Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One more thing that plastic trees cannot do

Katy Kuh sent me a great story about a phytoremediation project at a hazardous waste site in Macon, Georgia.   The story states:  “Next to a Macon city park, a contaminated former industrial site is being ‘greened’ twice over: Hundreds of trees were planted there recently, so their roots will act as straws to drink up contaminated groundwater.”    The parties began removing contaminated soils in 1986.  The planting program of 376 trees focuses on red maple and sweet gum trees and is intended to supplement the ongoing pump-and-treat plan.

From an ecosystem services perspective, trees are quite important to the delivery of services needed for human health and well-being.  Trees in riparian areas control erosion, provide habitat and shelter, and regulate water quality and quantity.  Shade from trees reduces sun exposure, helping to lower energy costs and prevent skin disease.  Trees capture air pollutants and filter the stressors that trigger asthma problems. Trees provide an arena for outdoor recreation and help prevent childhood obesity.  Trees provide places for recreation, social gatherings, and meaningful interaction with nature, and they are otherwise essential in mitigating the effects of urbanization.  

The IUCN writes that “ecosystems work on such a large scale and in such intricate ways [that] their services cannot be replicated effectively by technology or their impacts extend well beyond effects on other market products and indicators.” With this in mind, the message of the phytoremediation story might be that nature is being treated as an additional piece of the machinery that can help to repair the damage done by industrial pollution.  Or perhaps the story says that we should look back to nature when technology is unable to provide a safe harbor from the problems we have created.  Or maybe this story is interesting because it is surprising to so many that nature is so “sophisticated”: perhaps it says that we should cease being so surprised every time we hear that nature does it better.  My guess is that trees have a lot more to offer, and it is about time that the legal system requires valuation of nature’s services before allowing the sacrifice of these benefits.  The latter idea is captured by genetics professor Richard Meagher at the University of Georgia: “It’s really pathetic that this hasn’t been used all the time.”

- Keith Hirokawa

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