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The Science of ‘growing’ Peat

Claudia Baldwin

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This is an excerpt from “Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the From Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat,” by Edward Struzik Copyright 2021 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

In 1991, the Johnson and Johnson Company introduced a peat-based sanitary pad that promised to be thinner, lighter and more environmentally friendly. More than $40 million was spent over a 15-year period to develop it. They spared no expense promoting it in major daily newspapers like theNew York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Company officials described it as being made from “a honey-colored plant” (sphagnum moss) that is “grown in the cold, clear waters of Canada.” The moss, they said, was once used by Native American women in its raw form as sanitary protection and for diapering babies. It was also harvested during the First World War, when sepsis, a potentially lethal reaction to infection, threatened to exhaust the supply of cotton used for bandages and uniforms. Medical experts tried everything from treating the wounds with chlorine solutions to making bandages out of carbolic acid, formaldehyde, mercury chloride and cotton. They settled on sphagnum, which Irish soldiers used to treat wounds during the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

This wasn’t the first time a company saw profit in peat that might serve the hygienic needs of nonnative women. When the First World War ended, a company based in Portland, Oregon, created a napkin called Sfag-Na-Kins, which was manufactured with paper and sphagnum moss. The venture lasted only a year because of competition from cheaper, cellulose-based products.

The peat that Johnson and Johnson used for their product, sold in 85 countries, was extracted from a bog twice the size of Central Park in the Saint-Fabien-sur-Mer region of Quebec. The company, however, decided to stop producing the napkins in the late 1990s, partly out of concern that the environmental message it was promoting might backfire if women learned that the products they were using resulted in the draining of a wetland.

Restoring peatlands is a promising way of storing terrestrial carbon, regulating climate … and protecting low-lying coastlines from rising sea levels.

Faced with the need to restore the bog once the project ended, Johnson and Johnson looked to Dale Vitt, one of the first peatland ecologists in North America, to restore a peatland extraction site to an ecologically functioning state. A serendipitous moment put them in touch with Line Rochefort, a Canadian scientist who had done graduate work with Vitt before joining the faculty at Laval University in Quebec City. She was ideal because she spoke French and was much closer to the bog site.

Restoring peatlands is a promising way of storing terrestrial carbon, regulating climate, filtering water, mitigating floods and protecting low-lying coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges that are extending their reach inland. It may also be the best way for peat moss companies, already banned from extracting peat in many parts of Europe and the United Kingdom and increasingly in some parts of North America, to stay in business.

The science of “growing” peat is a centuries-old work in progress that continues to be elusive, depending on the criteria used to measure success. There are those like Dutch peatland ecologist Hans Joosten who insist that restoring peatlands to their original functioning state cannot be done, and those like Rochefort who are convinced that success is already at hand and that near perfection may not be far off as scientists strive to better understand how the interactions among water, vegetation, microbial communities and climate promote the growth of moss, the building block in peat production. For Joosten, the solution is to stop extracting peat altogether and rewet peatlands that have been degraded. For Rochefort, its conservation as well as helping the peat industry achieve sustainability.

The idea of growing peat began sometime around 1658, when Martin Schoock, a professor in the Dutch city of Groningen, wrote the first book on peat. In one chapter, Schoock asks: “An material cespitita effossa, progressu temporis restaurari possit?” Roughly translated, this means: “Can this excavated combustible matter, after the course of time, be restored?”

It was an important question. Two-thirds of Central and Northern Europe was once covered in trees. After most of those trees were felled, peat extracted from bogs and fens replaced wood as a primary source of energy. As time went by, many in the Low Countries, Germany and elsewhere in the North Sea region feared that if peat extracted from fens and bogs were to be exhausted someday, there would no longer be a reliable source of energy, nor the revenue that came from the sale of peat. It was akin to concerns that arose during the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, when the shortage of oil and gas sparked fears of economic collapse.

Because the Dutch were so skilled at draining peatlands for energy and agricultural purposes, the country now known as the Netherlands was well on its way to becoming a superpower in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was wealth from peat that gave the Dutch a dominant navy, control of the silk and spice trade, colonies in North America, South America, Africa and Asia, and the affluence to support renowned artists such as Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), Pieter Brueghel (c. 1525-1569), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), and Jacobus Mancadan (c. 1602-1680). No other country as small has been so dominant in so many ways since the Dutch Golden Age ended with a series of disastrous events that followed the Franco-Dutch War in 1672.

For the Netherlands, the extraction of peat was often more valuable than the harvesting of grain. Wheat, oat and barley did not grow well on peatlands that had been drained as had been done progressively since 1050, when people in Delft in South Holland began mining peat in the estuary of the Maas and Rhine rivers. The remaining peat eventually lost its buoyancy, sank and compressed the underlying layers of peat below the water table.

Grain crops literally drowned in those wet conditions. (Cows did not, which is perhaps the reason why cheese and other dairy products became another measure of the country’s considerable wealth.) By some estimates, peatlands were three times more valuable than farmland. So the Dutch continued to do what the residents of Delft taught them when they finished draining the bogs: they canalized the water from the polders and the mires, and they built cities on top of them.

For the Netherlands, the extraction of peat was often more valuable than the harvesting of grain.

This went on for the next three centuries. Municipal officials who attended a general meeting of cities in Holland in 1453 were so concerned about the possibility that the country’s reservoirs of peat might one day disappear that they proposed banning the export of peat altogether. In 1514, 14 cities in Holland informed tax officials that they derived all their income from this one resource.

No one seriously listened, as Hans Joosten, water historian Petra J. E. M. van Dam and others have documented so succinctly in several books and essays describing the demise of the hoogvenen and laagvenen, Dutch words for the raised bogs and low bogs that so dominated the country’s landscape at one time. There was simply no alternative to peat.

By the 17th century, the peat in the bogs and fens around Amsterdam was almost exhausted, forcing miners into wet, sodden outbacks such as Groningen in the lowlands of the northeast, where scholar Martin Schoock penned his book on peat and where artist Jacobus Sibrandi Mancadan put his brush to one of the first paintings of peat being harvested. (German artist Albrecht D?rer is thought to have painted the first in 1495.) Holland in the 17th century was like Alberta in the 1960s, when conventional oil reserves were in decline and the provincial government was offering energy companies generous subsidies to find a way to extract bitumen from the oil sands in peatland country.

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Environment

Episode 327: Meet Carbontech Startup Air Company

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 29:34.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:45)
FEATURES
Turning carbon into value (18:55)

Gregory Constantine, co-founder and CEO of Air Company, talks growth plans for his startup — a leading carbon use company specializing in consumer goods such as vodka and fragrance made from air.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “And So Then,” “4th Ave. Walkup,” “I’m Going for a Coffee” and “Let That Sink In.”

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To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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The Sustainability Scorecard, Reviewed

Claudia Baldwin

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A version of this article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

I was invited to read a new book and interview one of the authors. As someone who has long enjoyed reading books about sustainability, it was very flattering to be sent a copy of a new book, “The Sustainability Scorecard,” by Paul Anastas and Urvashi Bhatnagar, and asked to provide my thoughts in a review.

Many of our Circularity Weekly readers are probably familiar with Paul Anastas. A hero of mine since graduate school, Anastas is a deep thinker, a brilliant chemist and an engaging speaker. I was far less familiar with Urvashi Bhatnagar. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to chat with Bhatnagar over the phone about her book and immediately became a fan. A healthcare executive and population health expert with a keen eye toward sustainability, Bhatnagar brings a different perspective to “The Sustainability Scorecard” that pairs quite well with Anastas.

“The Sustainability Scorecard” provides a simple and straightforward method for identifying where a company currently is on its sustainability journey and a method to track progress. The book proves that sustainability makes economic as well as ecological sense and guides leaders in creating and scaling their own green supply-chain initiative. I’ve read a lot of sustainability books, and this one provides the most practical steps for corporate improvement. According to Goodreads, “Through repeatable, reliable processes that address operating model design and new key performance indicators to scaling, this book is a practical guide that leaders can rely on to make their existing systems more sustainable and profitable.”

What I learned No. 1: Entrenched systems are not so entrenched

To some degree, this takeaway from the book follows quite well on my piece from a couple Fridays ago. We often get the false sense that the status quo is the status quo is the status quo is the status quo (Wait, did I just type that a bunch of times? Whoops, leaving it in because it helps make the point). “Entrenched systems and globe-spanning companies may appear impossible to dislodge,” Bhatnagar and Anastas write, “but consider that none of the top-10 most valuable companies today were on that list in 1990. Many didn’t even exist in 1990. Big changes can happen within only a few decades.” Because of this, we need to overcome the learned behavior that we can’t make a difference because the behemoths in the economy will never change.

What I learned No. 2: The scorecard framework

Bhatnagar and Anastas have provided a straightforward and scalable model for firms to move directionally towards sustainability. The framework focuses on four areas:

Waste prevention
Maximizing efficiency and performance
Renewable inputs
Safe degradation of materials

While these endpoints are largely rooted in environmental sustainability, they also cross over into social wellbeing for workers, fence-line communities and product users — all very important considerations for any sustainability practice.

When I looked at the scorecard, I was struck by how it is simultaneously simple and in-depth. The four high-level goals manage to get to the heart of how to make more sustainable products and processes without overcomplicating things. The authors have developed a data-driven methodology that can be approached whether you are starting your sustainability work (Initiate phase), are down the path but still learning (Develop phase) or are an industry leader that’s been focused on sustainability for quite some time (Maturity phase). The key to this framework, and I think one of the key insights I pulled from the book, is that directionality is important. In other words, set a direction for your sustainability work that aligns with the best science available and start moving. Sure, the pace we are moving is important, but the direction is far more so.

What I learned No. 3: Perfection is unattainable

When I spoke with Bhatnagar about the book, she mentioned this was one of the sticking points in writing and publishing it. There is always a desire within any framework to define the perfect state, to show users how to grab the brass ring. Bhatnager and Anastas argue that sustainability doesn’t have a perfect state. Even if firms can achieve the best score in all areas of the sustainability scorecard (zeros for all categories in this case), there will always be work to do. The work could be remediating the issues the firm has created in the past or pushing upstream and downstream partners to improve their sustainability. In other words, firms should be reaching for perfection, but it should always be getting farther away as the science evolves and shows us what it means to be sustainable as an individual, a company, a nation and a global community.

Overall

When I look at this book and the Sustainability Scorecard as a whole, I am excited for the structure it can bring to corporate sustainability in all sectors of the economy. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the private sector trying to build sustainability programs, I can confidently say that these broadly applicable frameworks are always welcome as inputs to a sustainability strategy.

I’d encourage folks to pick up this book, give it a read and think about how you can apply the Sustainability Scorecard to your own work. If you set directional goals, track data and measure progress, you can ensure you are moving in the right direction. And remember, if you reach for the brass ring and fall, at least you tried.

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Environment

Episode 326: the Heat Index; a Historic Climate Policy Opp

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 44:51.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:30)
FEATURES
A sweltering European summer (21:05)

James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, chats about record-breaking heat waves in the U.K. and Europe are challenging infrastructure and economies, and reshaping the dialogue about climate risk.

Cognizant CSO reflects on climate change and employee well-being (30:20)

Sophia Mendelsohn, chief sustainability officer and global head of ESG at tech services firm Cognizant, addresses the company’s broad ESG strategy and why employee well-being needs to be considered in the context of climate change.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Keeping Stuff Together,” “Not My Problem,” “Snakes,” “Southside.”

STAY CONNECTED

To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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