Earth911 Reader: This Week’s Recommended Sustainability, Recycling, Business and Science News

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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 SCIENCE

Data Points To Higher Sea Level Rise Estimates

Scientists can attribute sea-level increases to their source — Antarctica has contributed 0.4 inches over the past 30 years and Greenland 0.4 inches for a total of 0.7 inches. A University of Leeds research study suggests that ice loss is progressing at the higher end of estimates, so humanity needs to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “Ice-sheet losses at the upper end of AR5 predictions would expose 44–66 million people to annual coastal flooding worldwide,” the team writes in Nature, which would require $71 billion in annual mitigation investments. The mass migration of tens of millions of people from coastal and lowland regions flooded by rising seas will contribute to the social, economic, and political upheaval that will come (and is already arriving) with climate change.

Two-Fifths Of Plant Species At Risk

The BBC reports on the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London, that found two-fifths of plant species could become extinct within decades. That means 39.4% of species, more than 140,000 plants and fungi, that could go missing from the biological library that holds the promise of new medicines, fuels, foods, and beauty. Estimated extinction risk was found to be much higher than previous reports. Five years ago, only 21 percent of species were thought to be at risk.

22% of Brazil’s Largest Wetland Burned In 2020

California’s historic wildfires are not the only disastrous fires burning now. In the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, 7.9 million acres have burned this year — almost twice California’s 4.7 million acres lost, so far. The tragedy is that both regions continue to burn. Wetlands are essential carbon sinks and homes for diverse species that could hold biological solutions to human engineering and medical challenges. Nature reports that the Pantanal “has evolved to coexist with fire — many plant species there require heat from fires to germinate.” The region is enduring a prolonged drought and could see temperatures rise by 10.5% by 2050, while rainfall could decline by 3% over the same time. As in the U.S., Brazil’s government, which controls most of the Pantanal, has reduced protections and limited funding for fire prevention.

Power Plants Warming Rivers, Adding To Climate Impacts

Water that flows through power plants contributes to river water warming, a Chinese Academy of Sciences team found, according to Nature Climate Change. This is a concern for plans to electrify the economy, which will require more generation plants that could raise river temperatures and harm fish and other species. Rivers are warming about a half-degree Centigrade per decade since 1980. Asia’s power plants contribute about 60% of the warming in regional rivers, while climate change drove the remaining 40% of temperature increases. Suppose humanity embraces nuclear power to support widespread electrification. In that case, we must ensure that water is cooled before it is injected back into natural waterways.

Australian Wildfire Impacts Tracked By Citizen Scientists

Frogs, which are among the most endangered family species, suffered terrible losses in Australia’s 2019 firestorms. Because of the fires’ massive scope, citizen scientists collaborated to record and upload frog song to understand which species survived. Using an app called FrogID, ordinary people collected more than 2,655 observations, Phys.org reports. Another count will take place between November 6th and 15th; it will provide a second snapshot to help understand the fires’ impact on the members of the order Anura (frogs). Citizen science will extend science’s ability to monitor the effects faster than the pre-digital era. Learn how to get involved in U.S. projects or, if you are in Australia, download FrogID and join the November survey.

couple laying on a natural green bed and smiling

 

IN SUSTAINABILITY

China’s Coal Pledge Contradicted By Coal Spending

After growing an advanced economy on a coal-burning infrastructure, China suddenly announced that it will eliminate coal-power and achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2060, Phys.org reports. This is a green recovery strategy that could help China leap to the forefront of sustainability. Still, many are skeptical that China can make its deadline or that Xi Jinping is earnest in his commitment. The policy may be Xi’s effort to displace the U.S., which will leave the Paris Climate Accord the day after Election Day, as leader of the climate movement. The Environmental Defense Fund welcomed the announcement. “If that vision becomes a reality, it will represent an enormous step toward what the world needs to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change,” EDF President Fred Krupp said in a press release. But China will not reach peak coal for another decade, leaving only 30 years to complete its transition to renewables. Power could change hands, or economic distress might change China’s priorities before the positive changes are enacted.

House Passes Landmark Carbon Removal Legislation

President Trump has already threatened to veto it if the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act passes the Senate, but the bill represents a significant step forward in U.S. policy debates. The bill provides funding for clean energy research and challenging goals for government renewable energy use, and CO2 removal and sequestration. Carbon180‘s Dr. Shuchi Talati writes that the 900-page bill is a “cause for cautious optimism.” The Senate is not likely to take up the bill during the Supreme Court debate, which will consume it for the next month. Then a new president could show support and get the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act passed.

McKibben: Climate Action Rides On the 2020 Election Outcome

Speaking of a change in the White House, activist and author Bill McKibben writes on EcoWatch (which republished the piece after The Nation first released it) that the environment hangs in the balance on Nov. 3. “Four more years will be enough to cement in place [Trump’s] anti-environmental policies and to make sure it’s too late to really change course,” he wrote. If he is reelected, not only would the U.S. leave the Paris Accord on Nov. 4, but it would also continue to ignore dire signals from the environment for many years after Trump leaves office in 2024. McKibben points out that the Paris goals are not sufficient to turn back disastrous climate impacts, but he says the U.S. still has time to accelerate its use of renewable energy. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris haven’t pledged to move that quickly, but their climate plan is the farthest-reaching of any presidential ticket in history,” he added. “Perhaps most important, they’ve pledged to try to lead the rest of the world in the climate fight.” Worth a read, and keep the climate in mind when you vote.

Trump Administration To Open Pristine Forests To Logging, Relax Air Regulations

The Trump Administration’s assault on environmental regulations and protections continues to run-in high gear. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture have announced support for removing limits on roads in the entire Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The New York Times explains the environmental consequences for “one of the world’s largest carbon sinks,” accounting for 8% of total CO2 stored in the forests in the contiguous U.S. But the bad news does not stop there. The EPA is preparing to roll back protections by revising the Clean Air Act, introducing an “Air Toxics Loophole” that will allow refineries, chemical plants, and manufacturers to pump “millions of pounds [of pollution] each year,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Finally, E&E News (Energy and Environment) explains how the Trump Administration is packing the leadership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with climate deniers.

David Attenborough’s One Change: Don’t Waste Anything

Mashable features a short video excerpt of Sir David Attenborough being a simple question: “If there’s one choice to make today, what choice would you like people to make?” His answer: “Don’t waste anything. Don’t waste electricity, don’t waste food, don’t waste power. Just treat the natural world as though it’s precious, which it is. And don’t squander those bits of it that we have control of.” Watch the video, but decide today to follow Sir David’s advice and choose one thing to stop wasting.

South Korean Government Is The First To Declare A Climate Emergency

The South Korean National Assembly passed the planet’s first declaration of a climate emergency on Sept. 24, Business Green reports. The package includes funding to drive a 336% increase in renewable energy generation by 2025 and subsidies to consumers for electric and hydrogen fuel cell cards, along with hydrogen fueling stations. The country wants to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, a decade before its neighbor China.

Consumer Reports: EV Maintenance Cost Half of Internal Combustion Expenses

Electric Vehicles cost 50% less than internal combustion vehicles to paint and repair, Consumer Reports announced this week. The organization argues that these savings “go a long way to offset the upfront costs for consumers.” It details the findings in a downloadable report. Lower maintenance and repair costs could substantially address the critical issue for most EV buyers, price, CleanTechnica reports.

Walking To Generate Green Electricity Becomes Possible

Science Daily reports on an invention by Chinese researchers, a micro-energy generator that runs on a light breeze. A hiker walking 3.6 miles an hour could generate enough electricity to power an LED or small sensor. In high winds, the device can power multiple devices. The nanogenerator, which use two plastic strips to capture the product of the triboelectric effect that you know from rubbing a balloon in your hair, can be placed off-grid to support remote monitoring of the environment and extend clean electric services and phone service to buildings that are not connected to the infrastructure. Ya Yang, the lead researcher at Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems, Chinese Academy of Sciences, dreams of generating 1,000 watts of electricity with a larger version.

Retailers Are Key To Halving Food Waste

Sustainable Brands examines the state of food waste and concludes that a 50% reduction in global food waste can only happen with the collaboration of consumers, grocers, and suppliers. Worldwide, a third of the food grown is wasted — in the U.S., we waste more than 40% — and costs $940 billion. The United Nations aims to cut food waste in half by 2030, but progress has been slow. COVID tossed a monkey wrench in the system, too. But there is progress, also. A consortium of business and government leaders, Champions 12.3 (after the UN goal), focuses resources on high-impact changes. Retailers are working with food manufacturers to improve inventory management, track spoilage, and distribute unused food. Change must also start with consumers, who can save money and reduce waste by planning meals more carefully. As Sustainable Brands writer Turner Wyatt points out, “The entire food supply chain is controlled by consumer demand; therefore, all the waste within the supply chain is, too.” You can make a difference.

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IN BUSINESS

Making Carbon Pledges Count

The highest recycling rates are often the product of low-wage trash pickers collecting materials to eke out a subsistence wage — in China and Brazil, for example, aluminum recovery rates are 88% and 93%, respectively, because trash pickers recover what consumers throw out. The Body Shop is on track to source its 500th ton of plastic collected by trash pickers this year and buy another 600 tons next year, Environmental Leader reports. The company partnered with Plastics For Change, a Bangalore, India-based organization, to launch the program in 2019. The focus on easy-to-identify Plastic #1 PET bottles, which are useful in recycled cosmetics packaging. The Body Shop now wants to “scale up the waste picking industry as a whole.”

Business Must Define “Net-Zero” To Achieve Sustainability

The difference between saying something and doing it is measurable because the action happens and can be measured. Too often, businesses claim to be working toward “net-zero” emissions or operations without defining what their goal actually means, GreenBiz contributors Peter Boyd and Casey R. Pickett write. Without concrete, measurable goals, the commitment is meaningless. “[W]e argue for a consistent definition of “net-zero” that enables organizations, companies, cities, and countries to set transparent targets and track their progress,” Boyd and Pickett write. Real goals are “fully-scoped,” “science-based,” “Paris Agreement-compliant,” and “cumulative” (meaning the total historical emissions of the organization must be addressed. With those measurable goals, even small firms can understand their climate impact and stay on plan. “When clearly defined, ‘Net-Zero’ will be an increasingly powerful conceptual tool to focus the world’s response on the climate crisis.

An Industry Redefined: Solar Installations Impacted By COVID-19

Home and small business solar installations have stayed steady in 2020 despite a 25% decline in the first quarter due to COVID-19, GreentechMedia reports. Solar companies are offering free installation and low-cost financing to lure homeowners to sign contracts, and several are providing no payment plans for the first six or 12 months of an agreement. In 2019, 2.8 gigawatts of generation capacity was installed, and after a flat 2020, the industry expects 7% growth. Although homeowners have invested heavily in feathering their nest during the lockdown, a Democratic win in November could kick off a solar installation boom when tax credits, many of which expired during the Trump years, are reinstated.

Johnson & Johnson Announced Aggressive Carbon Reduction Goals

Paulette Frank, Worldwide Vice President of Environmental Health, Safety & Sustainability at Johnson & Johnson, writes about the company’s new climate goals on LinkedIn. It will source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, a decade earlier than many firms. It will be carbon neutral across its operations by 2030 by switching to a green fleet, embracing energy-efficient technology, and replacing refrigeration coolants. The scope of its operational improvements will be limited, as J&J is committing to reduce its supply chain emissions by only 20% by 2030. When it achieves full supply chain compliance, known as Scope 3 Standards, Frank writes, the carbon reductions will be 2.5 times greater than its internal operations reductions.

 

IN RECYCLING

Northwest States Considering Extended Producer Responsibility Laws

Oregon and Washington are looking at extended producer responsibility regulations to fund a reinvention of their recycling systems, Resource Recycling reports. “[E]xperience and history have shown that we cannot rely on voluntary industry commitments,” an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said. “There is a clear need to obligate packaging producers to make good on their promises to the public.” Deposit systems, truth-in-labeling rules for communicating recyclability of a product and its packaging, and recycled content requirements are being considered to generate the funding needed to build a 21st Century recycling system in the Northwest.

China Migrating Away From Aluminum Scrap Recycling

After importing scrap aluminum for several decades, China is starting to buy aluminum alloys from other countries. Its imports of aluminum rose 810% in August compared to a year earlier, while its scrap aluminum imports fell by 22.2%. Copper imports are also on the rise, Recycling Today reports. The 2018 National Sword policy, which cut off the importation of most scrap materials, has created a supply shortage for Chinese manufacturers. The Chinese government, which as excised the word “scrap” from its import rules, has responded by stepping up the purchase of foreign unwrought metals — think of ingots — in response to shortages. China has moved past the scrap processing stage of its economic development.

There Is Expanded Polystyrene (Styrofoam) Recycling Progress

Expanded polystyrene, which many know as “Styrofoam,” has remained stubbornly uneconomical to recycle because it is mostly air. Very few devices that remove the air, called densifiers, are available around the country to process expanded polystyrene. The Foam Recycling Coalition (FRC) is an industry group made up of companies that handle the material. It awards grants to help recyclers purchase densifiers, and just issued its 15th grant to Westmoreland Cleanways and Recycling, a non-profit in Pennsylvania, Recycling Today reports.

Specialized MRFs Needed To Increase Recycling Success

The U.S. recycling system is a mishmash of conflicting policies about what and how to recycle operating on a collection infrastructure established in the 1950s. The system is not configured to support increased recovery rates of familiar recyclables or to address all the new products and materials that make modern life convenient. Waste Dive reports that materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are actively investing in advanced sensors and sorting equipment to process more recyclables, but the real progress will be made by “boutique MRFs” that specialize in delivering clean, well-sorted materials. “Smaller and boutique MRFs tend to produce cleaner outputs because they don’t deal with the plethora of contaminants in single-stream operations,” Katie Pyzyk writes. The good news is that investments are happening. The bad news is the there is no alternative to or augmentation of traditional curbside pickup to capture the specialized materials. That’s where digital logistics and resource management come in because they could help haulers rethink the weekly or biweekly pickup schedule to support niche material collection.

U.S. Recycling Goals That Will Be Announced In November Lack Measurable Steps

Chaz Miller writes in Waste360 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing a national recycling policy for release at the America Recycles Summit on Nov. 17. But the policy does not offer concrete goals, and some elements are not practical. For instance, Miller doubts the EPA can force materials recovery facilities (MRFs) to publish processing and success data. He also argues that the EPA is fixated on the weight of recyclables recovered instead of the materials’ environmental impact. Recovering smaller amounts of materials with high environmental impacts could be more profitable and better for the planet than collecting tons of less impactful material. What should the EPA do? Clearly define its goals and base measurements of success on easily accessed data.

California Introduces Plastic Recycled Content Rules

If California were a country, it would be leading the global climate battle. The state enacted the “world’s strongest recycled content standards,” Waste360 writes. Governor Gavin Newsome signed Assembly Bill 793, which requires a minimum amount of recycled materials in certain products and packaging. Plastic bottles, for example, must contain 15% recycled plastic resin by 2022. By 2030, the same plastic bottle will be required to have 50% recycled content. “This can be a model built for other states to follow,” Sunil Bagaria, president of recycling company GDB International told Resource Recycling. “This can be a national model – if California can do it, then why can’t we do it?”

 

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

Support Friends of the Earth’s Ban On Toxic Pesticides

Friends of the Earth (FoE) is raising funds to support a campaign to ban toxic pesticides that kill Monarch butterflies, bees, and moths. The Environmental Defense Fund reported in March that Monarch populations fell 53% since 2019. Add your name to the petition, and FoE will send your letter to your Congressional representative.

Help Stop Wall Street Support For Climate-Damaging Projects

Stop The Money Pipeline is an activist organization aiming to cut off financial support for climate-damaging activities, from corporate financing of oil drilling to resisting the build-out of oil and gas pipeline. The group also has a strong social justice commitment. Get involved to learn how to take specific actions and learn how to insulate your money from polluters. Stop The Money Pipeline provides a list of banks and credit unions that don’t loan to corporate polluters.

Follow the University of Cambridge Centre for Climate Repair

The Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge is a new cross-disciplinary research organization investigating how to “safeguard our planet from the disastrous consequences of global warming.” Launched just last week, the Centre will work on emissions reductions technology and policy, removal of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, and restoration of the climate. This is a promising source of useful insight you can follow from the beginning.

Watch Silicon Mountain To Learn About eWaste Innovation

eWaste is a growing problem and a huge opportunity to reduce the mining of raw ore and rare earths. Explore the story of the Silicon Mountain of waste that is piling up during the Information Age on YouTube. There are surprising lessons to be learned about the right to repair our electronics and how ewaste can be recycled. Silicon Mountain is an excellent way to spend your next half-hour.



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