Thursday, July 27, 2017

Trash in America


In 2014, in the United States, we threw out about 258 million tons (U.S. short tons) of household trash or more formally municipal solid waste (MSW). Of that trash, more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, 33 million tons (12.8%) of MSW was burned to produce power and 136 million tons (52.7%) was buried in landfills. Our trash, or MSW, is consists of various items that include packaging, food, yard trimmings, furniture, electronics, tires and appliances that Americans commonly throw away. MSW does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting data on the generation and disposal of waste in the United States for more than 30 years. Municipal solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000. The 4.4 pounds per person per day in 2014 is about the same as in 2013, and is one of the lowest rates since before 1990.
National trend in MSW generation from US EPA
Of the 258 million tons of MSW generated in 2014, containers and packaging made up the largest portion: 29.7%, or over 76 million tons. Non-durable and durable goods each made up about 20% (over 52 million tons) each. Food made up 14.9% (38.4 million tons), yard trimmings made up 13.3% (34.5 million tons) and other wastes made up 1.5% (4 million tons).
Total MSW by material 2014 from US EPA

The percentage of trash we recycle and compost has increased from less than 10 % in 1980 to over 34 % in 2014. Burning trash to produce power increased from less than 2 % of MSW in 1980 to 12.8% in 2014. Landfilling of MSW decreased from 89 % in 1980 less than 53% in 2014. However, that does mean that 134.9 tons of trash were landfilled in 1980 and a slightly higher 136.7 tons of trash were landfilled in 2014. 
US recycling and composting trends from US EPA
Of the 136 million tons of MSW that were landfilled, food was the largest component (over 21 %). Plastics accounted for over 18 %, paper and paperboard made up over 14% and rubber, leather and textiles comprised over 10 %. Other material categories accounted for the rest and all were less than 10% each.

Of the more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, almost half was paper and paperboard. This represented more than 64% of the total paper and paperboard generated that was recycled. Over 21 million tons of yard trimmings were composted (almost a five-fold increase since 1990), and in 2014, 34 % of metal was recycled. Recycling and composting these three materials alone kept over 28% of total MSW out of landfills. We are clearly most successful at recycling paper and paperboard.
2014 Recycling and Composting breakdown by material from US EPA


In 2014 total MSW recycling and composting was over 89 million tons. As you can see above paper and paperboard accounted for almost 50% of all recycling, yard trimmings accounted for over 23% while food accounted for another 2%. Metals comprised about nine percent and glass, plastic and wood made up about 3% each. Other miscellaneous materials made up about 6% of MSW recycling and composting.

If mankind is going to keep living on this earth without the planet becoming one giant landfill, we need to reduce our overall trash generation and increase our recycling, and we need to move beyond recycling, composting, combustion for power and landfilling. Manufacturers are developing mixed material products that can be recycled and countries like Japan are requiring manufacturers to take back products they sell at the end of their useful life. 

To assure we have sufficient resources to not only meet today’s needs, but those of the future, we need to build on the familiar concept of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We need to reduce the materials used and the associated environmental impacts over  products' life cycles. Using materials in their most productive way,  reducing materials, products and packaging.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Availability, Quality and Sustainability of Groundwater

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to information from Virginia Tech, the Rural Household Water Quality program and the National Groundwater Association approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water. While groundwater is ubiquitous in Virginia it is not unlimited. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain.

In addition, there is new information that was not previously available. Using their GRACE and GLDAS satellites, NASA can now measure ground water depletion from space, and the news is not good. Over the ten years (2003-2013) all of Virginia’s groundwater aquifers were determined to be under stress- using groundwater faster than it was being recharged. In other words we are using up our groundwater and unless we manage the use and recharge of groundwater better, some day we will run out.

An example of a problem of groundwater availability is in Marshall, where the Fauquier Water and Sanitation Authority (FCWSA) reported a 40 to 60 foot drop in the water levels over the past four years. Diminished water supply has left the town with inadequate water pressure. FCWSA and Fauquier County have invested more than$100 million in water wells, pipes and equipment yet they failed to identify the groundwater recharge areas for the wells and manage their groundwater. They have arrived at the point of not having enough water for Marshall today, let alone supply water for growth. Fauquier has engaged a detailed study designed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and spearheaded by the USGS and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at a cost of $500,000 to understand available water resources to develop and manage the County’s water supply.

A recent example of a groundwater quality problem came in 2010 when total coliform and E. coli bacteria was found in the groundwater from one of the Raspberry Falls community supply water wells. That well was taken out of service and replaced at a cost of $1 million. In the summer of 2014 two of the four wells in Selma Estates and one of the two wells in Raspberry Falls were taken offline after E. coli was detected in those wells. The three remaining wells were inadequate to meet the needs of the communities. Now Loudoun Water is funding the capital costs of a new water treatment system through its general fund ($10-$12 million). The Loudoun Water general fund will be replenished over time through user rate payments collected from all their customers.

Virginia’s Coastal Plain aquifer is a major example of a groundwater sustainability problem. As reported by DEQ, groundwater levels have declined by as much as 200 feet near West Point and Franklin, Virginia. According to the NASA data, Virginia’s Potomac aquifer is under particular stress. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer begin to go dry and subside. Despite attempts by the DEQ to manage new uses of groundwater Under the Ground Water Management Act of 1992, groundwater levels have continued to fall in the two management areas.

Virginia manages groundwater through regulating withdrawals of groundwater in the Groundwater Management Areas. Currently, there are two Groundwater Management Areas in the state. The groundwater management areas appear in green and yellow on the map. Any person or entity located within a declared groundwater management area must obtain a permit to withdraw 300,000 gallons or more of groundwater in a month. DEQ has not identified the sustainable level of groundwater use in the management areas. As a result the program has been unsuccessful in reducing groundwater withdrawals to sustainable rates.

For these reasons it is now necessary to try managing availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater by the local communities themselves. The people need to understand where their water comes from and how development and use impact water availability, quality and sustainability . I suggest that the comprehensive plans prepared by the counties be used to consider the availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater resources to promote the health and well-being of the 2.45 million Virginia residents who are dependent on groundwater for of their water needs. The availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater needs to be managed and protected on a local level.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sustainable Begins with Water

Water is at the core of a sustainable earth and is critical not only for economic development and healthy ecosystems, but for human survival itself. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs water is at the heart of adaptation to climate change, serving as the crucial link between the climate system, human society and the environment. Water must be managed efficiently and equitably to strengthen the resilience of social, economic and environmental systems under duress of rapid changes.

Water problems are becoming increasingly severe and complex. Interlinkages between water resources management and other environmental, social and economic issues are increasingly becoming more evident as the earth’s population grows and land-use changes. We are seeing the degradation of water quality from both point and non-point sources of pollution and growing impacts from a changing climate. In undisturbed landscapes the land is covered with vegetation that holds the soil on the land and filters rain water and snowmelt through the soil recharging the groundwater table or flowing into streams. An undeveloped watershed provides clean, safe water and groundwater.

As a community grows, so does the amount of surface area covered by parking lots, roads and rooftops. When development disturbs more than 10% of the natural land by covering surfaces with roads, driveways, walkways, patios, and homes the natural hydrology of the land is disturbed, irreparably disturbed. Rainfall cannot soak through these hard surfaces; instead the rain water flows across them picking up velocity and pollutants along the way. The storm water flows into ditches or storm drains, which typically dump the water, pollutants and debris carried in the stormwater into our streams and waterways.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has been collecting data since 2003. The GRACE satellites measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies measured from space into changes of equivalent water height this was a method developed by Matthew Rodell & James S. Famiglietti in 1999. In 2015 scientists completed the analysis of all the data from January 2003 to December 2013.

The scientists found that more than one third of Earth's 37 largest groundwater basins are using up their groundwater faster than it is being replaced. Though the GRACE satellites can be used to see the rate of net water consumption, there is little accurate data about how much water actually remains stored in the earth for future us. So we know a third of the earth is using up their groundwater, we have no idea when the water will run out.

Throughout most of history surface water (rivers and streams) served as the principal freshwater supply for mankind. However, the importance of groundwater has increased in recent decades as mankind’s demand for water has surpassed surface supplies and our ability to access groundwater has increased with technology. Fresh surface water can no longer support the needs of mankind. Accessing groundwater allowed populations to increase, and provide reliable water as surface water has become less reliable and predictable as weather patterns change and regions experience extended droughts. Groundwater is reported to supply almost half of all drinking water worldwide, and is currently the primary source of freshwater for approximately two billion people [Famiglietti, 2015].

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to Virginia Tech there are approximately 1.7 million Virginians who get their water from a private well. In addition, according to the National Groundwater Association there are almost 750,000 Virginians who get their water from public and private community groundwater wells. In total that means that approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in areas of Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain.

According to the GRACE data, Virginia’s aquifers are under stress. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifers begin to go dry and in vulnerable areas begin to subside. Now is the time to identify, understand and manage our water resources.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Largest Iceberg Ever

Last week it was widely reported that a one trillion tonne (metric ton) iceberg – one of the biggest ever recorded - has broken away or “calved” from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The calving occurred sometime between Monday, July 10th and Wednesday July 12th 2017, when a 2,250 square mile section of Larsen C finally broke away. The iceberg’s volume is twice the volume of Lake Erie.

The development of the rift in the ice shelf was monitored over the past year using data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellites, reported by researchers at the MIDAS project team at Swansea University in Whales who study Antarctica. Though the iceberg weighs more than a trillion tonnes (1,000,000,000,000 metric tons), it has had no immediate impact on sea level because it was already floating before it calved away. The calving of this iceberg leaves the Larsen C Ice Shelf 12% smaller in area. Although the remaining ice shelf will continue naturally to regrow, the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula changed forever, and the Swansea researchers say that the new configuration is potentially less stable. There is a risk that Larsen C may eventually disintegrate as did its neighbor, Larsen B, which disintegrated in 2002 following a calving event in 1995.

The first though we all have is global warming, but Scientists say global warming has caused the ice shelves to thin, but they differ on whether the latest event can be blamed on climate change. Dr Martin O'Leary, a Swansea University glaciologist and member of the MIDAS project team, said of the recent calving:

"Although this is a natural event, and we're not aware of any link to human-induced climate change, this puts the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position. This is the furthest back that the ice front has been in recorded history. We're going to be watching very carefully for signs that the rest of the shelf is becoming unstable."

Other scientists point to global warming. So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius (1.78 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times and last year was was the third year in a row reported to be the warmest year on record. According to the International Energy Agency, IEA, policies that are now being pursued by developed nations, are predicted (by the accepted group of climate models) to produce a long-term average temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C (6.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial conditions), with most of the increase occurring during this century.

Even the Paris Climate Accord signed by 196 nations at the United Nations last year on Earth Day only put the nations on a course to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel. The agreement lacks any clear path on how the nations will maintain the 2 °C rise limit let alone the 1.5 °C above pre-industrial temperature limit. The carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are inadequate to meet that goal, and neither China nor India representing about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions have committed to any reductions. Instead those nation merely project when their greenhouse gas emissions will peak.


President Obama entered into the Paris Climate Accord without Senate ratification. The White House claimed that the president has the legal authority to ratify the accord without the two-thirds Senate vote required for treaties. Saying at the time that the pact negotiated by 196 countries was merely an “executive agreement.” President Trump withdrew from the accord in 2017.

The international efforts to take action to stop or limit climate change began at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and continued with the Kyoto Treaty negotiated at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1997 which required that by 2013 the industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels. Developing nations (like China and India) were not required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the United States, which at the time was the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, did not sign the Kyoto Treaty. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty in 2011. In all only 36 nations were party to the Kyoto Treaty.

Nonetheless, world CO2 emissions have continued to increase, blowing through each “tipping point” identified by the scientists. The first “tipping point” where global temperatures could be held within 2°C above pre-industrial levels was reached when world CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel reached 32.6 billion metric tons of CO2 annually around 2012. The “Tipping Point” was called the 450 Scenario (for the CO2 concentration) which limits global warming to 2 degrees by limiting  the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalents. Current concentration is a bit over 400 ppm depending on season but is expected to continue to rise without significant reductions in CO2 emissions.

Now the hoped for scenario is the 4°C Scenario. This senario takes into account all the pledges to limit emissions and improve energy efficiency made for the Paris Climate Accord and requires significant additional cuts in emissions in the period after 2050. The current worst case scenario, is the 6°C Scenario. This scenarios largely an extension of current trends. Primary energy demand and CO2 emissions would grow by about 60% from 2013 to 2050. In the absence of any further efforts to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2, the average global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is projected to reach almost 5.5°C in the long term and almost 4°C by the end of this century. This month Science ran a map showing the estimated economic costs to the United States if the temperature increases 6°C.  You can look at it here. Meanwhile, U.S. carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and World CO2 emissions appear to have stabilized.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Kemper Plant and the Death of Clean Coal


Two weeks ago the newly elected members of the Mississippi Public Service Commission stopped the experiment in the commercial use of a kind of carbons capture and sequestration (CCS) technology called Transport Integrated Gasification (TRIG™) technology at a newly built power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. This TRIG technology was developed by Southern Company (the parent of Mississippi Power) and KBR in conjunction with the Department of Energy (DOE).

Last Thursday the Mississippi Public Service Commission issued a formal order saying the gasification technology should be abandoned because of high costs and technical problems and goes on to instruct the Mississippi Power to negotiate a settlement in 45 days.

After spending $7.5 billion and failing the plant will now be converted to run on natural gas. The plant was initially supposed to cost $1.8 billion , but costs kept ballooning. Southern Company and its shareholders have already absorbed $3.1 billion in losses and will probably have to write off an the additional cost overruns expected to total $3.4 billion, because the Mississippi Public Service Commissioners will not allow those costs into the rate base. However, it is expected the Kemper plant will be fully converted to operate on natural gas and Southern Company still hopes to be allowed to put $800 million in the rate base. The Kemper plant has been supplying gas powered electricity since 2014. 

TRIG technology involved turning coal into synthetic gas before burning it to produce electricity and one unit of the plant has been operating on natural gas. The Kemper plant was designed to capture 65% of total CO2 emissions of the plant 3-3.5 million tons per year of captured CO2 and reducing the CO2 emissions per megawatt for the coal plant to under 800 pounds if the plant had performed as designed. The Kemper plant was designed to be the cleanest coal plant ever built.

The Obama administration partnered with Southern Company to prove the “clean coal” technology and the viability of the technology is important to the Trump administration’s promise to revive the coal industry. The design did not work and the plant is uneconomical with the price of natural gas under $3. It remains to be seen if there is any future in “clean coal” technology.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Accotink Creek Gets a New TMDL

from DEQ presentation
Last Friday, Will Isenberg of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Office of Watershed Programs ad Ecology presented an update on the development of the sediment and chloride Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Accotink Creek, a 51-square-mile watershed located in the center of Fairfax County that drains southeast to Accotink Bay, then Gunston Cove and finally to the Tidal portion of the Potomac River. Accotink Creek watershed includes Bear Branch, Crook Branch, Daniels Run, Hunters Branch and Long Branch tributaries and Lake Accotink, approximately 70 acres in the central portion of the watershed.

My husband spent summers in the early 1960’s playing on Lake Accotink, so it is featured in family lore and hearts. Though we no longer spend time at Lake Accotink or the nearby park, we pay attention to the health of that watershed and have watched from a distance as the health of the watershed declined. Accotink is an impaired watershed. For the last 20 years the DEQ has developed plans, with public input, to restore impaired streams, lakes, and estuaries. These plans are called "Total Maximum Daily Loads," or TMDLs. Following the U.S. EPA's approval of a TMDL, an Implementation Plan is developed to restore the watershed. This is all done under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.

The first attempt at a TMDL for Accotink Creek was to use stormwater runoff as a surrogate for sediment loading in the stream. However, Fairfax County and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), sued EPA on the basis that stormwater runoff is not, itself, a pollutant . In January 2010 a federal court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded its authority in establishing a flow-based total maximum daily load (TMDL) for Accotink Creek. The court decided the case in favor of the plaintiffs, Fairfax County and the VDOT. The ruling was based on the view that while EPA can dictate the pollutants attributed to a TMDL, Congress is the body who defines what a pollutant is.

Now the DEQ has developed a new TMDL this time controlling Sediment and Chlorine to restore the health of Accotink Creek. A public comment period will end on 21 July 2017, after which the final report will be prepared, unofficially forwarded to the EPA for their concurrence, and forwarded to the Virginia State Water Control Board for final approval before official submission to the EPA.

The EPA lists sediment as the most common pollutant in rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Sediment is the loose sand, clay, silt and other soil particles that settle at the bottom rivers and lakes. Sediment entering stormwater degrades the quality of water for drinking, wildlife and the land surrounding streams. This sediment can come from soil erosion or from the decomposition of plants and animals. Wind, water and ice help carry these particles to rivers, lakes and stream. According to the EPA natural erosion produces 30% of the sediment in our streams and lakes, erosion from human use of land accounts for the remaining 70% - the most significant sediment releases come from construction activities, including relatively minor home-building projects such as room additions and swimming pools, landscape projects.

Chloride while present all year round is increasing average annual concentration. The chloride in Accotink Creek spikes in the winter. Severe winter weather requires an effective and affordable means of de-icing roadways- road salt. Though calcium chloride is also used it is much more expensive sodium chloride (road salt), which is composed of 40% sodium ions (Na+) and 60% chloride ions (Cl-). The sodium, chloride and impurities make their way into our environment through the runoff from rain, melting snow and ice, as well as through splash and spray by vehicles and by wind. They find their way onto vegetation and into the soil, groundwater, storm drains, and surface waters causing significant impact to the environment. Virginia’s freeze and thaw winters produce several spikes of chloride.



Chloride is toxic to aquatic life and impacts vegetation and wildlife. There is no natural process by which chlorides are broken down, metabolized, taken up, or removed from the environment. EPA's threshold of 230 mg/L is the concentration of chloride above which the water is unsafe for wildlife. Chloride runoff from highways has been measured over 20,000 mg/L. However, we can’t just eliminate road salt- it is a public safety issue and Fairfax County and VDOT will have to figure out how to balance environmental needs with public safety. The newest methods of salt application using brine sprayed on roads which are better for the environment and more cost effective, but very corrosive to automobiles.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Emerald Ash Borer


This spring when I walked the woods on the back 7 acres of my land it obvious that the mature hardwoods in the pristine woods that I am the steward for has a lot of Emerald Ash Borer damage. The trees in my wood cannot be saved.
from USDA
The Emerald ash borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, is an exotic beetle native of Asia that was discovered in southeastern Michigan near Detroit in the summer of 2002. The adult beetles nibble on ash foliage but cause little damage. However, the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients and ultimately killing the trees. Emerald ash borer probably arrived in the United States on solid wood packing material carried in cargo ships or airplanes originating in its native Asia. It has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America so far.

from USDA


The Emerald Ash Borer was first found in Prince William County in 2010. In the following years trapping was used to track and monitor the Emerald Ash Borer as it spread across the county. At this point trapping is no longer being conducted and many ash trees in the county show symptoms of infestation; epicormic branching (water sprouts), canopy die back, woodpecker damage, and bark splits. To tell if you have Emerald Ash Borer in your trees look for the 1/8th inch diameter D shaped exit hole and larval galleries that are the signs of Emerald Ash Borer infestation. 
from USDA
Pesticides can be applied to individual trees to protect them against Emerald Ash Borer and my be a way to save single ornamental lawn trees. For the pesticides to work the trees must be healthy and have at least 30% of their leaf canopy remaining. Pesticides must continue to be applied on a scheduled basis for protection. Different pesticides are available to homeowners or state certified pesticide applicators. Many ash trees will not be treated with pesticides; some trees may be too unhealthy, too small, or pesticides may be cost-prohibitive or undesired. I could not possibly apply enough pesticides to save the woods and in truth to protect my groundwater I would not consider doing that. It is just difficult to know that almost all ash trees will continue to decline and die.

While the ash trees in my woods are lost. There is hope for the future. Beginning in 2015 the Prince William Public Works Department became cooperators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Protection and Quarantine EAB Biocontrol Program. Biological control (biocontrol) is the reduction of pest populations through the use of natural enemies such as parasites (stingless wasps), predators, pathogens, antagonists (to control plant diseases), or competitors. USDA research in the Emerals Ash Borer native China identified three potential biological control agents that are stingless wasps—Spathius agrili, Tetrastichus planipennisi, and Oobius agrili.
from Prince William County


Following testing, USDA prepared an environmental assessment that outlined the risks and benefits of releasing the stingless wasps. The wasps specifically hunted Emerald Ash Borer to an acceptable degree and were not expected to attack other insect species except for incidental attacks on other wood-boring species. USDA then prepared a “finding of no significant impact,” and with approval from the State of Michigan, USDA released the wasps in July 2007. Since that time, one or more species of the wasps have been released in 19 States: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The three species of wasps were introduced at two sites in Prince William County in 2015 as the first step in a multi-year process. The release sites were Silver Lake in Haymarket and Davis Tract in Manassas. A total of 34,574 wasps were released in Prince William County (about 3% of the national total). Silver Lake is about 3 miles as the bug flies from my woods. Too far until the population of parasite wasps grows and spreads. In truth, the stingless wasps will not eradicate the Emerald Ash Borer. However, they will be used in an integrated pest management plan to help control the pest.