Category Archives: Sustainable

Moving towards a circular economy

What we waste has the potential to aid or severely harm us. As a species, we have the tendency to waste material resources at a scale that is unprecedented, especially plastics.

Many countries (mostly richer ones), live in a culture of excess or so called ‘throwaway culture’. The fashion industry as a whole doesn’t seem to even attempt to acknowledge this, probably not unlike the injustice of sweatshop labour in factories that produce their clothing. Similar to transparency in the garment industry, we need transparency on waste too.

But there are of course exceptions and likely many more are growing in response to planetary pressures. One of them is Sea Pigs based in Newcastle who make footwear designed to be recycled. I actually ran into their CEO once on Northumberland Street while giving a public survey on climate change, so thought it worth mentioning them.

Textiles as I learned at the Ending Waste event at Newcastle Helix, have a high carbon footprint, one that is easily ignored by consumers (I have many cloth bags too, just remember to use them for shopping at least 300 times). To really value materials, we need to move to something better – use less and do more with what we have.

A circular economy begins and ends with resource instead of waste, in fact, it doesn’t really end at all. It valorises products derived from natural resources that we otherwise throw away, and which inevitably clog the ecological systems we depend upon for survival. Cities throughout the world are doing more to embrace or at least help along mainly linear modes of material disposal and recycling, shaping them into circular ones. Continue reading Moving towards a circular economy

Good beekeeping practices keep honeybees healthy

Professor Giles Budge & Brett Cherry

There are between 25,000 to 30,000 bee species living today that affect 35% of global agricultural land. Therefore, we need an international understanding of honeybee health, both in terms of the pathogens and environmental factors that affect them, and what beekeepers can do to improve the health and ecological status of bees.

Bees are threatened by a range of factors: from diseases to pesticides. Being an especially sensitive species of insect, it is no surprise that climate change also affects bees. The primary culprits threatening bee survival include habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and pathogens.

Previous research found that local species are more likely to survive than non-local ones in Europe. In South Africa, the location of the colony strongly influenced the prevalence of autumn mites and viruses.

Research on beekeeper education and disease control published in Plos One, identified key risk factors that lead to the death of honeybee colonies. It was the first surveillance programme done on randomly selected participants and used standardised methods to monitor the health of the honeybee colony, pests, diseases and management practices across 17 European countries from 2012-14.

While there is variation in colony losses across EU member states, and between years of the study, the role of beekeepers in protecting honeybee colonies appears indispensable. Continue reading Good beekeeping practices keep honeybees healthy

A species that destroys biodiversity destroys itself

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” Robert Watson, Chair of the IPBES

There is dire need to prevent the planet’s numerous flora and fauna from going extinct, including the many species that humans depend on for survival.

A recent report on the state of biodiversity from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) makes clear that nothing less than transformation must happen for humans continues to live on this planet much longer.

Known long before the advent of science, the fate of the human species interconnects with its neighbouring species on the tree of life.

Species’ future existence affects and in many ways determines our own. As humans, the most dominant species on Earth, we fancy ourselves as makers of our own destiny, but time to conserve our biotic lifeline is running out.

Plants provide the air we breathe and the nutrients we consume for survival. They capture and store the solar energy that our bodies cannot absorb directly. Insects in turn pollinate that plants that we eat. Similarly, the animals of the land and the sea that we use as a food source, if they were to come under threat, would place our own species in quite a precarious position. Continue reading A species that destroys biodiversity destroys itself

Leaving no one behind for clean water and sanitation

How do you ensure that no one is left behind in making clean water and sanitation available to all? The water cycle is not a bad place to start and it can be taken both literally and metaphorically. Water is an integral part of life, and we interact with it often, including the infrastructure that delivers water to the places we live in.

To come to grips with how water exists on this planet no one part of the water cycle can be studied in complete isolation from the other. There are simply too many factors involved that affect water such as climate, pollution, water usage, wastewater treatment, water catchments and so forth.

This graphic illustrates how research in different areas of water are important to the whole picture of the water system which involves human activities like industry and policy as much as ‘natural’ or non-anthropogenic ones. It provides a holistic representation of some of the key research areas at Newcastle University in water, particularly from the School of Engineering.

We think this diagram provides a useful metaphor for how water research is integrated. For example, what is done for climate impacts and adaptation is directly applicable to water resources management, including managing flood risks. Continue reading Leaving no one behind for clean water and sanitation

Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

Humans and animals share a deep relationship going back to early homo sapiens. With the exception of pets, in many cases we eat each other, but since humans have dominated the planet — normally we eat them. This has not been more the case than in livestock farming where animals are raised for food and are depended on for survival, not only for nutrition, but people’s livelihoods.

Many of the farms in the UK produce cattle and sheep for food. Endemic disease in livestock is a major global challenge, and could likely continue in future if something isn’t done to prevent livestock disease from growing and spreading in the first place.

While TB and foot and mouth catch the headlines, endemic diseases like Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) have been a major problem. 11% of BVD cases in Europe have been in the UK and the national cost has been estimated as high as £61m per year.

Whether livestock disease becomes a problem largely depends upon the practices of farmers and their advisers. Not all farming systems are the same and many of them have a history that goes back a long time. This means solving the problem of disease may not be solely down to applying the ‘right’ scientific or technological solution.

Continue reading Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

People want to talk about climate change

What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling… Studs Terkel

This week is Green Great Britain Week! And to help make a difference myself, colleagues and volunteers gave a public survey on what the people of Newcastle think about climate change, in collaboration with the Priestley International Centre for Climate at University of Leeds, University of York and University of Manchester.

According to the IPCC 1.5C special report released last week, carbon emissions must be urgently reduced even more than previously thought or the devastation caused by heating up the planet above the 1.5C target could cause it to veer in the direction of unlivable.

Global surface temperature in 2017 compared to the 1981-2010 average. High latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere were especially warm, though temperatures across most of the planet were warmer than average (red colors). NOAA Climate.gov map, based on data from NOAA NCEI.

Climate change is far from easy to communicate let alone contemplate on a large scale. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998 and the four warmest years on record since 2014. Although the global temperature is rising rapidly, it isn’t uniform across the planet. While climate change impacts are certainly felt by people all over the world, how they experience them may vary. Continue reading People want to talk about climate change

Testing green approaches for urban flooding

“Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! I was caught In the middle of a railroad track, I looked round and I knew there was no turning back”

From the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC

In June 2012 the city of Newcastle endured one of its greatest floods in history, infamously named the ‘Toon Monsoon’. It unleased 50mm of rainfall, the equivalent of one month’s rain falling within the span of two hours, and most of the flooding took place in the first 30 minutes. I remember it well, particularly people canoeing down Chillingham Road in the nearby neighbourhood of Heaton.

I watched most of the carnage ensue from my upper floor flat on the top of Shields Road in Byker. At the time I was safe, many were not. More than 500 homes were flooded in the city and 1200 properties in total were affected. The collective damages caused by the deluge were large and the impact of ‘Thunder Thursday’ was felt throughout the city. Now Newcastle is a demonstrator city for blue-green infrastructure focusing on practical solutions to reducing flood risk. Times have changed.

Flooding is a major problem for many cities, particularly in the wake of climate change. It is generally agreed that rainfall has and will increase as a result of the anthropogenic warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. What is less clear is how we prepare urban areas for flooding caused by intense heavy rainfall, especially if it occurs suddenly without warning. Cities are actually ideal test beds for new sustainable ways to mitigate flooding because they are usually densely populated, with mostly paved surfaces and have many buildings which are vulnerable to flooding.

Continue reading Testing green approaches for urban flooding

Making plastic waste history with cold plasma

Plastic wastes are a global problem. If you’ve been following the series of environmental horror stories in the media this year you know exactly what I mean. It’s bunk.

Even undiscovered species living in the deepest parts of the ocean are contaminated with plastic. Because humans bioaccumulate plastic from the environment, especially animals we eat from the sea like fish, we are sadly far from safe in this rather disturbing cycle.

At the time of writing there is no safe threshold for consuming plastics and research on whether eating plastic in certain quantities has ill health effects is ongoing. Time will tell. But in the meantime here’s an idea that may interest you:

We could prevent the majority if not all (optimistic here) waste plastics from entering the land and sea by using them as a resource.

How? One of the answers may lie in the ever so humble ‘cold plasma’.

Now before you turn your nose up and decide ‘that’s way too gross for me to handle right now’. I’m not talking about blood plasma. I’m referring to the fourth state of matter that we humans call plasma. Most of the matter in the universe is in fact plasma. I will save this epic tale for another time, but I encourage you to read about plasma here.

Ok, to put it simply, physicists define plasma as an ‘ionised gas’. But wait…I thought it was something different? It is, because in plasma electrons break free from their atoms and become highly energised. And once they do they are capable of amazing things like (wait for it) breaking down plastics into things that people use, which goes a step beyond ‘recycling’.

Continue reading Making plastic waste history with cold plasma

The future of transport – faster, integrated and electric

The future of transport was the topic of discussion at a Café Scienitifique in the Urban Sciences Building at Newcastle Helix, part of a series inspired by the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle. Are we fast forwarding into a future of efficient and sustainable transport for all, or are we stuck in a combustion powered dystopia for the foreseeable future with climate change nipping at our heels?

Cities are implementing smart traffic lights, rapid EV charging points, testing autonomous vehicles and flying taxis. Countries are promising to phase out internal combustion engines by 2040 or sooner. In response to this ambitious policy, many of the vehicles on the road could be electric.

Transport by rail will change, becoming faster, more sustainable and (hopefully) more affordable. With 60% of all current travel taking place in urban areas rail is likely best placed for super mass transit systems.

Myriam and Roberto presenting in the ear@Urban Cafe in the Urban Sciences Building, Newcastle Helix.

The remit of the Helix is to make our lives smarter, healthier and sustainable, combining cutting edge university research with business, industry and local communities. It is transforming a former brownfield located in the centre of Newcastle into a thriving hub for commercial enterprise, residential development, urban science and innovation. Transport is very much part of its vision for the future. Continue reading The future of transport – faster, integrated and electric