Earth911 Reader: Recycling, Sustainability, and Science Stories You Should Read This Weekend

We read a lot so you don’t have to comb for useful information. Keep ahead of the crowd with Earth911 Reader, a curated collection of must-read articles about sustainability, recycling, and the sciences of climate, materials, and more. Here are the stories worth your time this weekend. Have an article you’d like us to consider? Send an email with a link to mitchratcliffe@earth911.com.

Boil Your Water, Don’t Microwave It

A team at the University of Electronic Science & Technology of China examined the energy efficiency of microwaving and boiling water for tea, finding that stovetop boiling is more efficient than the microwave. They also invented a silver-based rim for drinking cups that improve the efficiency of microwave water boiling. That design, however, will take a long time to reach the market, if it ever does — putting metal in a microwave may be a barrier to adoption in the U.S. So, for now, save energy and get a warm cup of tea by boiling your water in a pan.

COVID-19 CO2 And GHG Emissions Pause Won’t Last

Nature reports that temporary reductions in CO2 emissions during the pandemic will not result in long-term changes without a “green recovery strategy that boldly reimagines modern life. “Pursuing a green stimulus recovery out of the post-COVID-19 economic crisis can set the world on track for keeping the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement within sight,” the researchers conclude.

CVS, Walmart, and Target Take Aim at Plastic Bags

Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy announced a new partnership with three of the world’s largest retailers, CVS, Walmart, and Target, that will seek to direct single-use plastic bags to recycling programs that can actually process the material. Unfortunately, most recycling programs do not accept Plastic #1 shopping bags today. Additionally, the group will identify alternatives that are not dependent on virgin petrochemicals or that change the way shoppers use and return bags. Kate Daly, who is managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, told BusinessGreen: “Some of those [solutions] might be new material, others might be entirely new approaches to transporting what we purchase from stores to our home,” Daly said. “There might be tech-enabled or AI-enabled solutions that we haven’t learned about yet.”


Smart Boxes and Packaging-as-a-Service Aims to Displace Cardboard

Techcrunch reports on Berlin-based LivingPackets’ The Box, a new smart box technology that can be reused over and over until, when it is no longer functional can breakdown in a landfill. The idea is intriguing because it adds many features that can support smart delivery and recovery of products and waste. The potential to use logistics and Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology, along with a rental rather than purchase business model to provide companies with trackable and routable boxes based on what they contain promises to be interesting. We will see if it can be practical but the basic idea that a smart box can route itself first to the customer and then to a recycler offers many possible routes to economic viability. Most importantly, it does not require a reinvention of delivery systems — The Box will work in the FedEx/UPS/USPS infrastructures.

Transparent Wood For Windows

Martha Hall of the University of Maryland explains how researchers developed a transparent wood-grained glass that reduces UV exposure while providing privacy. Here’s a surprising materials discovery emerging for potential implementation in buildings and homes: “Materials engineers at the University of Maryland have transformed wood into a transparent building material that directs light for a diffused effect, is tougher and insulates better than glass, and has a natural wood-grain pattern.”

Consider Algae In Your Flip-Flops

The University of San Diego has introduced a formula for making bioplastic flip-flops — the most popular form of footwear in the world — from algae oil. The announced formulation, Phys.org reports, achieve a 52% biocontent level, but one of the inventors says “After hundreds of formulations, we finally achieved one that met commercial specifications. These foams are 52 percent biocontent—eventually we’ll get to 100 percent.”

Fight Climate Change With Tiny Forests In Urban Settings

Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki recognized the extraordinary biodiversity in urban green spaces surrounding Japanese temples represents a useful strategy for preserving nature and sequestering CO2. GreenBiz.com reports on the impact of Miyazaki-based miniature forest projects around the world. As an additive approach, combined with large-scale forest preservation, the tiny forest can help improve carbon capture and make our cities more enjoyable, with diverse green spaces available to families and kids.

Domestic Paper Recycling Reshaped By The Pandemic

From Resource Recycling: People are recycling more cardboard and paper than every during the COVID-19 lockdown as home deliveries increase. But there are other dynamics at work, too, because China no longer accepts U.S. paper waste. These factors have resulted in higher prices, currently about $55 a ton, that have some paper companies looking for new sources of feedstock, the materials they use to make paper and boxes. In 2019, paper was priced at about $35/ton and rose to over $100/ton in early 2020. Recovery rates are very high — as much as 92% for corrugated cardboard in 2019 and 66.2% for paper recycling overall. With demand for boxes still on the rise, capturing clean cardboard and paper, it appears, will continue to be a valuable undertaking.

Turning Waste Into Rare Earths

Scientists at Pennsylvania State University have published research that will help turn industrial and mining run-off into rare earths used in advanced technology. Currently, the U.S. imports almost all of its rare earth metals used in computers, telecommunications, and, well, in every advanced electronics product, from China. And we know how that relationship is going. Called Acid Mine Drainage, the process can be added to existing treatment processes to retrieve valuable material from run-off from industry. “This technique represents an efficient, low-cost and environmentally friendly method to extract these valuable minerals that are used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products,” said Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering and director of the Center for Critical Minerals at Penn State.

Business Opportunity? Solar Panel Cleaning

According to a new report from Global Market Insights suggests that cleaning solar panels could be a big business soon. The market for solar panel cleaning was $560 million in 2019 and will grow at an 11% annual rate through 2026, when it will generate more than $1 billion in revenue. Encouraging sustainable cleaning options, especially reduced reliance on water for cleaning by switching to dry-cleaning methods is key to making solar panel cleaning and maintenance a more environmentally friendly industry.

Cadillac’s First EV, the Lyric, Introduced

Traditional automakers have lagged behind Tesla but the next two years will see a flood of U.S.- and overseas-made electric vehicles. Cadillac this week introduced the Lyric, a luxury electric SUV that gets more than 300 miles per charge, putting the Tesla Models X and Y in its cross-hairs. The vehicle is the first to use General Motors’ Ultium battery technology, Mashable reports.

EVs Are Only Part Of The Answer

The Conversation offers an essay by Jamie Morgan, an economics professor at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. that argues EVs must be combined with new models of car ownership or mobility-as-a-service to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. It’s well worth a read. Morgan’s key point: “Simply switching to electric cars assumes they can be produced in sufficient numbers. Even if this proves possible, it shifts attention from our continued reliance on emissions-producing private transportation. The result is what is known as “carbon lock-in”.

COVID-19’s PPE Toxins Crisis

Grist has an excellent summation of the recycling and disposal challenges facing the world in the wake of COVID-19. N95 masks and other medical protective equipment cannot be recycled safely because they are contaminated and made with materials that leave toxic residue whether incinerated or landfilled, or both. Chemical recycling has been proposed as a solution for polypropylene but that carries many risks too. “Incinerators produce much more nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and carbon dioxide,” writes Grist’s Joseph Winters. “On the other hand, landfills may produce more benzene and pose a greater threat to ecosystems, due to disposed substances like formaldehyde.”

And Now Some Bad News: Amazon Deforestation Up 28% This Year

Science Magazine reports that deforestation has skyrocketed, rising 28% year-over-year under President Jair Bolsonaro. In another report, Pays.org explains how a single road project that would pave a 47-year-old dirt highway, BR-319, to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon could result in the deforestation of 138,000 square acres of rainforest.

And Some Good News: Starbucks U.K. Stores Restore Reusable Cups

Edie.net reports that Starbucks stores in the U.K. have reintroduced reusable cups for customers. After stopping the program in March due to COVID-19, the coffee chain will now provide a discount for reused cups: “No shared touchpoints are in place between customer and barista, with a ceramic mug used to transport a reusable cup through the bar and to the customer,” edie.net writes. There is no updated information about U.S. reusable cups in the U.S. on the Starbucks site.

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