Science

Warming Trends: New Rules for California Waste, Declining Koala Bears and Designs Meant to Help the Planet

SOLUTIONS

In Neighborhoods, Doing What is ‘Necessary,’ Not Just Possible

What if neighborhoods were built to be more climate-friendly in their natural ecosystems and more diverse in who lives there, with all incomes and ages represented? 

That’s the vision behind a new housing development near a park in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The 14-acre community, called Veridian at County Park, is aiming to be all-electric by 2023, when residents start moving in. Houses and apartment buildings will be surrounded by fruit trees and gardens, where residents can harvest their own food. Pedestrian and bike-friendly roads will be lined with native plants that create habitat for wildlife and insects. Water from rain and snowmelt will flow through the landscape, the same way they did before the land was developed. Locally-sourced food will be sold in an on-site grocery store. 

Construction is slated to begin next month in the development, where many homes will be equipped with solar panels that power electric appliances and energy-efficient heat pumps. Garages will be designed to store bicycles, charge electric vehicles and have compact home batteries that can store unused solar power. 

“We’re trying to look at the designs systemically and holistically and set that target of not what is politically possible, but what is technically necessary for all future neighborhoods,” Matt Grocoff, founder of Thrive Collaborative, the real estate company behind Veridian, said.

What makes Veridian unique, Grocoff said, is its focus on serving all demographics and incomes. Its 160 homes are designed for anyone, including young people, families and retirees, he said. The price of the most expensive floor plans is $937,000 for 2,500 square-feet, while other units come in at $185,000 for 400 square-feet. Veridian also partnered with Avalon Housing, a local charity, to provide 50 affordable townhomes for people earning less than 60 percent of the area’s median income. 

Too often, neighborhoods are segregated based on income and age, Grocoff said, and Veridian aims to break that trend. 

“We could slap some solar panels on the roof and put a battery pack in the garage and just sell these houses at a premium and walk away fat and happy,” he said. “But that’s not our goal. That’s not why we’re doing this. We’re doing this to find true climate solutions.”

SOLUTIONS

A Big Change for California Waste

California will soon undergo the biggest shift in its waste management system since recycling began in the 1980s, state officials say.

On Jan. 1, all state jurisdictions must show that they are on a path toward reducing organic waste by 75 percent by 2025. Each jurisdiction must have programs in place to collect organic waste from residents and businesses separately from recyclables and landfilled trash, to ensure that edible food is not wasted but rather diverted to people in need. 

If the state can achieve its goal, CalRecycle, the state agency overseeing implementation of the new rule, estimates that the climate impact will be equivalent to taking 1.7 million cars off of the road for a year.

The new regulation is part of a law signed in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, which set emissions reduction targets for climate super-pollutants like methane, which is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period in warming the atmosphere. Organic waste decomposing in landfills causes 20 percent of California’s methane emissions, according to CalRecycle, so the regions are tasked with diverting organic waste from landfills through composting, repurposing edible food and turning waste into energy through anaerobic digestion

CalRecycle estimates that organic waste makes up half the garbage that goes into the state’s landfills. 

“It is the simplest, easiest thing that we can do,” CalRecycle director Rachel Machi Wagoner said. “If I just take that banana peel and throw it into my organic waste bin that ends up getting composted instead of into a garbage can, I am preventing climate change.”

SCIENCE

Can a Vaccine Stop a Koala Bear Decline in Australia?

A sexually transmitted disease is quickly spreading through a segment of Australia’s koala population, leading to rapid decline. Scientists say climate change is to blame. 

Koalas in northwestern New South Wales have declined by at least 50 percent in the last two decades as chlamydiosis, a disease caused by chlamydia bacteria, has infected more than 80 percent of individuals in the region, said Mark Krockenberger, a professor at the University of Sydney who specializes in infectious diseases in koalas. The disease causes infertility, which makes it difficult for the population to recover from the decline. But a vaccine for the illness could be on the horizon.

This segment of the koala population was healthy and growing in the early 2000s but experienced extreme heat waves and drought in 2009, Krockenberger said, with several days exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat waves and drought are projected to increase in frequency in the region as the climate changes, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report.

Prior to the 2009 heat waves, Krockenberger said, chlamydia was probably present in this koala population but was not causing illness. As the lack of water put more stress on the animals, it may have led to weakening of their immune systems. 

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The extreme climate is likely to have “tipped a balance” between the koalas and the chlamydia bacteria, leading to a  “massive impact on the overall population,” Krockenberger said. 

He said he and his team are working on a vaccine to reduce the spread of chlamydia through the population. The immunization could be administered when a koala is brought into a veterinary hospital. 

“I think we are looking at a continuation of decline for a while,” Krockenberger said. “I’m just hoping that we can deploy this vaccine in a way that enables them to bounce back.”

SOLUTIONS

Designs for the Future, Aimed at Helping the Planet

An annual “social impact innovation” showcase features projects created by design students in 70 countries around the world. Several of them are intended to solve environmental and climate problems.

The Global Grad Show, now in its seventh year, is highlighting 150 projects this year and will help students bring their ideas to the next level with entrepreneurial training. 

Here are some of the innovations to watch out for:

An Anti-Greenwashing Browser Extension

While online shopping for clothes, this browser extension will automatically blur images of products from companies known for touting their environmental initiatives without the evidence to back up their claims. 

Students with the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom built the extension, known as “Shade,” which uses a database of clothing brands compiled by the Australia-based company Good On You. The database rates brands based on their impact on people, on animals and on the planet, to show online shoppers products from brands that are sustainable.

“We really try to make shopping sustainable fashion very convenient for you so you don’t have to go and spend time and effort trying to figure it out yourself,” said co-creator Fatimah El-Rashid. “It’s a way to educate but also empower the end consumer really to fight with the voting power of their purchasing decisions.”

Coral-Saving Robots

The Coral Reef Rescuer is a system that uses robots to monitor and repair coral reefs damaged by overfishing and the effects of climate change. The project, designed by Yihan Liu at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, uses a “mother” robot that monitors the reef for damage and then gives instructions to a “child” robot, that then repairs the reef with a nutrient rich, oyster based material.

“We use new materials and technologies to create and restore coral reefs by 3D printing bio-cement,” Liu said, “which can improve the damaged status to some extent and protect the ecological balance of the ocean.”

Plastic Packaging that Dissolves in the Washing Machine

Made out of the same kind of plastic that encases a laundry detergent pod, The Disappearing Package—used to ship clothes purchased online—can be thrown into the washing machine with a load of laundry, where the hot water will dissolve the soluble material, helping reduce plastic pollution. The packaging even comes with a strip of laundry detergent attached. 

Conceived by Amelia Sjöberg of Lund University in Sweden, the goal for the project, she said, was to “rethink clothing packaging and find a material that doesn’t last as long in the environment, and is also easy to recycle.”

The product is still in early stages of design, but Sjöberg hopes it will someday be adopted by online thrift stores.

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