Environment: Waste case scenario

Despite fossil fuel extraction persisting, global climate warriors innovate with polluted air/water use and renewable resources to avert the looming apocalypse.
Environment: Waste case scenario

There is no cop-out here; the planet has to be saved. One of the three objectives of the recent COP28 was to build a climate-resilient society. Simply put, we should be able to make the best of what we have, and prevent the environmental crisis from getting worse. And what we have in abundance are polluted air, contaminated air and plastic, lots and lots of it, with technology being man’s friend in the endeavour to make the future, near and far, sustainable. 

The idea of Direct Air Capture (DAC) seems to be a step in that direction. Explaining the process, a report by CB Insights, a global technology market intelligence company has noted, “DAC technology extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and does not require a nearby pollution source, unlike industrial off-gas capture.” In the three-step process, large fans draw in air from the atmosphere, which is then passed through filters that accumulate the CO2.

It is then followed by the heating up of these filters, causing them to release the trapped CO2, which is then stored for further use such as creating synthetic fuel. The CO2-free air is released back into the atmosphere. While in theory, this seems doable, and corporations including Microsoft, JP Morgan and Blackrock have already started buying carbon credits devoted to the technology, the feasibility of the method, and the scale of its impact seem too far away to be predicted.

One California-based company, Heirloom Carbon Technologies, has managed to capture 1,000 tons of CO2 from the air per year, a miniscule amount in the larger scheme of things. Besides, a study in Energy and Environmental Science has noted that the technology’s impact to boost environmental health is likely to be significantly less than what is being advocated, with many experts saying that any and all investment in it may be a waste.

The earliest sign of the planet in danger was the depleting ozone layer, first recorded in the 1970s. The culprits were supersonic planes and chemicals found in aerosols, refrigerators and air conditioners. But, it was a time of globalisation, and fixing a hole in the sky was low on the priority list. As countries expanded their international markets by increasing production of all kinds of goods, the environment became a casualty. A century of continued exploitation has seen Mother Nature return with a vengeance. The air no longer purifies itself, the water is only getting dirtier by the day, there’s more plastic than land; fossil fuel reserves are falling worldwide.

The UN passing the landmark Montreal Protocol in 1987, which banned the global use of aerosols containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was a sign that Nature’s wake-up call had been registered. It was followed by the first COP event, at Berlin in 1995. Objectives included mitigating the effects of global warming by reducing emissions of polluting gases.

That the efforts, even if not nearly enough, to restore the damage we had wreaked were in the right direction, was displayed by the healing of the ozone hole in the atmosphere. In January this year, NASA released an image of the hole over Antarctica taken on October 5, 2022. It showed that “the Earth’s protective ozone layer is slowly but noticeably healing at a pace that would fully mend the hole over Antarctica in about 43 years”.

Last month, however, new findings published in the journal Nature Communications show that the optimism may be premature. Even as a UN report this year projected that the ozone will return to the 1980s’ levels by 2040, the team of researchers at the University of Otago, led by Hannah Kessenich, claim that the concentration has decreased alarmingly by 26 per cent between 2004 and 2022. Whatever the truth, an ongoing environmental crisis is certain.

Extract to Retract
It’s been over three decades since environment-friendly alternatives to existing polluting processes are being devised. Renewable resources such as solar, wind and water continue to bear most of the load. The buzzword is electric vehicles (EVs), but the technology behind such substitutes does more harm than good sometimes. For instance, EV batteries, contain materials such as nickel, lithium and cobalt that require energy-intensive mining. The production of these batteries is also believed to contribute to the loss of biodiversity and depleting freshwater levels. The challenge, therefore, for coming up with substitutes is to ensure that the process doesn’t add to the crisis.

California's endeavour to draw potable water from sewage has lessons to offer. With government sanction given for setting up water treatment plants for the “toilet to tap” initiative, developments are apace. The state—which is prone to drought and has already been using treated water for agriculture—will take its resource optimisation bid a notch higher with this new mandate.

It will, however, take years for this treated water to reach the homes of Californians; the process is targeted at what has been termed “triple redundancy” for bacteria, viruses and chemicals. The LA Times reported that “the water will go through various stages of treatment, passing through activated carbon filters and reverse-osmosis membranes, as well as undergoing disinfection with UV light, among other treatments”. Following the purification process, minerals will be added to mimic the taste and chemical composition of drinking water.

Renew and Replenish

Fossil fuels have been the mother of all problems, as far as the environment is concerned. The burning of coal, oil and natural gas releases greenhouse gases, leading to global warming. But techpreneur Elon Musk and Al Jaber, the CEO of Adnoc, the largest drilling company in the Middle East, say otherwise. While Musk recently said that oil and gas have been needlessly demonised, Jaber, who also headed COP 28, claimed that there was “no science” behind the phasing out of fossil fuels to achieve a sustainable environment. The alarming claims were quantified in the UN’s November report, The Production Gap: Phasing Down or Phasing Up? that shows that the world’s “top fossil fuel producers continue to plan even more extraction despite climate promises”. True to their word, fossil fuel companies have now gone as far up as Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, to drill for natural gas, causing a leak in the permafrost, which lets the trapped methane gas escape into the atmosphere. A December 2023 study published in Frontiers in Earth Science noted that these fissures are likely to widen due to natural factors such as glacial retreat and thawing.

Even as scientists and corporations continue their tug of war over fossil fuels, innovative technologies by small startups, focused on harnessing energy from renewable resources, may be the medicine the doctor ordered for the ailing environment. An example is the Honeycomb wind turbine by Glasgow-based Katrick Technologies. Their compact, easy-to-install turbines may emerge as a more sustainable alternative to the traditional clunky ones with the rotary fan perched atop a tower.

The honeycomb turbines are suited for installation in urban spaces, on top of existing buildings, eliminating the need for dedicated plots of land. The key difference is the use of oscillating aerofoils in the wind panels instead of rotations to trap wind energy. “The aerofoils sweep the entire duct to capture wind energy from low-level turbulent and gust winds. This motion allows our technology to quickly react to instantaneous changes in wind speeds found in ground-level wind conditions,” says the startup.

Renewable resources for the longest time have meant solar and wind energy and hydropower. Now, there may be a new contender: rain. With an objective of recreating the success of solar panels, scientists have found a way to “capture, store and utilise the electrical power generated by falling raindrops”. With a design where multiple power generation units are “connected in parallel to supply the load, we are proposing a simple and effective method for raindrop energy harvesting”, notes one of the researchers working on making this experiment a reality.

Fantastic Plastic
Plastics are everywhere. They are in the soil, in the oceans, and now they have also percolated rocks and clouds. A recent study by researchers in Japan found microplastics in rain clouds. The discovery, based on samples tested from mist water covering the peaks of Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama, has given rise to a new category of air pollution—plastic air pollution, one that is not getting enough attention.

The dangers, experts on the study have said, include rising temperatures and changing weathers. Hiroshi Okochi, lead author of a new paper published in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters in August this year, noted that continued plastic air pollution could cause “irreversible and serious environmental damage”. Another paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, based on air samples from mountaintops in east China, presented similar results. Experts have warned that the presence of microplastics in clouds could gravely affect not just local weather patterns, but also global temperatures. 

Plastics have been wreaking havoc on land for several decades now, and their most recent victims have been rocks found on seashores, resulting in the formation of what are being called plastic rocks. Scientists have narrowed the reason for their formation to two causes. One is melting of plastic on beaches due to campfires resulting in the formation of plastiglomerates. “Molten plastic, sand grains, clasts from rock, coral, shells and wood debris were held together after campfire burning on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, USA,” said the author of new study in Environmental Science & Technology, adding that artificial plastic polymers were found along shorelines and inland in 11 countries spread across the globe. The other is due to the crashing of waves against the rocks in the foreshore area, where the plastic in the ocean lands on the rocks, which then, experts surmise, oxidises and chemically binds with the surface due to “sunlight irradiation”.  

While the process of reusing and recycling of plastic has been underway for some time now, scientists are now looking at the possibility of intercepting the plastic before it ends up in the landfills and oceans, and make roads out of it. Tentatively called Plastic Roads, these are made out of “prefabricated, hollow, modular elements made from consumer waste plastics”. These roads can either be made fully out of plastic or mixed with asphalt.  Currently in the demonstration phase in two towns in the Netherlands, these roads, if successful, have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of road construction by “50-72 per cent”.

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