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European scientists have conducted the first ever long-term study into the breakdown of alternative plastic bags compared to conventional plastic bags, across multiple habitats — open air, soil and sea. Oxo-degradable, compostable and biodegradable bags are often marketed as being recycled back into nature more quickly than normal bags; however, the long-term environmental studies to back this up are lacking and there is concern regarding microplastic pollution from these alternative plastic bags.
A more circular economy could reduce global levels of raw material extraction by 10% by 2030, a new study suggests. It could also drive a slight increase in overall employment levels, but the types of jobs available would change significantly, moving away from low- and medium-skilled work in the manufacturing and mining sectors and opening up more opportunities for medium- and high-skilled jobs in the service sector.
Food packaging waste is currently under scrutiny. In the context of its Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU is addressing this through, among others, its Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative , which aims to enhance the reliability of environmental claims — both in a business-to-consumer and in a business-to-business context. The initiative aims, therefore, to boost the market of green and circular products. However, a review of the methods available for assessing the environmental sustainability of packaging now highlights the difficulty of clearly characterising packaging's environmental impact. The study suggests a new, fully quantifiable framework that could help to standardise assessment methods and bring 'environmental footprint labelling' to fruition.
Around 40% of the platinum used in EU catalytic converters is not recovered for recycling and is therefore ‘lost’ forever, indicates a new study. A more circular economy for platinum is essential to reduce imports of this critical raw material to the EU and minimise its damaging effects on the environment, the researchers argue. Better collection systems for end-of-life catalytic converters and tighter regulation of waste exports could help close the loop on platinum.
A new study has analysed how to reduce the environmental footprint of EU trade by preferentially importing goods from countries that have greener production processes. The study concludes that the environmental impacts of 200 product groups imported into the EU could be considerably reduced in this way. For example, water consumption caused by these imports could be cut by 72%, and land use by 65%.
Researchers have devised a blueprint to integrate the efficient use of waste wood throughout a bioeconomy system — part of the economy that uses renewable biological resources from land and sea. This study assessed the environmental sustainability of three scenarios for increasing targeted levels of industrial symbiosis within the wood-based bioeconomy of central Germany, and found that, in most cases, the three alternative future bioeconomy networks outperformed the selected fossil-based reference systems, mitigating environmental impacts by 25 to 130%.
To better understand the social and ecological implications of the non- food sector of the EU’s expanding bioeconomy, an economy which is based on the production and conversion of renewable biological resources into products and energy, a study has assessed the global cropland footprint of the region’s non-food products. The results show that the EU was the world’s biggest consumer and importer of these products from 1995 to 2010: two-thirds of the cropland required to satisfy the EU’s non-food consumption is located elsewhere in regions including China, the USA and Indonesia, bringing potential impacts for distant ecosystems. These findings can inform EU policymaking and support the EU Bioeconomy Strategy.
Biodegradable waste, or bio-waste, from urban areas is being used to produce a bio-based material to replace plastic — this is relevant to the sustainable development of a circular economy (CE), which requires the innovative use of waste materials. Understanding public attitudes to such materials, and the drivers influencing their uptake, is key to their viability. This study explores how consumers respond to products made from regenerated bio-waste.
To estimate the losses of wild pollinators across Great Britain, a study mapped records of 353 wild bee and hoverfly species, collected across the country from 1980 to 2013. It found that a third of species decreased, while a tenth increased. On average, the geographic range of bee and hoverfly species declined by a quarter, which equates to a net loss of 11 species from each 1km grid square (with uncommon species more harshly affected), highlighting a significant risk to biodiversity, pollinators, and their ecosystems.
Consumers in France, Germany and the USA perceive ‘environmentally friendly’ packaging to be reusable, recyclable and ‘biodegradable’1, finds a new study. These results suggest that producers should emphasise the end-of-life merits of packaging to appeal to consumers’ environmental concerns, and design packaging that is reusable, recyclable and ‘biodegradable’. However, they also indicate a need to raise public awareness of packaging’s true life-cycle environmental impacts, such as those during production and transport, which are greater than consumers generally perceive them to be.
Soil biodiversity, soil quality, and soil health are integral to protecting the natural environment. Soils are crucial to food production and human well-being, as highlighted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The abundance of soil biota is of great importance for the provision of associated ecosystem services (ES) and fundamental driver of self-regulation in soil. This study explores how the presence, or absence, of earthworms affects aspects of crop health and productivity, focusing on their shielding of winter wheat from the toxic plant fungi Fusarium.
In the automobile industry, the development and manufacture of increasingly complex technological components — catalytic converters, LEDs, electric motors, batteries — requires increasingly complex and diverse raw materials with specific qualities. The technological and economic importance of these materials, combined with their vulnerability to supply shortages and likelihood of supply interruptions, indicates their ‘criticality’. This study uses a new methodology to explore the criticality of 27 key metals used in the automotive industry and other sectors, and highlights six that are especially vulnerable: rhodium, dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and praseodymium. The researchers found there was limited recycling and substitution of these metals and a high possibility of restrictions to their supply.
Energy demand is on the rise globally, and this is predicted to continue in coming decades. Increasing energy production to meet this demand requires materials — both metals and non-metal minerals — from a number of countries. As some materials are in short supply, it is important to consider material dependency and availability when developing national energy plans for the future. This study is the first to address material dependency effects on a nation’s energy development plans, with the UK and Turkey as case studies.
To support the move towards a circular economy, in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible to minimise waste, there is great potential for the bioeconomy — those parts of the economy linked to the use of renewable biological resources — to adopt innovative business models and practices, says a new study. However, the study found that bioeconomy businesses instead perceive the circular economy in terms of well-established practices, such as recycling.
The EU-27 have committed to a strategic goal of developing an innovative economy based on biotechnology and renewable resources — a so-called ‘bioeconomy’. To achieve this, however, the EU must successfully mobilise resources such as residual biomass — or waste products from organic matter resources. A new study1 has quantified the potential of key residual biomass streams in the EU-27. The results show that residual biomass has a theoretical energy potential equivalent to the annual energy consumption of Italy and Belgium combined, with straw and forestry residues comprising the two most productive potential sources. The findings also reveal specific opportunities for regions including Paris (France) and Jaen (south-central Spain).
The most effective way to lower the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with metal production is to pursue a circular economy for the material in the long term, says a recent study. This century will see a high demand for seven major metals; the resultant overall environmental impact is expected to outweigh any environmental savings that may result from greener production processes or an increased use of renewable energy.
Researchers have developed a methodology that allows the analysis of how an existing product design meets design guidelines required for the circular-economy perspective, and which guidelines would need to be incorporated to create a better circular-design product. The results, based on a case study of small electrical equipment in Spain, indicate that the most urgent priority is to incorporate circular-design guidelines related to extending life span and to product/components re-use, while there is a moderate need to include guidelines related to the use of simple removable connections or a modular product structure.
Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises comprise the majority of European businesses — and, therefore, have a vital role to play in reducing our dependence on, and consumption of, increasingly scarce resources. A new study explores whether the concept of industrial symbiosis, in which companies use waste products of other industries as raw materials, is common in small- and medium-sized companies (SMEs) — using beer producers and mushroom farmers in Sweden as case studies.
A circular economy (CE) is one in which materials retain their value and are reused, minimising waste. Cities and councils could act as CE trailblazers by embedding this approach whenever possible into their public purchase of products, services and works. This study explored different approaches to circular public procurement (CPP), and identified possible opportunities to promote CE via appropriate procurement policy and criteria.
Consumers are willing to pay more for food that has been produced via sustainable processes and with a reduced environmental impact. A large-scale US survey, that questioned strawberry consumers on aspects of sustainable food production, suggests that food producers could benefit from increased premiums if product ecolabels were to advertise specific environmental virtues.
Most emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) are linked to the use of nitrogen (N) fertiliser in agriculture, highlighting a need for agricultural management practices that reduce emissions while maintaining agronomic productivity. A new study has assessed the long-term impact of conventional tillage (CT — where soil is prepared for agriculture via mechanical agitation) and no-tillage (NT) systems on soil N2O emissions and crop productivity in rain-fed Mediterranean conditions. The findings show that, over a period of 18 years, mean yield-scaled (i.e. per unit grain yield) soil N2O emissions (YSNE) were 2.8 to 3.3 times lower under NT than CT. The researchers therefore recommend NT as a suitable strategy by which to balance agricultural productivity with lower soil N2O emissions in rain-fed Mediterranean agroecosystems.
A new study lists 10 factors to help create a closed-loop supply chain for critical materials. However, interviews with key actors in supply chains for photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind turbines suggest that manufacturers and recyclers hold different perspectives on these factors. The research highlights the importance of cooperation between supply-chain actors, as well as investment in technologies and infrastructure for closed-loop supply chains.
Indium, a unique metal, is in short supply worldwide and is not recycled at the end of its life (EoL). Indium is used in a wide range of technologies, causing regions across the world that are reliant on its import — such as Europe — to be concerned about security of supply. Primary sources of indium are thought to be sufficient for medium-term needs, but with growing demand comes growing concern over long-term supply. A new study has conducted a material flow analysis and examined secondary sources of indium within European ‘urban mines’ and in-use stocks (IUS) of indium products, identifying these as potential sources of 500 tonnes of indium — if it were recycled at EoL.
Sustainability in the production of goods and services could be encouraged by replacing value-added tax (VAT) with ‘DaVAT,’ a damage and value-added tax, a new study suggests. This tariff is partly based on a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of goods and services and varies from high (products deemed to seriously harm the environment and human health) to low (those with a lesser impact). The researchers propose a novel way to convert VAT into DaVAT and provide a new policy tool, based on LCA, that can be applied by any country wishing to reform its consumption tax system and move towards a more sustainable future.
High-quality and innovative batteries are imperative for the EU in the context of its move towards a low-carbon, climate-friendly and more circular economy. However, manufacturing and using batteries, as well as the way they are treated at the end of their life, also has environmental impacts. This Future Brief from Science for Environment Policy provides an overview of technical aspects of battery design and production which enable the environmental footprint of batteries to be lowered. It also highlights how battery technologies are evolving to deliver better performance.
The potential of recycling aluminium scrap in Austria has been modelled in a new study. A surplus of mixed aluminium scrap is expected by 2045 if no advanced sorting technologies are applied. Increased demand for wrought aluminium alloys could mean this surplus occurs sooner. New methods to intensively sort aluminium could prevent this excess and contribute towards REACH1 recycling and climate targets.
A successful circular economy for valuable metals needs more than just effective recycling technologies, as a new study shows. The research, which explored the governance of recovering vanadium from steel-industry waste, revealed that industry stakeholders feel the prospect of financial gain, or reduced costs, through recovery is too distant at present. This perception could hinder a circular economy for critical materials from industrial residue, the study warns.
If the EU is to combat resource scarcity, it is necessary to develop and refine strategies for substituting raw materials with sustainable alternatives, such as recovered by-products from waste. A recent study presents a new approach for evaluating the sustainability of raw materials’ substitutions, based on the quantification of the embodied energy (energy required to produce the material from ores and feedstock) and carbon dioxide footprint (greenhouse gasses produced and released into the atmosphere during the production of the material) of both the raw material and its proposed substitute. The evaluation method has been applied to a real case, where it indicates that substituting a raw material (calcite) with stabilised fly ash for use as a filler in polypropylene composites in plastic manufacturing may be sustainable. The study also highlights the need for additional policy tools and legislation to encourage Europe’s transition towards a circular economy.
A third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and the EU alone wastes an estimated 88 billion tonnes of food every single year. This is equivalent to 76 kilograms per person per year. This is an unsustainable level of waste which threatens food supply and the environment. The EU is taking several actions against food waste, as a critical part of efforts to achieve a circular economy, where resources are used more sustainably.
In-depth soil information is increasingly required to achieve an array of environmental and economic goals. In particular, accurate estimates of soil carbon stocks are necessary to guide land-management practices and climate- related policymaking. To help meet this need, Australian scientists have developed a new sensing method to analyse cylindrical soil samples (soil cores), known as the Soil Condition ANalysis System (SCANS). By integrating a novel automated soil- core sensing system (CSS) with advanced statistical analytics and modelling, the SCANS provides a level of detail that is difficult to achieve with existing alternatives. SCANS is not only rapid, accurate and inexpensive1, but is likely to be a useful tool for farmers, land managers and policymakers, as the improved assessment of soil functions, structures and carbon stocks will facilitate more informed, sustainable decision-making.
In addition to reducing carbon emissions, policies promoting efficient energy use can encourage innovation in the manufacturing sector. This study evaluated the innovation effect of household energy policies using a comprehensive dataset of 21 European countries. The results show that policies such as financial subsidies and product labels can promote the development of sustainable-energy technologies.
Neonicotinoids are pesticides applied to plants to protect them from insects. The use of neonicotinoids may lead to contamination of aquatic environments through, among other routes, the input of contaminated plant material into waterways. While it is well established that direct exposure to contaminated water endangers aquatic invertebrates, scientists have now published findings indicating that dietary exposure through the consumption of contaminated plant material puts leaf-shredding species at increased risk. The researchers recommend that policymakers registering systemic insecticides (those whose active ingredients are transported throughout the plant tissues) consider dietary exposure, and its potential implications for ecosystem integrity, in addition to other exposure pathways.
A new analysis of waste recycling systems in Portugal highlights where kerbside (edge of pavement) collection systems could be optimised, to decrease their environmental impact. In this case, researchers found that the kerbside system was less favourable economically and environmentally due to more packaging and more fuel consumption per tonne of waste, compared to a system where recyclable materials are deposited by residents in large containers. But the researchers suggest that measures such as re-usable boxes and efficient collection routes could help to mitigate the impact of kerbside collection. While there is an environmental impact from waste collection, processing and disposal, this study only focused on the collection phase.
A recent study has assessed the environmental impact of a group of technology-critical elements (TCEs) — niobium (Nb), tantalum (Ta), gallium (Ga), indium (In), germanium (Ge) and tellurium (Te) — that, to date, have been relatively under-researched. The researchers reviewed published concentrations of these elements in environmental archives and evaluated trends over time in surface waters. Overall, they found no evidence that the rising use of these elements in modern technologies is causing environmental concentrations to increase on a global level. These findings are relevant to future policy discussions regarding the source, usage and presence of less-studied TCEs, particularly in relation to critical raw metals.
An inventory of carbon footprints has been developed for 177 regions across 27 EU Member States. The map is the first to quantify greenhouse gas emissions associated with household consumption across the EU. It reveals significant regional differences based on income, household size and urban versus rural living.
A new study has analysed the environmental impact of 15 products containing nanosilver, highlighting the contribution of this novel material to the items’ overall environmental burden. The findings show that nanosilver impacts, such as fossil fuel depletion and human-health impacts, are relative to content, and can be marginal when considered in the context of the product’s other materials. Based on their results, the researchers recommend considering the overall impacts and benefits of nano-enabled products in evaluation and environmental guidance on their development.
The growing human population and a shift to more resource-intensive habits and behaviours are increasing the demands on global ecosystems. Natural capital is a way to describe Earth’s natural assets, including soil, air, water, and living things, existing as complex ecosystems, which provide a range of services to humans. Depleting and degrading these reserves may irreversibly reduce the availability of benefits to future generations. This In-Depth Report presents an overview of ideas, debates and progress so far in natural capital accounting, in particular in accounting for ecosystems and their services.
Biological control agents are an environmentally-friendly way of controlling pests and diseases on crops and are advocated in the EU’s Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive1. The authors of a new review of the current state of biological control refer to a recent UN report2 which states that it is possible to produce enough food to feed a world population of nine billion with substantially less chemical pesticides — and even without these pesticides if sufficient effort is made to develop biocontrol-based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods. The study suggests that policy measures can speed up the development and use of environmentally-friendly crop protection.
Engineering at the nanoscale brings the promise of radical technological development — clean energy, highly effective medicines and space travel. But technology at this scale also brings safety challenges. Nano-sized particles are not inherently more toxic than larger particles, but the effects are complex and vary based on particle properties as well as chemical toxicity. This Report brings together the latest science on environmental safety considerations specific to manufactured nanoscale materials, and some possible implications for policy and research.
A recent study has analysed risks to European renewable industries from the Chinese supply of critical raw materials. The offshore wind sector was found to be the most vulnerable of the renewable industries to supply risks. EU and industry strategies should be able to deal with these supply risks in the short term, but there are potential long-term risks to solar and wind sectors. The development of alternative technologies less reliant on these raw materials, and methods to recycle these materials is, therefore, a priority.
The available and emerging renewable technologies suitable for urban environments have been assessed in a recent study. Wind and solar technology can now be integrated into building design, and smart grids and metering can more efficiently manage energy production and demand at a local level. Investing in community-level renewable-energy projects can, therefore, help meet the future energy needs of towns and cities.
The factors enabling eco-innovation have been analysed across 19 European countries in a new study. Regulations and environmental subsidies were found to be more important factors in Eastern Europe than in wealthier Western European countries. External research and development (R&D) was also more relevant in Eastern Europe, demonstrating the need for specific technology transfers from other countries and competitors.
Researchers have examined environmental and economic impacts of supermarket food waste in a new study. Bread and meat products made the largest contribution to the environmental footprint of the supermarket assessed. Alternative waste strategies, such as using bread waste as animal feed, have the potential to reduce these impacts.
A study has evaluated three types of media campaign conducted by a large UK supermarket to encourage shoppers to reduce their food waste. These used social media, an e-newsletter and a print/digital magazine, respectively. Although they all appeared to lead to reductions in food waste to some extent, similar behavioural changes were also seen for customers who had not participated in any of the campaigns.
Long-chain perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) are persistent chemicals with proven toxic effects. This study estimated the emissions and concentrations of two such chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), in 11 of Europe's most populated river catchments. Estimated emissions were lowest in the Thames and highest in the Rhine, while the EU environmental quality standard for PFOS was exceeded in all rivers. This study provides a picture of PFAAs contamination in rivers across Europe, and makes recommendations for achieving reductions.
Up to 90% of consumed drugs enter the environment. This may have negative effects on wildlife, especially when the drugs take long periods to break down. This study assessed the breakdown of sulphonamides — a class of antibacterials — in samples from two rivers in Poland. The results showed that sulphamethoxazole, a common veterinary antibiotic, was the most persistent and that various factors inhibit degradation, including low temperatures, heavy metal pollution and low pH.
Over half of a low-energy building’s environmental impact occurred before it was even occupied, a new case study from Italy calculates. The researchers recommend expanding the environmental assessment of buildings from just the operational stage of a building’s life, when it is in use, to include production and transport of materials, construction activities and building maintenance. A wide range of environmental impacts should also be considered, they argue, and not just energy use.
A new method of processing food waste into fertiliser has been outlined in a recent study. The process uses a digester system with microorganisms to break down organic waste into fertiliser. The resultant fertiliser was used in a low-energy greenhouse to produce a range of food crops. The method is a potential way to utilise food waste and reduce the energy consumption of food production as part of a circular economy.
Researchers have assessed how changes in production efficiency and dietary patterns can combine to ensure food supply whilst minimising the global environmental impact of food production. The gain in the production efficiency of agriculture was found to be insufficient to meet future food demand whilst preventing additional environmental burdens, if dietary trends continue to grow based on GDP. Changing consumption patterns, including switching to less resource-demanding diets, would contribute towards ensuring future food security whilst preventing further increases in agriculture’s environmental burden. Reducing terrestrial animal production offers significant advantages, but alternative diets can also present environmental and production trade-offs.
Fertilisers have boosted crop yields but at the same time can have negative effects on the environment. This study investigates fertiliser ‘ecoinnovations’, with reduced environmental impact, in Germany. By gathering the views of experts, producers, traders and farmers, the researchers make recommendations for increasing uptake of environmentally friendly fertilisers, including increasing knowledge and awareness among traders and farmers.
Storing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has the potential to mitigate the impacts of changes in climate. Researchers have now developed a way to inject CO2 into volcanic rock, and tested it in Iceland. Over 95% of the injected CO2 was mineralised (converted into a solid) within two years, instead of taking centuries or millennia as previously anticipated. The technique demonstrates potential for the permanent and safe storage of CO2 within basaltic rocks.
A new study has analysed marine litter on beaches across the UK, indicating that the fishing industry is responsible for large quantities of marine rubbish. The researchers recommend a combination of better enforcement of regulations covering waste disposal, and incentives for fishing vessels to reduce marine litter.
Environmental impacts for a wave energy device, tidal stream and tidal range plants are potentially eight, 20 and 115 times lower respectively than for coal-generated power, averaged over five impact categories. An assessment of the amount of metal used by these technologies, however, shows an impact respectively 11 and 17 times higher than for coal- and gas-based power generators. These are the findings of a recent study, which compared the life-cycle environmental impacts of various wave and tidal energy devices with other forms of energy generation. The researchers conclude that wave and tidal energy plants qualify as ‘green’ technologies according to their definition, but that their impacts on marine ecosystems need further research.
Recycling has significant environmental benefits and is key to a circular economy. The EU has set a goal for Member States to recycle 50% of their municipal waste by 2020 and plans to set a 65% target for 2030, although progress towards this goal is variable. This study assessed a waste separation scheme in Malta, a Member State with traditionally low levels of recycling. Even though mixed waste was collected more frequently and for free, residents contributed to the voluntary recycling scheme, with participation increasing over time. This study provides useful insights for developing voluntary policy approaches.
Electricity consumption fell by 22–27% in low-income households participating in an energy-efficiency programme in Cyprus, France, Malta and Spain, reports a new study. Participants were provided with a range of tools and information to help them curb their energy use, including smart meters and customised reports. The results confirm the value of tailoring information to specific demographic groups.
Azole fungicides are active ingredients in a range of pharmaceutical and personal care products, and are also used in agriculture. This study reviewed the sources, presence and risks of these compounds in the environment, finding evidence of toxic effects on aquatic organisms. The researchers provide directions for future research and warn caution should be exercised until more toxicity data becomes available.
Personal care products (PCPs) are a diverse group of products, including toothpaste, shampoo, make-up and soaps. The number and use of these products has increased over recent decades, generating concern about their impact on the environment. This literature review analysed over 5 000 reports of environmental detection of 95 different chemicals from PCPs. The analysis reveals toxic levels of PCP chemicals in raw and treated wastewater, and in surface water. The researchers recommend treatment methods focusing on antimicrobials, UV filters and fragrance molecules.
Around 50% of gold in used mobile phones is not recovered for future use, a new study finds. The researchers suggest that a global circular economy in mobile phones could be created by improving recycling of precious metals in phones in developing countries, as well as increasing the lifespan of phones and improving collection after use. These changes will reduce pressures on non-renewable resources and close ‘metal flow loops’.
Global demand for copper could increase by up to 341% by 2050, and energy use is likely to increase with it — rising to a possible 2.4% of global energy demand in 2050, according to new research. Policy actions to avoid such drastic changes could include improving copper recycling and using renewable technologies.
Recycling waste from farming and mining could help improve the sustainable use of phosphorus, a recent study suggests. The study traced the stocks and flows of phosphorus over a 50 year period to reveal changing patterns of global phosphorus use. The results can be used to develop the sustainable management of phosphorus — a finite and critical resource — in the future.
A new study has assessed community perceptions towards a controversial wind-farm development in Cornwall, UK, following installation. The results indicate that a range of social, economic and environmental factors influence residents’ perceptions of wind farms. Although negative opinions of the wind farm were found both before and after construction, overall, community attitudes towards them became more favourable after construction, adding to evidence that fear of living near wind farms can reduce over time.
Wild plants closely related to crops, or ‘crop wild relatives’, contain genes that could be useful for developing resilient crop varieties and are, therefore, important for food security. This global study quantified their conservation status and availability for breeding. The researchers found major gaps in gene-bank stocks, with over 70% of crop wild relative species identified as ‘high priority’ for conservation action. The researchers say systematic efforts are needed to protect crop wild relatives for future plant breeding, including both protection in gene banks and local conservation.
The rise in intensive agriculture, and associated land-use change, is a major driver of biodiversity loss. This study evaluated these effects via international food trade, calculating estimates of species loss for 170 crops and 184 countries. The results show that the majority of biodiversity loss is due to growing crops for domestic consumption but that industrialised countries can ‘import’ negative impacts from tropical regions.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) can measure the environmental impact of the different stages of a ship’s life cycle, from design to dismantling. This assessment focused on the impact of recycling the metal parts of a ship and did not consider the crucial impact of the hazardous materials present on board. The results showed that re-use of metals had environmental benefits, but overall these were small compared to the environmental impact of other life cycle stages, such as operation.
Ship recycling at the end of a ship’s useful life aims to make the shipping industry more environmentally sustainable and is a major source of employment in developing countries. However, there are associated health, safety and environmental concerns. This study argues these concerns are due to inappropriate design and explains how ‘design for recycling’ can reduce the costs and risks of ship recycling.
A 2013 study has estimated the costs of upgrading existing ship recycling facilities to more environmentally friendly, and regulatory compliant, standards. The research focuses on alternatives to the ‘beaching’ method of shipbreaking, widely criticised for its environmental impact and safety record.
The ship-recycling industry — which dismantles old and decommissioned ships, enabling the re-use of valuable materials — is a major supplier of steel and an important part of the economy in many countries, such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Turkey. However, mounting evidence of negative impacts undermines the industry’s contribution to sustainable development. This Thematic Issue presents a selection of recent research on the environmental and human impacts of shipbreaking.
Researchers have developed a technique to recover indium, an important raw material with limited supply, from liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. The method could contribute to a resource-efficient, circular economy.
Fish and shellfish farming are facing a new era of expansion in Europe. What are the environmental implications of this, and how can the sector expand sustainably? Watch the video produced by Science for Environment Policy about how aquaculture could develop in greater harmony with environmental goals.
Land and soil are limited natural resources essential to all human life. One of the major environmental challenges facing Europe is an increasing demand for development, which threatens ecosystem services. This Future Brief focuses on how land and soil could be used efficiently to continue to provide these functions and services for generations to come.
Widespread use of antibiotics has led to pollution of waterways, potentially creating resistance among freshwater bacterial communities. A new study looked for antibiotic resistance genes in a river basin in Spain, revealing that wastewater discharges can promote the spread of antibiotic resistance in streams and small rivers.
Priorities for future environmental technology research and development were outlined by a study that surveyed experts in the field in 2010-11. The global environmental problems and potential solutions that new technologies could provide were identified and discussed in questionnaires and workshops. One of the main recommendations of the study was for a greater focus on flexible and cost-effective innovations that could alleviate potential environmental issues in countries with developing and emerging economies.
Up-to date scientific and technological research is vital to allow humans to adapt appropriately to our changing global environment, and current rates of environmental degradation and resource depletion. Effective research policies are essential to maintain or improve the standard of life for future populations – in Europe and globally.
The European anchovy is one of the most important small pelagic fish in the Adriatic Sea, but the size of the stock can fluctuate year on year. This study aimed to investigate the link between anchovy catch and winter circulation patterns in the North Adriatic sea. The findings show that oceanographic conditions during winter determine anchovy abundance. Prediction of these conditions could help to guide sustainable fisheries management in the region.
Producing and consuming food has a significant environmental impact. In the search for a sustainable diet, researchers in Sweden explored a method of food production that does not exceed the level of globally available arable land per capita, and involves raising livestock on pasture or by-products not suitable for humans (the ‘ecological leftovers’ principle). The researchers developed three diets based on this method and evaluated their environmental impact compared with current diets.
The livestock sector is estimated to contribute 14.5% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This study estimated the costs of reducing emissions from ruminant livestock using five different practices. The findings will help policymakers to understand the cost effectiveness of different interventions in the sector, and the contribution that different policies could make to addressing climate change.
A recent survey of Dutch mobile phone owners has identified why some consumers buy refurbished mobile phones while others buy new ones. Some consumers perceived refurbished phones to be inferior, which was a major barrier to their purchase. The study’s authors make a number of recommendations to increase consumer uptake of refurbished mobile phones, including promoting the financial and environmental benefits and offering warranties.
Climate change objectives are now featured in a wide range of policies, including the European Rural Development Programme, which promotes sustainable agricultural interventions. This study describes the net greenhouse gas emissions for these interventions across Europe. The findings could help policymakers to better meet multiple social, economic and environmental objectives, although the authors say a broader perspective may be needed to determine the overall benefit of interventions.
Discarding – returning unwanted catches to the sea – is seen as wasteful, but banning the practice would remove an important food source for many marine organisms. This study modelled the effects of gradually reducing and abruptly banning discards using data from a protected bay in Australia. The researchers recommend gradual reduction of discards in order to maintain ecosystem stability.
Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are likely being exposed to microplastics and associated toxic additives in the Mediterranean Sea, finds new research. The research analysed levels of microplastics and biological and chemical markers of exposure in whales from the Mediterranean Sea and the comparatively pristine Sea of Cortez, off the coast of Mexico. The results suggest that the vulnerable Mediterranean fin whale may be suffering as a consequence of microplastic pollution.
Ecological intensification, using land and resources in ways that minimises negative ecosystem impacts while maintaining agricultural productivity, has been proposed as a way to sustainably increase crop yields, but remains under debate due to a lack of evidence. This six-year study of a large commercial farm assessed how using land for wildlife habitat affected food crops. The study shows that it is possible to remove up to 8% of land from production and maintain (and in some cases increase) yield.
Farming fish together with seaweed and other species could help improve the sustainability of aquaculture and reduce pollution. A new study provides a tool for designing sustainable fish farming systems and calculates their potential to recycle waste. An example of a salmon farming system incorporating seaweed and sea urchins could reduce nitrogen releases to the environment by 45%.
Aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of worldwide food production and is facing a new era of expansion in Europe. What are the environmental implications of this, and can the sector expand sustainably? This Future Brief presents an overview of research into aquaculture’s impacts, and considers how it could develop in balance with environmental goals.
The emissions of two perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) into the Danube River Basin have been estimated in a test of four different hypotheses regarding the factors affecting those emissions. The results were used to simulate water concentrations for comparison with measured data. The researchers found that incorporating wastewater treatment information and wealth distribution alongside population data can improve the accuracy of emissions estimates.
Active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) — responsible for the biological activity of drugs — have been widely found in the environment, yet the precise sources and relative importance of emissions via wastewater are not quite clear. This study assessed emissions from three health institutions in Germany — a hospital, a psychiatric hospital, and a nursing home — and found their contribution was low compared to that from households. However, more research is needed to understand the environmental effects of neurological drugs, emissions of which were in some cases relatively high.
A methodology for assessing ‘chemical footprints’ has been developed by researchers to evaluate human pressures and the impact of chemicals released by the production and consumption of goods. The study integrates a life-cycle approach with different methodologies, such as those developed in the context of environmental risk assessment and sustainability science, with the aim of assessing the extent to which chemicals impact on ecosystems beyond their ability to recover (i.e. surpass planetary boundaries).
Environmental risk assessment is challenging because of the complexity of the physical and ecological systems around us. Natural disasters, the spread of dangerous substances, ecosystem changes leading to food and health security issues, and the emergence of new materials, new events and new knowledge make it essential to update our understanding continually, to be able to identify threats and opportunities for timely action. This Thematic Issue presents some collaborative and integrated paths towards forward-thinking assessment and management of environmental risks.
Increasing population, overconsumption and technological development have depleted many of the world’s natural resources, with profound impacts on the environment. This study applies the concept of criticality, which determines whether a resource may become a limiting factor to future development, to water.
For people in the UK to eat the recommended 280 grams of fish per week, the country would have to rely on aquaculture and increasingly on imports of both wild and farmed fish from poorer countries, a recent study has revealed. This can have social and environmental implications and the researchers urge governments, particularly in developed countries, to consider nutritional advice in a global context, to minimise the impact of fish exports from poorer countries.
An economic analysis of 14 common categories of waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) has highlighted the economic value of bringing e-waste streams into the circular economy. The overall worth is calculated as €2.15 billion to European markets, with a potential rise to €3.67 billion as volumes increase.
Nutrient leaching, the movement of plant nutrients from soil to water, can have negative effects on aquatic ecosystems due to eutrophication, which reduces the oxygen available in water, causing species and habitat loss. Ecological Recycling Agriculture (ERA), which is based on ecological principles and integrates crop production and animal husbandry, may limit this effect. This study investigated the impact of ERA on agricultural fields in Finland, showing that the practice can reduce nitrogen leaching and may help to achieve agricultural nitrogen-reduction targets.
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Land use changes over time have altered relations between soils and water cycles throughout the world. Soils have been lost and degraded, and the closely interlinked processes of soils and water have become an urgent issue for European policymakers. This Thematic Issue aims to provide a review of new research into the links between soil and water issues in Europe, including a message that the soil-water links must be considered at their proper spatial scales.
Recycling of excess heat, via ‘district heating’, has the potential to improve energy efficiency in Europe. This study mapped excess heat and demands for heat in EU27 Member States to identify regions suitable for the large-scale implementation of district heating. The authors identified 63 ‘heat synergy regions’, generally large urban zones, which generated almost half of all excess heat generated in the EU27.
The numbers of fish in the world’s oceans are plummeting. Past studies have shown that populations of larger fish tend to decline more steeply. This study assessed the effects of both body size and speed of life (measured by growth rate) on population declines in the tuna family. Analysis of population trends and life history data showed that speed of life better explained population decline than body size.
Mining metals from landfill sites can be economically viable, a recent project in the US has demonstrated. Approximately 34 352 tonnes of metals, conservatively valued at US$7.42 million (€6.67 million) were recovered from the 8 hectare ashfill site, according to researchers who analysed the project.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are widely used to safeguard marine ecosystems across Europe. This study investigated the effect of a partially protected area (PPA) off the coast of Norway on a population of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). The PPA reduced the number of deaths due to fishing, increased survival and stimulated movement to surrounding areas. The authors say that preventing fishing altogether would increase survival even further and recommend no-take zones in areas where populations are severely reduced.
Restaurants can influence consumer food choices by offering climate-friendly meals on their menus, a recent study concludes. In a trial at Finnish restaurants, customers and staff were receptive to selecting meals based on the carbon footprints of their ingredients. Appearance, taste and healthiness were priority factors in consumers’ choices. The research highlights the importance of planning communication strategies and the need for a carbon footprint food database.
Links between environmental changes and migration are extremely complex. This Thematic Issue presents key pieces of research examining the causes of environmental migration and identifying policy options for Europe in dealing with forced and voluntary relocations. The sources also examine the current state of human rights for environmental migrants and how much evidence currently exists for action at local and regional levels.
Reducing plastic carrier bag consumption in different EU Member States requires different approaches and combinations of measures, according to a new study. The authors studied consumption and littering levels across Europe in relation to national plastic bag consumption reduction policy options, and found that there is not one specific solution for both of these factors, nor a single solution that can be used in all Member States. They suggest a holistic approach and additional research into consumer or stakeholder behaviour is needed.
Protected areas that allow local people to use the resources in a sustainable way are better for biodiversity conservation than excluding people entirely, a new study suggests. In a review of over 160 scientific studies, the researchers found that protected areas which were managed to allow sustainable access yielded greater socioeconomic benefits. Importantly, those with greater socioeconomic benefits were also more likely to report biodiversity benefits.
In the Mediterranean region the demand for natural resources and ecological services is two and half times greater than ecosystems’ capacity to provide them, recent research has found. To meet this demand, countries rely on imports, exposing themselves to price volatility and potential resource shortages. According to the authors, a 10% increase in global prices would particularly impact vulnerable countries such as Jordan, which would see its trade balance worsening by 2.4% of its gross domestic product.
Geodiversity describes the diversity of the non-biological parts of the natural world such as rocks, soils, landforms and the processes which shape them over time. New research on how geodiversity information has been used to examine or inform conservation policy has been explored through eight different case studies. The research shows the variety and utility of geodiversity information to support biodiversity protection, both now and in the future.
Despite tap water being freely available and safe in many countries, bottled water is widely consumed around the world. This has negative effects on the environment, including water wastage and pollution. This study assessed beliefs about purchasing bottled water and tested three strategies to change behaviour, showing that combining persuasive information and social pressure can create the most positive intentions to reduce consumption.
To increase energy efficiency, many countries are encouraging their citizens to make individual energy-saving changes, such as changing the type of light bulbs they use. This study investigated the relationship between understanding of environmental issues and effective energy-saving behaviour and shows that informed citizens are key to successful policy.
Urban agriculture is becoming increasingly popular. A recent assessment of rooftop farming in Barcelona shows differing attitudes towards the practice, and provides important recommendations for the development of agricultural policy for the 21st century, such as including food production as a potential use of rooftops in planning legislation.
A number of policies have been developed to protect the critically endangered European eel (Anguilla anguilla). Italian researchers have developed a model of the long-term population trends of the eel to assess the effectiveness of these measures and prevent further decline of this ecologically and economically important species.
Zero Energy Buildings (ZEBs) are a viable means to reduce global energy demand, a new study suggests. However, in response to the drop in energy costs for the household due to better energy efficiency, people may begin to consume more energy than they otherwise would. These so-called ‘rebound effects’ can undermine emissions reductions, the study says, and it proposes approaches that could lessen these impacts.
Improving the energy efficiency of homes could have positive economy-wide impacts, recent UK research suggests. It would allow householders to spend the money they save on energy on other products and services. Although this additional demand and the associated production in non-energy sectors would partly offset the energy saved in the home, this ‘rebound effect’ does not completely outweigh the household energy savings.
Although low-income households consume less energy than wealthier households, they are still keen to learn how to save energy, for both economic and environmental reasons. This is the conclusion of a recent Swedish study which explored the energy-related behaviour of residents on low incomes. It provides insights which could help inform energy-awareness campaigns targeted at this section of the population.
Energy efficiency is at the centre of EU policy for achieving a fundamental transformation of Europe’s energy systems by 2030. This Thematic Issue reveals the complexity of the issue of energy efficiency, its links with resource efficiency and the wide range of factors influencing it, from technology to social practices.
Water shortages in water stressed regions can be alleviated by building large infrastructures, such as water transfer systems or saltwater desalination plants, which increase the supply of water. However, a new study, which compares the environmental impact of water supply alternatives in a region of Spain, concludes that reducing water use, rather than increasing supplies, is a more sustainable solution.
Flat screen televisions and computer monitors should be designed so they can be quickly dismantled for recycling, a recent study says. The researchers calculated that in order to ensure the recycling process remains economically viable, it must be possible to disassemble small screens in less than 11 minutes. Good design could lower the costs of recycling and enable near-total recovery of precious metals from the waste screens.
A new pomegranate-inspired design is the basis of a longer-lasting lithium-ion battery created by US researchers. They designed a battery with an anode made from ‘silicon pomegranates’, which doubles the amount of energy that can be stored compared to a standard carbon anode.
Nanolithography — a way of making finely detailed patterns or structures, such as those found in advanced computer microchips, uses toxic and corrosive chemicals. Researchers have now shown that these could be replaced with eco-friendly silk proteins and water, eliminating the need to use and dispose of hazardous chemicals, while achieving similar levels of detail to conventional methods.
‘Dye-sensitised solar cells’ (DSSCs) are an alternative to traditional silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells. They have a number of advantages over traditional PV solar cells, including greater flexibility and lower manufacturing cost, but they are less efficient at turning sunlight into electricity. Taking inspiration from nature, new research has doubled their efficiency using pine tree-shaped nanotubes.
Desktop three-dimensional (3D) printers, available for use in offices and homes, can release between 20 and 200 billion ultra-fine particles (UFPs) per minute, finds new research. UFPs may pose a risk to health, and the study’s authors recommend caution when operating 3D printers inside unventilated or unfiltered indoor environments.
A nanoscale 3D printing technique could be useful for nanomanufacturing processes with environmental applications. The authors of a new study have found a way to control their printing process by incorporating a simple pattern into the printing surface. They say their technique could reduce costs for nanoscale printing.
The carbon footprint of food waste should be taken into account alongside the the weight of food wasted, says a new study. The research examined three years of food waste data from six branches of a Swedish supermarket and calculated the waste’s carbon footprint. On the basis of their footprint, key products that could be targeted for waste reduction include beef mince, meatballs and cream, the results suggest.
The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced during the decommissioning phase of nuclear power plants may have been underestimated in previous assessments, new research suggests. The study estimated that the decommissioning process for a German plant resulted in 1 651 265 tonnes of CO2 (or equivalent) emissions, or 0.825 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per tonne of waste. While the researchers acknowledge that impact is highly dependent on the unique characteristics of each decommissioning project, these results raise questions as to whether this phase has been accurately assessed in earlier research.
Emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) tetrafluoromethane (TFM) and hexafluoroethane (HFE) reported by industry accounted for only around half actual levels measured in the atmosphere between 2002 and 2010, new research reveals. The semiconductor and aluminium production industries, the two main sources of these gases, have reported success in their voluntary efforts to control these emissions. However, this does not match ‘top-down’ atmospheric monitoring, the researchers say.
Using vegetable waste to produce bioplastics can provide sustainable alternatives to non-biodegradable plastic, new research has found. The biodegradable plastic developed for this study, produced using parsley and spinach stems, cocoa pod husks and rice hulls, have a range of mechanical properties comparable to conventional plastics which are used for products from carrier bags to kitchenware and computer components.
This article was amended 10.12.14 to give more information about the nature of trifluoroacetic acid.
A more efficient method for sorting plastic electronics waste containing harmful chemicals is proposed by a new study. The method combines two analytical techniques that together can quickly and accurately detect levels of flame retardants in plastics used by the electronics industry.
The lifetime environmental impacts of non-electrical consumer products, such as clothes, could be cut by over 40% if consumers maintained them in a more environmentally friendly manner, new research suggests. The study found the impacts of eco-designed products fell significantly when user guidelines were included in the eco-design.
Littering on coasts could be reduced by providing environmental information to temporary residents, research suggests. The study found that temporary residents were just as likely to litter as permanent resident populations and other visitors, but tended to be the group least aware of local environmental programmes.
Motivation to practise fuel-efficient driving may be more influenced by environmental concerns than by financial benefits, research suggests. In promoting fuel efficiency, this survey of Dutch motorists highlights the power of providing feedback to drivers – both environmental and economic – on their behaviour.
Halving meat and dairy consumption in Europe could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 42% and nitrogen pollution by 40%, new research suggests. The amount of land needed to grow food for each EU citizen would fall from 0.23 to 0.17 hectares and the reduced intake of saturated fats and red meat could have substantial health benefits, the researchers conclude.
To solve the problem of food waste we need to radically rethink how our food is produced and consumed, researchers argue in a recent study. They propose a new framework that considers how to reduce wastage throughout the supply chain. Preventing excess levels of food production and consumption in the first place is its most important step.
Nudges can foster greener public behaviour but they also raise some moral questions, concludes a recent analysis of behaviour-change schemes. How businesses' behaviour is influenced by consumer concerns for the environment is less clear - and may only result in 'greenwash' - the researchers suggest.
One of the greatest challenges facing environmental policymakers is encouraging people to behave more sustainably. A recent study explores how 'nudging' people to make environmentally friendly choices, together with providing information, can be a successful combination for achieving behavioural change.
Pieces of plastic litter outnumber fish larvae in the Austrian Danube River, new research has found. This is worrying, as some fish are likely to mistake the plastic for the prey they would normally feed on. This litter may also contribute to marine pollution; the researchers estimated that at least 4.2 tonnes of plastic debris enter the Black Sea via the Danube every day.
Misreported fishing catches in the Baltic Sea have probably led to incorrect fishing quotas, new research suggests. The study found that total catches between 1996 and 2009 have been underestimated for a significant period, skewing quota calculations.
Green taxes could boost economic growth and reduce the 'cash-in-hand' untaxed shadow economy, according to new research. The study modelled green taxes' effects on Spain's economy and suggests the revenue from these taxes would increase economic activity and employment if it was used to reduce income tax.
Local food systems, such as vegetable box schemes or farmers' markets, can encourage sustainable consumption. However, authorities must take care before becoming too involved in such citizen-led initiatives, because these collectives may be wary of government intervention, a new study suggests.
Increases in global energy requirements could lead to a rise in the energy sector's water footprint of up to 66% in the next 20 years, new research suggests. As part of a sustainable future, any energy mix must enable a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, some renewable sources, such as biofuels and large-scale hydropower, have large water footprints, a factor which must also be considered in energy policies, the researchers say.
The land use associated with food imports to Germany outweighs that of exported food, leaving the country with a 'land debt', new research suggests. However, reducing the amount of animal products in the diet and minimising food waste could enable the country to achieve a positive land balance, the researchers conclude.
A smartphone app has been designed to help shoppers choose more environmentally-friendly protein-rich products, namely meat, vegetarian alternatives, eggs and dairy products. The methods and data used to measure these products' lifecycle environmental impacts are presented in a recent study.
Concrete and asphalt's environmental impact could be reduced by over a third through changes to manufacturing processes and the use of alternative raw materials, according to research. A scenario study based on life cycle analysis has indicated that using alternative types of cement in concrete and producing asphalt at lower temperatures could substantially improve the green credentials of these two common building materials.
A community-level initiative in the UK has successfully used social marketing techniques to encourage participants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. On average, participants reduced their emissions footprint by 2 tonnes every year. Based on the initiative, the authors of this study propose a framework to guide future community engagement.
Life-cycle indicators to monitor selected waste streams' impacts on the environment have been developed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). These are presented in a recent study which describes a method for analysing waste's impacts using these indicators. The study also reveals the need for better statistics and more detailed categorisation of waste streams to effectively inform decision making in waste management.
Researchers have developed a new tool to help policymakers access and use data regarding the environmental impacts of consumption and production. Using the EUREAPA tool, decision makers can analyse data from a range of perspectives and create scenarios to understand the implications of changes in consumption and production.
The use of important ecosystem services, such as carbon storage or hunting, can be estimated through ecosystem accounting methods, a new study demonstrates. The researchers tested models that could help policymakers to understand the capacity of ecosystems to generate ecosystem services, and how these services are used over time.
Different European regions have very different diets and environmental conditions, meaning their water consumption varies widely. Despite this, switching to vegetarian diets in keeping with regional variation would substantially reduce water consumption in all areas, a new study concludes. Where people choose to eat meat, adopting a healthy diet low in oils and sugar will also reduce water consumption, although to a lesser degree.
A measure of ‘chemical footprint’ is being developed by researchers to assess the environmental impacts of the toxic chemicals released by the production and consumption of goods. The methodology, based on life cycle and risk assessment, is also designed to be linked to the resilience of ecosystems to chemical exposure.
Human water consumption has increased the frequency and intensity of periods of abnormally low flow in streams, new research suggests. The frequency of these events increased by 30% globally, largely due to use of water for irrigation, the researchers conclude.