Fans of electric vehicles (EVs) can’t wait for Volkswagen’s prototype I.D. Buzz — an all-electric revamp on the iconic VW bus — to become a production model within the next couple of years. Credit: Marco Verch, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m getting ready to join the electric car revolution now that my old clunker is getting on in age. What’s the latest and greatest? And is now a good time to buy an EV? — Doug Ellis, Sacramento, CA

Hybrid-electric cars have become more and more common on American roads since the Prius launched here in 2001. Now fully electric vehicles (EVs) are finally coming of age, thanks to innovations by Tesla, Nissan, BMW, General Motors and others.

It is not uncommon today to see a zippy little Nissan Leaf or a stately Tesla Model X silently waiting for the light to turn green next to you at an intersection. Believe it or not, some 21 different automakers now have some form of EV for sale in the U.S. And they have big plans — think SUVs — to raise the EV stakes over the next few years, beginning with a raft of new models slated for release in 2019.

Perhaps the biggest new player on the EV scene is Audi. The German company’s new e-tron Quattro SUV can drive for roughly 250 miles between charges and features a styling equivalent to Audi’s luxury gasoline cars. It will be unveiled later in the fall, and American consumers can expect to shell out some $80,000 for a new one. A smaller model, the e-tron Sportback, will ride on the same platform — and get a similar range rating — but will sport a zippier ride and a lower price tag (around $50,000).

On the cuter end of the spectrum, BMW will make an all-electric version of its iconic revamp of the Mini Cooper — the “Mini E” — in 2019. The car will get upwards of 200 miles per charge, and with a price tag around $36,000 it will compete directly against the Tesla 3 for customers looking to spend on the lower end for an EV.

Another big emerging EV player is Volkswagen, which is hoping to clean up its reputation after the big emissions cheating scandal that cost the company $30 billion in fines and settlements. By slashing production costs, VW expects to make and sell some of the lowest cost EVs around, with four new models (two crossovers, a hatchback and a sedan) available in 2019 in the vicinity of $35,000.

Of course, Tesla is poised for a big year, having worked out some production issues on its new Model 3 line and settled its financial differences with the SEC (following separate $20 million penalties to both CEO Elon Musk and Tesla the corporate entity). Customers have had to wait upwards of six months to get a new Model 3 once they sign on the dotted line, but Tesla hopes to eliminate the lag time in 2019 and rocket ahead of its competitors in the electric car space.

And yes, now may be the best time ever to buy an EV, given the profusion of advanced and finally lower cost choices and the fact that there is still a federal tax credit of between $2,500 and $7,500 for doing so (depending on the size of the vehicle in question and its battery). Also, several states offer their own incentives to pile on the reasons to go electric now. That said, these incentives could expire or get canceled depending on the political winds, so get it while you can.

Contacts: Audi e-tron, www.audiusa.com/technology/efficiency/e-tron; Mini E Concept, www.miniusa.com/model/special-editions/electric-concept.html; Volkswagen Electric Concepts, www.vw.com/electric-concepts; Tesla, www.tesla.com; DoE’s Electric Vehicles: Tax Credits & Other Incentives, www.energy.gov/eere/electricvehicles/electric-vehicles-tax-credits-and-other-incentives.


Dutch inventor Boyan Slat hopes that the marine cleanup boom he dreamed up back in 2013 can be deployed soon to take a bite out of the ever increasing amount of plastic debris floating on or near the ocean’s surface. Credit: The Ocean Cleanup.
Dear EarthTalk: What are we doing about getting rid of all the plastic floating in the ocean? — Jake Johnson, Merrimack, NH

Plastic in the ocean is a big problem that first came to widespread public attention in the late 1980s when mariners began sharing reports of what turned out to be a 1.6 million square kilometer garbage patch (that’s about three times the size of France) floating in the middle of the North Pacific about halfway between Hawaii and California.

When this news broke, researchers started looking deeper into the problem, and found that perhaps even more troubling than plastic chunks and pieces floating on the surface that you could see with the naked eye was the fact that even more plastic had broken down into tiny particles that would sink in the water column and get eaten by marine wildlife, in turn getting passed up the food chain, in some cases right onto our own dinner plates.

While reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean is more up to the individual than most environmental challenges — we can just stop buying and using plastic — it may be easier said than done. Plastic is a miraculous material that has made many consumer and industrial products easier to fabricate and afford. The result has been a huge quality of life improvement for billions of us on the planet.

Governmental efforts to ban disposable plastic bags in grocery stores — such as in Kenya, Chile, China, Australia and the UK, as well as in several U.S. cities including Washington D.C., San Francisco, Seattle and Boston — are no doubt a step in the right direction. And while these bans have proven highly successful in keeping plastic litter out of waterways, they represent merely a drop in the bucket of what we could do societally to ditch plastic.

As for cleaning up the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, technology could come to the rescue. Dutch inventor Boyan Slat had a vision as an 18-year-old back in 2013 that a passive drifting system could autonomously collect plastic and other types of marine debris so we could get it out of our oceans, and today his vision has become a reality. Along with a team of 60 engineers, Slat has created a 2,000-foot-long U-shaped floating plastic tube (with a 10-foot curtain dragging underneath) that can float through the water pushed by the wind and currents, entrapping plastic and other fragments along the way.

Periodically, manned boats can catch up with the device and skim the debris for recycling or disposal in landfills back on shore. Slat and crew, incorporated as the non-profit The Ocean Cleanup and funded in large part by Salesforce founder and high-tech billionaire Mark Benioff, believe they can shrink the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by half within five years of deploying their new low-tech plastic scooper.

If Slat’s “passive collector” does as well in open ocean trials as its inventors hope, it could be deployed for real next year. This inexpensive low-tech approach is a model for how we can solve other big environmental problems if we put our minds to it.

Contact: The Ocean Cleanup, www.theoceancleanup.com.


According to the “Hygiene Hypothesis,” less exposure to bacteria and viruses during childhood — thanks to more sterile, less crowded environments as compared to earlier times — could explain the rapid rise in allergic diseases in the late 20th century. Credit: Chiot’s Run, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: A friend recently told me that when her family stopped using hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes all the time, they stopped getting sick so much. Is there any research backing up this theory, or is it just a “new” old wives tale? — Betsy Edger, via e-mail

Your friend may be onto something. The so-called “Hygiene Hypothesis” — first put forth by British epidemiologist David Strachan in a 1989 paper in the medical journal Thorax — suggests that a lower incidence of infection during early childhood (thanks to more sterile, less crowded environments as compared to earlier times) could explain the rapid rise in allergic diseases in the late 20th century. As the theory goes, in the modern world our immune systems no longer have to deal with the vast numbers of potential real pathogens we experienced during the previous stages of our evolution. With so much more time on their hands, our antibodies rise up against other perceived dangers — gluten, peanuts, milk — which in fact are not really threatening. Our immune systems’ over-reaction manifests itself in the form of pesky and occasionally life-threatening allergies.

And the research does seem to bear out the hypothesis. A 2003 Australian study concluded that asthma and allergy rates are higher for those who move from a developing country to a developed country. Meanwhile, a 2007 study by a group of international researchers at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology found that “frequent use of common household cleaning sprays may be an important risk factor for adult asthma.” And a 2011 study by German researchers found that children living on farms — and therefore exposed to a wider range of microbes than their urban and suburban peers — had statistically significant lower asthma rates.

Yet others, like University College London researcher Graham Rook, think there’s more to the story. He attributes rising rates of inflammatory and other human allergic disease not to modern-day hygiene but to lack of exposure to so-called “old friends” — microbes present in hunter-gatherer times when human immune systems were evolving. Rook backs up his “Old Friends Hypothesis” by citing other studies shedding light on the connection between good health and exposure to greater biodiversity in general.

“Lifestyle changes, antibiotics, caesarean births and lack of breast-feeding limit the transmission of maternal microbiota to the next generation,” says Rook, adding that our “unvarying diets” lacking the microbial diversity our bodies evolved with combined with our limited contact with the natural world only aggravate the problem. “Without these microbial inputs in early life our immune systems, endocrine systems and metabolic systems do not develop correctly, and can malfunction.”

The moral of the story? Whether you agree more with Strachan or Rook, don’t be scared to indulge in nature and don’t be a germaphobe. Get your kids off their screens and out into the yard, park, playground or beach where they can mingle with the dirt and get exposed to as many different microbes as possible. They’ll live healthier lives and handle future health threats more easily than those who spend their childhoods over-sanitized indoors. Chances are they’ll be happier adults, too, given the research correlating lack of outdoor time with increased rates of depression. Who would’ve thunk that dirt cures?

Contacts: Migration and Asthma, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ppul.10323; Household Cleaning Sprays & Adult Asthma, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2020829/; Environmental Microorganisms and Childhood Asthma, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1007302; Graham Rook, www.grahamrook.net.


Access Land and other groups want the government to make campground availability data freely available to increase access to public lands. Credit: Roddy Scheer, roddyscheer.com.
Dear EarthTalk: Are any environmental groups working specifically to increase access to nature and the outdoors? — Mary Pelletier, Macon, GA

No one doubts that time spent outdoors in nature is time well-spent, especially in this age of smartphones, tablets and laptops vying for our attention. Research consistently shows links between higher levels of health and well-being when people have access to parks, gardens, greenways and other natural areas.

According to the Children & Nature Network, time spent in nature gives kids a wide range of benefits including reduced nearsightedness, increased Vitamin D levels, reduced risk of obesity, improved relationship skills, and reduced levels of stress, anger and aggression.

And it’s not just kids who benefit. “Access to nature has been related to lower levels of mortality and illness, higher levels of outdoor physical activity, restoration from stress, a greater sense of well-being, and greater social capital,” reports the non-profit American Public Health Association. The group is working to convince public health practitioners and health professionals to step up efforts to get more Americans, young and old, off their screens and outside to experience the physical and emotional benefits of breathing fresh air and enjoying the sights and sounds of the natural world.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club launched its Nearby Nature campaign in 2017 to help build “a more equitable, just and inclusive movement by increasing access to the outdoors.” The program engages youth and communities to explore, enjoy and protect parks, waterways and natural spaces in and around urban areas.

“Communities that have been historically underrepresented in the environmental movement are often the same communities that experience limited access to nature and face the greatest economic, social and personal insecurity today,” reports the Sierra Club. “Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population does not have close-to-home access to nature, with the greatest disparities found in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.”

Another way to get more of us outside is by making it easier to score a last-minute campsite. Alyssa Ravasio, founder of the start-up Hipcamp that links landowners looking for revenue streams with campers, teamed up with activists and outdoor gear makers in 2015 to launch the non-profit Access Land. The group lobbies for opening up real-time campground availability information so more of us can camp on our public lands without reserving six months in advance or winging it and risking that no sites are available after driving for hours into relatively remote areas. Upwards of 50 organizations (Sierra Club, the American Alpine Institute, Outdoor Afro) and companies (REI, Mountainsmith, Huckberry) have signed on in support of Access Land’s push for “open data” on campground openings.

“Open Data is important,” reports Access Land. “It’s the reason we can access weather data on our phones, see bus timetables in Google Maps and search flights from all airlines in one place.” The group wants America’s public parks to be equally as accessible — and earlier this year celebrated when the federal government and the state of California committed to requiring open standards on their contracts with campground reservation vendors moving forward. On the heels of this success, Access Land is now stepping up efforts to convince statewide land management agencies in the nation’s other 49 states to follow suit and make their campground availability freely accessible to the public, as well.

Contacts: Children & Nature Network, childrenandnature.org; American Public Health Association, apha.org; Access Land, accessland.org; Nearby Nature, content.sierraclub.org/ourwildamerica/nearby-nature; Hipcamp, hipcamp.com.

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