Own the conversation this weekend with The WTF, a top-6 collection of the current and topical environmental news briefs, delivered with a side of humour.

The WTF: The Week This Friday Vol. 34

This is the Week This Friday! 6 quick-and-smart briefs about happenings in the environmental space.

Bringing back the milkman model?

 Source: Pixabay

On Monday, Canada’s delivery service acts upon the traditional milkman model set to launch in Toronto. It will deliver brand name groceries and goods right to your door – this time with reusable packaging. Loop, came to fruition from U.S recycling company TerraCycle joining forces with Loblaws.

The groceries and essentials are most often in single use containers – now will be available in reusable containers such as glass or metal containers and it comes delivered in reusable tote bags.

This is already implemented in Carrefour in France, Walgreens and Kroger in the U.S, and Tesco in U.K. With the objective to reduce household waste and single use plastics. But this isn’t the only time Loblaws has made environmental headlines recently, they just announced they are abolishing toxic chemicals from their receipts.

Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle states “Loop is a platform for reuse where consumer product companies can create reusable versions of their products, and then retailers can make those available to their consumers”. This will start in Toronto with hopes to have national growth and implement this in a variety of grocery stores.

Whale watching from space?

Source: Pixabay

A Vancouver company is leading the change in whale conservation efforts in order to protect North Atlantic right whales by monitoring them from far far away – space.

The “smartWhales” program is led by researchers from Hatfield Consultants in conjunction with Canadian Space Agency – which uses satellite imagery and data to find the presence of the whales and predict their movement.

The ultimate goal is to prevent interactions with ships and fishing gear as it’s among the top threats to these species who are severely endangered.

In January 2019, there were an estimated 366  right whales alive – fewer than 94 of them being male with the ability to breed. In the last three years, over 30 whales have had fatalities between ships and finishing gear entanglements, two-thirds of those incidents occurring in Canadian waters.

Lets hope that being able to track this data from satellite imagery can prevent further fatalities and implement vessels as part of this program in preventing collisions and entanglement, as the species is already struggling to survive.

Spinach Can Send Emails and Warn Us About Climate Change 

Source: Pexels

Scientists have managed to engineer spinach to be capable of sending emails. Yes, you read that right. According to a study published in Nature Materials, through nanotechnology, engineers from MIT have transformed spinach into sensors capable of detecting explosive materials. These plants are then able to wirelessly relay this information back to the scientists. According to the study, when the “carbon nanotubes” inside the spinach roots detect these compounds, they could send a signal to an infrared camera, which then triggers an email alert to scientists who conducted the study.

This experiment is part of a wider field of research that involves engineering electronic components and systems into plants. This technology is known as “plant nanobionics”, the process of giving plants new abilities. “Plants are very good analytical chemists. They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves” explains Professor Michael Strano who led the research. This experiment is a novel demonstration of overcoming the plant/human communication barrier, he contends.

So how will this warn us about climate change?

While the purpose of this experiment was to detect explosives, Strano and other scientists believe it could be used to help warn researchers about pollution and other environmental conditions. The vast amount of data plants absorb from their surroundings, make them ideally situated to monitor ecological changes. In the early phases of plant nanobionic research, Strano used nanoparticles to make plants into sensors for pollutants. By altering how the plants photosynthesized, he was able to have them detect nitric oxide, a pollutant caused by combustion. “Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says.  He goes on to say that plants are extremely environmentally responsible, “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

Next time you’re eating spinach, remember it has more capabilities than giving you vitamins and nutrients.

The Decline: Sharks 

Source: Pexels 

Scientists have known for decades that individual shark species are declining, but a new study drawing on 57 global datasets underscores just how dramatically populations have collapsed. According to a study published in the journal Nature, globally the number of sharks and rays have declined by more than 70 % between 1970 and 2018. And 24 of the 31 species of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, while three species — oceanic whitetip sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks and great hammerhead sharks — are considered critically endangered. “The last 50 years have been pretty devastating for global shark populations,” said Nathan Pacoureau, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada and a co-author of the study.

Interesting Shark Facts from the World Wildlife Fund

  • Sharks have a sixth sense. All sharks have a ‘sixth sense’ that helps them hone in on prey during the final phase of attack.

  • They’ve been around for a long time. Sharks have been around for over 400 million years – long before dinosaurs. Because their skeletons are made of cartilage (like our noses) instead of bones, they don’t leave fossils like other animals – but fossilized shark teeth have been found.

  • There are over 500 species of shark, 143 of these are under threat, listed by IUCN from vulnerable to critically endangered.

When you remove a top predator from the ecosystem, it impacts every part of the marine food web. Think of sharks as the lions and bears of the marine world, they help keep the rest of the ecosystem in balance. Without these predators, the ecosystem would (and potentially will) collapse.

Newly Discovered: World’s Tiniest Reptile

Source: Brifly News

In 2012, a joint team of German and Malagasy researchers went on an expedition in the North rainforests of Madagascar, one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth, in search of discovering new reptile and amphibian species. What they found was the smallest chameleon species, which is likely also the smallest reptile!

This reptile species, known as Brookesia nana or “nano-chameleon” is now a new contender for being the world’s smallest reptile. The Brookesia nana can fit on your fingertip and typically grows no bigger than one inch long. It is a type of chameleon, but it’s quite unique – it cannot change colour and prefers to live on the forest floor rather than in the trees.

Researchers are still trying to determine why it remains so small since most vertebrates grow as they mature. Andolalao Rakotoarison, from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar says, “There are numerous extremely miniaturized vertebrates in Madagascar, including the smallest primates and some of the smallest frogs in the world, which have evolved independently,”

Andolalao’s colleague, Fanomezana Ratsoavina, added, “The “island effect,” that causes species on small islands to get smaller in body size, which has been invoked for other small chameleons, does not make sense in this case, because Brookesia nana lives in the mountains on mainland Madagascar.” What a mystery! Whatever the reason for its size, the discovery of the teeny tiny Brookesia nana is sure to melt hearts.

Biking to Tackle the Climate Crisis

Source: Pixabay

Researchers from the University of Oxford have presented a new study that shows just how important active transport is for combating climate change. By cycling, e-biking, or walking instead of using a motorized vehicle, we could reduce our personal carbon emissions from transport by 25%. Emission targets are unlikely to be met if we don’t start making changes in the ways we travel, and for those who live city-based lifestyles, active transport can significantly lower carbon footprints. The people who currently cycle on a regular basis are already producing up to 84% less carbon emissions from all daily travel than non-cyclists.

Dr. Christian Brand, the lead researcher of the study, said the following: “By following nearly 2,000 urban dwellers over time, we found that those who switch just one trip per day from car driving to cycling reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes over a year, representing a substantial share of average per capita CO2 emissions.”

The key message is not to ditch your car and start biking everywhere, but simply substituting a few trips has the potential to significantly lower emissions. Dr. Brand further explained that active transport is helpful “not just for the climate but also for reducing social inequalities and improving public health and quality of urban life in a post-COVID-19 world.” The next step now is for cities to work on developing high-quality infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

Siobhan Mullally is studying in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) at the University of Waterloo while also minoring in English. As both a budding ecologist and researcher, and aspiring writer, she is interested in exploring the intersections between environment and communication to inspire climate action. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature and getting lost in her favourite novels.

Greta Vaivadaite is a Journalist, Online Editorial and Social Media Coordinator at Alternatives Media. Greta has completed her undergraduate studies at York University in Environmental Management, and completed her Masters of Environment and Sustainability at Western University in 2020. Her professional interests lay in advocating for environmental education, sustainable fashion, and a greener travel industry. 

Teo Guzu is a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability student with a focus on policy and research. Her background is in the field of Sociology and Global Development Studies where she developed an interest in how climate change disproportionately affects different communities. Her interests lie in plastics and waste management, conservation, and clean technology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family/friends and her dog Charlie, reading, writing, and watching docu-series on various topics.