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Climate of change

Environmental concerns are never far from the surface.

Here we look at eco-business and the business of ecology

Hot and dirty

It's official.All of that particulate matter that we thought was bad for the planet (not least of all for our lungs) might actually have a beneficial effect.New Scientist (NS) recently produced data that showed that even aerosols from smoke (incineration, industry, forest fires, etc) are blocking the sunlight and counteracting the warming effects of carbon dioxide emissions (sic). The valuable role of aerosols has meant that global warming has been kept lower that it would otherwise have been.

The work is that of Nobel laureate, Paul Crutzen, and Bert Bolin, former chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).However, not to be undone by a positive message, NS recognised that if we carry on reducing the acceptable levels of particulates and other sunscreen materials in the atmosphere, the surface temperature will have a significant temperature boost.

This tends to reinforce the view of some of those in the Scientific Alliance, most notably Professor Phillip Stott of University College London, that tinkering with presumed causal effects may prove to be more damaging than the alternatives.For example, the cutting of aerosols, for long the mainstay of environmental campaigns - if this research proves valid - may have had a destabilising effect on the climate.

'The limitations of our utopian vision of climate control, ' he says, 'have lent themselves to flawed policies what happens if we do reduce carbon dioxide levels and unwittingly plunge ourselves into another ice age?' Or cut aerosols and heat things up? Modern paranoid man's tendency to rush into things today, in a bid to solve perceived problems, should be avoided at all costs.

Pollution power

Researchers have recently found that trees in New York City, especially eastern cottonwoods, are bigger than in surrounding suburbs. And Jillian Gregg of the US environmental protection agency has traced the causal factors for the additional growth to the beneficial effects of pollution.

Soil conditions, CO2 levels and weather patterns were all ruled out as causal effects for the differences in height; and instead pollution and ozone were judged to be the most influential factors.

Ozone is generally very bad for plant development but it is at very low levels in city centres because of the sun screen created by car fumes, etc, (mitigated by other chemicals in the atmosphere).

For example, ozone is created when sunlight reacts with pollutants, but because it relies on the reaction, as the sun ceases to penetrate, so other pollutants eradicate the build up. Nitrides of nitrogen react with ozone and have helped to reduce it to insignificant amounts in the city centre.

Big & Green: Toward sustainable architecture in the 21st century Edited by David Gissen. Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. 192pp. £28

A stylish book on sustainability is usually a contradiction in terms, but this book pulls it off with style. Great pictures, well thought out text, (generally) readable drawings and well-designed chapters. It may contain the usual suspects - Rogers, McDonough, Yeang - but other more theoretical approaches have been given rein.

Especially important is Michael Braungart (McDonough's business partner) who writes on 'Beyond the Limits of Sustainable Architecture'. He begins in the usual way, looking forward to the phasing out of PVCs; to a preponderance of 'healthful' buildings; and to challenging the concept of progress. Susan Henshaw Jones notes that 'some essays remind us that we might look in to the distant past for ideas about how to build in the future.'

Unusually, though, Braungart criticises the aphorism 'reduce, reuse, recycle' as a recipe for putting off future damage, since it is still defined by limitations. His solution - making things that cause no harm when discarded, whether 'providing nourishment for nature or infinite recyclable materials for industry'.

Convincing as it is, it is the book's apple-pie moments that make you recognise the new age religious zealotry of some of the arguments.

One bridge, to go

It is not unusual now to purchase pencils made from recycled plastic cups. If you look hard enough, you can also find mousemats made from recycled tyres and rulers made from recycled computer printers.

Using things that might otherwise have been thrown away seems a more efficient use of resources and in some circles, they are even becoming cost-effective, even though it is still a relatively marginal market.

Now, at Wharton State Park in New Jersey, the first bridge has been made using components from recycled plastic.The 14m-span vehicular bridge which crosses over the Mullica River is reputedly strong enough to lorry loads of up to 16.3 tonnes.

Developed at the Centre for Advanced Materials via Immiscible Polymer Processing (AMIPP) at Rutgers University, the bridge is made from a mix of polymers taken from high-density polyethylene and polystyrene from consumer packaging, foam and plastic cups, milk containers and wrappers.By melting two polymers together and finely extruding them to create an orientated microstructure, the blended composite attains special material properties.This mix has been formed into I-beams, secondary beams and 75mm tongue-andgrooved boardwalk surface finish.

The bridge was erected in 10 days by a four-person team from the university, headed by Professor Thomas Nosker. The structure is impervious to water and weathering (in direct sunlight it forms a thin 'protective coating' that prevents other degradation) and never needs painting.

Visit www. amipp. rutgers. edu

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