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NRES 439 Environment and Sustainable Development

Welcome to the blog of NRES 439 Environment and Sustainable Development in Fall 2021! When a student in NRES 439 encounters an article, podcast, film, advertisement, and other artifacts related to sustainability, they may choose to write a post about it, explaining it in the context of the course and tying it to course concepts. 

blog posts

  • How Systems Thinking Is helping Us Create a More Sustainable World

    I chose this article because it stood out to me when discussing systems thinking. It starts by just explaining what systems thinking is and how it works in terms of sustainability and the environment. It then goes into more detail of what it really means and gives examples on what it means to practice systems thinking in sustainability. One example was how to implement these ideas in your local community. I think it gives some really good ways the average person can have some systems thinking in their life. By helping your community understand the economics involved in environmental systems thinking will get them more open to new environmental initiatives. I think this topic relates to class because we had a whole lesson on what systems thinking is and this article helped bring it all around to the real world for me. 

  • Largest Recycling Program at California

    Good news for all sustainability lovers! California will mandate the most extensive recycling program to prevent food from landfills to reduce the state's methane emissions.

    When food scraps such as banana peels and leftover veggies and other organic materials break down, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas more potent and damaging in the short term than carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Organic material such as food and yard waste makes up a fifth of the state's methane emissions and half of everything in California landfills.

    Green bins will be provided to the residents who will allow them to put all the extra wet food waste, and the municipalities will convert them into compost, which can also be used to create biogas. This will help keep the air and the environment clean and will help us to tackle climate change; this also shows that 40% of food is wasted by Americans in the USA, according to the USDA. 

    Few countries like France and states have passed a law to donate excess food and not toss it in the trash. From January 2022, California is also trying to implement a similar program to install grocery stores that can store all the excess food to give to the needy can also be donated to food banks or charities. 

    Residents are also welcome to make their own compost in their backyard; this way, money is saved from going to the municipality and then converting it to compost. Cities that refuse to follow the law will be fined up to $10,000/day.

  • Bevier CafĂ© Going Green Times Three

    I chose this article because it shows good examples of how the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is pursuing circularity. The article discusses what Bevier Cafe is doing to be more sustainable. One of the concepts they have implemented is their aquaponics system. This system works  by having the fish excrete waste into the water and then that water is pumped into the growing beds which helps keep the plant roots wet. Then the roots clean the water to go back to the fish. This is a great example of a circular system. That is not the only thing they have implemented, they have also started a program that prevents throwing away to-go boxes. Now people purchase a reusable container that they clean and take care of,  all you have to do is bring it to the cafe. This is a great way to cut down on waste. I think this concept relates to class because it is sustainable development on our very own campus!

  • Lake Restorations

    I would like to share an example of lake restoration, which happened in one of the biggest cities in India, Bengaluru, which is also known to be the Silicon Valley of India. We do not require heavy investments or fancy engineering methods to restore the water bodies; it gives a sigh of relief to know if we all put an effort together, whatever we have in our capabilities, we could achieve wonders. Local communities in and around the lakes at Bengaluru deal with lake pollution, de-silting, encroachment.

    Teachers and students of KK School in Bengaluru’s Varthur, for example, took it upon themselves to preserve a dying lake in the vicinity of the school. “The lake started deteriorating in 1981. The work to preserve it from further falling prey to urbanization started around 1985, and since then, the efforts are on,” said MA Khan, headmaster of the school. the fish in the lake started dying due to the sewage waste. “Students often asked about the foul smell emanating from the lake. So they started community engagement tried to alert the government and local bodies to be aware of the situation, so the water was tested. It was found out with the presence of heavy metals contamination the bore well and affecting the food chain.

    Initially, they reduced the incoming of sewage with the help of local communities. First, all solid material and chemicals were removed. Second, the sewage treatment plant (STP) removed nutrients and ions from entering the water body. Third, natural algae ponds or ecosystems were created for the lake to undergo a biophysical and chemical process.

    Native plants in and around the lake were protected, the groundwater levels were recharged, there was no water scarcity faced by the local communities dependent on the lake water. Migratory birds got a safe space too.


  • McDonalds Greenwashing

    My friend came to me with a project she did about McDonalds and their sustainability initiatives. I was curious to see what they were really doing, and if these practices were substantive to the sustainable development goals. I found this article from the guardian that strongly criticizes McDonalds for not making a change in one area- beef consumption. The article states that there are estimated 53m metric tons of greenhouse gasses produced from McDonalds in 2020, and that number alone exceeds the emissions numbers of certain entire European nations. McDonalds recent sustainability initiative aimed to cut their emissions by 36% by 2030. However, the article also goes on to say that after their plan was analyzed by climate scientists, the math appears to be questionable. The plan is very vague, and has a confusing timeline. The bottom line, is that the area in which they could cut back their emissions in the largest way is not even in discussion. I think this brings into question the role of big industry in decision making for the McDonalds brand. They are also one of the only fast food brands of their kind to not introduce a plant base burger option. The article clearly states that they believe for major greenwashing to be occurring in their advertisements of sustainability. It is also discussed about the complexity of this issue, being beyond one brands problem. They discuss that there must be systematic change in the food industry in order to make real change. This article made me realize that we cannot accept brands claims for sustainability, and it is important to question the information that comes our way. 

  • Short of sand, beaches might get crushed glass

    With Florida's beaches and associated businesses generating more than a billion dollars every year, their preservation is prioritized but becoming more and more difficult as the sand on these beachfronts face erosion from contact with the water. This creates gaps in sand quantity, and so in order to fill these gaps, glass might prove to be a useful alternative. Processes utilizing machinery can revert glass back into fine particles, basically mimicking the texture and appearance of sand. These fine particles can then be used to replace the eroded sand in beaches in order to maintain the part of South Florida's economy that relies on beach-related revenue. 

    Simultaneously, employing glass waste as a means for creating sand imitating materials will also reduce the amount of waste that would otherwise end up in landfills without any further use. Initially, to replace the sand in eroded beaches, sand from ocean floors would be excavated and transported to the shore, a process referred to as dredging. This project would fulfill the need material replenishment while also limiting the need of taking resources from other places, which undoubtedly serve a great use for aquatic systems. 

    The only limits of such a project would be how little sand it produces in proportion to the demand of replacement sand, which in 2006, 2.6 million tonnes were dredged from ocean floors, costing 45 millions dollars. However, the project of turning glass into sand would only produce 15,600 tonnes every year, a small fraction of what would be needed. There's still potential, of course, and can see many other uses in other areas as well, such as being used in materials related to construction. If it sees further development for expanded use, it'll alleviate stressors placed on aquatic systems from resource monopilization by humans, land fill conflicts, and so forth. 


  • Phytoremediation of fungicides by aquatic macrophytes: Toxicity and removal rate

    Fungicides often see prevalent usage in agriculture for crops that are at risk of developing fungal related diseases that need treatment in order to mitigate crop death and thus maximize crop yield in farms. One example is soybean rust, which refers to two different fungi, affecting soybeans eventually leading to its death after some time. As a staple of commercial crops around the world, finding a way to manage these fungis were imperative, and so fungicides were made as a preventative and a treatment for the fungus. Crop yeild losses could reach up to 80% due to soybean rust, bearing huge economic damages for the farms using soybean crops.

    The usage of these fungicides, however, saw some drawbacks for the environment around the farms, such as the soil, ground water, or other aquatic systems were found to have varying levels of fungicides existing in them, and ecological consequences rose in wildlife and these natural systems in general through several disturbances. This included higher wildlife mortality, plant degradation, less productivity in aquatic systems, and more.

    While the risks of using these fungicides were clear, it was hard for these farms to just stop using them as they relied on them to preserve their crops. This is where the topic of the linked article can help. It goes over phytoremediation, which is where plant species can be employed to clear up some toxic compounds, this including fungicides. Clearing water of toxic and harmful waste can be both expensive and time consuming, but the phytoremediation technique offers a cheaper, sustainable alternative for clearing toxic compounds. The research article itself shows the effectiveness of five plant species in removing two fungicides from water in a labratory test. The results showed varied conclusions, but did prove that some plant species, such as duckweeds, proved useful in phytoremediation. 

    With fungicides seeing wide usage for agriculture, it is necessary to find a way to at least elimiate some risk from these toxic chemicals posing a danger to the surroundign environment, and using plants to clean up water toxicity can definitely prove to be useful, although a lot more research is needed for efficacy and creating other strategies.

  • How Scientists Are Working to Reduce Methane Emissions Among Livestock

    As we've discussed in class, methane emissions are largely from livestock. I found this article really helful to grasp just how much methane is emitted, and the environmental factos that contribute to the emissions. I'm also really impressed with a new technology that is aimed at reducing methane from cow's burps. The new technology is called "Mootral"; "Mootral" is a product that is aimed at reducing the amount of wasted energy that cows release in the form of methane. They discovered that the micorbial effects of garlic, from the allicin in garlic, was able to interact with the enzyme in the cow's stomach that creates methane.

    Although this is a great discovery, scientists have had a difficult time emitting the correct amount of allicin. They have found that too much allicin can have negative effects on the cattle, but too little has almost no impact on methane levels. This technology is so new that farmers are recording an abundance of scientific discoveries. Some dairy farmers have even reported an increase in milk production; they suspect that this is due to the cows having more energy to spend on milk production from saving it on methane emission. 

    I thought this article was a great example of how scientists are working towards climate change, specifically to reduce emissions in agriculture. As a class that has showed a large interest in learning about sustainable agriculture, I thought this article deserved some attention!

  • Mask Recycling at Turner Hall

    learn more about mask recycling at UIUC!

  • No Melting Glaciers but Climate Change is at the Door

    Chennai is a city in India where I spent 14 years of my life has been receiving rainfall continuously for the past 1 month, and every year the amount of rainfall received is increasing. The article says in detail that if rains are persistent, it will affect the migration of birds, and eventually, so many things will be affected because of it, like a chain reaction. Rains affect the breeding timetable of the birds, which might crash their population level. There are no glaciers in and around Chennai to melt or even witness such dramatic conditions, but rainfall has been affecting birds from migration; because of the deluge, their nesting gets involved, and eventually, the chain of reactions gets affected. Some examples are fruits developing early, and insects are left with no food or find it difficult to feed all their young ones.

    There are avian studies from the west suggesting that some bird species are developing longer wingspans but shrinking in their overall size in response to a rise in temperature and the necessity of flying further for food. Birds require lighting and hormones for migration, and because of the continuous rainfall in Chennai, many birds are stuck here. 

    These may not look like serious issues that the world will catch up on or even consider serious problems, but these issues affect everything all together. This reminds me of planetary boundaries and how human activities affect the environment. Climate change is one of the planetary boundaries which has to be addressed. 

    The framework does describe that transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental-scale to planetary-scale systems. I feel that essential measures are taken as immediately as possible to limit the more minor issues and sort them out so that we do not face situations that we may not be able to deal with.