Week of 05/23/10

Dear EarthTalk: What’s being done to clean up hog farming operations in places like Iowa and North Carolina and others where the industry is quite large? I’ve heard horrific stories about man-made "lagoons" of animal waste spilling into and fouling rivers and groundwater and the like.

—John Schmid, Fremont, California

Hog farming has always been a messy business, but surging demand for pork in recent years has exacerbated an already foul problem: dealing with the continual production of the bodily waste of thousands of animals. Pigs are kept in tight quarters and their waste is channeled into huge open-air lagoon pits and sprayfields. The lagoons can rupture during heavy rains, unleashing a torrent of bacteria- and virus-laden feces and urine into nearby groundwater, lakes and streams. Likewise, sprayfields, where some farmers discard animal waste by spraying it over otherwise unused land, can pollute surrounding waterways and contaminate drinking water. Another side effect is air pollution: The lagoons and sprayfields emit methane (a leading greenhouse gas) and ammonia (a respiratory irritant) into the atmosphere, the foul odors sullying the air quality—and neighbors" quality of life—for miles around.

The problem has been especially bad in North Carolina, where the number of hogs raised has gone up fourfold in the last two decades—hog farmers there now raise and slaughter some 10 million hogs a year. In 1995, a hog waste lagoon overflow at Ocean View Farms in North Carolina sent 20 million gallons of hog waste into the New River, causing massive fish kills and contaminating drinking water in several neighboring communities. And the torrential rains and flooding that accompanied 1999’s Hurricane Floyd wreaked havoc on hog farm waste lagoons and surrounding ecosystems across North Carolina.

On hog farms, pigs are kept in tight quarters and their waste is channeled into huge open-air lagoon pits like the one shown here at a Smithfield Foods operation in Jones County North Carolina on the Trent River. These lagoons can rupture during heavy rains, unleashing a torrent of bacteria- and virus-laden feces and urine into nearby groundwater, lakes and streams.© Rick Dove, www.doveimaging.com

But while hog farming has a deservedly bad reputation, that may all change thanks to farmers, activists, researchers and policymakers who are working hard to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the business and even capitalize on the waste itself. Pioneering research conducted at North Carolina State University has showed that technologies were already available to not only reduce hog waste pollution but to use it to grow crops like duckweed that can be converted into carbon-neutral, fuel-grade ethanol.

Meanwhile, an economic analysis by the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that North Carolina could gain 7,000 jobs and add $10 billion to its economy if the hog industry there were to move to more innovative systems for treating waste. In its report, EDF stresses the importance of incentives and cost-share programs to help make such new systems affordable for the farmers who need them.

Citing this and other research, along with public outcry over waste lagoon overflows, North Carolina lawmakers passed the Swine Farm Environmental Performance Standards Act in 2007. The landmark law makes North Carolina the first state to ban the construction or expansion of waste lagoons and sprayfields on hog farms and helps hog farmers with up to 90 percent of the costs incurred by upgrading to more sustainable waste management systems. The law also funds a swine farm methane capture pilot program that will have some 50 hog farms generating electricity from their animals" emissions by September 2010. Time will tell whether North Carolina’s trailblazing on the issue will influence lawmakers elsewhere.

CONTACTS: "Tiny Super-Plant can Clean Up Hog Farms and Be Used for Ethanol Production," NC State University; EDF.

Dear EarthTalk: Can airplanes be run on cleaner fuels or be electric powered? Are there changes afoot in the airline business to find cleaner fuels?

—Reema Islam, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Given air travel’s huge contribution to our collective carbon footprint—flying accounts for about three percent of carbon emissions worldwide by some estimates—and the fact that basic passenger and cargo jet designs haven’t changed significantly in decades, the world is certainly ready for greener forms of flying.

Governments have been loathe to impose new environmental restrictions on the ailing airline industry, but some airlines and plane makers are taking steps to improve their eco-footprints. The Boeing Dreamliner 787, pictured here and due to debut in late 2010, is 20 percent more fuel efficient than older models due to more efficient engines, aerodynamic improvements and the widespread use of lighter composite materials to reduce weight.© Dave Sizer, courtesy Flickr

But since air travel emissions were not regulated under the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement signed in 1997 that set binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the friendly skies aren’t much greener than they were a few decades ago. And most national governments have been reluctant to impose new environmental restrictions on the already ailing airline industry.

Nonetheless, some airlines and airplane manufacturers are taking steps to improve their eco-footprints. Southwest and Continental have implemented fuel efficiency improvements, waste reduction programs and increased recycling, and are investing in newer, more fuel efficient airplanes. Another airline on the cutting edge of green is Virgin Atlantic, which made news in early 2008 when it became the first major carrier to test the use of biofuels (liquid fuels derived from plant matter) on passenger jet flights. Now Air New Zealand, Continental, Japan Airlines (JAL), JetBlue, and Lufthansa are also testing biofuels.

Even airplane maker Boeing is getting in on the act by developing a carbon-neutral jet fuel made from algae. Boeing’s newest commercial jet, the much vaunted 787 Dreamliner (now in final testing before late 2010 delivery to several airlines), is 20 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessors thanks to more efficient engines, aerodynamic improvements and the widespread use of lighter composite materials to reduce weight. Airbus is also incorporating more lightweight composite materials into its new planes.

On the extreme end of the innovation spectrum are zero-emission airplanes that make use of little or no fuel. The French company, Lisa, is building a prototype small plane, dubbed the Hy-Bird, that uses solar power (via photovoltaic cells on the elongated wingspan) and hydrogen-powered fuel cells to fly with zero emissions—and nearly no engine noise. The company claims the Hy-Bird is the first 100 percent eco-friendly plane, and is readying a round-the-world flight punctuated by 30 event-filled stopovers.

Even more unusual is the proposed fuel-free plane dreamed up by Mississippi-based Hunt Aviation. The company is working on a prototype small plane that harnesses the natural forces of buoyancy (thanks to helium-filled pontoons) for lift-offs and gravity for landings—along with an on-board wind turbine and battery to power everything in between—to achieve flight without any fuel whatsoever.

Don’t look for these futuristic planes on airport runways anytime soon. It will likely be decades before this technology filters its way up to the big leagues. Until then, take a train or bus instead. If you must fly, compensate for your flight’s emissions by buying a "carbon offset" from TerraPass or CarbonFund.org, which will use the money to fund alternative energy and other greenhouse-gas reduction projects.

CONTACTS: Lisa Airplanes; Hunt Aviation; TerraPass; CarbonFund.org.

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