The Earth911 Reader collects and comments on useful news about science, business, sustainability, and recycling to save you time and keep you informed.
Biden’s Day One Delivers Climate Hope
The end of the Trump era arrived with President Joe Biden’s decisive action only hours after his inauguration. He issued executive orders that will return the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accord and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline project. His team is preparing stimulus and infrastructure legislation that will include extensive funding for a green recovery, particularly renewable energy. We can also expect to see the restoration of protections for endangered species, wetlands, coastal and wilderness regions. But the Biden administration will also face challenging debates about pricing carbon, which does not always produce positive results.
The transition of power has also unlocked the potential for collaboration at the state and local level. The World Economic Forum suggests cities should: plan and provide funding to achieve net-zero emissions; create a dialog about locally relevant solutions and best practices; master technology and the art of buying technology, and; partner with other cities to invest in the green transition. Grist provides a comprehensive set of ideas for the Biden team to consider as they address climate policy. The article also notes that a third of the U.S. population lives in areas with 100% clean-energy goals in place, which can serve as examples for the rest of the nation. The question in the wake of COVID’s decimating impact on state and local budgets is whether there is enough money and political will to invest aggressively to reach net-zero by 2050. We need to get there sooner to avoid the worst of climate change.
There is also good news on the legal and business front as the Trump effect fades and his reign of environmental damage is reversed. Bloomberg reports that companies invested more than $500 billion in green infrastructure for the first time during 2020. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this week tossed out the Trump EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, which revoked some Clean Air Act protections. The court decision will allow the Biden Administration to introduce new power plant regulations that reduce CO2 emissions. A related report from GreenTechMedia explains that 70% of new power generation capacity that will be added in the U.S. during 202 will rely on wind and solar.
After four years of Trump, it’s clear that government cannot stop citizens, cities, states, and businesses from making progress toward a green economy. Now, we will see how much government can help accelerate progress and help prevent a climate crisis.
Elon Musk Becomes a Carbon Capture Hero
Removing CO2 from the atmosphere, not just reducing CO2 emissions, is critical to restoring the environment our grandparents knew. It is a moonshot-scale project needed to cool the planet. Tesla founder Elon Musk contributed to increasing the urgency of building an economically viable carbon capture and sequestration system. He announced a $100 million prize for the team that delivers “the best carbon capture technology,” Technology Review reports. What he means by “best” is unclear. Listen to our interviews with Peter Fiekowsky of the Foundation for Climate Restoration and carbon capture company Global Thermostat founder Graciela Chichilnisky (she might win Musk’s prize) to learn about the challenges of building carbon capture technology at scale. Musk’s commitment of money will encourage more experimentation and progress is essential because the alternative, atmospheric geoengineering promises to be a disaster of our own making. That approach would pump reflective dust into the sky to prevent some sunlight from reaching the Earth.
Fast-Charging EV Batteries on the Way
An Israeli startup, StoreDot, has demonstrated an electric vehicle lithium-ion battery that charges to support 100 miles of driving in five minutes. They can be built on existing manufacturing lines, The Guardian reports. A Chinese manufacturer produced the batteries and a researcher writing in Nature Energy this week claims the system can be integrated into an EV that sells for $25,000. How does it work? Instead of regular electrodes, the StoreDot system uses a semiconducting nanoparticle-coated electrode to reduce resistance, which increases the amount of power flowing into the battery. “This battery has reduced weight, volume and cost,” Chao-Yang Wang, a chemical engineering professor and professor of materials science at Penn State University, told Energy Daily. “I am very happy that we finally found a battery that will benefit the mainstream consumer mass market.”
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Climbed in Late 2020
The prospect of revenge pollution as people get back to their old ways and make up for the lost time by traveling and using more fossil fuels looks very real. A new study reported in Nature this week found that after falling steeply in early 2020, emissions jumped in the second half of the year. Globally, CO2 levels fell by 6.4% during the plague year, while U.S. emissions dropped 12.9% compared to 2019. The good news is that we can change our environmental impact by rethinking our travel and energy use patterns. The bad news, though, is humans don’t appear to be willing to reduce emissions permanently. In related news, researcher Damon Matthews of Concordia University in Montreal reports that his team has established a “carbon budget” that provides a guide to how much humanity must reduce CO2 emissions to meet the Paris Accord climate goals. Humans can release only 230 to 440 billion tons more CO2 before atmospheric warming breaches the 1.5°C threshold of irreversible climate change. “I am optimistic that having national leadership in the U.S. that can mobilize efforts on climate change will make a big difference over the coming years,” Matthews told Phys.org.
Scientists Warn: A “Ghastly Future” Ahead
The combination of global warming, loss of biodiversity, and rising health risks due to climate change foretell a global disaster if climate policy is not dramatically changed, a team of researchers from Australia and the U.S. warns in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science. Like other scientists, they suggest that all is not lost but that we are running out of time to act. “Ours is not a call to surrender—we aim to provide leaders with a realistic “cold shower” of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future.” They point to many depressing changes in the planet’s ecosystems. The loss of 85% of wetlands compared to 300 years ago. Loss of half of coral reefs. Soil degradation. Rising average atmospheric temperatures. It is evidence they hope will wake policymakers to the urgency of our situation. They also identify population growth in regions that will be severely impacted by drought and extreme weather, and, well, the list goes on and on. In another call for action described in Nature, 111 aquatic societies representing more than 80,000 scientists deliver a similar but oceans and freshwater-focused list of alarming changes in the environment in a “Statement of World Aquatic Scientific Societies on the Need to Take Urgent Action against Human-Caused Climate Change, Based on Scientific Evidence.” If political leaders act, they conclude, “movement to curtail human-caused climate change can result in advanced, novel technologies; strong economies; healthier aquatic ecosystems; greater food security; and human well-being.”
Monarch Butterfly Populations Down by 80% Since the 1990s
An iconic species may be on the brink of extinction. Monarch butterfly counts in California this winter found only 2,000 of the insects at their wintering ground compared to the millions reported in the 1980s, Phys.org reports. In Colorado, another migration route, populations are down by 80% over the same period. Phys.org points out that a 2017 Washington State University study predicted that if the Monarch population fell below 30,000, the species will survive only a few decades. It’s time to ban pesticides that kill natural pollinators, including butterflies and bees. The U.S. should consider adding the Monarch butterfly to the Endangered Species List now. But President Trump refused to protect the Monarch in December 2020.
Spice Up Solar Cells for Added Efficiency
A Chinese scientist, Qinye Ban, reports that he increased the efficiency of solar cells by 14.5% when he treated them with capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot to the taste. The spicy addition produced more free electrons on the solar cell surface, increasing the system’s conductivity. “It is our priority to select sustainable forest-based biomaterials,” Bao told New Scientist. “Capsaicin is low-cost, natural, sustainable and Earth-abundant.” Let’s hear it for nature and spicy foods.
Wheat Straw Can Be Made Into Biodegradable Foam Rubber
This week, in Spain, the University of Cordoba announced a new use for the 734 million tons of wheat straw typically handled as agricultural waste. It can be converted into a biodegradable polyurethane foam used in construction and automobiles or as a sealant and thermal insulator. Phys.org reports that the researchers also identified a novel use for the material, which breaks down in the soil. They inject the foam with water and lay it on the ground in nurseries. “Instead of watering the plant, and with the aim of dealing with drought problems and preventing overwatering, we would inject the water into the foam so that the plant can consume it as needed,” the team said.
Solar Industry Facing Slave-Labor Charges
Inhabitat reports that solar components and panels made in China’s Xinjiang province are produced using slave labor. The far northwestern region is well known as the center of oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority. One of the Trump administration’s parting decisions was to accuse China of human rights violations related to their treatment of the Uighurs — not an act of courage, by the way, because Trump left before the political consequences came. President Biden may have to choose between a critical source of solar products and human rights, Inhabitat argues.
GreenTech Media adds details about the report, produced by Horizon Advisory, a consulting company. It describes the “indicators of forced labor” they identified suspect companies, particularly Jinko Solar, which trades on U.S. stock markets, as one of the culprits. There will be a reckoning. Jinko, which a spokesman said “condemns the use of forced labor,” denied its involvement. It and other producers will face increased scrutiny and, probably, boycotts. If eliminating the use of slave labor raises the cost of solar technology, we endorse the higher prices. The solution we suggest to the Biden administration: Force a complete disclosure by any company selling products in the U.S. and offer subsidies only on those products provably free from slave labor and, while we’re at it, that create adverse environmental impacts.
Are Recycling Machines the Future of a Circular Economy?
Consumer products giants Unilever, maker of hundreds of familiar food and home cleaning brands, and China’s Alibaba launched an intriguing experiment in making recycling easier, GreenBiz reports. Their Waste-Free World program relies on vending machines that recognize plastic product packaging using scannable Q.R. codes and artificial intelligence. When customers deposit items, they can earn coupons from Unilever or Alibaba AliPay rewards points. They have placed 20 of the machines in Shanghai and Hangzhou and plan to deploy 500 more this year. The program hopes to collect 500 tons of plastic and change consumer behavior. Unilever has announced it will reduce the amount of virgin plastic it uses by 50% by 2025. It is not clear whether these systems require the packaging to be cleaned first or if, for example, a laundry detergent container can be deposited containing leftover detergent. Clean materials will be a key to producing usable recycled plastic. The challenge of getting consumers to prepare their recyclables correctly remains.
In a related story, the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners released a new report on the viability of reusable packaging. A departure from the recycling strategy used by Unilever and Alibaba, the report focuses on the problem of single-use drink cups at fast-food and quick-service restaurants. “Reuse models are a critical tool in the fight against plastic waste, and brands and retailers are increasingly exploring them as a viable waste-reduction strategy,” Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy, told Sustainable Brands. “Reusable packaging and cups are just the beginning; refill, resale and rental models that keep materials in circulation are poised to reinvent all kinds of product formats and industries.
How Will the Recycling Industry Evolve in 2021?
WasteDive offers a set of essential questions facing the recycling industry as it continues to adjust to changing export regulations, economic challenges, and how the end of the pandemic will reshape public expectations. It is crucial to keep in mind that recycling is a profit-driven business. But business everywhere is changing as customers demand better environmental and social results, as well as changes in governance to provide transparency. Meeting climate goals, in particular, is essential to the health of any business, not just the community it serves — disruption is bad for business. Will 2021 produce dramatic changes in federal and state recycling policy? In New York and Washington, extended producer responsibility laws are under debate in the legislature. These laws could shift the financing of recycling from the consumer to the manufacturer of packaging and products. How will recycled content requirements change, and can the industry meet those goals? Local and state governments may need to subsidize the next step in recycling’s evolution to get the ball rolling. And what technological advances are ahead? Read this WasteDive analysis to get a sense of the invisible infrastructure behind your blue bin and how to change it for the better.
A Big Oil Plastic Recycling Program Collapses
Renew Oceans was a Singapore-based project aimed at reducing plastic pollution in rivers and the oceans of South Asia financed by Exxon Mobil, Shell, Dow Inc., Chevron Phillips, and scores of other oil-related companies. Renew Oceans was touted by the industry at its 2019 launch as a significant effort to clean up the mess these companies make. The organization claimed it “ultimately could stop the flow of plastic into the planet’s ocean.” Reuters reports it shut down in October 2020 without public notice, and Reuters challenged the backers to explain why. While COVID-19 was partly to blame, it seems that plastic manufacturers are reducing funding to recycling programs because, according to a lawyer representing Renew Oceans, “the organization has come to the conclusion that it simply does not have the capacity to work at the scale this problem deserves.” At the same time, these companies want the world’s consumers to keep buying plastic packaging for beverages, food, and everything. It was greenwashing, basically: over two years, it funded three small projects. Extended producer responsibility laws are needed at the national and global level to address plastic pollution because the industry won’t do it unless mandated as a condition of doing business.
Food Waste Increased During COVID and Can Be Reversed
Many food waste reduction and household composting programs shuttered during the pandemic, but they are poised to return better and more focused. For instance, New York City stopped its curbside food waste recycling program and plans to restart in mid-2022. Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles postponed or froze new programs until later this year. A federal initiative that includes legally binding goals and support for infrastructure development is needed to catalyze a leap forward. Only 27 states currently have mandatory recycling regulations today. The programs still make economic sense, Bob Spencer of the Windham (Vermont) Solid Waste Management District told Sustainable Brands. “Food waste recycling is a good financial move. Brattleboro has been doing curbside food waste pickup since 2013. It saves $35 a ton versus landfill disposal, which saves the town about $30,000 a year.” Reducing food waste lowers CO2 emissions, and usable food collections can offset food shortages in low-income communities.
ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE
Enter the Young Eco-Hero Awards — Tell Your Kids
This year, one of the most inspiring Earth911 podcasts was with Adarsh Ambati, winner of the Young Eco-Hero Awards Innovator prize in 2020 for his lawn watering system. It’s time for entries for this year’s program, and we encourage kids who are working on projects to improve the environment, reduce water usage or food waste, reforest their area, or any great idea to apply to participate. This will be the 18th year Action For Nature, a non-profit based in the U.S., has offered the awards. Entrants are encouraged from every corner of the globe. Winners receive a modest $500 cash prize. After talking with Adarsh Ambati, it’s clear the process helps entrants improve how they tell their story, helping them get financial traction for their project.
Join a Zoom Rally Hosted by Build Back Fossil Free on January 26
Build Back Fossil Free will host an online rally to call on President Biden to take more aggressive climate policy on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Sign up to participate over Zoom. The event is free. Hear from leaders in the anti-fossil fuel movement and amplify your voice by joining others to ask for protection for and investment in working-class and Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, an end to fossil fuel production, and a national climate mobilization. That last demand echoes calls for a declaration of a climate emergency by scientists around the world.