The Earth911 team combs news and research for interesting ideas and stories about the challenges of creating a sustainable world. We pick the science, sustainability, recycling, and business stories to give you a summary of the week’s changes, 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.
California’s Catastrophic Wildfire Season Is 20 Years Early
Scientific American delivers a chilling report on the surprise among fire and climate researchers at the scale of California’s wildfires during 2020. Fires that burn up to 4.1 million acres in a single year were not forecast to happen until 2050. While one fire season does not constitute a trend, the massive Australian and Amazon wildfires during the past year confirm that there are real reasons for concern. Researchers predict that fires could burn 77% more land each year by 2100. California’s 2012 to 2015 drought, the worst in 1,200 in the region, and continued human migration into fire zones exacerbate the problem. In related news, NPR reports that 32 million homes were built in the “woodland-urban interface” between 199 and 2015, many of which are now at risk from annual wildfires.
Antarctic Weddell Sea Warming Five Times Faster Than Other Deep Ocean Areas
A new study from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research reports that the deeper parts of the Antarctic Weddell Sea below 2000 meters (6,561 feet) are warming five times faster than other deepwater regions in the world’s oceans. “By using the temperature rise to calculate the warming rate in watts per square meter, you can see that over the past 30 years, at depths of over 2,000 meters the Weddell Sea has absorbed five times as much heat as the rest of the ocean on average,” Wade Crowfoot of the California Natural Resources Agency told Phys.org. The warming is caused by changing wind and sea current patterns in the Southern Ocean. The transition could disrupt currents worldwide, as the region is the setting for 15 percent of sea-current overturning globally. As oceans absorbed heat from the warming atmosphere, which has dampened the impact of climate change until now, the currents have shifted, and more warm water is flowing into the depths of the Weddell Sea. More warm water is forced into the area by shifting currents, raising the deepwater temperature by about 0.0024 degrees Celsius per year. Warming waters will accelerate Antarctic ice loss and atmospheric warming, fueling more global warming.
Less Disinfectant In Water Could Improve Quality, Reduce Pollution
Every water pipe in the world is lined with a biofilm of living organisms. For decades, water systems have used chlorine to disinfect water and pipes. A new study from the University of Sheffield (U.K.) found that reduced chlorine use improves water quality without increasing water-borne illness risk. “Drinking water is not sterile, and you wouldn’t want to drink it if it was as it would taste horrible. It’s the minerals and good bacteria in water that gives it the taste that we expect when we turn on our taps at home,” study co-author Professor of Water Infrastructure Engineering Joby Boxall told Phys.org. In fact, humans have used too much chlorine, killing organisms that enhance the quality and flow of water inside pipes. Leaving biofilms intact by lowering chlorine levels to kill only “free-living” microorganisms will produce cleaner water at home and when it is returned to rivers, lakes, or the seas.
Achieving 100% Renewable Energy In the U.S. Could Save $321 Billion
Rewiring America, an energy policy organization, estimates that “If done right, [renewable energy deployment] would create millions of new, good-paying jobs in every zip code, save each household on average between $1,050 to $2,585 per year on its energy bills.” The report explains that besides reducing energy-related CO2 emissions, the total savings across the entire country up to $321 billion annually. “If we electrify everything, the savings are more than enough to return money to households,” Adam Zurofsky, executive director of Rewiring America, told The Guardian.
Urban Sharing Can Reshape Cities, Sustainability, and Society
A five-year study of urban sharing organizations in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, and Toronto just reported its first findings. Sharing programs must be carefully defined to ensure sustainable results. Conducted by Lund University in Sweden, the research explores how the creation, growth, and governance of urban sharing programs perform in different cultures, Shareable reports. The five cities under study provide clothing, car, commute, and community-based toy libraries, among other projects. Researchers found that developing the basis for trust, individual and group empowerment, inclusive decisions, and social justice is essential to success. The Shareable article links to many useful resources, examples, and research. Start your sharing journey using the lessons provided by author Yuliya Voytenko Palgan.
China’s Aggressive Decarbonization Plan Is Doable
The journal Nature summarizes a collection of research about the viability of China’s promise to become a net-zero emissions society by 2060. The verdict is that the country can keep its promise if it makes “hard decisions” about retiring coal, adopting nuclear power, and aggressive investment in wind and solar power generation. Currently, coal is burned to produce 65% of China’s electricity. During the next four decades, China’s power requirements are expected to double. Still, renewable sources can step in to keep the economy growing. China will need 16 times today’s solar generation capacity and nine times its current wind-driven electric capacity. He Gang of Stony Brook University in New York told Nature that China could produce up to 60% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources, including nuclear power, by 2030. The U.S. needs to recognize that the first economy to achieve net-zero emissions will become a role model for the rest of the planet. Now is the time to accelerate our investment in renewables to lead the world.
Air Pollution Contributed to 6.6 Million Deaths In 2020
The State of Global Air 2020 report released by a global collection of academic and nonprofit organizations found that air pollution contributed to 6.67 million early deaths, including the loss of 500,000 infants. A newly developed method for tracking infant deaths due to air pollution propelled dirty air to the #4 position among premature death causes. Only high blood pressure, tobacco, and dietary causes kill more people each year, EcoWatch reports. It also confirms that COVID-19 lockdowns did result in lower levels of some greenhouse gases (GHG), but only temporarily. The most-polluted countries this year include India, Nepal, Niger, Qatar, and Nigeria. Emerging economies that rely on fossil fuels for energy generation are getting dirtier. However, Egypt, Thailand, Vietnam, and China all made progress on GHG reductions. The report is packed with useful information.
France Introduces Repairability Rating Product Labels
Resource Recycling reports that the French government will introduce a “compulsory rating system” for the repairability of smartphones, T.V.s, laptops, and appliances on New Year’s Day in 2021. It will be a simple score, from one to 10, on a sticker placed on the product packaging. More product categories will be added in the future. The right to repair movement in the U.S. lags behind Europe, so we will be watching closely to see how French consumers respond to this new rating system.
Leading Banks Face Extreme Exposure To Climate Damage Risks
Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit that works with investors and companies to introduce climate- and human-friendly practices, released an analysis of the climate risk facing major banks. The news isn’t pretty. Over half of the current syndicated lending portfolios of the largest U.S. banks are exposed to one or more climate risks. The loans support industries that are not preparing for disruptions or have not set out goals to avoid climate-related losses. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Well Fargo are the most exposed money center banks. As much as 18% of loans at U.S. banks could face “wide impact” losses due to secondary climate-related problems, such as economic and agricultural disruptions that change consumer spending. If you are an investor, the Ceres report is an essential read.
PepsiCo’s Green Bond Spending On Recycled PET Plastic Makes Minor Impact
After raising $1 billion in “green bonds” in October 2019, PepsiCo has poured approximately $200 million of the money to buy recycled PET (RPET) #1 plastic for use in packaging, Resource Recycling reports. Additionally, it spent another $227 million on fleet and operational efficiency improvements. The recycled content in its beverage packaging increased from just 3% to 4% during 2019. Pepsi plans to achieve 25% RPET content in beverage packaging by 2025. The company reports that supplies of RPET are not sufficient to meet demand, which is promising news. Plastic recyclers can count on selling as much RPET as they can make. PepsiCo will focus its RPET inventory on making its Naked juice, Tazo Chilled tea, and LIFEWTR packaging 100%-recycled before 2025.
IKEA Launches Furniture Buyback Program
Swedish home products retailer IKEA will start buying back used furniture from customers on November 27, TriplePundit reports. U.S. customers will have to wait to participate but the program will eventually reach 27 countries. IKEA’s commitment to circular thinking is impressive and aggressive. It will make all its products recyclable, reusable (including resalable through the buyback program) by 2030. IKEA will open its first second-hand store in Eskilstuna, Sweden, by the end of 2020. The concept requires a comprehensive rethinking of IKEAs product design, materials choices, and logistics to support convenient and profitable reuse. IKEA’s experience could teach retailers everywhere a great deal about circular strategies. The first beneficiaries will be customers who get new, lower-priced access to refurbished IKEA products.
Post-Secondary Sustainability Education Must Evolve, National Academies Urge
Solving sustainability problems requires cross-disciplinary thinking and deep emotional intelligence about a broad spectrum of issues, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argues. “[S]ustainability students and graduates need a common baseline understanding of content areas that include the history of sustainability, ethics and social justice, data analytics, business administration, sustainability science, diversity and justice, and Indigenous knowledge and culture,” the report suggests. Thinking across disciplinary boundaries — or, rather, based on my conversations with young innovator Adarsh Ambati, not seeing the boundaries as barriers — is essential to solving climate change’s systemic issues. You can download the report for free by registering with the National Academies publishing site.
Sustainable Tech Startups Among Most-Fundable Companies
Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School recently announced its most-fundable companies selections for 2020, and several sustainability-related firms were recognized. Keep an eye on Lawrence, New York-based Flower Turbines, a maker of small wind turbines that can be used in and around cities, suburbs and other populated areas. It can also augment large-scale wind generation by filling in spaces under large turbines. AgTools Inc. is an Irvine, Calif-based maker of market intelligence and supply chain management software. It helps move meat and produce to market more efficiently and reduce food waste. Global Thermostat, a New York-based maker of CO2 capture and sequestration, was also recognized. Listen to our interview with Global Thermostat cofounder Graciela Chichilnisky to learn about raw company’s low-energy direct-air capture technology.
Waste Management Reports Record Recycling Volume In 2019
The nation’s largest waste hauler, Waste Management, collected and processed 1.9% more recyclable material in 2019 than the year earlier, Resource Recycling reports. The notable change, in our opinion, is that Waste Management customers improved their recycling sorting practices. The company said that its materials were contaminated at a 17% rate, about five percent lower than the national average. Lower contamination rates mean more material will be successfully processed and used in new products. Waste Management invested approximately $100 million in 2019 to progress toward achieving 10% contamination rates by 2025.
Explore What Canadian Producer Responsibility Programs Can Teach the U.S.
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws require the makers of products and packaging materials to collect, process, and recycle what they make. Resource Recycling provides a comprehensive assessment of the rules that govern these programs in Canada, where EPR laws are already in place. Depending on how directly responsible a producer is held to recover materials, the intervening collection and sorting infrastructure must be more or less tuned to identify individual items as a specific company’s responsibility. But consider a pie tin, as the authors suggest. It may be packaging for a pie or could have been sold in a box of pie tins — which company, the pie maker or the pan manufacturer, is responsible. The fee and incentive structure can take many forms. For example, a deposit fee could be applied to all items sold to pre-collect revenue. Conversely, payments could be collected from producers based on the volume of material they produce and recapture. And there are many other variables, such as the value of the recycled material or environmental impact of capturing the material, that can be factored into EPR fees. A deep, long, and valuable read.
Florida City Offers Personalized Recycling Feedback To Citizens
Apopka, Florida, is taking recycling to the street. It will deliver feedback to citizens about how well they sorted and cleaned their recyclables, Recycling Today reports. The Recycling Partnership Feet on the Street program is working with Apopka’s government to deliver “real-time personalized recycling feedback.” It is designed to help residents learn how to recycle, which can lead to reduced contamination. Earth911 experimented with at-hone recycling feedback last year, and we found people loved it. Contamination rates decreased during the four-month project. Partly funded by Coca-Cola and How2Recycle, the recyclable products labeling system, the Apopka program has already improved recycling results. Ultimately, suppose citizens don’t take the first steps in the recycling process. In that case, the rest of the system cannot succeed without massive investments in sorting and cleaning technology. So, you can recycle well at the expense of a little time each week now or pay later for expensive technology that will do the job for you.
New Jersey Follows California’s Recycled Content Lead
SB 2515, New Jersey’s minimum recycled content legislation, will be revised to be similar to California’s recently introducing recycling law. It appears to be poised for passage in 2021. The bill aims for 50% recycled material in products by 2030. Senator Bob Smith, who sponsored the bill, told Waste Dive that the new version will be “much more towards the California model than the way we started.” It will be introduced with a 25% recycled content requirement for rigid plastic containers and 15% in beverage containers. These levels would be raised by 5% a year until it reaches 50%.
Polypropylene Recycling Gaining Traction
While Plastic #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastic is widely recycled at the curb in the United States, polypropylene (PP), or Plastic #5, is picked up at only 60% to 65% of homes. PP is used in bottle caps, medicine bottles, food containers, and other everyday items. Now the material is getting attention from recyclers, Scrap Magazine reports. The Recycling Partnership recently launched the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition to raise $35 million from industry partners. Waste Management has spent as much as $200 million to increase, among other things, its PP identification and sorting capacities. Additionally, manufacturers are starting to buy recycled PP, and that demand will fund more recycling investment. What can you do? First, check that your recycling program accepts PP. Learn to recognize PP, wash and sort it, then place it in the bin. And ask whether the PP packaging you buy is made with recycled material.
ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE
Make Your School An Earth Day School
After the 50th anniversary of Earth Day was disrupted by COVID-19, the Earth Day Foundation aims to make next April 22 a global event. Consider registering your school or your children’s school to participate in Earth Day activities in 2021, and get involved as a volunteer. Visit EarthDay.org to join the Earth Day Schools program and find climate literacy material or connect with other volunteers to create local events and community clean-ups. Let’s bring one billion people out to participate in the 51st Earth Day.
Support Ceres, the Sustainability Nonprofit That Changes Business Priorities
Research and advocacy are essential to chaning minds. Consider supporting Ceres, a nonprofit that educates and advises investors and companies about making the transition to sustainable practices. The organization’s research, including the report about U.S. banks’ loan portfolios exposure to climate risk, impacts policy and business decisions. In particular, Ceres has captured the financial industry’s attention and is helping to reshape priorities in the energy, food, insurance, and transportation industries. Ceres’ annual fundraising campaign in two weeks, and now is the time to act to support next year’s research agenda. Visit Ceres.org to make a tax-deductible contribution. Few organizations have developed business and policy influence as broad and effective as Ceres. Together, we can amplify Ceres’ impact in 2021.