Earth911 Reader: Recycling Evolution, Plastic Consequences, and Packaging Progress

We scan the media for useful and interesting stories about sustainability, recycling, and actions you can take to reduce your carbon footprint and support responsible policy. Start your Saturday with a quick review of this week’s Earth911 Reader.

In Recycling

How to Engage Middle America In Recycling

Suzanne Shelton of Shelton Group writes in GreenBiz that sustainable behaviors collapsed after the onset of the pandemic, falling to 2013 levels. As basic needs became tenuous, people abandoned their focus on issues such as single-use plastics — a year ago, 27% of people surveyed said they could make a difference by reducing their purchases of single-use packaging and this year only 18% agreed with that idea. “If we don’t feel like we actually can affect the plastic waste issue and some of us have gone to sleep in terms of our habits and actions, what does this mean for recycling?” she asks. Information and increased awareness will be key to reviving recycling and sustainable shopping habits. See the article for her key ideas.

Opt-out Politics Could Ruin Local Recycling

A battle cry for many these days revolves around the tyranny of the public good — anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are only the tip of a spear that could reduce recycling programs to insolvency as citizens opt-out. In Washington City, Utah, citizens have been granted the right to quit participating in the city’s recycling program, Waste360 reports. Currently, about 84% of residents are enrolled in Washington City’s recycling system but if that falls to 34% the program will fail, according to Waste 360. Recognizing this indifference toward the public good — a form of selfishness that is not a part of the American tradition — is of critical importance as the United States finds a new sustainable approach to its supply chains, packaging, and recycling programs in the wake of COVID-19.

Madrid Cardboard Gangs Stealing $11.8 Million In Recyclables Annually

Half of the cardboard deposited in Madrid’s recycling bins is stolen each year. The Spanish Guardia Civil police recently arrested 42 people who participated in the scheme that netted about $11.8 million a year. If half of one city’s cardboard can earn crooks that much money, where are the entrepreneurs to start legitimate businesses that increase recovery rates while earning solid profits? Apparently, based on Waste 360’s report, cardboard and paper thefts are becoming common across Europe.

Recycling of Plastics #2 through #7 Ramps Up

After China stopped accepting U.S. plastic exports the domestic recycling infrastructure struggle to adapt but now there are strong signs of progress. PreZero US, a Los Angeles-based plastics recycler has started to collect Plastic # 2 – #7, including plastic films, grocery bags, and bubble wraps that are hardly recycled today for processing at plants in California and South Carolina. Recycling Today reports that PreZero has put more than $100 million into these facilities and will continue to expand around the U.S. Keeping recycling plants close to waste sources is critical to reducing transportation emissions, as well as lowering the cost of collecting and processing. By distributing more plastic recycling capabilities around the country, we can take steps to increase recovery rates and the successful reuse of plastic. That doesn’t mean we should not reduce plastic use when possible but it does show that U.S. recyclers are stepping up to address the impact of China’s National Sword policy.

Is Glass A Viable Recycled Material? Myths Exploded.

Glass, which is highly recyclable, is not accepted by many recycling programs today for a variety of reasons that are not substantiated by facts. Waste360 digs into the many assumptions, such as the idea that broken glass cannot be accepted, mixed glass colors ruin recycling loads, and that glass cannot be recycled profitably, and finds that none of these are a barrier to successful glass recycling if materials recovery facilities (MRFs) invest in the right equipment and processes. In particular, the idea that China’s National Sword policy stopped glass recycling from being exported, is patently false — glass was not sent to China before the ban. Instead, other materials that are considered more profitable are the focus on recyclers’ attention. This is good information to take to your community’s waste management program to make the case for local and creative glass recycling.

 

In Sustainability

How Much Food Can Home Gardeners Grow?

While recycling may be suffering during the pandemic, home food growing has taken off as people around the world seek to reduce their reliance on global supply chains. Phys.org reports on a new research program by three U.K. universities to understand the potential for homegrown food to increase resilience and well-being during the pandemic and, as climate change progresses, disruptions to everyday life. It is part of the RurbanRevolution research program. The universities will use a “citizen science” approach, so there may be ways you can participate or extend the research. They will have participants grow lettuce in their gardens, answer surveys and collect samples of soil and plants.

Plastic Is More Than a Packaging Problem

In a surprising study, the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability examined the sources of plastic pollution and found that packaging accounts for only a third of the plastic pollution problem. It also confirmed that overall plastic recycling rates in the U.S. are a mere 8%. About 76% ends up in a landfill, and about 2% becomes pollution in the environment (if you don’t count landfills as a form of waste and pollution). Plastic in many forms — appliance components, car parts, and construction components, among many others — accounts for two-thirds of plastic waste. We should not take our eye off single-use packaging but that focus will not solve the problem. It is time to step back and review the uses of plastic generally, how plastic is made, and where alternatives can be found.

Cement Must Change to Support Continued Urban Development

The Conversation explores the unsustainable production of concrete, which is responsible for 8% of annual human CO2 emissions. Using Earth Overshoot Day as the basis for comparing today’s water- and carbon-intensive cement production, writer Brant Walkley of the University of Sheffield explains that eliminating CO2 emissions from cement manufacturing would push the day we exhaust the planet’s ability to absorb carbon during a year back by about 10 days — reducing emissions by between 7.25 and 11.6 billion tons annually. Earth911 has covered one way to use CO2 captured from the atmosphere as a substitute for the traditional approach to manufacturing cement. You can listen to our interview with Healthy Climate Alliance founder Peter Fiekowsky to learn more about the process and a company, Blue Planet, that is pioneering this industry.

California’s Big Battery Plan

Grist reports that as rolling blackouts hit California as wildfires raged across more than 1.5 million acres, the state switched on the biggest battery ever built to store power and alleviate supply problems. It is the first step toward the 15,000 megawatt capacity needed to support the entire state when it achieves its renewable energy goal in 2045. Battery systems, which can currently store between 100 megawatts and 230 megawatts, can backup the power generation infrastructure at night (to offset lost solar generation capacity) or during storms or other interruptions to wind and solar generation. The state will increase its storage capacity by 670 percent to reach 923 megawatts of capacity by the end of the year — about 6% of its ultimate goal. Several other states have large-scale battery projects under development.

Data Centers Can Run On Their Own Heat

Computers generate a lot of waste heat. Just feel your phone or laptop and imagine 5,000 of them running in close proximity. Data Center Frontier explains how capturing and using that waste heat can be used to generate some of the electricity that powers these giant server farms that run familiar services such as Google, Amazon, and Netflix. It might also be used to heat greenhouses during the winter or other colocated services. Waste heat capture is used in many industries but is relatively new in computing. Amazon, for example, heats its headquarters in Seattle using waste heat from a 34-story datacenter across the street. At Cornell, waste heat is used to keep barns warm. Writer Kris Holla of Nortek Air Solutions explains how waste heat can be used to heat water. This kind of systemic approach to mining waste heat can drive the reinvention of many sectors of the economy.

HIVE Projects Aims To Reinvent Home

Inhabitat reports on the Human-Inclusive & Vertical Ecosystem (HIVE) Project. It is exploring a new approach to organizing cities and homes around and within nature using prefab “timber-framed hexagonal structures [that] would offer residents a great degree of flexibility in customizing their homes throughout different stages of life.” The structures are also designed to support new modes of ownership and sharing to strengthen local communities. Each HIVE home is designed for energy self-sufficiency and to recycle wastewater. Check out the photos and architectural renderings in the article.

 

In Business

Paper Padded Mailers Replace Plastic Packaging At Amazon, Other eCommerce Companies

Georgia-Pacific, the Atlanta-based paper company, introduced new padded paper mailing envelopes, providing an alternative to bubblewrap mailers used by many eCommerce companies. Amazon is one of the first customers. More than 100 million of the new packages, which can be recycled in curbside bins, have already been used in product deliveries. The product was labeled “Widely Recyclable” by How2Recycle — any curbside program can accept and recycle it, Recycling Today reports.

Reusable, Refillable Product Packaging In Impoverished Neighborhoods

GreenBiz’s Heather Clancy discusses a novel approach to reusable packaging being tested in New York by Chilean startup Algramo, which was pioneered in the poorest neighborhoods of Santiago, Chile. It seeks to avoid the need to buy in bulk so that food can be affordable for poor families. Consequently, people are able to “buy as much or as little of staples such as detergent or rice as they want.” The dispensing machines allow customers to refill Colgate toothpaste, Softsoap Liquid Hand Soap, and Clorox bleach, among other familiar products in computer-enabled packaging that tracks the purchase. “The real enemy was the packaging, Algramo cofounder Jose Manuel Moller said, not the brands that are often the target of environmental ire. This is an important insight: Brands need better packaging, too. Another example of packaging experimentation is Terracycle’s Loop.

60 Brands, Government Agencies, and NGOs Partner To Reduce Plastic Waste

The U.S. Plastics Pact is an encouraging effort led by The Recycling Partnership, World Wildlife Fund, and Ellen MacArthur Foundation to reduce plastic waste and make all plastic packaging 100% recyclable or compostable by 2025. Along with major brands such as Clorox, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Molson Coors, Target, Unilever, and Walmart, these NGOs want to increase U.S. plastic recycling rates from today’s 8% to 50% in the same timeframe. Finally, they will work to shift 30% of content in plastic to recycled material or bio-based materials by 2025. They will begin by identifying packaging that is “problematic or unnecessary” in 2021, Sustainable Brands reports. The European Union set similar goals in 2017 and, McKinsey & Co reports in new research, is making progress despite challenges, including the pandemic.

Terracycle Bringing Loop To Retail Partners In 2021

Retailers Kroger (U.S.), Tesco (U.K.) and Carrefour (France) will introduce Terracycle’s Loop reusable packaging next year, Waste 360 reports. Unlink the home delivery-and-pickup approach Loop introduced in the Northeast and France this year, the retail programs will involve returning packaging to the store where it was purchased so that it can be washed and refilled. Loop charges a “deposit” fee, and the focus is often on getting that deposit back but that is not the right way to think about it. The deposit is the price of the refilling process, as you would not be charged a deposit on the next package — the first deposit would cover the next deposit on a Häagen-Dazs or Seventh Generation container. Yes, the deposit ultimately comes back to you, but it is a distraction from the core idea that the packaging you use can and should not be single-use. We think the retail drop-off approach will make more sense than the current “milkman” strategy that Loop uses, which involves a bulky tote that is dropped off and picked up from a customer’s home.

Jaguar Seeks Recycled Aluminum To Reduce Emissions

Aluminum production requires immense amounts of electricity and cars are increasingly built using this lighter-than-steel metal. Jaguar Land Rover, the U.K. auto company will shift to sourcing more aluminum to reduce its CO2 emissions by 26%, edie.net reports. Though widely recycled for use in beverage cans and other consumer products, recycled aluminum has not been widely used in vehicles. The metal is also currently in short supply, increasing the urgency of recovering and recycling more of it. Refining virgin bauxite ore into aluminum uses far more energy, as well. Jaguar has already eliminated 50% of its manufacturing emissions since 2007 and aims to reach its net-zero goals.

eCommerce Retailers Must Increase Transparency

If you can’t examine how a product and its packaging are made before buying you can’t make a sustainable choice. Deonna Anderson of GreenBiz writes about an important trend in eCommerce, the increased availability of information about products sold online. The Environmental Defense Fund recently released its Roadmap to Sustainable E-commerce, which calls for retailers to provide information about the chemicals used and CO2 emitted when making a product, as well as other data that will help consumers make more informed decisions. Capitalism has many faults, not the least the fiction that decisions are always made based on full information when in fact customers usually have to trust manufacturers to do the right thing. This is an issue close to our heats at Earth911 as we envision and develop a new store that delivers sustainability information for every product.

 

In Science

Atmospheric Ozone Rising Despite Regulations

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chemical Sciences Laboratory found that tropospheric ozone levels have continued to rise over the last 20 years despite regulations designed to reduce or eliminate their use. Most of the new ozone sources are in the tropics and “in areas where open levels were once the lowest,” such as Malaysia, India, and Southeast Asia. The ozone migrates around the planet, raising overall levels by about 5% per decade. A potent greenhouse gas, ozone levels have fallen in Europe and the United States, but continue to rise as more nations industrialize. That means it is time to reinvent industry to ensure all humans have a prosperous life that does not take a toll on the planet. And we can each act to reduce ozone emissions by choosing appliances with responsible coolants and avoiding aerosols containing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — some 300 products sold in the U.S. contain HFCs.

Speaking of Plastic’s Terrible Environmental Legacy

Philip Ball writes in Nature about the reemergence of Carboniferous period (350 million to 300 million years ago) coal and oil as a new “sedimentary layer of plastic.” We drilled and dug up millions of years of carbon and spewed it out into the Anthropocene as exhaust and plastic. That has left 8,300 million tons of plastic in the environment in just about 50 years, and plastic is found everywhere on the planet now, including in every human tissue sample studied in a recent study. While plastic pollution cannot be eliminated — we’ve made that big a mess — it can be reduced by up to 78% by 2040 compared to continuing on our current path. That translates into an overall reduction of plastic in the environment of 40% from today’s situation, but that would take a wide range of simultaneous actions. Ball calls on humanity and business to innovate and share information to improve recycling and change plastic production.

Are Safer Pesticides Achievable? Scientists Identify Key Link

Scientists at the University of California Davis have isolated the protein that lets plants respirate, opening the way to potentially safe and effective pesticides and fungicides. Why? The “interplay of photosynthesis and respiration” made it difficult to isolate the mitochondria that will allow the plant to survive while killing a pest. “For mammals or yeast, we have higher resolution structures of the entire electron transport chain and even supercomplexes, which are complexes of complexes, but for plants, it’s been an entire black box,” researcher Maria Maldonado told Phys.org. “Until today.” By growing mung beans in the dark, which suppressed the development of chlorophyll that is physically similar to mitochondria, the team isolated the proteins that perform plant respiration. This will allow new generations of better-targeted pesticides that are also safe to eat, the researchers say. An early step in the future of agriculture that is worth watching.

 

 

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