Lucy in Year 10 looks at issues surrounding climate change and the damage our current ways of living are having on the planet. Might geothermal energy offer the UK, and the world, a solution for us to clean up our act?
We are in the midst of a climate crisis; the UK government has recently made a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 to help stop further damage to the environment. The burning of fossil fuels to generate power is a significant contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, so the use of renewable energy sources is critically important to meeting this commitment to achieve net zero emissions. There are already many established sources of renewable energy, such as wind, solar and tidal power, but geothermal energy might be an unexpected solution to the UK’s problems.
Geothermal energy uses the natural heat from within the Earth’s crust to heat water and create steam. This steam then powers a turbine in a similar way to the production of energy using fossil fuels, with the key exception that the heat comes from the earth instead of from the burning of coal, oil or gas. So, like other forms of renewable energy, geothermal energy produces far less CO2 than fossil fuels do.
The key advantage geothermal energy offers over many other forms of renewable energy is consistency. Solar cells and wind turbines rely on climate and weather conditions to operate, which means that the amounts of energy produced varies and can be unreliable. Geothermal energy doesn’t have that problem. No matter what happens, a geothermal plant will always produce the same amount of energy. The problems caused by inconsistent energy provision have already been seen; only weeks after setting a new wind power generation record, a breezeless day in January 2021 resulted in a shift back to fossil fuelled power and a tenfold surge in spot energy prices.
Geothermal energy is currently in the news due to a recent announcement to build the first ever geothermal plant in the UK, in Porthtowan, Cornwall. It will produce enough energy to power 10,000 homes – enough to power almost all of Birmingham. So, why don’t we build them everywhere?
While geothermal energy does have significant benefits, it also comes with its own set of problems. The most prominent of these is the very specific characteristics of the Earth’s crust needed to be able to superheat the steam and power the turbines. As opposed to somewhere like Iceland, on the boundary of a tectonic plate, these locations are few and far between in the UK. Some will unfortunately be located in populous areas, where the negative aesthetics of a power station would outweigh its benefits. Another worrying fact about geothermal plants is that their construction, and the drilling of geothermal wells into the earth’s surface, have been the cause of several earthquakes over the past decade (5.5 magnitude earthquake in Pohang, South Korea in 2017). While this is less of a risk for the UK, being geologically more stable, it still is a factor to be considered. I would hasten to add that this risk is less than that of CO2 from fossil fuels or the toxic clean-up of a nuclear power station!
While geothermal energy plants are undoubtedly an effective and positive use of the Earth’s natural resources to create a sustainable and consistent supply of energy, the problems that their construction and capabilities raise mean that it would be impossible for them to become the sole provider of the UK’s energy. However, it is undeniable that their existence and use could aid the UK greatly in our battle against greenhouse gases and the climate crisis. While geothermal energy cannot solve the climate problem alone, it should definitely be a part of the UK’s, and the world’s, solution to the threat that is the climate crisis.
Millie (Year 13) explores issues surrounding food production and climate change.
If we look at the UK today, there has never been a wider range of exotic foods in our supermarkets and restaurants. In Western society, we are now able to access an unprecedented choice of fruits and vegetables. Just a few decades ago, no one could ever have dreamed of picking up a pineapple that was grown thousands of miles away at their local shops. Globalization has given consumers huge choices. But what does this mean for our environment, given current consumer demand in the United Kingdom?
Food and carbon in the UK
The food industry makes up 20% of the UK’s carbon footprint (Carasso et al, 2015), with the fruit and vegetable industries accounting for 10-12.5% of total food-related emissions (Garnett, 2006). This sector emits a small but significant part of our overall carbon dioxide emissions. The average person in the United Kingdom emits 15 tonnes of carbon per year, and this needs to be reduced by at least a third to be on the way to reducing the UK’s carbon footprint (Berners-Lee, 2019).
Food could be one of the ways to do this, as something we consume every day. It is important to consider the whole fruit and vegetable supply chain and where the largest carbon savings can be made. It appears that consumer behaviour is the most important factor, followed by transport, waste, agriculture, technology, energy usage, resources, and finally, processing and packaging. A safe and extensive new food system is needed for the production and distribution of fruits and vegetables and there are so many changes which could be made in each stage of the food system. It will be difficult to achieve a universal solution but making changes in all the different areas in the industry will eventually benefit the environment greatly.
Consumer behaviour is the most important factor in reducing emissions, as it underpins all the other areas of the industry. Consumer demand influences what products are brought to the shelves and the supply chains and processes that are used, so we have the opportunity as citizens to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of this industry. Consumers being aware of the environmental credentials of different food products is key to reducing emissions, as they can then make informed decisions about what fruit and vegetable supply chains they will support. According to Berners-Lee (2010), asparagus contributes to 125g CO2e for a local and seasonal pack but that same pack, flown from Peru to the UK in January, creates a massive 3.5kg CO2e. In this way, by being educated further and choosing more sustainable products, we can change the carbon footprint of this sector. It is difficult to change consumer behaviour, but it links all the factors together, and changing what the customer demands will change what the supermarkets supply. If we all work together, a big reduction in carbon dioxide emissions could be made.
Transport is one of the key contributors to the overall carbon emissions of the fruit and vegetable industry, and the next most important factor in lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Imports are a huge industry in the UK due to our temperate climate that can only grow a limited variety of crops. As summarized by the EU Fruit and Vegetables Regime: Producer Organisations (2017, p.5.), ‘Fruit and vegetables are by far the greatest source of imports in the UK food system’, making up 25.5%, with 15% of vegetables being imported and 62% of the fruits we consume (Garnett, 2006).
The UK becoming more self-sufficient would reduce the volume of imports needed, reducing transport emissions, so growing more of our own crops would really benefit the environment in most cases. This may require a change in consumer demand, however, to be viable, with the UK’s temperate climate. Reducing plane travel through changes in demand to less perishable goods is also really important, as the most carbon-intensive mode of transport, releasing 4.59kg of carbon dioxide per pound of goods (Berners-Lee, 2010). Increasing shipping and driving from abroad would also be very effective in reducing carbon emissions, despite some exceptions. Retailers could also be encouraged to source their items from places where more environmentally friendly transport methods are used, and this would be another useful way to lower the sector’s carbon footprint. Therefore, transport is really important in this climate battle, and a lot of changes could be made here, although there are challenges.
Waste not, want not…
Waste is another really important area in emissions reduction, as currently, one third of the food we produce is wasted (Royte, 2014), creating needless carbon dioxide emissions, and a 50% reduction in food waste could be achieved by 2030 compared to what it was in 2010 (Rothamsted Research, 2016) through various methods. Increasing awareness of waste and how it could be reduced along every stage of the food supply chain is vital, such as the modification of consumer expectation and the sale of fruits and vegetables which would have been wasted, such as the wonky fruits scheme.
Restaurants could also introduce more takeaway boxes, portion size choices and self-service to lower the volume of wasted food. There are many innovative solutions to this waste crisis, such as a new technology based on dynamic pricing created by the organisation Wasteless. Artificial intelligence is used to help retailers sell food that is perishable at the best price when it is near its ‘use-by’ date (Glover et al., 2020). Most shoppers reach to the back of the shelf, getting longer expiration dates so that shorter ones go to waste, according to David Cut, an employee at the company. The shorter expiration date could be made to look more attractive by lowering their price at the right moment to incentivise customers to buy that product over one with a longer expiration date. Therefore, waste is a really important factor in reducing emissions.
Agriculture is the next biggest area for emissions to be reduced in this sector. This could be done through better and more efficient land use, using clever planting methods which would allow more food to be grown in the same space. Soil carbon sequestration, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil, is a very viable and useful way to take carbon out of the air, even though this technology is new and could foster our dependency on greenhouse gases. Methods like this have been cited as necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Amann et al., 2008).
Less deforestation is essential, as out of three and a half tonnes per person per year on average produced by the food we eat, deforestation accounts for two tonnes of it (Tolley, 2019). We need to increase the number of carbon sinks and reduce the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and less deforestation is needed to achieve this. I believe that building sustainable agriculture is key to achieving a reduction in emissions.
The use of technology
The use of technology in agriculture is the next most important way to reduce the carbon footprint of this sector, as it is critical in reducing the damage caused to the environment. Technology, globalization and marketing have changed recent attitudes towards food, as we need to start prioritizing the environment and safety over consumer demands and money. Genetic modification is a very controversial topic and, even though it could improve the environmental credentials of many foods, many people are opposed to it, seeing it as unnatural. According to Buller (2005), there is no long-term data concerning the safety of genetically modified foods, and it is not known how they affect health or the environment long term. However, it could be an incredible way to increase productivity of crops, make them more resistant to disease and different weather conditions, and reduce emissions in this way. Technology is really important in agriculture in the 21st century, as there have been so many scientific advancements in the last 40 years (Rothamsted Research, 2016) and it has many possibilities, but there are always limitations.
The energy consumption and efficiency of the food industry is the also really important in making changes to benefit the environment. So much energy is wasted in the production, storage and transport of foods. Protected horticulture requires a lot of energy, so fewer crops should be grown in this way, and instead in their suitable climate, but this may not be possible without food supply chains being changed drastically. For example, the environmental footprint for strawberry production in the UK is approximately 1.2 CO2 equivalent per kilogram whereas it is 0.35 in Spain (Gaillard et al, 2009). This shows that shorter transport distances don’t necessarily mean reduced carbon emissions, as foods could have been grown in hothouses, such as tomatoes in the UK, and actually those flown in from Spain have lower emissions as they grow well in the natural climate there without increased energy emissions.
Also, improvements in the crop growing efficiency of glasshouses would be beneficial, such as with better lighting, excess crops being used as fuel, and reducing machinery usage for less effect on the environment. This would ask a lot of farmers to change their whole lifestyle, but big changes are needed to create big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing refrigeration efficiency would be very beneficial, with refrigeration used in all parts of the supply chain, but it could be hard to implement nationwide. Renewable energies are the future, and their usage is needed for a sustainable future across the food supply chain. According to Berners-Lee (2010), solar power is the best renewable source with a lot of potential, but it doesn’t currently contribute a lot to energy supplies. Fundamental societal change will be needed but changes in energy efficiency and consumption could reduce emissions greatly.
Use of pesticides and fertilizers
Resource usage in agriculture is another key factor contributing to the carbon dioxide emissions of this sector, including pesticides and fertilizers. If we use our resources wisely, we can live well and provide a life on this planet for future generations too. We need to use a smaller volume of resources but in a more efficient way to produce crops in a new production-consumption system, according to Rothamsted Research (2016). Fertilizers and pesticides are so useful to produce enough food for the planet, increasing crop yields and reducing the effect of pests so that more products can be sold. However, they are detrimental for the environment in their production and use, and their overuse can lead to pollution, worsening the effects on the environment. Fossil fuels are used to manufacture fertilizer, making up 12% of food’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (Berners-Lee, 2019) and pesticides can greatly harm the environment, impacting directly and indirectly on biodiversity as they kill many pests and other species as well (Murphy-Bokern et al, 2008). Therefore, their usage should be monitored and limited, in my opinion. They could be used with other more carbon-friendly methods, such as the use of manure and biological control, to increase productivity. The use of resources in agricultural production is therefore very important, and they need to be used in moderation.
Improving the efficiency of the processing and packaging of fruits and vegetables could reduce emissions in this industry, although there are challenges. This is the method by which the least tonnes of emissions could be saved, but there still could be changes made. Processing food is a great way to greatly increase shelf life, reducing waste and its associated high emissions. Also, packaging provides valuable information and can help food to last longer, so less of it is wasted. Overall, not a lot of modifications could be made here to improve the environmental credentials. However, methods such as consumers bringing their own packaging like Tupperware could make a small difference in emissions for shops. Also, supermarkets could use more carbon friendly packaging. For example, one of the UK’s largest supermarkets, Waitrose, say that they started to reduce packaging in 2009. Karen Graley, who works in packaging at Waitrose said that ‘Within the next five years, we will make all our own brand-packaging widely recycled, reusable or home compostable’ (Duffy, 2019). Small but no substantial differences in emissions could be achieved by processing and packaging.
If nothing is done, by the end of this century, post global warming, there will be environmental, social and economic degradation. We can avoid a looming food crisis by united actions. All factors need to be considered, especially consumer behaviour, and this can be changed through media and advertising in retailers across the UK. To feed a growing population with nutritious, delicious, low carbon food, there will be many challenges ahead but if everyone, including food policy makers, producers, farmers, retailers and consumers works to influence the others and changes their actions for a more sustainable world, we can restore our relationship with nature and live better than ever. Big differences will need to be made and although there will be many challenges and difficulties, I believe that the carbon dioxide emissions of the fruit and vegetable industry in the United Kingdom can be reduced significantly.
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Dr. Stephanie Harel, Acting Head of Geography, explores the positive geographies of our current global pandemic, including a stronger local sense of place and a greater environmental consciousness.
As an educator, I concern myself every day with demonstrating how and why “Geography matters”. Central to our discipline, and indeed my own academic interests, is the often-contested concept of ‘place’. At its heart, lies the notion of a meaningful segment of geographical space, although what is also important to understand, is that places are dynamic and multifaceted. Recently, I introduced our Year 12 students to these ideas, as part of the Changing Spaces, Making Places unit in our OCR specification. Over the past three weeks, we have explored the difference between ‘place’ and ‘space’, the characteristics that constitute a place profile and how perception of place can vary depending on factors such as age, gender and personal experience. Lively class debates have discussed how people can see, experience and understand place in different ways and, perhaps most importantly, how our relationships with places can change over time.
I love teaching this unit, because it aligns with my own research interests and allows me to delve into what was the focus of my doctoral thesis. My PhD explored the complexities of people’s emotional response to disasters. Acknowledging that people negotiate their emotions in different ways, my thesis demonstrated the complex ways that emotions influence how the disaster displaced relate to ‘home’ in the aftermath of disaster. As a practitioner, I see much value in using this research to develop students’ understanding of how the concept of place works in practice. During Guided Home Learning, for example, I relished the opportunity to teach a two-week segment as part of the Geography elective for Years 11-13, which explored the ‘Emotional Geographies of Home’. In our sessions, I shared stories from real people who had lost their homes as a result of the 2011 flood event in Brisbane, Australia, and 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. As I explained to my students, the aim of my PhD research was to extend geographic knowledge on the emotional dynamics of natural disasters. However, I also aimed to contribute to debates within our discipline about how places can be disrupted and altered in a myriad of ways and as a consequence of both physical and human processes. Again, these sessions promoted incredibly rich discussions. The level of independent thought and active enquiry shown in students’ post-course reflections showed deep engagement with course content, on both an academic and a personal level; as a teacher, it was richly rewarding to read these reflections.
While my doctoral research was carried out within the context of natural disasters, I believe there is huge potential to explore these ideas further, within our current global climate. Media outlets across the country are presenting the endless disruption caused to places as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This is important, of course; the economic and social consequences of COVID-19 will undoubtedly be severe and long lasting. Still, I would like to intervene amidst what sometimes feels like a barrage of negativity. I want to suggest that there are many positive ways in which the pandemic has altered places around the world, at a variety of different scales. The following, therefore, is what I deem to be ‘The positive geographies of COVID-19’:
A stronger ‘sense of place’
When I was researching in Brisbane and Christchurch, and indeed for my Masters research in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the positive outcomes of the experience of a natural disaster was the way in which communities came together in the face of crisis. My research exemplified how emotions play a key role in the construction of place and many of my interview narratives demonstrated the value of social capital in the aftermath of catastrophe. Narratives of those who were displaced and subsequently returned to post-earthquake Christchurch, for example, discussed the importance of community support networks and the strengthening of their local neighbourhoods in the aftermath of the earthquake. From what I’ve seen in 2020, the same concepts ring true during a global pandemic.
In Geography, a ‘sense of place’ refers to a feeling of belonging; a strong identity that is deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors. It is often a term used by humanistic geographers to describe our attachment to specific locations. I would argue that with communities coming together to clap for NHS carers and networks of volunteers supporting vulnerable members of their communities, lockdown deeply enhanced our local sense of place. It also, I believe, caused us all to redefine our relationship with ‘home’, purely because we spent such an unusually large amount of time there. Socially distanced neighbourhood street parties and road WhatsApp groups where neighbours could check in on each other became the new norm. The 75th anniversary of VE day saw us all aptly enjoying the sound of ‘We will meet again’, celebrating with our local communities, from the comfort of our own driveways. In a personal capacity, lockdown resulted in a significant increase in the amount of time I was able to spend with my husband and young daughter; time I will cherish. I was able to witness my daughter’s first wobbly steps, knowing this was only possible because I was working from home. I then watched her grow confidence as she navigated the potholes along our road, cheered on (from a distance) by our kind neighbours.
Although I have long explored the concept of ‘place’ and acknowledged the way in which places are constructed by humans and human interactions, COVID-19 illuminated this reality in a way I never expected. Places truly are defined by the people within them; it is the experiences we have, and the relationships and memories we create that make geographical locations meaningful. The stronger sense of local place I feel towards my local community is evidence of this, but I am also struck by heightened sense of place created here at school as a result of the pandemic. Despite lockdown, our community remained united – Together Apart – and I think this unwavering sense of place experienced at Wimbledon High School during a time of national crisis is worthy of celebration.
As well as teaching the core Human Geography Unit in Year 12, I also teach our Year 13 Geographers the core Physical systems unit, ‘Earth’s Life Support Systems’. Content within ELSS incorporates an understanding of our global water and carbon cycles, the consequences of human activity on these natural systems and the importance of management strategies which protect our vulnerable planet. Carbon emissions remain one of the world’s most significant environmental concerns. Emerging and developing countries, such as China and India have long been at the top of the contributor list for global greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, however, the pandemic has shut down industrial activity and temporarily slashed air pollution levels all around the world.
I find myself wondering: Inadvertently, is this the largest scale pollution experiment the world has ever seen? Could this be the outcome of moving towards a low-carbon, green, economy in the future? And it is not just our dominant developing countries that have seen the positive effects of lower carbon emissions as a result of COVID-induced lockdowns. Italy’s usually heavily congested roads substantially reduced levels of traffic, resulting in drastically lower nitrogen oxide levels in the country. The positive environmental consequences of this are unprecedented and offer an opportunity to think more critically about the implications of our everyday practices.
In addition to the global decline in factory pollution, it is also worthy to acknowledge the positive implications associated with a reduction in air travel as a result of national lockdowns around world. Today’s society is a society (normally) on the move. With the development of mass automobility and aeromobility, the scale of our travel has grown immense, and social life and social organisation are increasingly dependent on mobility. COVID-19, however, has restricted our international mobility in a way that feels almost unnaturally authoritarian. While of course I acknowledge the challenges associated with being bound within our national territories, I’d also like to highlight the positives. The outcome of an inability to travel abroad is an increase in local and national ‘staycations’. I admit that I am someone who has lived in Australia and the USA, but never been to the Peak District. I’ve travelled to Singapore but haven’t explored many of the islands from my Scottish homeland. What COVID-19 has allowed for is an appreciation of the natural beauty that surrounds us not only in locally in London and the South-East, but all over the British Isles. As a nation, our inability to holiday overseas has increased an awareness of our local geographies, prompting an enjoyment of these local landscapes and the wonders that surround us, and sparking a renewed environmental awareness that aims to preserve them.
So then, it is pertinent to remember that 2020 is not a year to write off; perhaps it is, instead, a year full of opportunities. A time to connect and reconnect. A chance to acknowledge the beauty of our local surroundings and reconsider the impact our patterns of consumption so that we can rectify our environmental impact. As a geographer, I have long been fascinated by the relationship between people and places. I hope this post has demonstrated how geographers can offer some very useful ideas for making sense of our current situation; what has happened, what we might be feeling, and how we might go forward – stronger than before.
 Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: A short introduction. Blackwell Publishing
 Morrice, S. (2012) Heartache and Hurricane Katrina: Recognising the influence of emotion in post-disaster return decisions. Area 45(1), 1-7.
Sasha, Year 10, looks at the positives and negatives of each stage of palm oil farming and explores how we can minimise the downfalls to combat the climate crisis.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a versatile, widely used vegetable oil, and is made from oil palms, grown in countries with a tropical climate, such as Indonesia, under strict agro-ecological conditions only found 10 degrees North and South of the Equator.
To ensure only the best oil palms grow in the farms, there are a team of
researchers who analyse the seeds of existing oil palms. They select the healthiest palms and pollinate them with pollen from selected male specimens. The farmers then cover the palms with material to prevent any accidental pollination and to shield the trees from excessive sunlight.
It takes 6 months for the hybrid seeds to be produced, during which time the trees must be fertilised and maintained for maximum results. The fertilisers not only damage the fauna of the immediate environment but can easily leech into the (abundant) surface runoff, thus contaminating the animals’ water sources.
After the seeds are collected, they are transported to warehouses where they are misted to speed up germination. On a positive note, the transport is not as unsustainable as people think – it has to be able to manoeuvre on the unsteady rainforest ground, and therefore cannot be industrial. Other means of transportation include local animals or tractor carts.
The germination process involves a selective stage, where skilled workers sort through the seeds to discard any crooked or diseased seeds. This creates jobs for the local community, and supports the economy of the region, providing universal skills for them in the process.
The seeds are grown outside the warehouses in small bags.
However, when the trees reach maturity 3 years later, they can begin to require much more space for enough fruit production. This is probably the most well-known issue of the palm oil industry, as many companies are prioritising their palm oil production over the rainforest and the ecosystem as a whole, thus they deforest large areas.
The orangutans are most impacted by deforestation, as not only does the noise pollution distress them, it causes them to move further and further away from the centre of the rainforest, into the outskirts, where they may not be able to survive. Not only that, but the cutting (and sometimes burning) of the trees releases tonnes of stored CO2 back into the atmosphere, so much so that Indonesia (the largest world producer of palm oil) surpassed the USA in their greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
Furthermore, the indigenous people, just like the orangutans and the Sumatran tigers, are disregarded and pushed further away from their territories, causing tension between different groups as they are forced to move closer and closer together.
How is it extracted?
The fruit is processed in a factory – which is powered by biofuel made from the remains of the processed palm oil kernels. This is a sustainable initiative which somewhat balances the emissions produces by the factory as the palm fruit is initially sterilised in steam.
The fruit moves through a grid that separates the actual fruit from the stalks. They are crushed to release crude palm oil and are processed in a centrifuge to remove any impurities, while the kernels move on to be made into palm kernel oil.
What is being done?
The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certifies and works with major palm oil plantations to reduce the emissions and to protect the needs of the locals, deeming some brands “sustainable”;
The University of Reading has come up with a plan to buffer 1-4km around settlements close to oil palm plantations, to protect their farmland;
There are some sanctuaries created for the endangered species of the rainforest;
Large companies should strive to invest in green energy to power the plantations and factories.
Is it sustainable?
Overall, palm oil is a very controversial product, specifically because of its social, economic and environmental impacts, both local and global, and both positive and negative. As more people become aware of the impact on the environment and different communities, TNCs (Transnational Corporations) will be forced to take action. For now, we must all strive to select, whenever possible, products certified by the RSPO and educate ourselves and others of the vast impacts of the “Golden Crop”. By changing our own personal habits, we can have a collective impact to start the journey to combating climate change.
Saskia (Y13) questions whether bioplastics have been misbranded as an eco-friendly material and discusses factors we all should consider as consumers.
In the student leadership team, we have been thinking a lot about connections – within the school, within ourselves, and connections with the wider world. You will be hearing a lot more about the environment this year from Flora, our Environment Rep, but as I have been investigating whether the UK should be investing in bioplastics for my EPQ, I thought I would write about a few of my findings and hopefully encourage all of us to think more about the impact we are having on our world, and how we can work together to connect more with the environment.
With its many uses – from industrial to home use, packaging, toys and clothes, its durability, light weight and low cost – plastics make economic sense and are in many ways ideal for 21st century living. But we are now all much more aware of the time – up to 1000 years – that plastics take to break down, when put into landfill. An estimated 3 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Alongside the life span factor, the raw material for traditional plastics – commonly from non-renewable sources such as oil – bring questions of sustainability. Acting on this, companies have looked for biomass (wheat, corn, sugar cane, sugar beet, potatoes and other plants) to turn into plastics. Thus, bioplastics have been created. A positive development, we might all agree.
However, straightaway we have to question the energy needed to transport biomass to a manufacturing plant to make bioplastics. We must then consider the energy needed to create them – the energy used in production for any type of plastic is high. Most importantly for the consumer, and what I want to focus on here, is the question of the disposal of bioplastics. It is a misconception to believe that bioplastics are better for the environment than petroleum plastics after life. Bioplastics are not necessarily biodegradable even though they are made from biomass materials. Bioplastics can be made to decompose; however, this is only common in products that have a short life. I am very keen to spread this message!
The Guardian started some months ago wrapping their Saturday magazine supplement in corn starch wrapping. The corn starch wrapping can go into compost bins and decompose – no problems there. However, the new Coca Cola Plantbottle cannot decompose. A plastic bottle, even made from biomass, will on average take 450 years to break down.
What CocaCola want you to do is to recycle your PlantBottle in the correct facility. In keeping the bioplastic of the bottles in use, they are promoting the circular economy that is becoming much more of a consideration for anyone in the manufacturing process. The problem, of course, is the human factor: how can you ensure the correct separation of materials to recycle efficiently and without contamination? If the separation does not work, one type of plastic can easily be mixed into another type and thus contaminate a batch of recycled product. This batch is then not able to be used in certain situations or at all due to the change in properties.
This is just a snapshot of some of the findings from my research. I believe bioplastics are a good alternative to the petrochemical plastics that we have used for so long. I say this with caution though because as I hope I have demonstrated, there are still many downsides to the materials. However, I believe that as our technology improves the impact that bioplastics have will decrease. It is key that we make these changes if bioplastics are ever going to be sustainable especially as the world is developing rapidly.
By focusing on education and minimising the impact humans are having on the environment we will ensure that there is a future for younger generations. It will involve considerable investment; we would need to change the materials we use, spend money clearing up plastic pollution and grow to educate an awareness of the afterlife of all types of plastics, including bioplastics. My main belief is that we need to change the way we use materials. It is just not feasible to continue increasing the amount of plastic packaging that the world is using and thus the most ideal situation is to dramatically decrease the amount of packaging and our dependence on plastics overall. I hope I have inspired you to think; if you have ideas of how we can do this within our WHS community, do let the SLT know.
Isabella, Year 9, discusses the impact that plastic has on our oceans, on humans, and what we can do to make a difference.
Plastic pollution is debilitating the Earth’s ecosystems and is a controversial topic being discussed worldwide. It is a material that is in nearly everything we use, despite it being commonly known that it is not a biodegradable substance. In fact, it can take up to 1000 years for a single plastic bag to decompose!
The image on the left shows how much plastic enters the oceans every half second. Now imagine how much plastic there is in the ocean. Nearly 400 million tons of plastic were produced last year, and it is estimated that there is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the milky way. All this could remain there for the next 1000 years, and with the current rate of usage of plastic, this number will only increase. This is a dire situation, with catastrophic effects and something has to be done about it.
How does plastic impact the environment?
Recently, my family and I went on holiday to Brazil, where we stumbled upon an organisation called‘Projeto TAMAR’. Its purpose is to rescue turtles from the sea that are either injured or in need of help and nurture them back to health. We were lucky enough to witness one of the turtles being released back into the ocean. This particular turtle had been found in extremely poor health, with a lot of plastic in its stomach, including a whole plastic bottle. This isn’t a rare occurrence – in fact, over 50% of turtles have consumed plastic since they cannot differentiate it from food (such as jellyfish). However, turtles are not the only sea creatures to ingest plastic. 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually. It has been predicted that by 2050, the mass of plastic in the ocean will exceed the mass of fish.
Is it only the sea creatures that suffer from plastic?
It is not only the aquatic species that eat plastic. As a result of humans eating fish, there is a strong chance that we are consuming plastic too. A study showed that seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Furthermore, chemicals such as oil, mercury, pesticides, lead and other heavy metals can now be found in the ocean due to plastic pollution. These can all result in dangerous health problems; hormonal issues, reproductive problems, and damage to our nervous systems and kidneys. Mercury is absorbed by plankton, and exposure to this can cause Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
What can we do?
Firstly, we can support non-governmental organisations like ‘Projecto TAMAR’ which make a huge difference in saving aquatic species. Secondly, we need to start recycling more – the average citizen in London buys 3 plastic water bottles a week – that’s 175 plastic water bottles each year – but on average they only recycle a quarter of them. If the usage of plastic was to decrease (and the amount recycled increase) it would significantly benefit the planet.
How can an individual limit the use of plastic?
We can all do our own bit to help, including:
Use reusable materials
Avoid the use of plastic straws and disposable cutlery
Buy milk in a glass jar rather than a plastic carton
Carry a reusable shopping bag rather than buying one every time
Abhini, Year 10, looks at some of the issues surrounding climate change, and the potential impacts this will have on our lives.
During the Easter holidays, London and other parts of the UK witnessed a significant protest against the government with over 1,000 people being arrested for blocking streets. The wave of protest began with Swedish born 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who, every Friday, would sit outside government buildings in September, accusing her country of not following the Paris Climate Agreement.
What are the concerns?
So what is it that everyone is worried about in terms of climate change? The world is seeing more extreme temperatures being recorded increasingly across the globe. The 21st century has seen records broken with increased temperatures all through the season and the rise in temperatures also has an impact on the Arctic and melting ice caps. 2016 was the hottest year on record since 1880, with average temperatures measuring 0.99 degrees Celsius warmer than the mid-20th century mean. Since the 1950s, every continent has warmed substantially.
An additional impact that climate change is having on the earth is on sea levels, as they are rising at their fastest rate in 2000 years and currently changing at a rate of 3.4 mm per year, causing major impacts such as increased flooding. If sea levels continue to rise, countries like Bangladesh will cease to exist, leading to a refugee crisis, as an average of 21.5 million people have already been forcibly displaced since 2008 due to climate change-related weather hazards. Not only are our water levels increasing, but the ocean is now 26% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution. This also means that the waters are now more acidic than at any other point in the last 300,000 years.
Another shocking fact that is due to climate change, is the damage of two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. In April 2017, it was revealed that two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been severely damaged by coral bleaching, usually a result of water temperatures being too high. However, there are many more important and recent events due to climate change such as last week’s cyclone attack in Mozambique and the wildfires that took place in California late last year. The pictures below show these significant, global events.
Is climate change real?
What about the people who deny climate change? A large proportion of the public in Western democracies deny the existence of climate change. Some climate change denial groups say that because CO2 is only a trace gas in the atmosphere, it can only have a minor effect on the climate. Climate denial groups also argue that global warming stopped recently, or that global temperatures are actually decreasing. However, these arguments have been made clear to be false and are only based on short term alternates. Climate change deniers are often those who are economically making a financial interest in it and, in some cases, their generation is not necessarily going to be impacted by it.
We all know about ‘being green’ by walking to school or unplugging electronics when we are not using them. However, it is not enough anymore to just switch our light off as times now call for drastic change. The energy sources in our home need to be renewable, gas must go, and people should start investing in an electric or hybrid vehicle rather than using petrol or diesel.
We cannot sit and wait on the government to change. Change is in the hands of the people. We need to force the government’s hand and can only do so if we unite to try and save a world which we are currently destroying. Change occurs when we take action.
Freya, Year 13, explores how trees are able to communicate and help each other using a network of fungi in the soil.
Underneath your feet there could be possibly 300 miles of fungi stacked in the soil. This special network of fungi , called the mycorrhizal network , brings together fungi and trees in a symbiotic relationship which helps trees to communicate, coined the ‘wood wide web’. You may have unknowingly seen mycorrhizae before; it is long and white and looks a bit like silly string.
When a tree seed is germinating, its roots grow towards the fungi in the soil. In return for nutrients and water from the fungi, trees send sugars down to them. This is of important value to fungi as they cannot photosynthesise (and so make their own sugars, which are needed for growth). Not only does the network connect the fungi and trees, but also the different trees in a given area. All the trees whose roots grow into mycorrhizae are linked in a network. This allows the trees to communicate.
Using the mycorrhizal network, a tree that has been taken over by a certain pest can send danger signals to other trees. When other trees pick up this signal, they release their own chemicals above ground to attract the predators of the pest towards them, thereby reducing the population of pests.
Amazingly, when a tree ‘knows’ it’s dying it will do everything it can to aid the survival of the trees around it. Researchers noted that as an injured tree was dying, it sent all of its carbon down through its roots into the mycorrhizal network so that it could be absorbed by neighbouring trees. In doing so, these neighbouring trees were strengthened.
The driving researcher behind this work, Suzanne Simard, found that trees will help each other out when they’re in a bit of shade. She used carbon -14 trackers to monitor the movement of carbon from one tree to another. She found that the trees that grew in more light would send more carbon to the trees in shade, allowing them to photosynthesise more and so helping them provide food for themselves. At times when one tree had lost its leaves and so couldn’t photosynthesise as much, more carbon was sent to it from evergreen trees.
This discovery could be used in the future to reduce the disastrous effects of deforestation. If loggers keep the network of fungi intact, with many of the oldest trees still present, new trees planted will be able to utilise and reuse carbon more efficiently thanks to the wood wide web.
Serrena in Year 11 discusses the geography and struggles of Sri Lanka that she learnt about and witnessed when she was on a school trip there this summer.
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island, located in the Indian Ocean with different climatic conditions across this small country. Its coastal areas are around 0–30m above sea level whilst its central highlands are 300–500m above sea level with the highest point in Sri Lanka, Pidurutalagala, at 2524m above sea level. These differing altitudes result in different climates: in the coastal areas there is hotter weather with more convectional rainfall, whereas the central highlands are cooler with more relief rainfall. The cold, wet weather of the central highlands has resulted in an area called Nuwara Eliya being referred to as “Little England”.
Sri Lanka’s climate is also influenced by monsoons: the northeast monsoon (December to February), and the southwest monsoon (May to September). When the land heats up and low pressure is caused by the rising, hot air, cooler wind from the ocean is drawn in and brings with it heavy rainfall for the country. In Sri Lanka, the rivers naturally flow more towards the southern, wet zone but there has been human intervention to divert the flow of rivers towards the north of the country where there are dams.
The Sinharaja Rainforest:
The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a national park and a biodiversity hotspot in the southwest of Sri Lanka. It has been designated a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. There are 211 woody trees and lianas so far identified in the reserve, 66% of which are endemic, 20 of Sri Lanka’s 26 endemic birds are found here as well as half of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals and butterflies.
Lots of plants are cut illegally – the agarwood plant is fragrant and is stolen for use in cosmetics and perfumes, venivel creepers are taken for medicinal uses and the rattan plant is stolen for furniture. Precious gems are also illegally extracted from the site for jewellery. Pesticides left by people trying to grow certain plants to steal them lead to bioaccumulation. Contractors open up routes to facilitate logging operations and, although no felling is permitted within 1.6km of the reserve boundary, this renders the reserve more accessible to illicit timber operations. The planting of Honduran mahogany Swietenia macrophylla along abandoned logging trails as an enrichment species leads to the displacement of natural species, especially as it is a prolific seed producer.
The future of the site:
There are concerns over the future of the conservation of the site and its biodiversity as, despite being a UNESCO world heritage site, many people are illegally damaging it. Additionally, if global warming leads to more erratic and shorter monsoons, the plants will receive less water for photosynthesis which subsequently leads to less respiration and less growth.
Sri Lanka’s island status and ports allow it to have good trade relations with other countries. Its main exports are rubber, tea and coconut and its smaller exports are spices as well as minerals and gems.
Jobs in Sri Lanka are becoming increasingly based in the tertiary sector as it develops. There is Chinese investment in Sri Lanka: the government has taken a loan from the Chinese government to build a new harbour airport and highway as well as a new artificial island in Colombo called Port City. This new artificial island will provide jobs for locals as well as bring in lots of tourist revenue as new hotels will be built.
A growing tourist industry in recent years has allowed the country to recover after its development was hindered by a civil war. However, despite a growing tourism industry in Sri Lanka, upon visiting a hotel school on our trip and talking to the young men there who aspire to work in hotels we discovered that the vast majority of them want to work abroad. This may be due to a desire to see how other hotel industries work but Sri Lanka faces a larger issue of skilled workers leaving the country for higher salaries in the West.
1.2 million Sri Lankans work abroad and send money back home, whilst economic issues can also force women to work abroad. Women in rural areas who struggle to support their families have far fewer opportunities for employment in Sri Lanka compared to areas such as the Middle East. For example, there are 1.5 million Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
Education is free in Sri Lanka and subsequently there is a 94% literacy rate. In Sri Lanka there are only spaces for around 10% of students to go to university. This lack of universities and increased competition for spaces in higher education leads to many parents feeling forced to send their children to tuition to give them the best chance possible of getting into university. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that school finishes at around lunchtime in Sri Lanka and children are unoccupied in the afternoon, a time when many school teachers will run their own private tuition. This leaves bright children, in a country where the average wage is USD $12,768, whose parents cannot afford to send them to tuition at a disadvantage compared to students whose parents have a larger disposable income. As parents feel compelled to allocate part of their income to their child’s tuition, they face an opportunity cost of giving their children a better chance of getting into university or having the financial means to afford a better quality of life for their family.
There are people of many different religions in Sri Lanka who peacefully co – exist. As religious studies is a compulsory subject up until 16 in the Sri Lankan schooling system, the religious tensions of the civil war are unlikely to resurface and students are more tolerant.
Polwathatha Eco lodge:
This Eco lodge encourages ecotourism.
It produces its own tea and coffee
It has a community produce section and employs many locals to give them a source of income
They collect polyethylene plastic and give it to a place in Digana where the plastic is recycled
They give kitchen waste to the wild pigs which uses up the kitchen waste while maintaining biodiversity
To maintain local culture and show tourists a non – westernised and authentic Sri Lankan experience they provide homestays for visitors
During our community stay in Digana local women have small plots of land where they can plant crops and sell them to gain a source of income and become independent, furthering the emancipation of women in rural areas of Sri Lanka.
When we visited a roadside rural restaurant, we realised that many people in rural areas lead sustainable lifestyles and their low income means they aim to have minimal waste. For example, coconuts are fully grated inside to provide food for the restaurant whilst the husk is used for building thatched rooves.
I found this trip visiting rural areas to be a humbling experience for someone who lives in a busy city like me for a few reasons:
The resourcefulness of Sri Lankans makes up for their lack of technological advancements in comparison to Western, developed nations;
The resilience of the people we met in the face of adversity; the absence of a social benefit system after tsunamis have caused vast devastation in Sri Lanka in the past two decades and a civil war that lasted 25 years disrupted the lives of thousands of Sri Lankans, displacing an estimated 800,000 people;
The incomparable hospitality of our host families, drivers and everybody we met. There is a huge sense of community in rural Sri Lanka that left a lasting impact on my outlook in life.
Alex (Year 11) investigates whether the strategy of hotspot conservation is beneficial to reducing mass extinction rates, or if this strategy is not all it claims to be.
Back in 2007, Professor Norman Myers was named the Time Magazine Hero of the Environment for his work in conservation with relation to biodiversity hotspots. He first came up with his concept of hotspot conservation in 1988, when he expressed his fears that ‘the number of species threatened with extinction far outstrips available conservation resources’. The main idea was that he would identify hotspots for biodiversity around the world, concentrating conservation efforts there and saving the most species possible in this way.
Myers’ fears are even more relevant now than 30 years ago. According to scientific estimates, dozens of species are becoming extinct daily leading to the worst epidemic of extinction since the death of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. And this is not as naturally occurring as a giant meteor colliding with the Earth – 99% of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are at risk from human activities such as ocean pollution and loss of habitat due to deforestation amongst other things. It is therefore crucial that we act now to adopt a range of conservation strategies to give our ecosystems a chance at survival for future generations.
To become accepted as a hotspot, a region must meet two criteria: firstly it must contain a minimum of 1,500 endemic (native or restricted to a certain area) plant species, and secondly it must have lost at least 70% of its original vegetation. Following these rules, 35 areas around the world ranging from the Tropical Andes in South America to more than 7,100 islands in the Philippines and all of New Zealand and Madagascar, were identified as hotspots. These areas cover only 2.3% of Earth’s total land surface but contain more than 50% of the world’s endemic plant species and 43% of endemic terrestrial bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species, making them crucial to the world’s biodiversity.
This concept has been hailed as a work of genius by conservationists and has consequently been adopted by many conservation agencies such as Conservation International – who believe that success in conserving these areas and their endemic species will have ‘an enormous impact in securing our global biodiversity’.
The principal barrier to all conservation efforts is funding, as buying territories and caring for them costs a lot of money, which is primarily raised from businesses, governments and individual donors. Most of this funding is raised through campaigns focused on charismatic megafauna such as the penguin or the snow leopard. These types of campaigns motivate people as they feel a closer connection to these animals and they seem to really be making a difference in conserving these species. When conservation is done on a larger, regional level, there is less of the gratification that comes along with donating money as there is less control, felt by the donors, over the work done for conservation. Through the identification of 35 specific areas to concentrate funds towards, this reconnects the public, as well as larger companies and local governmental bodies, to the projects, thereby encouraging more donations. It is for this reason that hotspot conservation has received £740 million, the largest amount ever assigned to a single conservation strategy.
Although the 35 areas identified are relatively widespread and well-funded for their conservation efforts, this strategy has been criticised for its neglect of other crucial ecosystems. First of all, there are no hotspots in northern Europe and many other areas around the world, neglecting many species of both flora and fauna. Also, as the criteria for classification as a hotspot are with reference to endemic plant species, many species of fauna are neglected, from insects to large and endangered species such as elephants, rhinos, bears, and wolves. Furthermore, areas referred to as ‘coldspots’ are ignored. This could lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems following the extinction of key species.
Another major issue with this strategy is that terrestrial environments only make up around 29.2% of the earth’s surface area. The other 70.8% is covered in very diverse (but also very threatened) oceans and seas. Marine environments are overlooked by hotspot conservationists as they rarely have 1500 endemic plant species, as deep oceans with very little light are not the ideal environmental environment for plant growth, and species floating on the top are rarely confined to one specific area, making them not endemic.
So, if even the more successful strategies for conservation are so flawed, is there any hope for the future? I think that yes, there is. Although there is no way to save all the species on earth, identifying crucially important areas to concentrate our efforts on is essential to modern conservation efforts. Hotspot conservation is definitely improving the ecological situation in these 35 areas and so those efforts should be continued, but that doesn’t mean that all conservation efforts should be focussed only on these hotspots. Hotspot conservation should be part of the overall strategy for reduction of mass extinction rates, but it is not the fix-all solution that some claim it is.