(First published on State of the Planet on Feb. 20, 2019)
The WalMart in Guilford, CT, offers recycling for single-use plastic bags. The town is considering an ordinance banning plastic bags altogether. Photo: David Funkhouser
Since plastic carryout bags were introduced in the 1960s, people have used trillions of them, and, for the most part, thrown them away. And whether they’re sitting in a landfill, hung up in a tree limb or floating around the ocean, the bags don’t biodegrade, and they’re not going away anytime soon. They’re free to consumers, convenient and cheap for stores to use. But they have joined billions of tons of tossed-away plastic packaging materials and products to cause a variety of environmental problems. And in a growing number of communities, citizens have decided that they’ve got to go.
More than 300 municipalities across the United States now ban or charge fees for single-use plastic bags. California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and American Samoa have banned them, as have 55 countries. Thirty-one more have imposed a fee.
It’s unclear how effective these laws have been overall. In some places the bans are barely enforced, particularly poor nations with weak or nonexistent waste collection systems. But in many places, usage has dramatically declined, and litter and its associated problems have been reduced.
Sailing out from Seward.
Note: The following story was reported and written in 2007, for The Hartford Courant. Editors there declined to run it. I like the story anyway, and pretty much everything it says has been repeatedly validated by subsequent scientific research. It’s still going on – even in Connecticut. I’ve added a couple of notes in brackets in the text where updates seemed appropriate. — DF
SEWARD, Alaska — The Glacier Express chugged out of Resurrection Bay, and the blowing rain turned to sleet that lashed across the upper deck. White clouds shrouded the dark gray mountains that drop steeply into the sea.
This had been one of Alaska’s coldest and wettest summers. As they headed toward Kenai Fjords National Park, passengers aboard the sightseeing boat, some wrapped in fleece and rain gear in mid-August, had good reason to wonder what had happened to global warming.
But Alaska, frontierland of huge landscapes and volatile weather, is indeed warming. In the past 50 years, the state’s annual average temperature is up as much as 5.5 degrees. Overall, the Arctic region has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.
The greenhouse gas problem fueled by our crowded and busy civilization affects this remote region now, directly and in many ways — including fading sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and changes in habitats that have been the same for thousands of years.
But this is not Alaska’s problem alone. The effects of warming in Alaska and the rest of the Arctic will reverberate all over the globe.
Even in Connecticut.
First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Dec. 2, 2011
The latest station in the Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismographic Network, at the Kent School in Connecticut, in its new home. Photo: D. Funkhouser
A well-traveled seismometer sits tucked inside a concrete chamber behind the Kent School chapel in Northwest Connecticut, recording earthquakes. The latest event was on Nov. 28 – a minor shake of magnitude 2.0 just north of Medina, N.Y.
Scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory installed the seismograph at Kent in early November – the latest addition to the 40-year-old Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismographic Network, which tracks earthquakes around the Northeast. Scores of small earthquakes, mostly unfelt by people, send elastic waves coursing through the ground in the Northeast each year. They’re recorded by more than 40 stations operated by the network, and by other stations that make up a national grid of seismographic sensors.
Now and then comes a larger one – like the 5.8 quake centered in rural Virginia that shook up and down the East Coast. But large or small, they all add to our knowledge of the geology underlying our region, and eventually, perhaps, to a better understanding of the how and why of earthquakes.
Filed under Science, Stories
When Wisconsin lawmaker Terese Berceau first learned about nanomaterials a few years ago, she found there were many nano-based products on the market, but little research into their possible health effects. “The horse was already out of the barn,” she said, but she found it hard to get anyone interested. “It is a difficult subject to get people feeling that, ‘Geez, we should do something now.’ ”
But she worked at it, and her concern has paid off. The Wisconsin legislature just set up a study committee to gather information about nanotechnology and consider the policy implications. Berceau hopes that will lead to a registry, so health and environmental officials can track how the materials are being used, and how manufacturers and researchers are disposing of them.
Wisconsin is one of the first states to undertake this effort. Nano-enhanced consumer, environmental and health products have spawned a red-hot industry. Across the country, the use of nanomaterials—substances manufactured on a tiny scale, measured in billionths of a meter—is largely unmonitored and unregulated. Nanotechnology manipulates matter on a near-atomic scale in order to develop nanomaterials with surprising new properties, such as strength and super-conductivity. The results have ranged from super-strong sunscreen and bicycle frames to life-saving drugs.
“If we’ve learned anything from the BP oil spill [in the Gulf of Mexico], it’s that you should have a plan, that you shouldn’t just hope that nothing bad happens. You should have a plan so you don’t have serious consequences for public or environmental health,” Berceau said.
By David Funkhouser — June 8, 2010
A Connecticut company that makes a line of what it labels “green” products for auto and marine use says it has just the thing for cleaning up the Gulf oil spill: A nanotech-based, biodegradable oil dispersant.
But a number of scientists and environmental groups are warning that the firm’s marine oil dispersant relies on nanoparticles in an untested formulation that could cause more harm than good.
Green Earth Technologies’ oil dispersant uses a detergent based on plant-based oils and other unspecified compounds.
Stamford-based Green Earth Technologies defends its products as harmless, and says a protest letter sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by environmental groups has unfairly characterized the company’s dispersant. The EPA, which has been flooded by suggestions for using various products, has basically told the company to get in line along with other companies proposing Gulf solutions.
“This company may be right on, we don’t know that,” said Penny Vlahos, assistant professor of marine science and chemistry at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton. “It’s good someone is asking questions, and it’s good they have to defend themselves.”
Millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the sea in the seven weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, uncorking a well a mile below the surface. Efforts to fight the spill have included spreading more than a million gallons of oil dispersant.
Vlahos and two UConn colleagues are just back from a one-day conference in Baton Rouge at which 200 scientists in ocean and coastal research consulted with federal officials engaged in the oil cleanup. Vlahos described the Gulf crisis as “a bit of a feeding frenzy” for companies trying to promote their products and techniques for environmental cleanup.
Didemnum sp. / Photo courtesy UConn/Avery Point
RESEARCHERS STUDY SPREAD, IMPACT OF INVASIVE SPECIES IN LONG ISLAND SOUND
Hartford Courant, July 1, 2006 (draft)
By David Funkhouser
GROTON — The R/V Connecticut bobs in a light chop, floating midway between Mystic and Fisher’s Island. From the bridge, the dark blue waters of Long Island Sound sparkle on a sunny May morning. A fresh breeze blows, the air is clear, and everything looks just fine.
About 70 feet down, the state of the Sound is a lot murkier.
Capt. Dan Nelson shifts his glance from the view outside to the monitor of a computer that controls the 76-foot research vessel’s position and taps the keys to make an adjustment. With a throbbing hum, thrusters in the bow and stern fight a stiff current to hold us at a spot a mile west of Latimer Reef.
This is where we will hunt for Didemnum sp. A dozen students, teachers and crew have joined marine researchers Robert B. Whitlatch and Ivar G. Babb on this voyage to track down one of the most recent foreign invaders in Long Island Sound. The “sp.” stands for the generic “species,” because we are not sure exactly what beast this is, only that it is a sea squirt, of the genus Didemnum, and that its presence might be really bad news.
How Connecticut Chained Itself to Slavery
Published Sept. 29, 2002, this special issue of Northeast magazine unlocked a side of slavery, and of Connecticut history, that had never been clearly told. The 80-page edition has been used as a teaching tool in schools throughout the state and turned into a book, and it won the Sigma Delta Chi Public Service Award for magazine journalism in 2002. Editing and writing for this issue was one of the highlights of my career, and changed my way of thinking.
Here’s one example: Tiffany’s, the New York icon of wealth and status, was founded as a dry goods store by two young men from Connecticut. Their fathers staked them to the venture with profits earned in their mills, which took cotton picked by slaves in the South and turned it into coarse “negro cloth,” sold back to slaveowners to clothe their “property.”
HOMELY CRITTERS’ BLUE BLOOD PLAYS KEY ROLE IN DRUG TESTING
Hartford Courant, July 21, 2008
By DAVID FUNKHOUSER
WESTPORT — At the west end of Southport Beach, Doug Grabe hauled a folding table and plastic buckets from his truck and set up on the sand for a couple hours of counting, measuring and tagging horseshoe crabs.
Grabe’s unwitting subjects already were starting to arrive, dozens of them crawling and nudging their way from Long Island Sound up the mouth of Sasco Creek. Their movement was timed to a new moon high tide that flooded the creek’s grassy banks and gravelly bottom and pushed the water up onto the sand.
Horseshoe crabs have been around for 300 million years – older than the dinosaurs. As cumbersome and as homely as they appear in their tank-like brown shells, their light blue blood supplies an ingredient indispensable to human health.
MICROSCOPIC SHELLS SHED BY SINGLE-CELLED CREATURES LIE DEEP WITHIN THE ESTUARY’S SEDIMENT, AND RESEARCHERS BELIEVE THEY HAVE A LOT TO TELL US ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE.
The Hartford Courant, April 22, 2007
By DAVID FUNKHOUSER
Long Island Sound generates more than $5 billion a year for the regional economy and defines Connecticut as surely as the Charter Oak. It holds some 18 trillion gallons of water and is one of the nation’s largest and most significant estuaries.
But if you want to understand how global warming is changing the Sound, start small.
On a recent morning, Wesleyan University sophomore Emily Avener was working in a narrow laboratory on the fourth floor of the Exley Science Center. She tapped the grainy contents of a vial onto a tiny black tray. Setting the tray under a microscope, she stepped aside and offered a visitor a look.
Through the lens, amid the debris, you could see intricate seashells — minuscule versions of the shells you might have picked up on a beach on a summer stroll. These are foraminifera — or rather, the tiny homes left behind by these single-celled creatures.
Avener spends several hours a week as a research assistant counting forams, as they are informally called. The layman needs a microscope just to distinguish them from grains of sand. They live at the bottom of the food chain; but the stories they can tell us about the past — and the future — challenge the mind.
Forams typically measure a millimeter or less in diameter, though the largest on record is more than half a foot. They are the principal ingredient in the limestone pyramids of Egypt.
These microscopic creatures have been around for 550 million years. Because of their abundance in ancient sediments and their sensitivity to different environments, oil companies hire paleontologists to examine forams in rock samples to help them decide where to drill. For similar reasons, forams also are useful indicators of past climate change.
And they can tell us something about changes to come.