NEWS

By Emma Li, Grade 12


At this point, “the coronavirus” is probably the most famous household name of them all. Emerging in a series of cases in Wuhan, China in December of 2019, COVID-19 swept through the world at a frighteningly rapid rate, forcing many countries to shut down their economies and borders to stem the spread of the highly contagious virus. The first year of the new decade was defined by the pandemic and its impact—either directly or indirectly—on individual families, blue-collar workers, small businesses, and the 2020 U.S. presidential election, to name a few. As businesses and schools are starting to open up again, most people are eager to leave behind the trials of 2020 and return to regular living.


While COVID has been physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing on all of us, there does appear to be a silver lining to the pandemic’s untimely interference in our lives: some positive effects on the environment. While research on this topic is still tentative and not universally descriptive, many researchers of reputable institutions, including NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the U.S. Geological Survey, and the ESA (European Space Administration), have presented early research that identifies the pandemic as a potential cause for the changing climate.


After the onset of COVID-19 and the implementation of social distancing regulations, satellite images and data show a decrease in air pollution in many high-polluting countries like India. (1) In New York, air pollution levels dropped by nearly 30% during lockdown (4). At the time of its release in November 2020, the European Environment Agency’s briefing “COVID and Europe’s Environment: impacts of a global pandemic” reported “an unparalleled reduction in GHG emissions in the EU compared to 2019” (2). The briefing also mentions a significant decline in atmospheric NO₂ concentration after lockdown measures were put in place in spring of 2020. (2)


Through analyzing the turbidity and amount of solid material in water, scientists have also concluded that general water quality has improved in some areas during the pandemic. (1) Research scientist Nima Pahlevan at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center found that water in western Manhattan has become clearer; satellite data indicated a “40% drop in turbidity during the pandemic in a section of the Hudson River.” (1) Pahlevan speculated that due to lockdown, fewer people commuted to Manhattan, which reduced the amount of pollutants that ended up in the Hudson River and thus improved water quality there.


However, not all environmental impacts of the pandemic have been positive. In addition to reducing air and water pollution levels, the coronavirus has changed deforestation rates, though not uniformly across the board. Despite the fact that parts of the rainforest in Colombia and Peru have experienced less deforestation since the pandemic began, the Brazilian Amazon rainforest saw greater rates of deforestation, as did rainforests in tropical Indonesia and the Congo. (1) Following the same negative trend, the pandemic also caused a significant surge in plastic production and consumption because of global demand for PPE like masks and gloves. The World Health Organization estimated that the global population uses up 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves, and 1.6 million sets of goggles per month. (3)


Perhaps the most grim piece of news is that many experts label the strides made during the coronavirus as temporary. Pahlevan—the Manhattan water quality researcher—believes that “once we return to pre-pandemic behaviors, water quality will revert as well,” and other researchers agree that “environmental improvements… won’t last if the world goes back to its pre-pandemic ways.” (1) The European Environment Agency noted that “while short-term reductions in energy use and emissions may make 2020 targets achievable, any longer-term goals will require political decisions that prioritize recovery measures which contribute significantly to climate change mitigation.” (2)


We know that the environment is deteriorating fast, and that it is vital for us to preserve it before all actions become too little, too late. The coronavirus has shown that if we all act together, we can make a significant difference in lowering pollution levels in our cities. However, the coronavirus has also shown with flimsy social distancing regulations in the U.S. that it takes deliberate policies to enact real change. Without enforcement in place to ensure that people follow the law, there will always be dissenters hindering the movement to restore the environment, just as there are still people refusing to wear masks in order to help stop spreading SARS-CoV-2. Of course, the individual liberties promised by America’s founding documents must be taken into account when writing environmental policies in the United States; but in this day and age, when we teeter at the edge of a cliff where total environmental destruction lies beyond, Americans have to ask themselves what is really more important: their personal freedom, or Earth’s future?


(1) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201208162957.htm

(2) https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/covid-19-and-europe-s/covid-19-and-europes-environment

(3) https://www.who.int/news/item/03-03-2020-shortage-of-personal-protective-equipment-endangering-health-workers-worldwide

(4) https://earthdata.nasa.gov/covid19/

By Ryan Zhao, Grade 7


Imagine landfills piling up with trash and animals going extinct. The cause of this would in part be because we didn’t recycle. Since the Industrial Age, the Earth’s atmosphere has been bombarded with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. Due to this barrage of greenhouse gases, the planet has warmed up significantly. Climate change has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars in the last two fiscal years alone. Yet, we have proven since the 1980s that resources such as aluminum and plastics can be safely recycled and/or repurposed to protect the environment by decreasing the production of such resources. We must recycle plastics; it is beneficial to the environment, protects all of the cute and furry animals that are endangered species and at risk of becoming extinct, and strengthens local municipalities by increasing recycling revenue while reducing the amount of land required at landfills.


Recycling plastics and metals are essential to our planet’s survival. In fact, global warming could be counteracted with just a few cans put into a blue bin per week by each American household. Recycling, which refers to the repurposing and reusing of plastics and metals, prevents the emissions of many greenhouse gases and water pollutants and saves energy by decreasing the production of these recycled materials. This, in turn, means that less energy is used, and fewer greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.


Another benefit of recycling is how it preserves ecosystems. Oftentimes, you may walk outside and see plastic bottles plugging a storm drain or waterway; this has harmful effects for marine wildlife and increases the chance of flooding in low-lying areas. As a result, the plastic materials that find their way into wildlife habits will endanger many animals and directly cause their premature death. For example, if we continue to neglect recycling, many polar bears will continue to die due to climate change and global warming. Polar bears nowadays are malnourished and weak, and they don’t have enough food to be apex predators like they were before. Global warming is destroying the habitats of polar bears, and it is directly caused by the lack of recycling and the overproduction of plastics and metals that area not reused. According to a study from BBC, polar bears will die by the end of the century if we don’t do more to combat shrinking ice caps and climate change, so seeing them floating in the middle of the ocean on an ever-shrinking piece of ice is not new. These once-majestic predators are now patchy-furred and thin. Their natural foods are so scarce that after reaching shore on their ever-shrinking chunk of ice, they must scavenge around in trash cans to gain just the smallest amount of nourishment.


An added benefit for recycling is that it would translate into additional funding for towns within the City of San Diego, and these municipalities could use the monies for research on global warming and ways to combat climate change. Recycling assists us in generating more revenue for our cities, which is good for everyone. Everybody gets slightly lowered taxes, and over time, the environment becomes much cleaner. According to KPBS, in 2017 San Diego made more than 3 million dollars by selling recycled metals alone.


Furthermore, we’ve seen the impacts of reduced production due to COVID-19; when we found ourselves locked away, many factories closed down temporarily. This caused a drastic decrease in the amount of pollutants emitted, thereby causing the air quality to clear up substantially. This is because the manufacturing of plastics is oil derived, which means the process emits an enormous amount of pollutants. Recycling also helps us use less energy in producing metals and plastics, which means that we release fewer pollutants into the air by reusing them instead of manufacturing them from scratch. If we can do this consistently for years, with everyone just recycling a few bottles or cans a day, then we would see the same results that COVID-19 produced. Clear skies would be seen from horizon to horizon. With all this evidence and motivation to recycle, you would belong in the looney bin if you didn’t recycle.


So why should you recycle? To save the environment! To save the polar bears! And to save ourselves money! Everywhere you look, there are good things that will come out of recycling. Recycling is good for all of us. It helps the earth to live in harmony, and it helps maintain ecosystems and their animal populations. Recycling helps to preserve natural habitats, which allows animals to thrive. Finally, we get to earn ourselves some money without doing much. And even if recycling stopped generating revenue for American cities, this does not undermine the value of recycling. Recycling has countless benefits, as we are protecting the only known planet that we can conceivably live on. And if I have to say it again, I will: Due to our own actions, recycling is one of the few options left for us to combat our own extinction. We have the power to save ourselves by just moving our hands a few inches and dropping that bottle into the blue bin, and yet we are not making use of that power. If we don’t, what else did we get our hands for?


https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53474445

Cover photo from The New York Times


By Samhita Pokkunuri, Grade 8


By the title, I presume you think that this blog has something to do with osmosis, reverse osmosis, and water filtration systems — and right you are! Though these water conservation methods might not seem important, they actually portray an essential aspect of our lives today.


Osmosis

Well, what is osmosis? Based on a classical science textbook, osmosis is the movement of water molecules from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration of water molecules, through a cell’s semipermeable membrane (1). Hold up — what? In simpler terms, osmosis is the net movement of water molecules through a membrane that only allows certain molecules to pass through. Water molecules with a HIGHER concentration indicate that water molecules are more abundant relative to the overall volume, and water molecules with a LOWER concentration indicate that water molecules are less abundant relative to the overall volume. In other words, there are more water molecules in a higher concentration than in a lower concentration — therefore, particles will diffuse, or move from an area of higher concentration to lower concentration. While transferring from a high to low concentration, these water molecules pass through a partially permeable membrane. This membrane basically only allows certain particles to pass through it, depending on certain conditions. What are these “conditions?” While they often vary, in the case of osmosis, it allows the passage of water, but not ions, nor larger molecules. This process tends to continue (the passage of water molecules through the semipermeable membrane) until the concentrations become equal on both sides of the membrane (2). This process is also passive, meaning it doesn’t require any extra expenditure of energy to occur.

There are two types of osmosis: endosmosis and exosmosis. Endosmosis occurs when there is the movement of the water INSIDE cells, where it’s placed in a hypotonic solution (a solution where the outside of the cell has a higher solute than the inside), and the cell begins to swell. Exosmosis occurs when there is movement of the water OUTSIDE of cells, where it’s placed in a hypertonic solution, and these cells become “flabby.” Well then — what’s the difference? The key differentiation you can make between the two is that endosmosis has water movement inside of the cell, and exosmosis has water movement outside of it, therefore causing two different results.

Well then, you might be wondering, what does osmosis do? Why does it exist? And to answer that is relatively simple; this process helps the movement of essential materials inside and outside cells. Osmosis is important because we wouldn’t be able to access nutrients, water, and other solutes without this process.

Osmosis can take place in the large and small intestine; when our body processes food, osmosis is what helps you obtain nutrients, and get waste products out of your blood. Even as we digest food, this moves from the esophagus to the stomach to the small intestine, where your body absorbs such nutrients through osmosis. And as this food leaves to the large intestine, osmosis can occur here as well.

Osmosis can also occur in plants. When plants absorb water from the soil, the roots have a higher solute concentration than the surrounding soil, so water flows inside of these roots through osmosis. Through guard cells, cells disperse along the surfaces of leaves, so when pairs of guard cells surround a pore of these leaves, osmosis allows it to control the opening and releasing moisture.

Osmosis even can occur in the simplest things like soaking up a water spill in your house using a towel; when the paper towel becomes less absorbent as it sucks up water, you are seeing osmosis in action!


Reverse Osmosis

Well, if we know what osmosis is, what’s reverse osmosis? And if you are thinking it’s something along the exact opposite of osmosis, you are correct! To be exact, reverse osmosis is the process of osmosis, except in reverse.

By the textbook, reverse osmosis is the process where you dematerialize water by putting it under pressure, through a semipermeable membrane. Osmosis usually doesn’t require any extra energy, but to reverse this process means that you need to apply energy to the solution, making it an active process. The membrane it passes through, once again, only allows the passage of certain molecules through certain conditions. In this case, the conditions wouldn’t include a majority of organics, bacteria, pyrogens, and dissolved salts. Throughout this process, water is continually being “pushed” through the membrane by applying a greater amount of pressure (than in osmosis), which finally allows pure water through, and taking out MAJOR contaminants. Basically, if the pressure greater than the osmotic pressure is being applied to the higher concentration, the direction of the water flow through the membrane can be reversed (4). So, in short, this natural process allows water to flow from a concentrated solution to a dilute solution. For example, reverse osmosis may start with salt water, and as applied pressure leads water to flow through a RO (Reverse Osmosis) semipermeable membrane, contaminants are taken out, and freshwater comes out.

The exact difference between reverse osmosis and osmosis is that osmosis travels from a higher concentration to a lower one, and requires no external processes of energy. Reverse osmosis goes from a lower concentration to a higher concentration and therefore requires extra energy.

So, what are some applications of reverse osmosis in the real-life world? Why even is this important? In its most famous usage, reverse osmosis helps conserve water for its domestic and industrial usages. It helps us remove many types of contaminants, and remove considerable bacterias and impurities in water.

Regarding real-life applications, reverse osmosis can be used in the desalination of water, as we mentioned before. Usually, reverse osmosis is seen upon membrane modules, which are made of polyamide hollow fibers, allowing the measurement of the rejection coefficient to be achieved with a high percentage of 99.3% (5). *A rejection coefficient is the measure of the solute in a solution fed to a semipermeable membrane*

Reverse osmosis can also be used in places such as the concentration of fruits and vegetable juices, the pre-concentration of milk and whey, and even the alcoholization of alcoholic beverages.


Water Filtration Systems

We are now well-aware of the processes of osmosis and reverse osmosis. Now, what are water filtration systems?

(Note: Reverse osmosis and water filtration systems are NOT the same things! Filtration systems are more effective when it comes to removing or reducing impurities or contaminants in water such as chlorine, sediment, and poor tastes; reverse osmosis, however, removes viruses, bacteria, and parasites (6). But, contextually, reverse osmosis can potentially be declared as a TYPE of water filtration systems.)

In the simplest form (no more textbook definitions), a water filtration system helps decontaminate water either by physical barriers, chemical processes, or biological processes (7). There are various types of water filtration systems; some of the more well-known types include activated carbon filters (which uses activated carbon granules that can trap chemical impurities through absorption) and ion exchange (split apart atoms that are contaminated to make ions, then trap the bad ones and release the good ones).

But how does the water filtration process work, overall? Since water is a solvent, it is able to dissolve other substances easily — this can lead to it being contaminated by chemicals and dirt, making it unsafe for drinking or other purposes. Water filtration can either be a physical or a chemical process (8). In a physical process, the water is strained through a gauze-like membrane to remove the larger particles. In a chemical process, the water is treated with technology to remove impurities.

Regarding applications of water filtration systems, it’s practically used everywhere! People use water filters to remove bacterial contaminants and lead to better drinking water. Water filtration occurs under your sink, with Under Sink Water Filtration Systems (that’s pretty self-explanatory). Its implementations in the real world are endless.


Key Takeaways

Osmosis, reverse osmosis, and water filtration systems clearly all serve a significant impact on our world; they are in places we see and use in mundane tasks we complete daily. Without them, you might be drinking nasty water, or leaving all your floors wet.


(1) https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/teaching-biology-inspiring-students-with-plants-in-science/0/steps/58750

(2) https://byjus.com/biology/osmosis/

(3) http://www.scienceclarified.com/everyday/Real-Life-Chemistry-Vol-2/Osmosis-Real-life-applications.html

(4) https://puretecwater.com/reverse-osmosis/what-is-reverse-osmosis

(5) https://blog-en.condorchem.com/reverse-osmosis-applications/#.YHSDphRKglI

(6) https://purewatersystems.com.au/blogs/news/water-filter-vs-reverse-osmosis#:~:text=The%20difference%20between%20reverse%20osmosis,taste%20and%20odour%20from%20water.

(7) https://businessconnectworld.com/2018/06/13/water-filtration-systems

(8) https://www.culligan.com/blog/how-does-water-purification-filtration-work

Cover photo from: Michigan State University