On Material and Environmental Issues

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Author: Dr. Kari I. Keskinen

I retired a little over four years ago. I moved with my wife from Finland to Madeira island, which is an autonomic part of Portugal. We live in a countryside village, but it is not so long car drive to any part of the island. In Madeira, there are now less than 260 000 inhabitants but normally the tourists increase the number of people here considerably. Tourism is very important for the economy of the island.

In Madeira, Portugal, the UV index hits values over 8 very often and these extreme values of 10 and over often happen during summer.

Kari Keskinen

I moved here after a knee operation and had problems in moving in the few first months. While sitting in the balcony and looking on the street I saw two local women walking with an umbrella although there were no clouds. After a short thinking, it was obvious that they were actually protecting themselves from the hot sun and high ultraviolet radiation. I checked the weather forecast and it stated that the UV index was then 11. Our friend Wikipedia tells that originally when the UV index scale was constructed a value of 10 was set as maximum and the scale was linear on the radiation intensity. Further, that article indicated that due to changes in climate, ozone depletion in the atmosphere partly due to escaped CFC compounds, and in high mountainous areas, it is possible to have values over 10. The maximum reported value for the UV index was 43.3 but scientists have disputed values over 26. Anyway, I have seen that in Madeira the UV index hits values over 8 very often and these extreme values of 10 and over often happen during summertime.

The effects of high UV radiation are skin cancer and material issues here. Skin cancer here is quite common and thus the locals know to protect themselves when there is high radiation.

Plastic Articles with UV Protection

Material issues with high UV radiation are different and some of these are not easy to tackle. Plastics deteriorate quickly if they do not have proper UV protection. One of our friend moved to another apartment here and there a plastic water bucket had been left in the balcony. She took hold of the handle of the water bucket and lifting using that only the handle was in her hand while the water bucket broke into many pieces. We have had similar experiences with plastic items. We had two sunbeds which had a frame of aluminum but the other material was brown polypropylene rattan. These lasted outside only one and a half years and the plastic strips started to broke and came hard with a matte surface. The products were claimed to have UV protection. We were able to have them in warranty exchange, but chose another type of sunbeds with UV protected black polypropylene rattan. These have lasted now two and a half years.

Many plastic products do not have enough UV protection. As a result, they degrade faster under high UV radiation.

Kari Keskinen

Additionally, we have a dining table and four chairs that are always outside. These have aluminum frame and black polypropylene rattan. They were taken with us from Finland when we moved here and have already lasted about seven years. This probably means that it is possible to have better UV protection in black plastic. Many other plastic items are quite quickly getting bad in high UV radiation. A lot of the plastic items sold here, like nowadays in many other countries, are made in China, Vietnam etc. There probably the UV radiation is not so high as here and thus the degree of the UV protection is not so good as required in other places?

Products with plastic components exposed to high UV radiation. Source: www.unsplash.com

Paint Generating Microplastics

While walking in our outside stairs and having a hold of the railing my hands get green. That is from the green paint used. It seems that the polymer-based paint does not resist enough UV radiation and heating of the surfaces by direct sunlight. This means that very small plastic particles are formed from the paint. These might get flushed with rain and eventually end in the sea.

Degraded paint is a source of microplastics.
Loss of Color in Clothes

The high UV radiation causes fabric and clothing to lose their colors. It is normally good by energy consumption to dry clothes outside as they get dry very fast, unless it rains. If left for a longer period outside the colors are fading. Certain colors are kept better than others. It seems also that some fibers of the fabrics do not resist the sun so well as some other material.

Sorting Waste Needs Improvement

We have quite a good garbage collection system here. In collection stations, paper and cardboard have one common bin. Similarly glass and general waste both have their own bins. In some collection stations, there are additional bins for plastics and metal (in mixed bin). In a few places, they collect also the cooking oils in a separate bin. They also collect electronic devices. I have seen that the way how people separate different wastes needs improvement. Hopefully, they are investing time in these issues in schools and the situation improves.

The forest fires, of course, destroy areas of forest but some houses might also be lost, and a lot of carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere.

Kari Keskinen

Sea Turtles Died by Ingesting Microplastics

I just read a few days ago from a local newspaper that more than 60 % of the sea turtles found as dead on the seashores here have ingested plastics. Additionally, there are of course micro-plastics on their tissues. The information about the plastic content in local fish I have not seen. There is not so much plastic waste floating on the seaside and beaches. The beaches are cleaned often as tourism is so important for the island economy.

In the last two years, the plastic bags here have got a special charge on their price to reduce their usage. Multi-use bags, bags of recycled material, or paper bags are offered at reasonable prices in supermarkets.

Burning Organic Waste in Fields

On the countryside, a lot of organic waste is created in gardens and crop fields. The common way here in the countryside is to collect these weeds, tree and bush branches, etc to piles and once dry they are burnt. This is generally allowed only during the rainy season from November to March. Then it is common to see smoke rising simultaneously from several directions. These cause a smell and some ash that is flying around with the wind. Luckily, most of the minerals are left on the ground as ash and that reduces the need to use fertilizers. Anyway, a lot of fine particle emissions are created and these might be a health issue.

We have a quite big plot and grow our own vegetables and fruits. We have decided to do composting as much as possible and try to avoid the burning of the organic stuff. We get good quality mold containing the nutrients to improve the land. Additionally, this binds some of the carbon to the mold and that is released slowly to the atmosphere compared to burning. This will also reduce the amount of fertilizers needed.

We also try to avoid the use of pesticides and that means a lot of manual work, but then we know what we eat. There are lots of information that in the future some components needed in fertilizers, like phosphorus, are getting hard to obtain in needed quantities to support the amounts of fertilizers needed for food production for the world population. There is also the problem with the burning of the wastes in piles that few times a year a forest fire is created by escaped fire. The forest fires, of course, destroy areas of the forest but some houses might also be lost, and a lot of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. The forest fires around the world have been getting more serious due to changing climate and dryness in many areas. Our neighbor said that nowadays there is much less rain in this area than forty years ago.

Forest fire close-up. Source:www.unsplash.com
Slow Erosion of Salts in the Sand Used

I have noticed that some concrete here degrades at a rate that can be seen by following some years. The reason is mainly the sand used. In case the sand is lifted from the sea bottom and not washed properly with clean water there are some salts in the sand. The salt in the sand of course reacts with the cement creating soluble compounds that are slowly taken away with rain. It is possible that the heavy winds take out some small salty water droplets that are then carried to the land and also speed up the concrete degradation. Also, the salt causes corrosion and rusting of the structural steel leading to steel expansion and cracks in the concrete. It is advisable to use sand made of crushed rocks or sand from rivers. Due to the current pace of construction, there are worldwide problems in obtaining good quality sand for concrete.

Rust Spots on Stainless Steel

Some chrome plated and even stainless steel items are getting rust spots. That means clearly a material problem. Cheaply made items do not always have the material quality that they should have. Not all stainless steel are of the required resistance against high UV radiation, heat, moisture and possibly salt carried in small water droplets from the sea by winds.

Reduction in Diesel Usage

Here are going on different projects to fulfill the need of energy. New wind turbines are installed, large areas of solar cells are installed, hydroelectric power plants, waste burning etc. Small houses often have a solar water heater in the roof. Still slightly more than half of the electricity needed is created by burning diesel, then comes the natural gas, followed by wind power. Tendency is to reduce usage of diesel. As the terrain here has quite many steep roads diesel cars are often favored over gasoline cars. The number of hybrid and electric cars is slowly increasing.

The problem with poorly maintained diesel cars is the black smoke emitted from the exhaust pipe when accelerating the vehicle. This leads often to very bad smell in the numerous tunnels of new roads. The rechargeable hybrid and fully electric cars will increase the need of electricity, but if the electricity is still produced in great part with diesel then their positive effect on the environment is partly lost.

Car exhaust. Source:www.unsplash.com

As a conclusion, I would state that human actions create a lot of environmental issues. These will give new requirements for materials and chemicals used in construction and production of goods. In future more emphasis should be set on producing more durable products and reduction of disposable products. The recycling of used materials is beneficial as then not so much new virgin raw materials are needed.

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