Every week, the Earth911 team combs news and research for interesting ideas and stories about the challenges of creating a sustainable world. We pick a few science, sustainability, recycling, and business stories, along with ideas you can act on to support the environment and Earth-friendly initiatives. Sometimes it is good news we can all celebrate, sometimes it is bad news or a seemingly intractable challenge that should make us double-down on finding new solutions. We call it the Earth911 Reader and we hope you find it useful.

In Sustainability

California To Ban Gas and Diesel Car Sales by 2035

The sixth-largest market for cars in the world, California, will ban the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2035, CleanTechnica reports. Governor Gavin Newsome, who has battled pandemic and wildfire all year, signed an executive order to stop the sale, but not an outright ban on internal combustion vehicles. California’s big challenge is rethinking its infrastructure. It must change how it builds cities and suburbs for car dependence and reimagine the car culture that helped define the state’s identity. Many barriers to success, from building a charging infrastructure to generating energy from renewable sources at sufficient capacity to fuel the state’s driving, are detailed in the coverage.

What’s Next Now That Climate Disruption Is Permanent?

The New York Times delivered a comprehensive explanation of the many large and small impacts that climate change will have worldwide, using recent California events to illustrate this new peril. People, property, and ways of life are at risk. Still, the report does hold out hope that a late awakening to climate change damage can spur innovation and social changes to build a sustainable economy. Yet it is painfully apparent for those on the West Coast that we cannot change fast enough to avoid devastating climate damage.

The Wealth Gap Extends to CO2 Emissions, Too

Phys.org reports on a recent Oxfam study that found that global greenhouse gas emissions rose 60% between 1990 and 2015. It also showed that the wealthiest one percent of humans — about 63 million people — account for more CO2 output than the poorest half of the planet’s population. Economic growth since 1970 was increasingly unequal. The lopsided share of emissions created by the wealthy shows that debates about the trade-offs between prosperity and sustainability may be resolved by emphasizing equality when exploring green economic strategies. “It’s clear that the carbon-intensive and highly unequal model of economic growth over the last 20-30 years has not benefited the poorest half of humanity,” said Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research at Oxfam. “It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that we have to choose between economic growth and (fixing) the climate crisis.” It starts with counting and taxing carbon, we think.

California Wildfires Are a Carbon Dioxide Disaster

We are only two-thirds through 2020, but California has already broken its record for CO2 emissions for any year since records were first kept in 2003, Quartz reported. California has produced one-third more emissions than in other years. 83 million metric tons of CO2 were released by the massive wildfires that have scorched more than 7 million acres this year. Wildfire smoke is more polluting than all of California’s vehicle and industrial output. The implications are dire. If every year sees fires of the same magnitude, the carbon released will require other sources to be cut to prevent accelerated warming. This is the price of having waited to stop emissions, and now the choices will be even more challenging. California’s decision to end gas-burning vehicle sales in 2035 is remarkably conservative in light of the evidence or recent weeks.

U.S. Electrical Producers Must Stop Relying on Natural Gas To Achieve Decarbonization

GreenTechMedia reports on a recent Deloitte analysis of U.S. electric utilities, which continue to rely on natural gas as an interim step from coal to renewables. Now is the first time industry has tried to transition from one energy source to another in only three decades, Deloitte points out. Though the transition should have started two decades earlier. “There are significant gaps between decarbonization targets and the scheduled fossil-fuel plant retirements, renewable additions, and flexibility requirements needed to achieve full decarbonization,” Deloitte writes. “The math doesn’t yet add up.” The researchers propose a three-phase transition with short-term efforts focus on moving off coal and beginning carbon capture and storage projects. After 2030, the utilities can start to reshape their generation systems, achieve a flexible grid, and migrate to solar and renewable gasses.

Shoppers Will Get Sustainable Products Help From Amazon

In a first step toward enabling sustainable shopping decisions, Amazon announced this week that it will put a “Climate Pledge Friendly” tag on as many as 25,000 products. Unfortunately, as Eco Watch reports, the reality is that the products are a tiny fraction of the 120 million items for sale on the site. The Environmental Defense Fund wrote skeptically but positively about the announcement: “Amazon’s sustainable shopping site is a critical first step, and the potential to raise awareness across the globe is unparalleled.” Actually tracking carbon through the supply chain is much more easily promised than done, the EDF argues. And Amazon is not currently addressing social justice, governance, or other critical elements of humane sustainability, which are essential to ethical decisions, too.

couple laying on a natural green bed and smiling


In Science

Cutting Plastic Pollution Won’t Keep Up With Plastic Growth

The use of plastic is increasing faster than efforts to reduce plastic pollution can offset additional waste that reaches the oceans, a new report in Science Magazine reports. The volume of plastic made will continue to increase, meaning even as improvements are made in recycling, the volume of plastic pollution will rise. We need to be much better at collecting plastic, but the current plastic recycling system is broken, as EcoWatch wrote this week. A key idea called out in the article is that collecting plastic from households will require “waste pickers” to be integrated into the economy. Globally, these menial laborers who pull plastic from dumps and garbage bins accounted for “58% of post consumer plastic waste collected for recycling in 2016.” A resident of the developed world disdains this work. Yet, it could be instrumental to our preserving nature and human prosperity. Perhaps it is time to recognize that anyone working a full-time job to create sustainable economic outcomes needs to be paid a generous living wage.

The Gulf Stream Is Weakening Due to Climate Changes

The Gulf Stream, or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which moves warm water into the North Atlantic and cold water toward the equator, shows signs of slowing. The amount of energy transferred by the AMOC is greater than human energy use each year. If it fails, It could result in higher salinity in the Southern Atlantic and weather changes across the Northern Hemisphere on both sides of the Atlantic. Long predicted, Real Climate reports that this is another signal confirmation of climate science’s predictive power.

Arctic Ice Reaches Second-Lowest Level in Recorded History

A blue sea throughout the summer at the North Pole is becoming more probably every year, even though it was not predicted for several more decades. Nature reports that high Summer temperatures in Siberia following a warm winter produced a Sept. 15, 2020 ice sheet of only 2.32 million square miles (3.74 million kilometers) in size. Only 2012 saw less ice coverage on the Arctic Ocean. This March, Arctic ice covered only 5.4 million square miles, the 11th lowest coverage on record.


In Business

Making Carbon Pledges Count

Grist‘s Emily Pontecorvo writes that corporate pledges to become carbon neutral or negative are often self-deluding or deceptive because companies selectively count emissions. She points to Google’s statements that it has been carbon neutral since 2007. But that statement is based on the performance of its offices, data centers and employee commutes and travel, which account for only 27% of Google emissions. They don’t count manufacturing-related emissions for its smart home and computing products or supplier carbon footprints, which Google has acknowledged. The Science Based Targets initiative recently announced a project to establish global standards for net-zero pledges. That standard could be applied with confidence that action will translate into reduced carbon emissions.

GE Abandons Coal-Fired Power Plant Construction

Perhaps it was just bowing to market realities, but General Electric said this week it will stop building coal-powered electricity generation plants, according to Environmental Leader.

Tesla Underwhelms With Battery Day

The eagerly anticipated Tesla “Battery Day” failed to deliver a significant breakthrough in battery technology, The Guardian reported. Still, Elon Musk promised to cut the cost of Tesla battery technology by 56% over the next three years. At that level, around $80 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) compared to today’s $156/kWH cost for Tesla batteries, electric vehicles will achieve economic parity with internal combustion vehicles. The world and Wall Street were expecting more prominent things, including a rumored million-mile battery. Tesla shares fell 13.4% between Friday, Sept. 18, and Thursday, Sept. 24, and that after they gained 1.95% on Thursday.

Plastic Polluters Quantified

Statista offers a graphic that shows the pollution volume from the “world’s worst offenders for plastic pollution.” Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle are the top-three plastic polluters, accounting for 2.9 million tons, 2.3 million tons and 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging produced respectively. Seriously, folks, the easiest way to reduce your plastic footprint is to abandon the PET bottle in favor or other packaging. For additional insight into the plastic pollution produced and the energetic marketing of half- and none-measures announced by polluters, take some time to read Talking-Trash.com‘s study. They examined corporate plastic pollution in 15 nations. The plastic industry’s strategy, they write, is to “distract, delay, and derail legislation” that would require them to clean up their packaging and the waste it produces.

Infographic: The World's Worst Offenders For Plastic Pollution | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Big Oil’s Paltry Climate Plans

OilChange International this week released a study that examines the climate plans at the largest oil and gas companies on the planet, Big Oil Reality Check — Assessing Oil And Gas Climate Plans. In a nutshell, “none come close to aligning their actions with the urgent 1.5°C global warming limit as outlined by the Paris Agreement.” Incredibly depressing is a graphic that summarizes eight oil companies’ plans is a sea of red, which represents “grossly insufficient” efforts. Last week, we wrote about BP and ExxonMobil’s recent declarations that they will move into renewables, which may be the first sign of real change. Yet, there is literally nothing to be hopeful about in this report.

Big Oil Reality Check
Source: Oil Change International

Bamboo Toilet Paper Is the New Unicorn Wannabe Industry?

Uber’s CEO, Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban, Robert Downey Jr., and others have piled into a bamboo toilet paper investment, Cloud Paper, TechCrunch reports. They put a collective $3 million into the company that promises to reduce deforestation using bamboo instead of virgin timber for TP. Earth911 is assembling a buyer’s guide to sustainable toilet paper. While bamboo has advantages, we are not convinced that bamboo products shipped from Asia are fundamentally more sustainable than recycled toilet paper. Recycled TP can be made from recovered domestic post-consumer paper, avoiding overseas shipping. But investors are human and like to chase appealing stories that could net them huge profits. We have identified at least nine companies doing the same thing. And Business Green reports that climate-conscious venture capital investments are “soaring,” which is an excellent sign for green startups. We all need to get ready to ignore all the talk and wait to see which companies actually succeed.

Morgan Stanley Prepares To Stop Funding for CO2-Intensive Companies

After investing $91 billion in fossil fuel companies between 2016 and 2019, investment bank Morgan Stanley is pledging to stop providing funding for companies that generate CO2 as a by-product of their business. That’s good news, but the bank will not achieve “zero financed emissions” until 2050, Business Green reports. As noted above, the bank points to measuring CO2 emissions as a problem it must solve to enact its pledge. This is an important decision. We hope Morgan Stanley follows through, immediately ending its financing of firms that clearly contribute to global warming. The bank should only fund fossil fuel company projects that move away from burning petroleum.

Walmart Announces 2040 Zero-Emissions, Reforestation Goals

In a press release, Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon said: “We want to play an important role in transforming the world’s supply chains to be regenerative. We face a growing crisis of climate change and nature loss, and we all need to take action with urgency.” To accomplish that, the company will transition to 100% renewable energy by 2040, switch to an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2040, transition its cooling systems to “low-impact” refrigerants and restore 50 million acres of forest in the same timeframe. It currently uses renewable energy for about 29% of its operations. ClimateFriendlySupermarkets.org, however, points to Walmart’s 15% progress toward sustainability goals for supermarkets as evidence the retailer is far from fulfilling on the promise. Once again, we are promised change and need exact measurements that can be used to hold businesses accountable. Otherwise, these announcements are nothing but marketing spin.


In Recycling

Innovators Racing To Add Smart Tech in Recycling Systems

The recycling system relies on a 1950s collection infrastructure and increasingly sophisticated sorting technology at the materials recovery facility (MRF) where recycling is processed. Now developers are introducing artificial intelligence devices that plug into existing sensors and tracking-plus-incentive systems based on blockchain technology to refine collection and sorting processes. As plastic pollution soars amid the pandemic, it’s time to rethink recycling. The on-demand delivery world could provide new local recovery options. However, it will still fall to consumers to send clean, dry, and well-sorted materials to their recycling program. As noted in a story above, “trash picking” is an essential component of successful materials recovery. That labor is performed by the very poorest people in other countries. Technology can assist consumers with sorting and even provide financial or promotional rewards from brands for successful recycling. A distributed, on-demand recycling system could be invented during this decade. It is still early days.

China’s Waste Import Bans Questioned by U.S. Recyclers

The Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), an industry organization representing recyclers, has called on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to China to demand greater transparency in developing materials importation rules. During the growing trade war between China and the U.S., Chinese leadership has introduced increasingly “overly-strict” rules about what can and cannot be sent to the country for recycling. It threatens not only U.S. recyclers, ISRI argues, but also the Chinese firms that rely on U.S. materials, notably aluminum, brass, and copper, to produce new items. “[I]t is our general understanding that the Chinese Government intends to ban all “solid waste” by 2021, but there has been no transparency on such a policy, leading to great uncertainty in the marketplace,” ISRI wrote to the USTR. Many of China’s decisions were justified by environmental concerns, but after years of rising tensions, arbitrary trade decisions are preventing both nations from making use of recycled materials.

Rethink “Single-Use Stuff” To Rethink the Economy

Bloomberg’s Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, keynoted WasteExpo last week. He suggested that the rising tide of single-use products and packaging breaks an emerging global circular economy. Waste360 reports on his presentation, which may be available soon for viewing. The core of his thesis is that developed economies naturally shed old materials that can be successfully reused or recycled in emerging economies. He pointed to a Vermont-based recycler that has successfully exported old electronics to Ghana. “The Ghanese people view these used electronics as ‘stuff,’ not as waste or recycling, as many Americans would,” Waste 360 reported Minter said. During COVID, Americans have begun to understand the value of repair and reuse, Minter said. “During COVID, we’re seeing a lot of people taking up the cause of mending and fixing their clothes. Now that’s a small-scale movement, but people are starting to think more in terms of durability; in terms of their things lasting longer.”

Corrugated Cardboard and Tissue Recycling on the Rise

Kelly McNamara of Numera Analytics told the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) that corrugated cardboard — known in the industry as OCC, or “old corrugated containers” — are being recycled more despite China’s ban on contaminated cardboard imports, Recycling Today reports. Other Asian nations have begun to import cardboard. Concurrently, consumer demand for recycled paper personal care products is reshaping paper recycling in the United States. Demand for printing paper and newsprint have fallen by 21% and 47%, respectively. At the same time, OCC now accounts for almost two-thirds of recovered paper globally. Tissue paper, driven by consumer demand for recycled products, has soared by 34% over the last decade. The article also discusses packaging innovation, including smart packaging that helps return post-consumer recycling materials. It is a good read to get an informed perspective on why some materials are no longer recycled because they are not profitable. And because that material isn’t going away, we need to reorganize U.S. recycling to eliminate the unnecessary waste that unrecycled materials contribute to landfills and incineration-related pollution.


Actions You Can Take

Pledge to Vote Earth

The Earth Day Foundation asks everyone to vote this November. It will send reminders and news updates to voters who pledge to vote for environmental progress. Visit the site to signup or text VOTEEARTH or VOTE to 202-816-5784.

Get Active With Only One

Only One is a new learning and citizen action site that calls for ocean protections and restoration during the 2020s — they want to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030. Although only just launched, it features informative stories about ocean pollution and preservation along with actions you can support and fund with a few clicks. For example, you can sign a petition to world governments demanding protections for Antarctic waters and biodiversity. They promise to keep you tuned into what you can do to support our planet’s seas.

Watch the Second Annual Global Climate Restoration Forum

Carbon capture and storage can contribute to the restoration of the environment to pre-industrial CO2 levels. These technologies and natural tactics, such as seeding sections of the ocean with milled iron to encourage algae blooms that capture CO2, were discussed during the Second Annual Global Climate Restoration Forum. The entire event is now available to stream for free on YouTube.

Register for 24 Hours of Reality

Vice President Al Gore and a group of activists from around the world will present a 24-hour climate call to action event, 24 Hours of Reality, starting at 4 PM EDT on Oct. 11. You can join in and watch conversations about the climate crisis, racial justice, the impact of COVID-19 on environmental policy and personal behavior. Declaring that “We are at an inflection point,” the group is dedicated to helping society make the turn to sustainability. Want to know more? Local presentations are available for schools and organizations, just reach out and ask to schedule a free virtual event.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.