State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


#100. Taking a Fresh Look at Five Issues

This is the 100th blog I’ve written for the State of the Planet. It seemed like a good occasion to take a look at my five most popular blogs to see what has changed in the years since they were written. Are conditions worse or better? Are technological developments offering new solutions? Have we made progress?


Rendering of the Sahara Forest Project
Rendering of the Sahara Forest Project

Seawater Greenhouses Produce Tomatoes in the Desert was posted in February 2011. In 2012, The Sahara Forest Project established a one-hectare pilot plant in Qatar that incorporated seawater cooled greenhouses, solar and desalination technologies, evaporators and outside vegetation, salt production, and halophyte and algae cultivation. After two and a half years, the pilot was deemed a success.

In a 2014 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, Qatar was cited as an example of “how an integrated food production facility grows high-quality and diverse food products in desert areas, minimizing energy and freshwater needs.” The facility produced yields comparable to leading European greenhouses, reduced water use by 50 percent, grew vegetables year-round despite summer heat and created jobs. Based on the pilot facility’s yield, the report suggested that a 60-hectare facility could produce cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants equivalent to Qatar’s yearly imports. Qatar currently imports 90 percent of its food.

Scientists involved with the pilot project unexpectedly discovered a strain of heat- and salt-tolerant algae that doesn’t need freshwater to grow. The algae strain is now being analyzed by Duke University to assess its potential for large-scale production of next-generation biofuels and animal feed.

With the success of the Qatar pilot project, The Sahara Forest Project was awarded a European Union grant in May 2015 to establish the Sahara Forest Project Launch Station in Jordan, the first step toward realizing the full-scale Sahara Forest Project Centre in Aqaba, Jordan. At the same time, The Sahara Forest Project will begin work on the 20-hectare commercial Jordan Centre that will contain all the technological components of The Sahara Forest Project and serve as a research and development and training center.

Seawater Greenhouse won a grant to use its evaporative seawater technology in shade net structures to enable Somalia to grow crops. The arid region currently only grows crops on 1.5 percent of its land.

Meanwhile, the Port Augusta seawater greenhouse, now known as Sundrop Farms, has severed its relationship with Seawater Greenhouse. As it constructs a 20-hectare solar powered greenhouse, it has gone more hi-tech, with features like sun-tracking mirrors and a backup gas boiler, and has signed a 10-year contract with an Australian supermarket to provide 15,000 tons of tomatoes each year.



Microplastics. Photo: Wolfram Burner
Microplastics. Photo: Wolfram Burner

Since January 2012 when I posted What Happens to All That Plastic?, plastic pollution has only increased and will likely grow tenfold in the next decade if global waste management does not improve, according to a February 2015 study.

The Plastic Disclosure Project estimates that a third of all the plastic produced is used once, then discarded; 85 percent of the world’s plastic is not recycled. About half goes into landfills, and the rest washes into the oceans. The 2015 study estimated that 192 coastal countries generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2010. Of that, between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic made its way to the sea.

Scientists from the 5Gyres advocacy group determined that there are approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, 92 percent of which are microplastics. Manufacturers began using polyethylene and polypropylene microbeads in consumer products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste in the 1990s. Today, an estimated 11 billion microbeads are released into U.S. waterways alone each day. These microplastics, often eaten by fish and other marine creatures, absorb toxic chemicals such as DDT and PCBs that can make their way up the food chain to us. Legislation passed in December prohibits the use of the microbeads in products by January 2017.

Algalita, a marine research organization, is developing the Plastic Ocean Index to collect and share data about plastic in the world’s oceans. It will launch in July 2016.

The good news is that plastic recycling rates are improving. For the past 25 years, Americans have recycled more plastics each year than the year before. In 2013, only 9.2 percent of the plastic generated in the U.S. was recycled, but certain types of plastic did better. Between 2005 and 2013, the recycling rate of plastic bags and wraps grew to 17 percent; and in 2014, the plastic bottle recycling rate reached 31.8 percent, while the recycling rate for milk jugs and household cleaning product type plastic rose to 33.6 percent.

And in almost 50 countries, including the European Union, “extended producer responsibility” now requires companies to deal with waste disposal; companies in 32 states in the U.S. must also deal with their discarded electronics, phones, batteries and other products.

Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, Goldman Sachs and several other large companies have joined forces to launch the Closed Loop Fund, which offers zero-interest loans to companies and cities to improve and increase recycling efforts. The fund plans to invest $100 million in the nation’s recycling infrastructure by 2020.

In addition, numerous new uses for recycled plastics have been developed—here are just a few. A Costa Rican design center is transforming plastic water bottles into roof tiles for developing communities. A Brooklyn company has created RePlast Brick from hard-to-recycle plastic waste to use in construction. Terracycle repurposes hard-to-recycle plastic into plastic pellets, school products and household and garden items. Ecovative Design uses agricultural waste and mushroom technology to grow materials that can replace plastic foam.



Photo: Joost Nelissen
Photo: Joost Nelissen

As a result of California’s severe drought, interest in recycling water for drinking is greater than it was in April 2011, when I posted From Wastewater to Drinking Water. San Diego’s indirect potable reuse demo project, conducted between 2009 and 2013 to determine if it could purify wastewater to drinking water quality, was successful. As a result, the city is going forward with a water purification facility capable of producing 30 million gallons of drinking water daily, to be operational by 2021; by 2035, it should be able to produce 83 million gallons per day. Like the indirect potable reuse water operation in Orange County, which was expanded last spring, San Diego’s treated water will be blended with water from a reservoir before going to a drinking water treatment plant.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Los Angeles County are planning one of the largest water recycling programs in the world, which could eventually produce 150 million gallons a day. The recycled water will first spend time in an environmental buffer such as an aquifer or reservoir before entering the local drinking water supply. A demo plant capable of producing one million gallons of water a day will be launched first. Meanwhile an advisory group for the State Water Resources Control Board is conducting a feasibility study on direct water reuse (where treated wastewater goes directly into a water treatment plant before entering the drinking water supply without spending time in an environmental buffer), which should be completed by the end of next year.

In 2013, the country’s first direct potable reuse plant was opened in Big Spring, Texas, during the region’s worst drought in decades. It purifies 2 million gallons of wastewater to drinking water quality each day. A second direct potable reuse plant capable of treating 10 million gallons a day opened in Wichita Falls, Texas, a year later. While the Wichita Falls plant will transition to indirect potable reuse in a few years, depending on the drought, the Big Spring facility is a pilot project with plans for expansion.

Israel, which purifies 85 percent of its wastewater for agriculture and replenishing rivers (not for drinking), is a leader in water treatment technology. Israeli-based Memtech has developed a way to filter pharmaceutical molecules from municipal wastewater through nanofiltration. Emefcy, another Israeli company, has created an electrogenic bio reactor that creates a kind of battery as water is treated. Using anodes, cathodes and an electrical circuit, an electrical current is produced when the organic matter in the water is oxidized. Rather than using energy for the process, clean energy is instead generated, which can be utilized by the plant or sold to the grid.



American Samoa  Photo: XLCatlinSeaviewSurvey
American Samoa Photo: XLCatlinSeaviewSurvey

Since Losing Our Coral Reefs was posted in June 2011, coral reefs have experienced and continue to experience the third global coral bleaching event on record (previous bleaching events occurred in 1998 and 2010). The massive bleaching began in the summer of 2014 as waters of the north Pacific began warming due to climate change, and spread to the south Pacific and Indian Oceans in 2015; the presence of a strong El Nino this year may cause further bleaching.

Coral reefs of the Hawaiian Islands are most at risk, as well as areas of the Caribbean. This bleaching event is expected to affect 38 percent of the world’s coral reefs by the end of this year and kill over 4,633 square miles of reefs. The percentage of the world’s coral reefs considered damaged beyond repair has grown from 10 percent in 2011 to 25 percent today, with another two-thirds under serious threat.

Recent research holds out some hope for coral reefs threatened by climate change. Scientists discovered that corals from certain areas of Australia were more heat-tolerant than those in other areas. By cross breeding the different strains of coral, they were able to transfer heat-tolerance to the offspring. Introducing “coral immigrants” to endangered areas could help avert the destruction of coral reefs.

In 2014 marine protected areas sheltered 3 percent of the world’s oceans, up from less than 1 percent in 2010. Approximately 30 marine protected areas are specifically devoted to corals.


Molycorp Mountain Pass Mine
Molycorp Mountain Pass Mine

Since 2012, when Rare Earth Metals: Will We Have Enough? was posted, the demand for rare earth metals has increased and is expected to continue to grow in the wake of the Paris climate accord, as countries transition to greener energy sources. Market analysts expect the global rare earth metals market to expand 14 percent over the next five years, driven largely by the demand for rare earth metals used in wind turbine generators and electrodes for metal hydride batteries.

China still dominates the global market, supplying 85 percent to 95 percent of rare earth metals. A price surge in 2010 spurred production in China, and many illegal small producers got into the act, glutting the market. (About 40 percent of rare earth metals on the market today can be considered illegal.) In 2014, the World Trade Organization ruled that China’s export tariffs on rare earth metals were illegal. As a result of the elimination of Chinese tariffs and the proliferation of illegal producers, the prices of rare earth metals dropped almost 80 percent. China levied a new resource tax on rare earths last spring and is expected to try to gain control of illegal producers, but it will likely take a few years. Meanwhile, low prices have made it difficult for rare earth metal mining in other countries to compete.

Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine in California declared bankruptcy in June 2015. It is currently restructuring and looking for buyers. The only major supplier outside of China, the Australian mine Lynas, plans to increase production this year, but it has been financially troubled for some time as well.

Japan, which consumes half of the world’s rare earth metals, has the potential to break China’s hold on the rare earth metals market. The reserves of rare earth metals it discovered not far under the Pacific seabed turned out to be much larger than expected; they are thought to be equivalent to 1,000 times all land-based deposits, and relatively inexpensive to access. Another discovery of highly concentrated nodules around a Japanese island lies 5,700 meters below sea level.

Last February, in the Atlantic Ocean, German researchers discovered the largest deposit found there yet of manganese nodules, a potential source of rare earth metals.

Efforts are ongoing to find substitutes for rare earth metals. The U.S. Department of Energy has invested $27 million in 14 projects to identify cheaper and more abundant alternatives to rare earth metals. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have synthesized a new material from nanoparticles containing iron, cobalt and carbon atoms with magnetic properties equal to those of magnets made with rare earth metals.

The E.U. has developed the Critical Raw Materials Innovation Network to reduce dependence on rare earth metals. And in the U.K, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is investing £10 million to research materials substitution.

However, after Thomas Graedel and colleagues studied the major uses of 62 metals and the potential for substitutes in 2013, they concluded that “for a dozen different metals, the potential substitutes for their major uses are either inadequate or appear not to exist at all. Further, for not 1 of the 62 metals are exemplary substitutes available for all major uses.” Graedel said, “A better approach would be to seek to develop new technological approaches that produce the desired outcome but circumvent the need for scarce materials.”


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