Dear EarthTalk: Is there proof that fracking for oil and natural gas can by itself cause earthquakes? — James Mitchell, Hauppauge, NY
Geologists used to believe that “fracking” — or hydraulic fracturing, the process of drilling down into the earth and injecting water, chemicals and sand at high-pressure to release and capture the gas or oil contained in the rock — couldn’t actually cause earthquakes. But conventional wisdom started to change in 2009 when the ground started shaking across Oklahoma in the wake of that state’s new fracking boom.
Today it is not uncommon for upwards of 1,000 magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes to rock the Sooner State during a given year — and no one doubts that they are a result of fracking and related activities.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), earthquakes in Oklahoma are now hundreds of times more common than just a decade ago. Meanwhile, seven other midwestern and southern states have experienced similar rises in the incidence of earthquakes since fracking commenced in recent years.
“These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk to people living nearby,” says Mark Petersen, a Ph.D. and a national regional coordinator for USGS.
Defenders of fracking insist that it’s not so much the fracking that’s to blame as it is the wastewater disposal activities that come afterwards. “Wastewater disposal wells typically operate for longer durations and inject much more fluid than hydraulic fracturing, making them more likely to induce earthquakes,” reports USGS, adding that less than 2 percent of the earthquakes in Oklahoma can be directly linked to fracking itself. “The remaining earthquakes are induced by wastewater disposal.”
But environmental leaders take little comfort in that distinction, especially given that most of the dangerous wastewater disposal going on across Oklahoma is a result of fracking operations. And in other areas with different geologic composition, fracking itself has been linked to increased seismic activity.
“In Ohio, some of the larger earthquakes are from fracking itself,” report Miami University geologists Michael Brudzinski and Brian Currie, who are trying to pinpoint causation on fracking-related seismicity across the central U.S. “Fracking by larger, older, deeper fault lines has a higher risk of triggering bigger earthquakes, like the 4.0 quake around Youngstown in 2011.” By studying the “fingerprint” of these quakes, Brudzinski and Currie, whose recent findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), hope to help prevent future quakes and minimize the damage from ones they can’t prevent.
Brudzinski and Currie would like to see more research dollars funding earthquake detectors that are sensitive down to a “smaller, earlier threshold” (such as 1.6 magnitude): “If companies can monitor events at smaller levels, they can detect problems earlier before they get big.” Such funding could be money well spent, given that some 3.5 million Americans, primarily in Oklahoma and southern Kansas, live in areas, according to USGS, vulnerable to significant damage from man-made earthquakes.
Contacts: USGS’ Induced Earthquakes: Myths & Misconceptions, earthquake.usgs.gov/research/induced/myths.php; PNAS “Maturity of nearby faults influences seismic hazard from hydraulic fracturing,” www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/01/30/1715284115.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for a new acoustic guitar and I’m wondering what are my options if I care about its impact on the environment? — Angelo Martinez, Scranton, PA
The fact that the so-called “tonewoods” (mahogany, rosewood, spruce, ebony) that guitar makers have relied on for almost two centuries are now harder and harder (and much more expensive) to come by has left guitar makers scrambling to support replanting efforts in far flung locales and looking for sustainable alternatives that still imbue their instruments with pleasing tonal characteristics and eye-catching good looks.
“Our beloved Brazilian rosewood was taken from us more than 25 years ago [and then] Adirondack spruce was logged out,” reports Bob Taylor, founder of Taylor Guitars, a leading manufacturer of top-quality acoustic guitars that has been on the front lines of greener sourcing. “Today we see the signs of our current woods being diminished to a point of unavailability.”
To help counteract this industry-disrupting trend, Taylor launched a project in 2017 in partnership with the non-profit Congo Basin Institute to help local communities in Cameroon develop and plant different varieties of ebony to boost stocks of the now rare wood prized for use in guitar necks.
“Our goal is to leave a lot more than we are taking,” says Taylor.
Cameroon wants to scale up the Ebony Project — lauded as a global model for how public-private partnerships can be leveraged to mitigate climate change — as a significant contributor to its overall deforestation and forest degradation emissions reduction goals.
Of course, Taylor isn’t the only acoustic guitar maker going big into ethically harvested woods. Martin, the premiere American acoustic guitar manufacturer since 1833, is now deep into woods certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), not to mention ebony-alternative fretboards made out of a pressed paper/resin material called Richlite.
Likewise, Oregon-based Bedell makes all of its guitars in the U.S. out of woods certified to be “legally acquired in accordance with domestic and international regulations” regarding trafficking in rare or endangered species and are “ethically sourced” from trees “individually harvested in a manner that leaves the rest of the forest and ecological system as undisturbed as possible.”
And Canada’s Seagull, which hires local talent at its factories and prides itself on its use of reclaimed wood and its support of replanting projects, is yet another pioneer in sustainable acoustic guitar manufacturing.
Another way to avoid depleting wood reserves is by going for a guitar made out of another alternative material. Luna’s Safari Bamboo is a 3/4-size acoustic guitar constructed out of sustainable bamboo and perfect for travelers. McPherson, Emerald, RainSong and KLOS all make high quality guitars out of carbon fiber. Meanwhile, Blackbird uses Ekoa, a bio composite derived from linen fiber and plant resin, instead of wood in its guitars.
Of course, the greening of guitars isn’t limited to acoustics. Big electric guitar manufacturers like Fender, Gibson, PRS, Ibanez, Yamaha and others have also been shifting toward sustainably harvested woods and alternative materials, as well. And eco-conscious rockers will appreciate Finland’s Flaxwood, which makes svelte-looking electric guitars out of a proprietary composite that reinforces injection-molded thermoplastics with flax-based natural fibers.
Contacts: Taylor Guitars, taylorguitars.com; Congo Basin Institute, www.cbi.ucla.edu; Martin, martinguitar.com; Forest Stewardship Council, fsc.org; Bedell, bedellguitars.com; Seagull, seagullguitars.com; McPherson, mcphersonguitars.com; Emerald, emeraldguitars.com; RainSong, rainsong.com; KLOS, www.klosguitars.com; Blackbird, blackbirdguitars.com; Luna, lunaguitars.com; Flaxwood, flaxwood.com.
Dear EarthTalk: I heard that the apparel industry has a huge carbon footprint and environmental impact. What are manufacturers doing to combat this problem? — Bea Wilson, Miami, FL
It is true that making and distributing new clothing has a huge impact on the environment. Cotton production is beset by synthetic chemical inputs including pesticides, fertilizers and dyes, not to mention the setting aside of so many millions of acres of farmland that could be used to feed hungry mouths.
Meanwhile, polyester and other synthetic fabrics may not take up crop land, but they are made out of petroleum and thus contribute to our continuing reliance on fossil fuels.
Another environmental issue with the apparel industry is how much shipping goes on to get raw materials to and finished products out of pollution-spewing factories across China, Indonesia and other far flung locales where labor and real estate are cheap.
So, what can be done? For one, if you like cotton, go organic. And bonus points if it’s grown and processed locally or at least within the U.S., saving greenhouse gas emissions caused by shipping long distance. Meanwhile, if you’re a fan of synthetic fibers–or rely on them for their technical performance attributes, you should look to buy used items or new ones made from recycled materials.
California-based outdoor gear and clothing manufacturer Patagonia has pioneered reusing and recycling of its clothing items through its landmark Common Threads program. Patagonia customers can get their jackets, shirts, hoodies and other favorite items repaired for free by the company. You can bring those damaged items into a Patagonia store or mail them into company headquarters to be repaired, returned and put back in your regular rotation.
And if you’re just plain tired of your Patagonia wear, the company will take it back and give you a credit towards something new. Your old jacket could well end up for sale on Patagonia’s Worn Wear website — cleaned, repaired and available for a third of the price you paid for it new.
Meanwhile, other apparel companies are blazing new trails, too, when it comes to sustainability. Another California company, Scalable Press, for instance, has prioritized sustainability as it ramps up sales of its custom-printed t-shirts and other clothing items. By diverting waste and turning it into fuel, recycling water used during production processes, pushing virtual samples over physical ones so as to produce less waste, and encouraging its customers to choose “direct-to-garment” printing (which doesn’t require using energy-intensive industrial drying machines), Scalable is setting a high bar for other clothing and screen printing businesses to follow.
Yet another way to make apparel last longer while giving it a little panache is by adding a patch from Wyoming-based Noso. Kelli Jones launched the company in 2015 after realizing that there might be a market for the homemade star and heart patches she was using to mend her own ripped or torn outdoor gear. “The average American tosses away 70 pounds of textiles annually,” Jones tells Outside. “If a critical mass of people starts patching their gear instead of trashing it, that has an impact.”
Dear EarthTalk: What are suitable materials for making biodegradable plastic besides corn and sugarcane? Is pineapple or peanut suitable? — Yu Hong Yap, Malaysia
Biodegradable plastic is defined as any form of plastic that can break down into its constituent components in the environment within days, weeks or months without leaving behind potentially toxic residue. The term bioplastic refers to any form of plastic derived from organic or plant-based materials rather than petroleum, regardless of whether it can break down (biodegrade) easily in the environment. Thus, the two terms are not necessarily the same, although many use the terms interchangeably.
The most common iteration of bioplastic, so-called PLA (polylactic acid) plastic, is typically derived from corn or sugarcane–and is biodegradable. Since we know how to grow these food crops so well, using the minimal amount of land for the highest yield, we can create bioplastic pretty efficiently. But given still exploding global human population numbers and more hungry mouths to feed, many wonder if it makes sense to take away land that could be used to grow food to make more plastic, even if it is biodegradable.
To avoid wasting food crops to make plastic, researchers have pioneered new formulations of biodegradable plastic derived from feedstock not suitable for food or feed, such as wood, wheat straw, bagasse, corn cobs, palm fruit bunches, switch grass and waste vegetable oil. In Europe, the Mars candy company is using potato waste in its biodegradable wrappers for Snickers bars. Likewise, there’s no reason why pineapple or peanut couldn’t work as a feedstock — though market conditions usually dictate that such products fetch a higher price as food, especially since they don’t have to be processed as they would if they become bioplastic.
Yet another even more futuristic category of bioplastic feedstock uses algae or even carbon dioxide or methane waste to produce biodegradable plastic. These so-called “third generation” or “nextgen” feedstocks do double duty by both creating biodegradable plastic and removing pollutants that would otherwise contribute to climate change or eutrophication (an excessive buildup of nutrients in waterways that causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen).
While biodegradable plastic is hardly commonplace yet on store shelves, there are actions consumers can take to move things along. Encourage manufacturers to switch to biodegradable plastics and stop buying products made with conventional plastic. Sign the Earth Day Network’s petition to end plastic pollution.
While no one can reasonably argue against replacing conventional plastics with biodegradable ones, researchers from the UK’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory accidentally developed an enzyme that breaks down conventional plastic into its constituent parts. This discovery could revolutionize recycling and be a Godsend for marine and terrestrial ecosystems beset by plastic waste.
“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem,” says the University of Portsmouth’s John McGeehan. “But the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials,’ must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.”
Contacts: Earth Day Network’s “Help End Plastic Pollution” Petition, www.earthday.org/end-plastic-pollution-petition/; Mars, www.mars.com; University of Portsmouth, www.port.ac.uk/school-of-biological-sciences/staff/john-mcgeehan.html.