haven’t gone through wastewater treatment).

Biosolids have a cocktail of nasty chemicals

It’s not just plastic – many industrial additives and chemicals have been found in wastewater and biosolids.

This means they may accumulate in soils and affect the equilibrium of biological systems, with negative effects on plant growth. For example, researchers have found pharmaceutical chemicals in particular can reduce plant growth and inhibit root elongation.




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Other chemical contaminants – such as PFCs, PFAS and BPA – have likewise been detected in biosolids.

The effects these chemicals have on plants may lead to problems further down the food chain, such as humans and other animals inadvertently consuming pharmaceuticals and harmful chemicals.

What can we do about it?

Given the cocktail of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and microplastics, using biosolids in agricultural soils must be stopped without delay.

The good news is there’s another way we can recycle the world’s biosolids: turning them into sustainable fired-clay bricks, called “bio-bricks”.

Bricks incorporated with biosolids are a sustainable solution to an environmental problem.
RMIT media, Author provided

My team’s research from last year found bio-bricks a sustainable solution for both the wastewater treatment and brick manufacturing industries.

If 7% of all fired-clay bricks were biosolids, it would redirect all biosolids produced and stockpiled worldwide annually, including the millions of tonnes that currently end up in farmland each year.




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We also found they’d be more energy efficient. The properties of these bio-bricks are very similar to standard bricks, but generally requires 12.5% less energy to make.

And generally, comprehensive life-cycle assessment has shown biosolid bricks are more environmentally friendly than conventional bricks. These bricks will reduce or eliminate a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions from biosolids stockpiles and will save some virgin resources, such as clay soil and water, for the brick industry.

Now, it’s up to the agriculture, wastewater and brick industries, and governments to make this important transition.The Conversation

Abbas Mohajerani, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, RMIT University

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

Turn off the porch light: 6 easy ways to stop light pollution from harming our wildlife



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Emily Fobert, Flinders University; Katherine Dafforn, Macquarie University, and Mariana Mayer-Pinto, UNSW

As winter approaches, marine turtle nesting in the far north of Australia will peak. When these baby turtles hatch at night, they crawl from the sand to the sea, using the relative brightness of the horizon and the natural slope of the beach as their guide.

But when artificial lights outshine the moon and the sea, these hatchlings become disorientated. This leaves them vulnerable to predators, exhaustion and even traffic if they head in the wrong direction.




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Baby turtles are one small part of the larger, often overlooked, story of how light pollution harms wildlife across the land and underwater.

Green Turtle’s Battle For Survival | Planet Earth | BBC Earth.

Today, more than 80% of people – and 99% of North American and European human populations – live under light-polluted skies. We have transformed the night-time environment over substantial portions of the Earth’s surface in a very short time, relative to evolutionary timescales. Most wildlife hasn’t had time to adjust.

In January, Australia released the National Light Pollution Guidelines for Wildlife. These guidelines provide a framework for assessing and managing the impacts of artificial light.

The guidelines also identify practical solutions that can be used globally to manage light pollution, both by managers and practitioners, and by anyone in control of a light switch.




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The guidelines outline six easy steps anyone can follow to minimise light pollution without compromising our own safety.

Although light pollution is a global problem and true darkness is hard to come by, we can all do our part to reduce its impacts on wildlife by changing how we use and think about light at night.

Light pollution can interfere with clownfish reproductive cycle.
Shutterstock

1. Start with natural darkness. Only add light for a specific purpose

Natural darkness should be the default at night. Artificial light should only be used if it’s needed for a specific purpose, and it should only be turned on for the necessary period of time.

This means it’s okay to have your veranda light on to help you find your keys, but the light doesn’t need to stay on all night.

Similarly, indoor lighting can also contribute to light pollution, so turning lights off in empty office buildings at night, or in your home before you go to sleep, is also important.

2. Use smart lighting controls

Advances in smart control technology make it easy to manage how much light you use, and adaptive controls make meeting the goals of Step 1 more feasible.

Investing in smart controls and LED technology means you can remotely manage your lights, set timers or dimmers, activate motion sensor lighting, and even control the colour of the light emitted.

These smart controls should be used to activate artificial light at night only when needed, and to minimise light when not needed.

3. Keep lights close to the ground, directed and shielded

Any light that spills outside the specific area intended to be lit is unnecessary light.

Light spilling upward contributes directly to artificial sky glow – the glow you see over urban areas from cumulative sources of light. Both sky glow and light spilling into adjacent areas on the ground can disrupt wildlife.

Installing light shields allow you to direct the light downward, which significantly reduces sky glow, and to direct the light towards the specific target area. Light shields are recommended for any outdoor lighting installations.

Step 3: Keep lights close to ground (a) and use shields to light only the intended area (b)
National Light Pollution Guidelines for Wildlife Including Marine Turtles, Seabirds and Migratory Shorebirds, Commonwealth of Australia 2020

4. Use the lowest intensity lighting

When deciding how much light you need, consider the intensity of the light produced (lumens), rather than the energy required to make it (watts).

LEDs, for example, are often considered an “environmentally friendly” option because they’re relatively energy efficient. But because of their energy efficiency, LEDs produce between two and five times as much light as incandescent bulbs for the same amount of energy consumption.




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So, while LED lights save energy, the increased intensity of the light can lead to greater impacts on wildlife, if not managed properly.

5. Use non-reflective, dark-coloured surfaces.

Sky glow has been shown to mask lunar light rhythms of wildlife, interfering with the celestial navigation and migration of birds and insects.

Highly polished, shiny, or light-coloured surfaces – such as structures painted white, or polished marble – are good at reflecting light and so contribute more to sky glow than darker, non-reflective surfaces.

Choosing darker coloured paint or materials for outdoor features will help reduce your contribution to light pollution.

6. Use lights with reduced or filtered blue, violet and ultra-violet wavelengths

Wavelength perception in wildlife – most animals are sensitive to short-wavelength (blue/violet) light.
National Light Pollution Guidelines for Wildlife Including Marine Turtles, Seabirds and Migratory Shorebirds, Commonwealth of Australia 2020

Most animals are sensitive to short-wavelength light, which creates blue and violet colours. These short wavelengths are known to suppress melatonin production, which is known to disrupt sleep and interfere with circadian rhythms of many animals, including humans.

Choosing lighting options with little or no short wavelength (400-500 nanometres) violet or blue light will help to avoid unintended harmful effects on wildlife.

For example, compact fluorescent and LED lights have a high amount of short wavelength light, compared low or high-pressure sodium, metal halide, and halogen light sources.




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The Conversation


Emily Fobert, Research Associate, Flinders University; Katherine Dafforn, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Sciences, Macquarie University, and Mariana Mayer-Pinto, Senior Research Associate in marine ecology, UNSW

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

After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold



A litter trap in Cook’s River.
James HItchcock, Author provided

James Hitchcock, University of Canberra

Each year the ocean is inundated with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic washed in from land. A big proportion of this plastic is between 0.001 to 5 millimetres, and called “microplastic”.

But what happens during a storm, when lashings of rain funnel even more water from urban land into waterways? To date, no one has studied just how important storm events may be in polluting waterways with microplastics.




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So to find out, I studied my local waterway in Sydney, the Cooks River estuary. I headed out daily to measure how many microplastics were in the water, before, during, and after a major storm event in October, 2018.

The results, published on Wednesday, were startling. Microplastic particles in the river had increased more than 40 fold from the storm.

Particles of plastic found in rivers. They may be tiny, but they’re devastating to wildlife in waterways.
Author provided

To inner west Sydneysiders, the Cooks River is known to be particularly polluted. But it’s largely similar to many urban catchments around the world.

If the relationship between storm events and microplastic I found in the Cooks River holds for other urban rivers, then the concentrations of microplastics we’re exposing aquatic animals to is far higher than previously thought.

14 million plastic particles

They may be tiny, but microplastics are a major concern for aquatic life and food webs. Animals such as small fish and zooplankton directly consume the particles, and ingesting microplastics has the potential to slow growth, interfere with reproduction, and cause death.

Determining exactly how much microplastic enters rivers during storms required the rather unglamorous task of standing in the rain to collect water samples, while watching streams of unwanted debris float by (highlights included a fire extinguisher, a two-piece suit, and a litany of tennis balls).

Back in the laboratory, a multi-stage process is used to separate microplastics. This includes floating, filtering, and using strong chemical solutions to dissolve non-plastic items, before identification and counting with specialised microscopes.

Litter caught in a trap in Cooks River. These traps aren’t effective at catching microplastic.
Author provided

In the days before the October 2018 storm, there were 0.4 particles of microplastic per litre of water in the Cooks River. That jumped to 17.4 microplastics per litre after the storm.

Overall, that number averages to a total of 13.8 million microplastic particles floating around in the Cooks River estuary in the days after the storm.




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In other urban waterways around the world scientists have found similarly high numbers of microplastic.

For example in China’s Pearl River, microplastic averages 19.9 particles per litre. In the Mississippi River in the US, microplastic ranges from 28 to 60 particles per litre.

Where do microplastics come from?

We know runoff during storms is one of the main ways pollutants such as sediments and heavy metals end up in waterways. But not much is known about how microplastic gets there.

However think about your street. Wherever you see litter, there are also probably microplastics you cannot see that will eventually work their way into waterways when it rains.




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Many other sources of microplastics are less obvious. Car tyres, for example, which typically contain more plastic than rubber, are a major source of microplastics in our waterways. When your tyres lose tread over time, microscopic tyre fragments are left on roads.

Did you know your car tyres can be a major source of microplastic pollution?
Shutterstock

Microplastics may even build up on roads and rooftops from atmospheric deposition. Everyday, lightweight microplastics such as microfibres from synthetic clothing are carried in the wind, settling and accumulating before they’re washed into rivers and streams.

What’s more, during storms wastewater systems may overflow, contaminating waterways. Along with sewage, this can include high concentrations of synthetic microfibers from household washing machines.

And in regional areas, microplastics may be washing in from agricultural soils. Sewage sludge is often applied to soils as it is rich in nutrients, but the same sludge is also rich in microplastics.

What can be done?

There are many ways to mitigate the negative effects of stormwater on waterways.

Screens, traps, and booms can be fitted to outlets and rivers and catch large pieces of litter such as bottles and packaging. But how useful these approaches are for microplastics is unknown.

Raingardens and retention ponds are used to catch and slow stormwater down, allowing pollutants to drop to bottom rather than being transported into rivers. Artificial wetlands work in similar ways, diverting stormwater to allow natural processes to remove toxins from the water.

Almost 14 million plastic particles were floating in Cooks River after a storm two years ago.
Shutterstock

But while mitigating the effects of stormwater carrying microplastics is important, the only way we’ll truly stop this pollution is to reduce our reliance on plastic. We must develop policies to reduce and regulate how much plastic material is produced and sold.

Plastic is ubiquitous, and its production around the world hasn’t slowed, reaching 359 million tonnes each year. Many countries now have or plan to introduce laws regulating the sale or production of some items such as plastic bags, single-use plastics and microbeads in cleaning products.




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In Australia, most state governments have committed to banning plastic bags, but there are still no laws banning the use of microplastics in cleaning or cosmetic products, or single-use plastics.

We’ve made a good start, but we’ll need deeper changes to what we produce and consume to stem the tide of microplastics in our waterways.The Conversation

James Hitchcock, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Canberra

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

NSW has approved Snowy 2.0. Here are six reasons why that’s a bad move



Lucas Coch/AAP

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University and Mark Lintermans, University of Canberra

The controversial Snowy 2.0 project has mounted a major hurdle after the New South Wales government today announced approval for its main works.

The pumped hydro venture in southern NSW will pump water uphill into dams and release it when electricity demand is high. The federal government says it will act as a giant battery, backing up intermittent energy from by wind and solar.

We and others have criticised the project on several grounds. Here are six reasons we think Snowy 2.0 should be shelved.

1. It’s really expensive

The federal government announced the Snowy 2.0 project without a market assessment, cost-benefit analysis or indeed even a feasibility study.

When former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled the Snowy expansion in March 2017, he said it would cost A$2 billion and be commissioned by 2021. This was revised upwards several times and in April last year, Snowy Hydro awarded a A$5.1 billion contract for partial construction.

Snowy Hydro has not costed the transmission upgrades on which the project depends. TransGrid, owner of the grid in NSW, has identified options including extensions to Sydney with indicative costs up to A$1.9 billion. Massive extensions south, to Melbourne, will also be required but this has not been costed.

The Tumut 3 scheme, with which Snowy 2.0 will share a dam.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

2. It will increase greenhouse gas emissions

Both Snowy Hydro Ltd and its owner, the federal government, say the project will help expand renewable electricity generation. But it won’t work that way. For at least the next couple of decades, analysis suggests Snowy 2.0 will store coal-fired electricity, not renewable electricity.

Snowy Hydro says it will pump the water when a lot of wind and solar energy is being produced (and therefore when wholesale electricity prices are low).




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But wind and solar farms produce electricity whenever the resource is available. This will happen irrespective of whether Snowy 2.0 is producing or consuming energy.

When Snowy 2.0 pumps water uphill to its upper reservoir, it adds to demand on the electricity system. For the next couple of decades at least, coal-fired electricity generators – the next cheapest form of electricity after renewables – will provide Snowy 2.0’s power. Snowy Hydro has denied these claims.

Khancoban Dam, part of the soon-to-be expanded Snowy Hydro scheme.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

3. It will deliver a fraction of the energy benefits promised

Snowy 2.0 is supposed to store renewable energy for when it is needed. Snowy Hydro says the project could generate electricity at its full 2,000 megawatt capacity for 175 hours – or about a week.

But the maximum additional pumped hydro capacity Snowy 2.0 can create, in theory, is less than half this. The reasons are technical, and you can read more here.

It comes down to a) the amount of time and electricity required to replenish the dam at the top of the system, and b) the fact that for Snowy 2.0 to operate at full capacity, dams used by the existing hydro project will have to be emptied. This will result in “lost” water and by extension, lost electricity production.



The Conversation, CC BY-ND

4. Native fish may be pushed to extinction

Snowy 2.0 involves building a giant tunnel to connect two water storages – the Tantangara and Talbingo reservoirs. By extension, the project will also connect the rivers and creeks connected to these reservoirs.

A small, critically endangered native fish, the stocky galaxias, lives in a creek upstream of Tantangara. This is the last known population of the species.

The stocky galaxias.
Hugh Allan

An invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, lives in the Talbingo reservoir. Water pumped from Talbingo will likely transfer this fish to Tantangara.

From here, the climbing galaxias’ capacity to climb wet vertical surfaces would enable it to reach upstream creeks and compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.

Snowy 2.0 is also likely to spread two other problematic species – redfin perch and eastern gambusia – through the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Murray rivers.




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Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute our rivers and wipe out native fish


5. It’s a pollution risk

Snowy Hydro says its environmental impact statement addresses fish transfer impacts, and potentially serious water quality issues.

Four million tonnes of rock excavated to build Snowy 2.0 would be dumped into the two reservoirs. The rock will contain potential acid-forming minerals and other harmful substances, which threaten to pollute water storages and rivers downstream.

When the first stage of the Snowy Hydro project was built, comparable rocks were dumped in the Tooma River catchment. Research in 2006 suggested the dump was associated with eradication of almost all fish from the Tooma River downstream after rainfall.

Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute pristine Snowy Mountains rivers.
Schopier/Wikimedia

6. Other options were not explored

Many competing alternatives can provide storage far more flexibly for a fraction of Snowy 2.0’s price tag. These alternatives would also have far fewer environmental impacts or development risks, in most cases none of the transmission costs and all could be built much more quickly.

Expert analysis in 2017 identified 22,000 potential pumped hydro energy storage sites across Australia.

Other alternatives include chemical batteries, encouraging demand to follow supply, gas or diesel generators, and re-orienting more solar capacity to capture the sun from the east or west, not just mainly the north.

Where to now?

The federal government, which owns Snowy Hydro, is yet to approve the main works.

Given the many objections to the project and how much has changed since it was proposed, we strongly believe it should be put on hold, and scrutinised by independent experts. There’s too much at stake to get this wrong.




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The Conversation


Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University and Mark Lintermans, Associate professor, University of Canberra

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

Seafloor currents sweep microplastics into deep-sea hotspots of ocean life



A rockfish hides in a red tree coral in the deep sea.
Geofflos

Ian Kane, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, National Oceanography Centre

What if the “great ocean garbage patches” were just the tip of the iceberg? While more than ten million tonnes of plastic waste enters the sea each year, we actually see just 1% of it – the portion that floats on the ocean surface. What happens to the missing 99% has been unclear for a while.

Plastic debris is gradually broken down into smaller and smaller fragments in the ocean, until it forms particles smaller than 5mm, known as microplastics. Our new research shows that powerful currents sweep these microplastics along the seafloor into large “drifts”, which concentrate them in astounding quantities. We found up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastic in a 5cm-thick layer covering just one square metre – the highest levels of microplastics yet recorded on the ocean floor.

While microplastics have been found on the seafloor worldwide, scientists weren’t sure how they got there and how they spread. We thought that microplastics would separate out according to how big or dense they were, in a similar manner to natural sediment. But plastics are different – some float, but more than half of them sink.




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Plastics which once floated can sink as they become coated in algae, or if bound up with other sticky minerals and organic matter. Recent research has shown that rivers transport microplastics to the ocean too, and laboratory experiments revealed that giant underwater avalanches of sediment can transport these tiny particles along deep-sea canyons to greater depths.

We’ve now discovered how a global network of deep-sea currents transports microplastics, creating plastic hotspots within vast sediment drifts. By catching a ride on these currents, microplastics may be accumulating where deep-sea life is abundant.

Once plastic debris has broken down and sinks to the ocean floor, currents sweep the particles into vast drifts.
Ian Kane, Author provided

From bedroom floors to the seafloor

We surveyed an area of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy, known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, and studied the bottom currents that flow near the seafloor. These currents are driven by differences in water salinity and temperature as part of a system of ocean circulation that spans the globe. Seafloor drifts of sediment can be many kilometres across and hundreds of metres high, forming where these currents lose their strength.

We analysed sediment samples from the seafloor taken at depths of several hundred metres. To avoid disturbing the surface layer of sediment, we used samples taken with box-cores, which are like big cookie cutters. In the laboratory, we separated microplastics from the sediment and counted them under microscopes, analysing them using infra-red spectroscopy to find out what kinds of plastic polymer types were there.

A microplastic fibre seen under a microscope.
Ian Kane, Author provided

Most microplastics found on the seafloor are fibres from clothes and textiles. These are particularly insidious, as they can be eaten and absorbed by organisms. Although microplastics on their own are often non-toxic, studies show the build-up of toxins on their surfaces can harm organisms if ingested.

These deep ocean currents also carry oxygenated water and nutrients, meaning that the seafloor hotspots where microplastics accumulate may also be home to important ecosystems such as deep-sea coral reefs that have evolved to depend on these flows, but are now receiving huge quantities of microplastics instead.

What was once a hidden problem has now been uncovered – natural currents and the flow of plastic waste into the ocean are turning parts of the seafloor into repositories for microplastics. The cheap plastic goods we take for granted eventually end up somewhere. The clothes that may only last weeks in your wardrobe linger for decades to centuries on the seafloor, potentially harming the unique and poorly understood creatures that live there.The Conversation

Ian Kane, Reader in Geology, University of Manchester and Michael Clare, Principal Researcher in Marine Geoscience, National Oceanography Centre

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

Air quality near busy Australian roads up to 10 times worse than official figures



FABRIZIO BENSCH/ Reuters

Hugh Forehead, University of Wollongong

Air quality on Australia’s roads matters. On any given day (when we’re not in lockdown) people meet, commute, exercise, shop and walk with children near busy streets. But to date, air quality monitoring at roadsides has been inadequate.

I and my colleagues wanted to change that. Using materials purchased from electronics and hardware stores for around A$150, we built our own air quality monitors.

Our newly published research reveals how our devices detected particulate pollution at busy intersections at levels ten times worse than background levels measured at official air monitoring stations.




Read more:
These 5 images show how air pollution changed over Australia’s major cities before and after lockdown


Our open-source design means citizen scientists can make their own devices to measure air quality, and make the data publicly available.

This would provide more valuable data about city traffic pollution, giving people the information they need to protect their health.

Air pollution can have serious health consequences.
Tim Wimborne/Reuters

Particulate matter: a tiny killer

Everyone is exposed to airborne particulate matter emitted by industry, transport and natural sources such as bushfires and dust storms.

Particulate matter from traffic is a mixture of toxic compounds, both solid and liquid. It’s a well-known health hazard, particularly for children, the elderly, pedestrians, cyclists and people working on or near roads.

Particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, referred to as PM2.5, is particularly harmful. To put this in context, a human hair is about 100 micrometres in width.

When inhaled, these fine particles can damage heart and brain function, circulation, breathing and the immune and endocrine systems. They have also been linked to cancer and low birth weight in newborns.

Do-it-yourself air monitoring

Highly reliable equipment to measure air quality has traditionally been expensive, and is not deployed widely.

Official air quality monitoring usually takes place open spaces or parks, to provide an averaged, background reading of pollution across a wide area. The monitoring stations are not typically placed at pollution sources, such as power stations or roads.

However there is growing evidence that people travelling outdoors near busy city roads are exposed to high levels of traffic emissions.

An air quality monitor built by the researchers and painted purple, attached to a light pole in Liverpool, Sydney.
Author supplied

Air quality monitors can be bought off the shelf at low cost, but their readings are not always reliable.

So I and other researchers at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility made our own monitors. They essentially consist of a sensor, weatherproof housing, a controller and a fan. Anyone with basic electronics knowledge and assembly skills can make and install one. The monitor connects to the internet (we used The Things Network) and the software required to run it and collect the data is available for free here.

The weatherproof housing cost about A$16 to make. It consists of PVC plumbing parts, a few screws and small pieces of fibreglass insect screen, which can be bought at any hardware store.

Sensors can be bought from electronics retailers for little as A$30, but many are not tested, calibrated or overseen by experts and can be inaccurate. We tested three, and chose the Novasense SDS011, which we bought for A$32.

A controller is needed to run the monitor and send data to the internet. We bought ours from an online retailer for under A$60. A fan, needed to circulate air through the housing, was bought from Jaycar for A$14.

Accounting for wiring and a few other parts, our monitors cost under A$150 each to make – ten times cheaper than mid-grade commercial detectors – and produce reasonably accurate results.

What we found

Following community meetings, we deployed our sensors at nine key locations and intersections around Liverpool in Western Sydney, a region which has traditionally suffered from poor air quality.

Our monitors have been in place since March 2018, placed close to pedestrian height on structures such as light poles, shade awnings or walls.




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They have detected roadside measurements of PM2.5 at values of up to 280 micrograms per cubic metre in morning peak traffic. This is more than ten times the readings at the nearest official monitoring station. The severity of the pollution and how long it lasts depends on how bad the traffic is.

These findings are comparable to other studies of busy roads.

Pollution from vehicle emissions can have serious health consequences.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Breathing easier

Our experience of roadside air quality can be improved in a number of ways.

Obviously, exposure to air pollution is worst at peak traffic times, so plan your travel to avoid these times, if possible.

Pollution levels drop quickly with distance from busy roads and can be at near background levels just one block away. So try to detour along quieter back streets or through parks.

Barriers, such as dense roadside vegetation, can shield pedestrians from pollution. Children in prams are more exposed to traffic pollution than adults, as they are closer to the level of vehicle exhaust pipes. Pram covers can reduce infants’ exposure by up to 39%.

Of course, the best way to reduce air pollution from traffic is to have fewer vehicles on our roads, and cleaner fuel and engines.

In the meantime, we hope our low-cost technology will prompt citizen scientists to develop their own sensors, producing the data we need to breathe easy in city streets.




Read more:
Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock


The Conversation


Hugh Forehead, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

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

Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute our rivers and wipe out native fish



Schopier/Wikimedia

John Harris, UNSW and Mark Lintermans, University of Canberra

The federal government’s Snowy 2.0 energy venture is controversial for many reasons, but one has largely escaped public attention. The project threatens to devastate aquatic life by introducing predators and polluting important rivers. It may even push one fish species to extinction.

The environmental impact statement for the taxpayer-funded project is almost 10,000 pages long. Yet it fails to resolve critical problems, and in one case seeks legal exemptions to enable Snowy 2.0 to wreak environmental damage.

The New South Wales government is soon expected to grant the project environmental approval. This process should be suspended, and independent experts should urgently review the project’s environmental credentials.

Native fish extinctions

Snowy Hydro Limited, a Commonwealth-owned corporation, is behind the Snowy 2.0 project in the Kosciuszko National Park in southern NSW. It involves building a giant tunnel to connect two water storages – the Tantangara and Talbingo reservoirs. By extension, the project will also connect the rivers and creeks connected to these reservoirs.

A small, critically endangered native fish, the stocky galaxias, lives in a creek upstream of Tantangara. This is the last known population of the species.




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An invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, lives in the Talbingo reservoir (it was introduced from coastal streams when the original Snowy project was built). Water pumped from Talbingo will likely transfer this fish to Tantangara.

From here, the climbing galaxias’ capacity to climb wet vertical surfaces would enable it to reach upstream creeks and compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.

The stocky galaxias.
Hugh Allan

Snowy Hydro has applied for an exemption under NSW biosecurity legislation to permit the transfer of the climbing galaxias and two other fish species: the alien, noxious redfin perch and eastern gambusia.

Redfin perch compete for food with other species and produce many offspring. They are voracious, carnivorous predators, known to prey on smaller fish.

Redfin perch also allow the establishment of a fatal fish disease – epizootic haematopoietic necrosis virus – or EHN. This disease kills the endangered native Macquarie perch, the population of which below Tantangara is one of very few remaining.

If Snowy 2.0 is granted approval, it is likely to spread these problematic species through the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Murray rivers.

The climbing galaxias, which threatens the native stocky galaxias.
Stella McQueen/Wikimedia

Acid and asbestos pollution

Four million tonnes of rock excavated to build Snowy 2.0 would be dumped into the two reservoirs. Snowy Hydro has not assessed the pollution risks this creates. The rock will contain potential acid-forming minerals and a form of asbestos, which threaten to pollute water storages and rivers downstream.

When the first stage of the Snowy Hydro project was built, comparable rocks were dumped in the Tooma River catchment. Research in 2006 suggested the dump was associated with eradication of almost all fish from the Tooma River downstream after rainfall.




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Addressing the problems

The environmental impact statement either ignores, or pays inadequate attention to, these environmental problems.

For example, installing large-scale screens at water inlets would be the best way to prevent fish transfer from Talbingo Dam, but Snowy Hydro has dismissed it as too costly.

Snowy Hydro instead proposes a dubious second-rate measure: screens to filter pumped flows leaving Tantangara reservoir, and building a barrier in the stream below the stocky galaxias habitat.

The best and cheapest way to prevent damage from alien species is stopping the populations from establishing. Trying to control or eradicate pest species once they’re established is far more difficult and costly.



The Conversation, CC BY-ND

We believe the measures proposed by Snowy Hydro are impractical. It would be very difficult to maintain a screen fine and large enough to prevent fish eggs and larvae moving out of Tantangara reservoir and such screens would be totally ineffective at preventing the spread of EHN virus.

A six metre-high waterfall downstream of the stocky galaxias habitat currently protects the critically endangered species from other invasive species threats. But climbing galaxias have an extraordinary ability to ascend wet surfaces. They would easily climb the waterfall, and possibly the proposed creek barrier as well.

Such an engineered barrier has never been constructed in Australia. We are informed that in New Zealand, the barriers have not been fully effective and often require design adjustments.




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Even if the barrier protected the stocky galaxias at this location, efforts to establish populations in other unprotected regional streams would be severely hampered by the spread of climbing galaxias.

Preventing redfin and EHN from entering the Murrumbidgee River downstream of Tantangara depends on the reservoir never spilling. The reservoir has spilled twice since construction in the 1960s, and would operate at much higher water levels when Snowy 2.0 was operating. Despite this, Snowy Hydro says it has “high confidence in being able to avoid spill”.

If dumped spoil pollutes the two reservoirs and Murrumbidgee and Tumut rivers, this would also have potentially profound ecological impacts. These have not been critically assessed, nor effective prevention methods identified.

The Tumut 3 scheme, part of the existing Snowy Hydro scheme.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

Looking to the future

Snowy 2.0 will likely make one critically endangered species extinct and threaten an important remaining population of another, as well as pollute freshwater habitats. As others have noted, the project is also questionable on other environmental and economic grounds.

These potential failures underscore the need to immediately halt Snowy 2.0, and subject it to independent expert scrutiny.


In response to the issues raised in this article, a spokesperson for Snowy Hydro said:

“Snowy Hydro’s EIS, supported by numerous reports from independent scientific experts, extensively address potential water quality and fish transfer impacts and the risk mitigation measures to be put in place. As the EIS is currently being assessed by the NSW Government we have no further comment.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that water pumped from Tantangara will likely transfer fish to Talbingo. It should have said water pumped from Talbingo will likely transfer fish to Tantangara.The Conversation

John Harris, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW and Mark Lintermans, Associate professor, University of Canberra

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

There are 10 catastrophic threats facing humans right now, and coronavirus is only one of them


Arnagretta Hunter, Australian National University and John Hewson, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.

While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published today by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated ten potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.

Not prioritised over one another, these risks are:

  1. decline of natural resources, particularly water
  2. collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
  3. human population growth beyond Earth’s carrying capacity
  4. global warming and human-induced climate change
  5. chemical pollution of the Earth system, including the atmosphere and oceans
  6. rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  7. nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
  8. pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  9. the advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technology
  10. national and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.

The start of ongoing discussions

The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first round-table discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.

The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.

The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a “significant” risk to human civilisation, a “catastrophic risk”, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an “existential risk”.

The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.

COVID-19: a lesson in interconnection

It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.

The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.

It’s not possible to “solve” COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.

Shared future, shared approach

The commission’s report does not aim to solve each risk, but rather to outline current thinking and identify unifying themes. Understanding science, evidence and analysis will be key to adequately addressing the threats and finding solutions. An evidence-based approach to policy has been needed for many years. Under-appreciating science and evidence leads to unmitigated risks, as we have seen with climate change.

The human future involves us all. Shaping it requires a collaborative, inclusive and diverse discussion. We should heed advice from political and social scientists on how to engage all people in this conversation.




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Imagination, creativity and new narratives will be needed for challenges that test our civil society and humanity. The bushfire smoke over the summer was unprecedented, and COVID-19 is a new virus.

If our policymakers and government had spent more time using the available climate science to understand and then imagine the potential risks of the 2019-20 summer, we would have recognised the potential for a catastrophic season and would likely have been able to prepare better. Unprecedented events are not always unexpected.

Prepare for the long road

The short-termism of our political process needs to be circumvented. We must consider how our actions today will resonate for generations to come.

The commission’s report highlights the failure of governments to address these threats and particularly notes the short-term thinking that has increasingly dominated Australian and global politics. This has seriously undermined our potential to decrease risks such as climate change.




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The shift from short to longer term thinking can began at home and in our daily lives. We should make decisions today that acknowledge the future, and practise this not only in our own lives but also demand it of our policy makers.

We’re living in unprecedented times. The catastrophic and existential risks for humanity are serious and multifaceted. And this conversation is the most important one we have today.The Conversation

Arnagretta Hunter, ANU Human Futures Fellow 2020; Cardiologist and Physician., Australian National University and John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

These 5 images show how air pollution changed over Australia’s major cities before and after lockdown



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Elena Sánchez-García, Universitat Politècnica de València and Javier Leon, University of the Sunshine Coast

Have you recently come across photos of cities around the world with clear skies and more visibility?

In an unexpected silver lining to this tragic crisis, urban centres, such as around Wuhan in China, northern Italy and Spain, have recorded a vastly lower concentration of air pollution since confinement measures began to fight the spread of COVID-19.

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Likewise, the Himalayas have been visible from northern India for the first time in 30 years.

But what about Australia?

Researchers from the Land and Atmosphere Remote Sensing group at the Physical Technology Center in the Polytechnic University of Valencia – Elena Sánchez García, Itziar Irakulis Loitxate and Luis Guanter – have analysed satellite data from the new Sentinel-5P satellite mission of the Copernicus program of the European Space Agency.

The data shows a big improvement to pollution levels over some of our major cities – but in others, pollution has, perhaps surprisingly, increased.

These images measure level of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, an important indicator of air quality. They show changes in nitrogen dioxide concentrations between March 11 to March 25 (before lockdown effectively began) and March 26 to April 11 (after lockdown).

Why nitrogen dioxide?

Nitrogen dioxide in urban air originates from combustion reactions at high temperatures. It’s mainly produced from coal in power plants and from vehicles.

High concentrations of this gas can affect the respiratory system and aggravate certain medical conditions, such as asthma. At extreme levels, this gas helps form acid rain.

Coronavirus: nitrogen dioxide emissions drop over Italy.

Declining nitrogen dioxide concentrations across Europe in the northern hemisphere are normally expected around this time – between the end of winter and beginning of spring – due to increased air motion.

But the observed decreases in many metropolises across Europe, India and China since partial and full lockdowns began seem to be unprecedented.

Nitrogen dioxide levels across Australia

Preliminary results of the satellite data analysis are a mixed bag. Some urban centres such as Brisbane and Sydney are indeed showing an expected decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentrations that correlates with the containment measures to fight COVID-19.

On average, pollution in both cities fell by 30% after the containment measures.

Like a heat map, the red in the images shows a higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide, while the green and yellow show less.



CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

On the other hand, nitrogen dioxide concentrations have actually increased by 20% for Newcastle, the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, and by 40% for Melbourne, a sprawling city with a high level of car dependency. Perth does not show a significant change.



CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

We don’t know why pollution has increased in these cities across this time period, as 75% of Melbourne’s pollution normally comes from vehicle emissions and most people are travelling less.

It could be because the autumn hazard reduction burns have begun in Melbourne. Or it may be due to other human activities, such as more people using electricity and gas while they stay home.

Pollution changes with the weather

Understanding how air pollution changes is challenging, and requires thorough research because of its variable nature.

We know atmospheric conditions, especially strong winds and rain, are a big influence to pollution patterns – wind and rain can scatter pollution, so it’s less concentrated.

Blue skies over Chinese cities as COVID-19 lockdown temporarily cuts air pollution.

Other factors, such as the presence of additional gases and particles lingering in the atmosphere – like those resulting from the recent bushfires – also can change air pollution levels, but their persistence and extent aren’t clear.




Read more:
Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock


Changes should be permanent

If the decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentration across cities such as Brisbane and Sydney is from containment measures to fight COVID-19, it’s important we try to keep pollution from increasing again.

We know air pollution kills. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates around 3,000 deaths per year in Australia can be attributed to urban air pollution.

Yet, Australia lags on policies to reduce air pollution.




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Australia needs stricter rules to curb air pollution, but there’s a lot we could all do now


COVID-19 has given us the rare opportunity to empirically observe the positive effects of changing our behaviours and slowing down industry and transport.

But to make it last, we need permanent changes. We can do this by improving public transport to reduce the number of cars on the road; electrifying mass transit; and, most importantly, replacing fossil fuel generation with renewable energy and other low-carbon sources. These changes would bring us immediate health benefits.The Conversation

Elena Sánchez-García, Postdoctoral researcher at LARS group, Universitat Politècnica de València and Javier Leon, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

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