Dr Seuss’ Absolution; or How Many Straws Does It Take to Save the Planet?

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Dr Seuss’ Absolution or How Many Straws Does it Take to Save the Planet

In the original version of the Lorax, while describing the plight of fish escaping the awful conditions of polluted waters Dr. Seuss continues the lines,

They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary

In search of some water that isn’t so smeary.


I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.

He was, however, so impressed with the clean-up efforts of the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie after the Clean Air and Water Act was passed that he removed the line per a request by students noting improvements.

Dan Egan, the author of The Life and Death of the Great Lakes, wonders if Dr. Seuss wouldn’t retract this absolution if he saw Lake Erie today. Today’s pollutants are not the flammable sludges of the past. They are organic and living organisms, but they are no less destructive and still very toxic. In addition to invasive species entering the lakes one of the worst pollutants are the fertilizers entering watersheds from “non-point sources”. (Non-point means from run off rather a pipe entering the river or lake.)

The excess phosphates and nitrates from agricultural run-off are the main cause of the Harmful Algal Blooms, or HABs, that have come to be a yearly occurrence in Lake Erie. HABs block much of the light other lifeforms need and secrete toxins that poison both wildlife and people alike. In 2014 Toledo was deprived of drinking water because its source, Lake Erie, was poisoned. Toledo is particularly susceptible to HABs because Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and the Maumee River delivers so much of the nutrient rich runoff from farms upstream.

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Algal bloom on Lake Erie. Source: University of Michigan

Photosynthetic cyanobacteria – the blue green algae in HABs – are the evolutionary reason we have oxygen in our air at all and are, along with other phytoplankton, responsible for 50% or more of the oxygen you are breathing right now. Put another way, every other breath you take is owed these microorganisms. They are also responsible for fixing nitrogen from the air – an extremely difficult task (even though nitrogen comprises 78% of the air) due to the triple bond of N2.

So, there is the good and the bad – they poison our water but give us oxygen and nitrogen that we need to breathe and eat.

How can we leverage the positive attributes and diminish the deleterious effects to the environment? And what does this have to do with an architecture blog? If you have read previous redhouse posts you’d guess, Why, bioterials of course. Using biomass harvested from cyanobacteria, redhouse and others have been able to make materials that can replace polluters and can lock carbon in the earth for hundreds to thousands of years, and may even attenuate ionizing radiation for space missions.

The algae from the lake could be harvested and used to make materials, and this should be considered for a short-term solution, but the better bet is to stop the problem at the (non-point) source – fertilizer runoff. Algae can then be grown in controlled conditions that are carbon sequestering and not toxic for the environment.

H2Ohio is a new program that pays farmers along the Maumee to limit their phosphate runoff. The planting of phosphate absorbing bio-strips around farmlands could limit run-off and increase produce yields. A study from Iowa State reports runoffs are reduced by 42% when edge of field prairie grasses are planted. A study from the Journal of Environmental Quality suggests that 90% of the phosphate run-off could be captured. Prairie grasses produce the type of biomass that we have leveraged in other projects to produce food, jobs, and shelters in a vertically integrated process. – See www.Bio-Hab.org. With a marketable outlet like mushroom substrates and bioterials there may be more interest in growing the sorbing material.

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Utilizing biomass from prairie grasses and algae to make architecture. Source: redhouse studio

Algal based products are being considered for many applications including biodegradable plastics to replace single serving plastics that last for hundreds of years and health supplements: spirulina and chlorella (2 types of cyanobacteria) are “superfoods”. One use we are experimenting with is using the hydrogels derived from algae. These hydrogels create water-rich environments for growing other organisms encased in semi-permeable membrane. We call this 4D printing because the organisms inside the 3d printed membranes require the 4th dimension of time to develop into new composite materials. Below are images of a printer developed by Dr. Filippos Tourlmousis at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, a frequent collaborator and friend of redhouse, that uses machine learning to correct for inconsistencies, and two promising interns demonstrating the process at more rudimentary level.

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The technologies being developed to use algae are not without challenges, especially a 4d formula where biological interactions make the process more complex, but the promise for materials that utilize this oxygen producer may hold the key to dealing with anthropogenic climate change.

When cyanobacteria started producing oxygen this was a huge deal!! This led to the Great Oxidation Event (GOE) and it happened 2.4 billion years ago. Its lucky for us of course, we need oxygen, but to (single celled) life at the time this was catastrophic. Photosynthesis, as we all know, turns CO2 to O2 and sequesters the carbon in biomass. Sometime that biomass releases the carbon from decay or burning, but if that biomass is stored or buried the net result is higher oxygen environment. More importantly for us it would mean less carbon, as CO2 is a major cause of climate change.

By converting cyanobacteria to biomass for products we would actually be scrubbing the atmosphere of CO2 by making useful (and, let’s be honest, mostly useless) objects and materials.

So, the big question:

If the single-serve manufacturing industry were retooled to utilize a CO2 absorbing process instead of a CO2 emitting process how many disposable straws would it take to save the planet? (Roughly*)

  • Assume that all  anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions stopped immediately and that all
    natural greenhouse gasses are in balance with natural carbon sequestration.
  • Assume the atmosphere is 5.15e15 metric tons of “air”
  • Assume that the atmosphere is 421ppm of CO2 on the day the factory starts.
  • Assume that the “air” contains 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.95% argon, and as mentioned 0.0421% CO2, leaving the remaining .0075% as water vapor.
  • Assume that the only variables that change are CO2 and O2 (this process perfectly converts CO2 to O2)
  • Assume there is a factory that makes single-use straws plastic straws that has a net absorption 100g of carbon per straw after all carbon Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is accounted for.
  • Assume that 100% of carbon that is absorbed returns to the soil.

Q: How many straws do need to make to get the atmosphere below 350ppm of CO2?

Bonus: how many straws does each of the 10billion people on earth have to use per day to get to 350ppm in 10 years.

Bonus: how much money would this company make if carbon credits stay at $50 per metric ton CO2 for the duration of the straw production?

Sent answers to mail@redhousestudio.net by 12/31/2020 for a chance to win a 4D printed object.

*Disclaimer: Some of the assumptions like carbon capture and the immutability of other variables are wildly unrealistic.