The Covanta Dublin Waste to Energy plant is now operating at full capacity, but questions remain around the safety and potential public health impact of the plant.
I visited the plant on 15th March 2018 to put these questions to its General Manager, John Daly, and to take a close up look at the technology that is required to incinerate 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste.
Listen below to the piece broadcast on Drivetime on 26th March 2018.
A TCD team is to investigate the health impact of diesel emissions in Ireland (Pic: TCD)
Nitrogen dioxide, or NO2 is an air pollutant generated, for the most part, by diesel engines and can irritate airways and lead to respiratory disease, especially asthma.
In the past, Irish governments have encouraged the purchase of diesel cars through tax incentives in order to help meet the country’s obligation to control carbon dioxide, or CO2, which is the most significant greenhouse gas.
However, it has become clear that nitrogen dioxide, which is released by diesel engines, is a serious hazard to public health so this policy may change.
For many years the US had strict controls on nitrogen emissions from vehicles, and the EU is now looking to follow with its own more stringent nitrogen regime.
This research will involve a team of engineers, hospital consultants and environmental scientists based at TCD, and is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Research Programme 2014 to 2020.
The researchers will investigate the associations between NO2 and health impacts as it pertain to Ireland, with particular emphasis on vulnerable groups including children, the elderly and the socio-economically disadvantaged.
The team will identify a set of characteristics for the locations in Ireland that are at most risk of experiencing high levels of NO2.
“Traffic in urban areas contributes significantly to air pollution and the impact on individuals living and working in those areas is difficult to quantify,” said Margaret O’Mahony, Professor of Civil Engineering, and the project lead.
“The EPA funding will enable the team to investigate the associations between NO2 and its impact on health and wellbeing, which is an important step forward for environmental and health research in Ireland,” Prof O’Mahony added.
The team will also examine the HSE drug prescription database to establish much-needed baseline data linking NO2 levels with the prescription of drugs used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive airways disease.
Other databases, such as the Growing up in Ireland (GUI) and the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), subject to their availability, will be explored to investigate if relationships between prevalence of respiratory symptoms in vulnerable groups and NO2 levels exist.
Finally, the team will identify a set of effective and efficient solutions to mitigate the impact of the transport sector on NO2 levels in Ireland.
Click HERE to listen to report for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1
(Broadcast 5th June, 2017)
The numbers and diversity of Ireland’s butterflies and bees is in steep decline. Pictured here is a Peacock butterfly on Common Knapweed (Credit: Jesmond Harding, Butterfly Conservation Ireland) Butterfly Conservation Ireland,
Butterflies, and bees provide a number of ecological services essential for any landscape – including pollination and – and their numbers and diversity in an area are considered to be excellent indicators of how well insects generally are doing in a landscape.
To see how they are getting on in the Irish landscape I visited Ballyannan woods near Midleton in Cork. This is an area where cultivated fields with neat rows of potato plants lie next to Ballyannan woods, a mixed woodland, containing sycamore, beech and natural oak trees popular with local walkers.
The diversity of the landscape here makes it an ideal location for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to carry out weekly butterfly monitoring, along the same designated route, for seven months per year.
I met Dr Tomas Murray an ecologist with the Data Centre and members of a diverse butterfly monitoring and counting group, which included students, older people and people working with local community groups.
It was an overcast day, and on days like these, it can be more difficult to catch butterflies, but after a little while we were in luck.
I also spoke to Dr Dara Stanley, a lecturer in Plant Ecology in the Botany and Plant Science Dept at NUI Galway has investigated how human activities are impact on bees in particular, but also butterflies and other insects.
One of Dr Stanley’s research projects focused on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are used as seed treatments on crops.
Dr Stanley explained to me that the use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides of all types is killing bees, but also affecting their behaviour and reducing the food that is available to them.
Over the years, many rare species of bumblebee have been migrating westward across Ireland to those areas where hay making, and hay meadows, which are full of flowers, is still common practice.
Changes in agricultural practice too have reduced the places where pollinating insects can live, and reduced the amount of flowers they can eat. The cutting of gardens in suburban landscapes has a similar effect, Dr Stanley said.
Certainly, changes in the landscape over the last half century of so around Midleton and many other parts of Ireland have been dramatic. Much of the change has come about as a result of more intensive use of the land.
The decline of butterflies and bees in Ireland has been dramatic, and the question is what can be done to stop or reverse the decline.
An All Ireland Pollinator Plan, a north-south initiative which began in 2015, set out some specific ways that farmers, gardeners and others can help halt or reverse the decline of our pollinators, butterflies and other insects.
The recommendations for farmers include allowing field margins to grow unmanaged encouraging wild grasses to grow, or to introduce wild flower strips.
For gardeners the message is don’t cut the grass too regularly, every six weeks is enough, and allow one small sunny spot to grow unimpeded.
For now, the decline in our biodiversity is reversible, scientists believe, but if ignore the red flags that nature is raising, we’re likely to pay a heavy price for our inaction.
The native Irish curlew is down to about 120 breeding pairs. Picture [Birdwatch Ireland]
The haunting cry of the curlew, the wading bird with the long-curved bill which has been written about in song and verse and was once common across the Irish countryside.
Sadly, there are just 120 breeding pairs of curlew left in Ireland, a bird that has been written about in song and verse and was once so common across the Irish countryside. Thousands of curlew flock to our shores in winter to escape harsh scandinavian winters, native Irish curlew, are now on the verge of extinction.
I went in search of the curlew recently, and began by meeting Alan Lauder, an independent wildlife conservation consultant, and Chair of the Curlew Task Force, set up by the government last November, in a desperate attempt to prevent the disappearance of our native Curlews.
I met Alan in Broad Lough, an estuary of the Varty river, near Wicklow town. It’s one of the many places around the Irish coastline where thousands of foreign-born curlews come to feed and take advantage of the mid Irish climate when they are not breeding. Many people in the conservation community had long suspected that all was not right with the curlew, but until recently nothing was done, Alan told me.
In November of last year, a meeting took place in Mullingar where experts and interested bodies gathered to discuss the plight of the native Irish curlew. The meeting decided that urgent action was required to save the bird, Alan told me.
The following day, still having not seen or heard a curlew, I travelled north in hope, to the village of Carrickroe, Co Monaghan, to meet Anita Donaghy and Joe Shannon of Birdwatch Ireland. Anita who is a project field officer for Birdwatch, gave me the background to the Curlew’s gradual, sad decline.
Joe, who is the local field officer for Birdwatch, travels around the north Monaghan countryside listening for the alarm call of the adult curlew, which indicates that curlew chicks are in the area.
He reassured me that earlier this morning he had found a breeding pair, with chick or chicks, in a newly cut field, in Drumlin country, a couple of miles north of Carrickroe village.
We had finally found a pair of native Irish breeding curlews, with one adult, probably the male, circling constantly, protecting at least one chick on the ground.
The curlew chicks are vulnerable to predators such as the fox, as they are exposed out in the centre of a cut field. The eggs are laid on the ground for one month, and then it takes a further five weeks for the chicks to gain the ability to fly, or fledge. In days gone by, sheer numbers of curlew meant the population remained stable, despite the vulnerability in early life.
Today, however, Birdwatch Ireland estimate that – just for the native curlew population to remain stable – requires each breeding pair to produce one chick, but surveys indicate curlews are only producing one chick for every five pairs.
The suspicion is that curlews are continuing to decline at perhaps a rate of 10 per cent per year, so unless something big is done, the cry of the native curlew will be lost to Ireland forever in a few short years.
The odds appear to be against the survival of the native curlew, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service is not giving up and has introduced measures to reduce the threat from predators,
If the curlew is to survive it will also require farmers to co-operate with conservation efforts in the areas where the curlew remains, and for the public to row in behind with active support through donations or volunteering their help.
The Dublin ‘waste-to-energy’/incinerator plant – as it will look when completed – that will be taking household waste from waste operators in the Dublin region from September 2017LISTEN
This discussion about the science and technology underpinning the plant was broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke on (08/08/16)
Dubliners and visitors to the city in recent months may have noticed a huge addition being made to the skyline with a large structure under construction next to the two iconic chimney stacks at the Poolbeg ESB Station at Ringsend.
This is Dublin’s first ‘waste to energy’ plant, which its opponents, and there are many, would prefer to call an incinerator. According to its operators, Covanta, it will be capable of handling 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste, the vast majority of which will come from the city and the three Dublin county council areas
The plant will begin operating here in September 2017. Covanta state that it will convert waste from the city’s black bins – most of which would otherwise end up in landfill – into electricity for the grid and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
I went along to the plant last week (4/08/16) to see how the construction phase is progressing, and to have a look at some of the engineering and science that will underpin the plant’s operation.
The Dublin waste to energy plant, or incinerator, is a highly contentious project. The story dates back to the late 1990s when the plan for an ‘incinerator’ or ‘waste to energy plant – the name depends on your view on it – was first mooted.
At that stage it had become obvious that Ireland needed to be able to tackle its own waste, rather than simply putting it into landfill, or exporting it.
In 2005 Dublin City Council awarded the contract for the plant to a Danish company called Elsam. Elsam was subsequently bought out by DONG energy generation, another Danish company. In 2007 the City Council sent a letter agreeing to engage DONG and Covanta Energy, a US company, to design build operate a Dublin waste to energy plant as a joint venture.
The EPA gave the plant a licence in 2008 and after the Commission for Energy Regulation gave authorizations to allow the plant to generate and supply energy (via electricity) in September 2009 there was a green light to start building.
It didn’t happen, and construction was suspended because the companies were unable to obtain a foreshore license to allow a development to take place on the coastline. The Minister for the Environment at the time, John Gormley, was opposed to granting the license and represented the local Dublin 4 area.
Finally, the license was granted, and Covanta re-commenced construction in 2014. There is significant progress now at the site, with the main structures in place, and it will began to accept waste from the local area in September 2017.
Covanta, is US based, but has built many ‘waste to energy’ plants on this side of the Atlantic and is looking to expand further into Europe. The firm has about 30 years of experience operating 45 ‘waste to energy’ facilities around the world.
Covanta like to think of themselves as being in the recycling business because they recycle about 500,000 of metals from the residual bottom ash left behind after municipal waste is incinerated or burned.
The majority of Covanta plants are based in the US and the company claim that there facilities there operator up to 90% better than government standards require.
In Dublin, they have an almost exclusively Irish management team, and have been able to easily hire people with the required expertise based here, or to lure back Irish people that have worked on waste to energy plants overseas.
The Poolbeg site for the plant is currently a hive of activity, with construction workers in yellow safety jackets, and helmets everywhere to be seen, swarming over the site. There is a sense of purpose, organisation and urgency as the company are working to a tight deadline and they are determined to began accepting waste in September of next year from local waste operators as they are required to do.
There are all manner of specialist construction workers at the site, as the piece of this gigantic puzzle are put into place. It is like watching a large football stadium, or a huge cruise liner being built, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Most informed observers agree that Dublin, and Ireland, has a major problem with its waste, most of which is being exported.
There is very little capacity to deal with the large amount of waste being produced in the Dublin region, and Ireland as a whole, as there are just 5 landfills operational here that accept waste, and there is little or no likelihood of new landfills being set up as they are a health risk and no-one wants them.
This has been the situation for many years now, and what Ireland has been doing is exporting its waste, both its hazardous wastes, and the ‘ordinary’ black bin household waste overseas by ship, where plants in other countries burn the waste and recover energy, and dispose of the unusable or dangerous remnants.
The EU wants member states, and regions to deal with their waste in their own area, and this is also a key part of our national and regional waste policies here. That means that Dublin must deal with its own waste in Dublin, rather than the situation where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste are sent to towns like Drogheda and Arklow where they are ‘bailed’ and exported by ship. This is wrong in principle and storing waste like this represent a fire and health risk too.
We currently export about 560,000 tonnes of waste from Ireland each year, and the new Covanta plant has a capacity for about 600,000 tonnes.
Recycling does not appear to be solution to our waste problems, as even if we hit the predicted recycling rate here of 45-50% by 2020 there will still be a substantial amount of waste that has to be dealt with one way or another.
The waste that we produced can, with this plant, be put to good use to produce electricity and to reduce the need to important fossil fuels, such as gas from Russia and oil from the middle east, which are burned to produce electricity.
We need it. If we don’t, then in the absence of new landfill sites, the EU could decide that Ireland is no longer permitted to export its waste on a massive scale in contradiction of EU policies, and our own national policies. The EU have been very patient with us on this issue, going back almost two decades now.
The plant is huge. Is located at the end of South Bank Road, which is off the roundabout at Ringsend as you head south onto the coast road past Sandymount for those that know Dublin. It is next to the Poolbeg Power Plant, and beside the Irish sea, the river liffey, a sewage treatment plant, and a nature reserve.
The shape of it is very distinctive, it is very sleek and modern, and reminded me of a streamlined version, without the lifeboats and all the extras, of the kind of large cruise liner that we have grown used to seeing in Dublin Port these days.
The footprint of the plant covers about 3 football pitches, and at 52 metres at its highest point, it almost identical in height to the nearby Aviva Stadium, which is 4 metres shorter.
There will be two chimney stacks, which are not yet in place. These will be 100 metres tall, and from which will emerge, the company state, mostly water vapour at the end of the waste-to-energy process. That can be compared to the existing Poolbeg stacks, which stand at 207 metres, more than twice as tall.
The design is a kind of shell-like wrap around design, and the Covanta manager said that about 100 million euro was spent on design, to make the plant better fit in with its surroundings. In my opinion they have done a pretty good job in that, as it doesn’t look like a typical dirty power plant or industrial factory site.
In terms of the materials, there will be an extraordinary amount put into the construction such as 6,000 tons of reinforcing steel, enough concrete to fill about 6,500 concrete trucks and enough vertical supporting piles to run – if all the piles were laid out on the ground – the 64km from Poolbeg to Kildare town.
Waste to energy
When the plant is up and running, it will operate 24-7, although it is not permitted to take waste on a 24 hours basis.
The waste trucks will arrive from around Dublin – the busy time is often the mornings at these plants I’m’ told – they will be weighed and checked in before they go to a tipping hall when they unload their waste in a designated ‘bay’.
The waste will be unloaded out onto the floor and then put into a huge storage pit and thoroughly mixed before being lifted with a big mechanical grabber and put into what are called ‘hoppers’, and from the hoppers the waste travels to the combustion area where it is burned.
In the combustion chamber the waste will be burned at about 2,000F and the combustion a single load of waste from a hopper takes one or two hours. As waste is burned the heat will convert water in the steel tube lined walls that rise through ‘boiler tubes’ where it is superheated.
The steam will turns a turbine driven generator to produce electricity. The electricity produced by the turbine generator is will be exported to the grid for use by homes and business in the immediate Dublin 4, south city area.
Steam from this electricity generating process will be condensed back into water and returned to the boiler tubes, giving a efficient ‘closed loop’ system.
After this process, the volume of waste, Covanta tells me, will be reduced by 90%, with mainly ash and metal remaining. The ash can be landfilled or re-used. The metal such as iron and steel are recovered for re-use.A separate process recovers other metals like aluminium and copper.
The plant has pollution control equipment to ensure, the company states, that emissions are below limits to protect human health.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can come onto the site whenever they wish, and they can access Covanta’s emission monitoring computers.
The goal, Covanta say is to have real time information on emissions available to whomever is interested on the company website when the plant is running.
In terms of air pollution, acid gases will be neutralised using lime and a scrubbing, or cleaning, process, and carbon will be injected into the gaseous mixture for better control of heavy metal emissions.
Small particulates – which can cause human health problems, particularly breathing difficulties – are removed as emissions pass through a ‘bag house’. This uses thousands of fabric filter bags to catch and hold particulates.
All gases pass through the bags before leaving the stack. The control room monitors emissions through a real time emissions monitoring system and controls steam flow and other automated processes in the plant.
In Dublin, Covanta are using the nearby Liffey water to act as a coolant in the plant, and they are capturing rainwater and surface water for the same purpose.
The plant will produce 60 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to heat 80,000 homes, and to provide district (local) heating for 50,000 homes.
It makes use of ‘grey water’ from the nearby sewage treatment plant – which would otherwise require energy to be further treated – to cool the process, which is important, as temperature regulation is central to the safe and efficient operation of the plant.
Most importantly, it has the capacity to take up to 1,800 tonnes of black bin waste per day, and up to 600,000 tonnes per year.
This will greatly benefit our environment, as some of this waste may have been going to landfill, which has health and safety risks attached. It will help us to comply with the EU requirement that we deal with our own waste, and it will mean that waste is dealt with close to where it is produced in Dublin and not stored around the city, or in port towns where it can be a fire or health risk. This was caused by waste storage and it was a dangerous fire.
It should also be remembered that in many places in Europe plants like this are welcomed by ‘green’ political parties as they help move us away from landfill, and promote the idea that waste should be treated as a recoverable resource.
A note of caution was sounded when it was reported last month by The Irish Times that a Covanta run plant in Canada did not meet emissions targets on dioxins and furans as set out by the Canadian Ministry of Environment.
I asked Covanta, based on that story, how could they reassure people in Dublin that the plant there was safe and would meet emissions targets.
Covanta responded that they had measures in place in the Canadian plant to shut it down as soon as a problem arose on one of two emissions stacks. This ensured that there was no risk to the environment or health of local residents, and that this was, Covanta told me, confirmed and supported by the Canadian authorities.
Furthermore, Covanta said all emissions from the Dublin plant will be independently monitored and verified by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Statement in full (for those that are interested) below from Covanta in response to my question about the issue that arose at Canadian plant.
A stack test in May 2016 at the Canadian plant indicated that the limit for dioxins and furans were exceeded on one line. The emissions exceedance for this unit was not representative of normal operations and previous stack tests and engineering runs have demonstrated compliance. Unit 2 continues to operate without issue with dioxin emissions at only 20% of the permitted levels.
While the emissions for unit 1 exceeded the limit at the stack, ambient air monitoring results of dioxins and furans upwind and downwind of the Canadian plant were well below the air quality standards set by the local environmental regulations. Soil sampling was also done and the testing found no elevated levels of dioxin/furans. The testing regime that Covanta had in place in Canada enabled the shut-down of Unit 1 as soon as the problem arose and thus ensured there was no risk at all to either the environment or the health of local residents which was confirmed by the relevant authorities.
The Dublin plant is technically different from the Canadian plant in many ways and the Poolbeg waste-to-energy process provider has successfully delivered 29 new plants across Europe since 2000 – 10 of these in the last 5 years and without any environmental incident. In addition Dublin Waste to Energy has invested heavily in experienced management and staff for the Poolbeg plant which will ensure smooth commissioning, start-up and operations.
The emissions limit values permitted for the Dublin plant have been set out by the EPA in accordance with best practice and EU legislation. In addition, the frequency and testing regime has been set out by the EPA and all emissions (in addition to be monitored by DWtE) will be independently monitored and verified by the EPA. As an indicator of Covanta’s diligence and commitment to the monitoring of stack emissions to ensure continuous compliance to the EU requirements, the plant has a full CEMS (Continuous Emission Monitoring System) as a stand-by to the two CEMS systems which monitor the emissions from the two lines.
The view of the Martian surface from the Viking 1 lander, which landed on Mars on 20th July 1976 (Credit: NASA)
The colour images of the Martian surface sent back from the Viking 1 probe which landed on Mars on 20th July 1976 made world headlines.
But, did one of the three experiments onboard Viking 1 set up to test for life find evidence of life in the martian soil? Many scientists believed this 40 years ago, and many more reputable scientists believe it today.
A new gene has been found which could provide a new therapy against cancer, by cutting off its oxygen supply, and heart disease, by increasing the growth of new blood vessels.
The month of June 2016 was the hottest on record, with records going back to 1880, continuing a pattern of relentless global warming. Are we moving towards a situation where an abrupt climate change, triggered by global warming, could lead to unexpected dangerous consequences for us all?
Listen to discussion on the plastic problem in our seas on Today with Sean O’Rourke RTE Radio 1 (broadcast, 8th March ’16)
Plastics rubbish in our oceans is becoming a huge environment and health issue (Credit: The Daily Telegraph)
Plastic is all around us, in our clothes, glasses, computers, phones, toys and the packaging for food and drink products. Behind most election posters we looked at recently, there were strong plastic cables, holding those posters in place.
Plastic is lightweight, flexible, clear, opaque, almost unbreakable, and cheap to manufacture. It is a wondrous modern product, but it also has a dark side.
In Ireland we are producing in the region of 210,000 tonnes of plastic per year. Yet, we only recycle 36 per cent this plastic waste. That means that more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic here each year ends up buried in landfill sites, where experts say it could take 1,000 years to breakdown, or it finds it way to the sea.
Scientists in Ireland, and elsewhere, have grown concerned about a ‘steady stream’ of plastics entering our oceans and how that is affecting marine life. The evidence now emerging suggests that plastics are disrupting the balance of marine life to such an extent that it presents a real threat to all life on Earth.
About 45% of plastic waste is sent for burning, or waste-to-energy, as some would call it, while 15% or 30,000 tons is sent to landfill each year. The new Dublin ‘Waste-to-Energy’ plant due to open at Poolbeg in 2017, operated by Covanta, may help if it takes plastic waste that currently ends up put into domestic black bins – about 20% of all plastic waste.
Currently municipal solid waste, including plastic waste is sent for burning to European incinerators. Dealing with the plastic here, is in line with the proximity principle – that waste be dealt with as close to source as possible. It will also create jobs.
However, Repak are keen to say to people that they want more plastics put in the recycling, green bin, and not in the black bin, as some still do.
The amount of plastic waste is growing year on year by about 4% so this is not a problem that will be going away. The dumping of plastic waste is a big problem, according to a spokesperson for Repak (Ireland’s only industry-funded packaging recycling firm) with 80% of marine litter being plastic.
Repak that they are seeing less newspapers these days, and more cardboard (as a result of Internet shopping) and more plastic.
It is relatively easy to sort plastic bottles, he said, as they use optical sorters, which spot a bottle on a conveyor line and an air nozzle shoots the bottle off.
Interestingly, he said that some of the worst plastic packaging they have to deal with are rasher packs as they are made from a number of different plastic laminates and are very hard to break down.
This difficult mixed plastic is, however, useful as a ‘solid recovered fuel’ which is used as a replacement for coal in cement kilns.
All of the cement kilns in Ireland use this SRF and this is helping to reduce the amount of coal which we have to import – so plastic is not all bad,
Plastic products are everywhere in our modern societies, as manufacturers are attracted to its durable, inexpensive properties (Credit: http://www.aboutuganda.com)
Plastics products have been ubiquitous since around 1939, as during WW11 plastics production increased to replace scarce natural materials such as rubber.
But, it wasn’t until 1972, when scientists, by accident, that plastic waste was becoming a huge problem in our oceans.
A group of marine researchers were on a vessel in the Sargasso Sea, in the North Atlantic Ocean, trawling the surface of the ocean to collect a brown algae seaweed called Sargussum why they were interested in studying.
When they hauled in their first catch, they fund lots of tiny plastic particles. Further tows brought in further ‘catches’ of plastic. The finding of plastics in such numbers in the centre of the Ocean was a surprise and a concern.
Now, scientists estimate that there is more than 268,000 tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, some collecting, due to currents, in huge agglomerations of rubbish, and plastic with nicknames like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).
In parts of the GPGP there are 2 million pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean. But, as well as what are called macro-plastics, which can end up inside fish and marine creatures, blocking intestines, there are micro-plastics, which are much smaller, sometimes tiny piece of plastic, which are problematic too.
There are other garbage patches too, one off California, one close to Japan.
Plastic waste can enter the sea from cities and towns on the coastline, but it can also travel along inland waterways from places far from the coastline.
A recent study in the United States, published in the top journal Science, showed how far plastic can travel to end up in the ocean The ocean is always downstream of illegal dumping sites, where rubbish, including plastics, first ends up in rivers, streams and lakes. That’s true in the US, and in Ireland too.
There is clearly a plastic problem in Irish rivers. For example, the River Liffey at the Strawberry Beds outside Dublin. When the river Liffey is low, plastic bags can be seen hanging like vegetation out of trees normally submerged in the water. This plastic will end up, like the Liffey’s waters, entering the Irish Sea.
The extent of the problem of plastic in rivers in developed countries can be judged from the few cities, like Los Angeles and Baltimore, where there are engineering measures in place to prevent waste, including plastic waste, from entering the sea.
In 2015, Baltimore caught 118,670 plastic bottles alone which were prevented from entering the sea, as they would otherwise have done. Baltimore, by the way, has about twice the population of Dublin. If we assume that Baltimore and Dublin are pretty similar economically, then there are more than 50,000 plastic bottles – conservative estimate – entering the sea at Dublin each year.
Microplastics smaller than 5 mm are entering the marine food chain (Credit: Archipelagos Institute)
Particularly damaging are micro-plastics; tiny pieces of plastic, which form when plastics are exposed to sunlight. micro-plastics are consumed by marine river life and then, when they make their way to the sea, by ocean creatures too.
Other research has shown that rivers and lakes in the US are full of tiny fibres of polyester and nylon, which are shed from clothes when they are laundered. The fibres are so small, they wash down drains into sewers and pass through the filtration system of wastewater plants, and end up out in the oceans too.
The fibres are swallowed by fish, and become lodged in their bodies, along with any bacteria or chemicals which may have been attached to the fibres in transit.
Ocean currents can transport plastic huge distances and computer models have shown that some plastics can travel more than 1,000 km in 60 days. So a piece of plastic could enter the sea in Dublin at the start of April, and end up floating off the coast of Lisbon by the end of May. It’s an international problem.
Marine life can mistake the larger plastic pieces for food, and plastics can thus get caught in their intestines. The fish or birds can’t get the plastic out of their bodies, and this hampers their ability to consume nutritional foods they need. They can ultimately end up starving to death. This has been reported in seabirds, turtles, fish and marine mammals.
When plastic pieces are smaller than 5 mm they are called micro-plastics. Micro-plastics act as an attractive solid surface for marine microbes, because nutrients, which the microbes need tend to accumulate on flat surfaces.
Marine creatures consume the micro-plastics, and the level of plastics then enters the marine food chain from the bottom up. There is on definite view on where this might end up, but certainly there are some very bad scenarios.
In May 2013, the two researchers were alerted when three beaked whales were found stranded on the north and west coast of Ireland. These creatures feed on squid in deep waters and little is known about them. They are rare, and it is highly unusual for three to be stranded within a few days and weeks of each other as happened here
An adult female was stranded at Five Fingers Strand in Donegal and two days later a whale calf was found washed ashore about 2km away. Then two weeks later, a second adult female beaked whale was found stranded at Ballyconneely in Co Galway. The immediate questions were why?
Post mortem results found that the two adult females had macro-plastics in their stomachs, while micro-plastics were identified throughout the digestive tract of the single whale that was examined for micro-plastics.
Simon Berrow told me in an email that it was “very disturbing” that micro-plastics were found throughout the digestive tract of the one beaked whale which was examined for micro-plastics, as these whales are offshore, deep-diving species which are very rarely even sighted by humans.
This was the first study, he said, that had directly identified micro-plastics, using a new technology, in the body of a cetacean species. Cetaceans are a group of 88 different species of whale, dolphin and porpoise. It suggests that even marine animals at the top of the food chain, feeding in deep waters, are ingesting significant amounts of micro-plastics into their bodies.
Simon is preparing a new research paper on the levels of micro and macro plastics in a range of dolphin species sampled in Irish waters over the last few years, and it will be interested to see if a similar result is confirmed again.
There can be many reasons why a marine creature gets stranded, or washed up on a beach. For example, there has been an increase in the number of dead dolphins washing up on the west coast of Ireland since the start of 2016, with 28 animals stranded, the second highest number every recorded for the first two months of the year.
Most of the strandings, scientists say, were in Mayo, Sligo and Donegal and the evidence showed that the dolphins died when they were caught up in the large fishing nets of foreign registered super-trawlers fishing in Irish waters.
Dolphins and other cetaceans (whales and porpoises) are under pressure in Irish waters from the nest of super-trawlers, as well as depletion of their natural prey – fish – due to over-fishing by the same trawlers. Add to that, the issue of micro-plastics and it’s no surprise to note that dolphin numbers are declining.
It will require a systematic, international response, from governments around the world, but, getting that, is always difficult.
It has been left to individuals to try and do something. For example, Boyan Slat, a Dutch guy in his early twenties, got a lot of publicity in 2013 for coming up with a plan to clean up the ocean using a V-shaped array of floating barriers.
The array was designed in such a way that the plastic pieces concentrated in the centre of the V, where they were then scooped up by a conveyor belt driven by solar panels and dropped in a collecting station for recycling. A modification of this approach will be used off the coast of Japan later this year.
Individuals can also help by signing up to an app called Marine Debris Tracker. This involves people on the beach logging litter finds, which is fed into a database which can better help scientists study ocean rubbish patterns.
Barrack Obama signed legislation in December last to ban the use of plastic micro-beads in cosmetics. Micro-beads are used as exfoliating agents, and in toothpaste. They are made from petrochemical plastics like polyethylene, and they are so small that they pass through waste water treatment plants.
The micro-beads remain in the environment for 50 years, and are causing a build up of micro-plastic pollution in places such as Lake Erie in the USA.
The Plastisphere is the term that scientists use to describe how organisms have adapted in the oceans and elsewhere to live in harmony with human-made plastics.
Microbes are naturally attracted to plastics, which provide a solid surface to cling to in open ocean, and an all day buffet, as nutrients collect there too.
Some of the microbes ingest plastic too, and these plastic-loaded microbes are in turn eaten by plankton, which are tiny floating living organisms, which are in turn eaten by larger creatures such as fish and whales.
The reasons that scientists are concerned is that they have no idea how the presence of plastics in the marine food chain will play out into the future.
There is a concern, for example, that this could make global warming worse. Normally, in pre-plastisphere days, the oceans were a ‘carbon sink’ which absorbed excess carbon which could otherwise causing global warming.
This happened because tiny marine plants absorbed carbon dioxide, they were eaten by fish and other creatures, who pooped, and this poop, with carbon in it, fell safely to the bottom of the ocean.
The evidence now shows that plastic in poop causes it to break up easier, and this liberates carbon before it falls to the bottom of the ocean. So there is more carbon available to contribute to global warming.
There is also concern that plastics may be carrying harmful organisms, such as the carol pathogen reported in Hawaii and the Caribbean in 2014.
The worry is that plastics could transport some kind of microbe superbug across the world by travelling via ocean currents. The plastisphere offers microbes the chance to eat well and travel the world, even if they are dangerous pathogens.
The suspicion has to be that while micro-plastics have not been proven by scientists to have detrimental effects on marine life, that is what’s happening.
By the time the definitive proof is available, we may have already done irreparable damage to our oceans, as once something enters the food chain, as micro-plastics have done, it is going to be very difficult to remove it.
Scientists are loath to say seafood is not safe, and it is an important source of protein, as well as Omega 3. It’s know that plastics also attract chemicals, some very nasty ones like mercury, which can end up in the food chain.
The consensus is that the risk from plastics, and the chemicals they attract is still low in fish generally and not enough to outweigh the benefits from eating fish But, if we continue the way we are going, that consensus could change.
Now, the dust has settled on the Paris climate summit, it’s a good time to assess where Ireland’s – and the world’s – power generation future lies.
Click above to hear discussion on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast 30/12/2015)
Ireland has a huge wind energy resource, offshore and on land. If tapped the country could become a net energy exporter (Credit: Irish Wind Energy Association)
Despite the agreements announced in Paris, China is set to continue building a new coal fired power plant every 7 to 10 days, while India and Japan are increasing, not reducing, their reliance on cheap coal.
Meanwhile, oil prices are falling, driven by a global oil glut driven by increased oil supplies. Despite claims that oil supplies are running out, geology suggests the world has substantial untapped oil supplies.
In this context, the big question is how will Ireland, and the world, wean itself off coal and petrol, and how will energy be generated in 2050?
The top five energy consumers in the world today are China, the USA, India, Russia, and Japan. This is significant because none of the big five would be renowned for their record on supporting clean energy options.
China is key to this story, as it has now surpassed the US as the main energy consumer in the world. China is increasing its dependence on coal, and building new coal fired plants at an alarming rate.
Coal is cheap, readily available, and China believes that coal is what will improve living standards to match those of the west. In the same way, that Britain used ‘King Coal’ to become a 19th century superpower.
Meanwhile, India, another Asian giant, is also increasing its reliance on coal, for the same reasons that China is taking this route. Coal is cheap, and provides a shortcut to industrial development and prosperity.
Let’s not forget that developing reliable, economically viable energy alternatives requires high technology, patience and lots of funding.
Keep in mind too that 250 million Indian people live in homes without electricity. That’s more people than the combined populations of Germany, France and the UK, all living without electricity.
Globally, some 1.2 billion people live without electricity. Is that ethical?
Russia as we know is a significant exporter of oil and gas, and much of the gas we use here in Ireland comes from Russia.
Japan is an interesting case, because it is a highly industrialised country, but it lacks a cheap, home based energy source. This is why it went down the nuclear route, but that, as we saw with Fukushima in March 2011, led to disaster. They too are now turning to cheap sources of coal.
The US, meanwhile, is heavily dependent on its home based reserves of natural gas to provide its electricity needs, and Middle Eastern oil to keep its love affair with motor car going.
When we say ‘renewable’ we mean energy generated from non-polluting sources, which can be used over and over again without negative effects. The main renewable sources of energy come from biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind.
The same US body, which is a reputable source, predicts that by 2040, 15 per cent of the world’s energy will be from renewables by 2040.
The message then is that our energy needs are overwhelming provided by fossil fuel, greenhouse gas generating sources, and that the changeover to renewables is happening slowly – perhaps too slowly.
China continues to build a new coal fired power plant, on average – every 7 to 10 days. Like this one in the city of Baotou, in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Photo : REUTERS/David Gray)
This is where the Paris agreement comes in, because without a major push, there is no reason why – economically speaking – countries or companies or individuals should shift to using renewable energy.
The main point was that governments agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Above 1.5 Celsius and scientists believe we are into uncharted territory where climate and weather might cross a variety of ‘tipping points’.
Lurking in our future is the ominous, and very real threat of rapid, and severe climate cooling, provoked initially by warming.
Recent data shows that we have already reached 1C above pre-industrial levels and there is no sign of emissions of ‘greenhouse gas’ falling.
The emissions figures are interesting. China is responsible for 28% or more than a quarter of the world’s emissions.
The US is next at 16%, then the EU at 10 per cent. Together, China, the US, India, Russia, Japan and the EU make up 70% of global emissions. The rest, about 150 countries or so, make up just 30% of emissions.
A binding agreement between the US, China, India, Russia, Japan on the EU on emissions would go a long way to addressing this problem.
That won’t be easy as they all have very different energy agendas.
Before Paris, 180 countries submitted pledges to cut or curb emissions, but, when all these plans were put together, experts believe they will, even if they are rigorously implemented, lead to a 2.7C rise – at least!
Also, there is no legal imperative to implement the plans.
Paris set out a long term global goal for zero emissions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that ‘net zero emissions’ must happen by 2070, in order to avoid ‘dangerous warming’. But, it’s only a goal!
There is also a pledge to ‘take stock’ every 5 years to make sure that the plan to keep to 1.5C is still no track. But, only a pledge to ‘take stock’. The plan also included a clause which say that countries mainly responsible for warming – the US – will not be liable to pay financial claims from countries damaged by extreme weather.
There is a pledge to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 to finance developing countries so that they can adapt to climate change and transition to ‘clean energy’ – but this to is not legally binding.
All in all, Paris looks like a weak agreement, which holds no-one to account, and is largely aspirational in tone.
Coal, gas, petrol and diesel are fossil fuels. They contain high amounts of carbon and were formed from previously living organisms. They are cheap, readily available, and are very efficient at releasing usable energy when burned in combustion engines, or power plants.
Most experts believe that fossil fuels will still dominate, in terms of supplying our global needs by mid century and beyond. The Paris deal was heralded by some as the ‘end of coal’ but this is highly unlikely, and coal will continue to be burned, perhaps more than before.
Yet, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, or increasing rates – to meet increasing energy demands – we are on a road to nowhere. If fossil fuels are here to stay, how can we reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases which are released when they burn?
Is there a solution?
Well, one thing that can be done is to improve the fuel efficiency of our cars, and power plants which use fossil fuels, and this is happening.
The idea here is to continue to burn fossil fuels, but that the carbon dioxide from this burning will be buried in a secure place underground. For example, there is talk of using gas fields, which have been exhausted, such as Kinsale, which is nearing its end, to store carbon dioxide gas.
The demand for electricity is set to soar in coming decades, as more than one billion people look to get plugged in. The energy mix will still be mainly fossil fuel based, so measures to improve energy efficiency will be crucial and technology will be developed to do that – in our homes, offices and in industry.
These energy efficiencies will only happen if governments fund the development of technology in the short term, because it will take time for their to be a pay off in any investment. So, industry won’t do it.
Coal is going to remain very important, as China and India develop.
Nuclear energy is expensive, and it is far more costly to build a nuclear power plant compared to a new coal or gas fired power plant. There are also costs of disposal of waste, and safety concerns, and there can be serious political opposition to new plants too.
Ireland has a real opportunity to develop its wind and wave resources, where we could – with the right investment – be a world leader. But, our grid is outdated, and other countries such as Denmark, have been investing in wind technology for far longer with greater success.
The most promising of the renewable technologies, generally speaking, is Solar and this will take off if supported initially by governments.They can be particularly useful to bring electricity to places now ‘off grid’.
The world, and individual countries, will have to realise that more expensive energy, and reduced growth might be required.
Ireland’s windy future
In 1935, the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power plant built near Limerick in the 1920s was supplying 80% of the country’s electricity. Our electricity needs were far less at that time, of course, but we were still far more self sufficient in energy than we are today, as 60% of our energy is provided by natural gas, and 90% of our natural gas is imported.
Back in the 1930s, the vast majority of Ireland’s electricity was generated by harnessing the gravitational force of falling or flowing water. Ardnacrusha served us well for decades, but over time, the plant was unable to generate enough electricity to meet the growing demands of industry here, and modern homes, now mostly supplied with electricity.
These days our electricity needs have vastly increased, and the range of sources we get our electricity from has hugely diversified.
One of the good news stories for Ireland, is terms of its energy future, is the ready availability of lots of wind, particularly along the coastlines. As of 2015, 17.7% of Irish electricity was generated by wind power, making us second only to Denmark which has reached 30%.
The government has a target in its white paper to increase the energy consumption from ‘renewables’ to 16% from 7% currently. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland believes that electricity generated from wind will exceed domestic needs by 2030.
Ireland will then be in the happy position of becoming an electricity exporter, possible with a new electricity connector to the UK. It’s possible, if targets are reached, that Ireland could be providing 2.5% of the EU’s energy needs by 2050 through wind power generation.
Ireland is also blessed with a valuable wave energy resource. One study found that the average wave power in Europe is highest near the west of Ireland. The potential for utilising wave is huge. There is some 525 TWh of wave and tidal power in Irish waters. The total electricity requirement for the Republic of Ireland in 2006 was just 27.8 TWh!
Solar photovoltaic technology will be far more important, even in Ireland, where, as we know the sun doesn’t shine enough.
County councils around the country are building solar panels using PV technology on farmland. These ‘solar farms’ will provide electricity to the grid, and help to power new homes that will be built in coming years.
Bioenergy too will be far more developed here in coming decades. Plants are already being built in Dublin and Cork which will take food waste and harvest bio-gases to generate significant amounts of electricity.
Each bio waste plant can provide electricity for thousands of homes, and divert food waste which is going into landfill at the present time. Ireland will not move into nuclear. There are cheaper, better options and the political opposition and cost would seem to rule nuclear out here.
There are also, geologists believe, significant ‘hydrocarbon’ resources in the Irish offshore that lie underdiscovered due to the depths they are at. There is gas, we know this from Corrib, but many believe there is also oil, plenty of it, and as technology improves it will become easier and cheaper to prospect for this liquid gold.
So, all in all, Ireland’s energy future looks promising if we fully exploit our huge wind, wave and untapped hydrocarbon resources in our offshore.
That’s leaving aside the thorny question of potentially exploiting two large oil reserves trapped in rocks underneath Leitrim and the counties of southwest Ireland through ‘fracking’ technology.