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China’s trash ban lifts lid on global recycling woes but also offers opportunity

MD Staff

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China’s decision to ban imports of foreign waste, including some plastics, has reverberated around the world, with recycling operations in other countries struggling to deal with the new reality. But is this an opportunity wrapped in a crisis?

Some experts argue that developed nations will, at last, have to face up to the true cost of their plastic addiction instead of shipping the problem to China, which has taken nearly half the world’s waste since 1992.

This could spur much-needed investment in domestic recycling facilities as well as innovation in plastic manufacturing to make products more suited to repurposing. It could also invigorate the vociferous public campaign to change our throwaway culture.

Last year, China decided to ban imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles, citing environmental and health concerns. Essentially, it is seeking to upgrade its economy and deal more effectively with its own growing mounds of trash. The material it was importing added 10-13 per cent to its overall waste levels.

Another problem was the poor quality of waste imports, which made them more difficult to recycle and consequently hit profits for the Chinese companies involved.

The ban came into force in January and the effects are now being tallied.

In a new study, published in June in Science Advances, scientists from the University of Georgia (UGA) found that 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by China’s new policy by 2030. All that rubbish will have to go somewhere else.

The ban is already beginning to bite. The Washington Post says states such as Massachusetts and Oregon are lifting restrictions on pouring recyclable material into landfills.

AFP has reported that significant stockpiles of recyclables are piling up in the US, with some municipalities saying they will no longer collect certain materials or send them to landfills, while some recycling facilities are storing the extra waste outside or in parking lots.

“Our team has been and will be closely monitoring reports and impacts from the ban and have certainly heard that waste is accumulating within the borders of countries that have long depended on China or other countries to import their plastic waste,” said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Engineering and lead author of the plastic waste study.

The ban has also exposed systemic weaknesses in recycling processes in the United States. The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) said in May that the ban exposed the problems caused by dirty recyclables. The introduction of single-stream recycling in the United States, which mixes paper, metal, glass and plastics — means recyclables are less pure and less valuable.

“The good news and bad news is that customer enthusiasm for recycling is strong. The public wants to recycle, but they express that enthusiasm by recycling materials that are not eligible.  A combination of ‘wishful recycling’ and insufficient enforcement of quality is proving very damaging to the industry – abysmal and volatile markets, a dirty product that is not a reliable ‘commodity’, closed plants, and programs that are hurting economically,” Marjorie Griek, the NRC’s executive director, said in a statement.

“We cannot continue to act and behave as if business as usual will offer a solution to today’s issues. We must fundamentally shift how we speak to the public, how we collect and process our recyclables, and what our end markets accept and utilize to truly recycle,” Griek said.

Such changes will, of course, take time. As will new investment in recycling facilities to fill the gap left by China, which imported around 7 million tonnes of waste in 2016. This is even more concerning when one realises that, to date, only 9 per cent of waste has been recycled globally, with most of it ending up in landfills or in the environment, including in our seas.

Some developed countries reacted to the ban by sending their waste to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, and some Chinese recyclers have opened factories in nearby countries to cash in on this new business.

However, experts point out that some of these countries do not have the capacity to deal with the waste influx and are already considering imposing restrictions of their own. Another concern is that Asia is already home to five of the world’s top marine plastic polluters and sending more trash to countries that are ill-equipped to deal with it will simply exacerbate that problem.

Since the Chinese ban, Britain’s waste exports to Malaysia have tripled, the Financial Times has reported, with the domestic recycling industry seen to be languishing and underfunded.

Peter Skelton of the sustainability organisation WRAP, believes the government, waste management firms and local authorities can rise to the challenge.

“We’ve been reliant on export markets for a lot of our recycling and that’s got to change. In some ways, it’s a forced decision,” Skelton said. “There’s been a great response from the waste and recycling organisations … because they see the landscape has shifted,” he said.

Governments also have a role to play by investing in recycling and waste management, he added. The British government is due to publish a Waste and Resources strategy later this year.

UGA’s Brooks agrees that governments must step up by educating people about recycling and encouraging innovation.

China’s ban has also shone a spotlight on the parlous state of international regulation about plastic waste.

The UGA study argues that the International Basel Convention, which governs the export of hazardous and other waste, could be applied to plastic waste if the latter was characterized as “waste requiring special consideration”. It could then be regulated while knowledge could be shared and standards harmonised.

One potentially positive side-effect of China’s ban has been to focus attention on the need for a more sustainable circular economy, where resources like plastics will be kept in use for as long as possible. However, with oil prices relatively low, virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic — a financial obstacle that must be surmounted.

“This is definitely a complex situation financially and socially,” Brooks said. “I prefer to remain optimistic that our relationship with plastic can be improved, despite some of the financial barriers. Every person plays a role in our global use of plastic and the circular economy can be embedded in that relationship so that waste is more valuable and less likely to end up in the environment.”

European authorities appear to have recognised the value inherent in plastics. The European Commission’s Plastics Strategy, which was unveiled in January, says its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity is multiplied fourfold.

For Brooks, and her co-author Jenna Jambek, an associate professor at UGA’s College of Engineering, China’s ban should serve as a wake-up call and an opportunity to improve domestic management of plastic waste and invest in technology and new initiatives.

“The bottom line is that our solutions going forward need to incorporate all stakeholders, citizens, governments and industry, both locally and internationally,” said Brooks.

UN Environment

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As voices for the planet grow louder, we must get the job done

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There is something in the air. I am not talking about pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. I am talking about the change humanity needs to address these and other environmental challenges, which have placed our planet and societies in imminent peril.

We can all sense this change: in our workplaces and schools, in our cities and communities, in the boardroom and in the media, in parliaments and city councils, in laboratories and business incubators.

People from all corners of the world are demanding a fundamental redesign of how we – as individuals and as a society – interact with the planet. There is a clear understanding that we must live within the limits of our natural world. In response, we are seeing humanity’s astonishing capacity for innovation and imagination turn towards finding solutions.

Never before has the environmental mandate been more visible, recognized and acted upon. But then again, never before have the stakes been higher.

Pollution of air, land and water is poisoning the planet, from the deepest ocean trench to the highest mountain peak. The latest climate alarm, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told us how little time we have to ward off the worst impacts of climate change. Scientists from many different bodies are warning that human activity is devastating biodiversity – threatening livelihoods, food security and society as we know it.

We have serious work to do. We need to ensure a healthy environment for all, which is essential to development, peace, stability and the eradication of poverty. We need to change our environmental footprint: how we use and discard, how we plan and build, how we power our societies, how we measure growth, and how we share the planet with other species.

Today, as I take up the leadership of the United Nations Environment Programme, I am convinced that we can get this job done, together. Environmental management and sustainability have been at the core of my personal journey since my first job in the 1980s in Sudan, where I worked on drought and desertification issues. I have seen what people can achieve when they work with each other towards an important goal.

In these days of change, the organization I am leading is critical. The United Nations Environment Programme is the link between science and policy action by governments – which is a key driving force for change. The organization’s Medium-Term Strategy (2018-2021) and accompanying Programme of Work informs, supports and assists nations as they work towards a sustainable future. This Programme of Work – which guides every action the organization takes – is fully aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and many other international processes. We collaborate just as closely with civil society and the private sector, without whom change at the speed and scale we need simply will not be possible.

We also have a long history of horizon watching, of identifying waves that are coming to our shores, and supporting nations as they come to agreements around issues that require coordinated global action. The United Nations Environment Programme hosts the secretariats of many multilateral agreements on environmental themes: from biodiversity and ecosystems to regional seas, from chemical waste management to protecting the ozone layer. I look forward to supporting these agreements so that their ambitious goals can be achieved.

The UN Environment Programme is here to support the wider UN system and every process linked to environmental action. In September this year, at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit, countries will showcase a leap in collective ambition. In 2020, at the next meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the world will agree on new and – I hope – ambitious targets to arrest biodiversity loss. Whatever my organization can do to support these encouraging moves, we will do.

Like any organization, though, we must evolve and improve. I have taken to heart the changes demanded of this organization. I will work closely with my dedicated staff, management and Member States to make sure we drive forward, while learning from the past. We will adhere to the high standards expected of an institution with such a powerful global mandate: safeguarding life on earth.

As we work ever harder and better, our success will not be defined by a report or a conference, but by how we support Member States and their people to shift the needle.

Success for us means halting the rapid loss of species. It means preventing seven million people from dying of air pollution each year. It means countries taking action towards sustainable consumption and production. It means a planet powered by clean energy. It means all of humanity reaping the benefits of a healthy and thriving environment for centuries to come.

Today, as I arrive in beautiful Kenya, I will do everything I can to work with staff, Member States and partners to make this happen.

UN Environment

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Restoring the Caribbean to the paradise it used to be

MD Staff

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When people think of the Caribbean, it’s the turquoise seas, clean beaches, coral reefs teeming with fish, turtles and balmy breezes that come to mind.

For us, this paradise is what we call home. We depend upon its riches for sustenance and, often, to make a living. It is the origin of much of the pride we feel when we say we are from the Caribbean.

Increasingly however, the reality does not live up to expectations—we may arrive at the seashore to find it covered with sargassum, the water cloudy and brown, and the horizon covered in trash; the coral reefs may look faded and tired and with barely enough fish to count on one hand…

For visitors, what version of the paradise they may find is becoming unpredictable and some may never return, depending on their experience.

For locals, it’s a different matter—as seafood prices go up and children develop rashes after swimming in the ocean, and as houses flood after each storm and tourists turn their backs on the islands, the paradise is increasingly looking less idyllic.

Sounding a wake-up call to protect the reefs

More than 100 million people in the wider Caribbean region live on, or near the coast in a complex ecosystem with the highest number of marine species in the Atlantic Ocean.

Shallow-water coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, lagoons, estuaries and beaches as well as coral banks and rocky outcrops in deep waters together make up the coral reef sub-ecosystem, the richest in biodiversity in the wider Caribbean region.

Almost 10 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are found in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and 45 per cent of the fish species and 25 per cent of the coral species are found nowhere else in the world. With an area of 10,429 square kilometres of mangrove forest, the adjacent North Brazil Shelf has the highest mangrove coverage of any large marine ecosystem.

This wide ecosystem supports three of the region’s major fisheries—reef fish, spiny lobster and conch—and is the foundation of the region’s tourism industry. Coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds also play an important part in coastal and shoreline protection under normal sea conditions as well as during hurricanes and tropical storms.

A 2016 study by the World Bank put the economic value of the Caribbean Sea alone at US$407 billion per year. Yet this precious ecosystem is at the heart of competing economic and social demands as well as natural stresses and threats.

Pollution from activities on land and at sea degrades and destroys the reef.  Many once-abundant species are now threatened or endangered.

Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and more severe, resulting in great destruction and loss of lives, leaving both the coastline and local communities more vulnerable to future shocks.

A strategy to keep it pristine

Since 1981, UN Environment’s Caribbean Environment Programme has been working with the region’s national governments to better manage and use coastal and marine resources. 

Following the establishment, in 1983, of the Cartagena Convention—the only legally binding agreement for the protection of the Caribbean Sea—the programme has relentlessly worked to gain acceptance of, and agreement upon, three protocols or agreements to combat oil spills [the Oil Spills Protocol] coastal and marine biodiversity [the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol] and pollution [the Land Based Sources of Marine Pollution Protocol] among its 28 member states and 14 territories.

As a result of the analysis of the wider Caribbean region conducted between 2007 and 2011 by the joint United Nations Development Programme and Global Environment Facility’s Caribbean Large Marine Ecosystem Project (2009–2014), the coral reef sub-ecosystem was given priority in a regional strategy to address transboundary problems that compromise the ability of the Caribbean Sea and the region’s living marine resources to support social and ecological well-being and resilience.

In the last two years, the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol, together with the Caribbean and North Brazil Shelf Large Marine Ecosystems Project 2015–2020, published the Report on the State of Marine Habitats in the Wider Caribbean, which then became the basis for the Regional Strategy and Action Plan for the Valuation, Protection and/or Restoration of Key Marine Habitats in the Wider Caribbean 2021–2030. The strategy recommends a series of measures to support the people, economies and ecology of the region, targeting coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds in particular. 

Using an integrated approach, participating governments and stakeholders from academia, civil society, the private sector, and regional and global agencies are working together to enhance management and conservation of the coral reef sub-ecosystem in support of sustainable development.

UN Environment’s Caribbean Environment Programme, as Secretariat of the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol, has been working to revamp the Caribbean Marine Protected Areas Managers Network and establish a regional wildlife enforcement network, in efforts to improve marine biodiversity management. Assisting the region and its countries in co-executing the strategic action plan is another important step in this direction. The Caribbean Environment Programme is driving the process, building the alliances needed to ensure the integrity of Caribbean coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves, in the hope to bring back the paradise we all expect.

UN Environment

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The Perilous Migration of Birds through Cities

Meena Miriam Yust

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How many birds flying into buildings die,

Thinking the glass reflection is the sky. —   with a nod to Kansas poet Madeleine Aaron

Bird migration is a wondrous and majestic phenomenon.  One may witness flocks of colorful songbirds sweeping the skies, geese gliding in a V-shape of beautiful symmetry, or a great hawk soaring above and diving for prey at 120 miles per hour.

About half of all birds in the world migrate, and even the smallest may travel remarkably long distances. Incredibly, the tiny hummingbird can fly nonstop 600 miles over the Gulf of Mexico. Some round-trip migrations can wind their way for as long as 44,000 miles.

Most songbirds migrate at night, and nocturnal travel makes their journey particularly perilous in light of human development. Birds face many obstacles along the way, including extreme weather events and lack of habitat. Yet, one particularly tragic and preventable peril remains: human-made structures.

Scientists estimate an astounding upper-level figure of 1 billion birds that die in the U.S. each year from building collisions. Making matters worse, 40 percent of the world’s bird species are already in decline. In the last decade alone, four birds became extinct and four more are “on the verge of extinction.”  Nearly one in five bird species in Europe is at risk of extinction

Artificial light from buildings draws migratory birds like a beckoning siren, luring them toward lit cities where skyscraper glass reflections are plentiful and deadly. What appear to be skies and trees turn out to be deceptive reflections, and as the birds glide toward the images, they slam into glass. Many are killed instantly, while some are seriously wounded.

Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have investigated light pollution and bird migration patterns in major U.S. cities to determine where collision risks are highest. They report that the median light exposure to birds in cities is 24 times higher than the countrywide average. Chicago tops the list of dangerous U.S. cities for birds, followed by Houston and Dallas. This is true for both fall and spring migrations. Other dangerous metropolises include New York, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Los Angeles.

The central region of the U.S. happens to be a superhighway for bird migrations. Every spring and fall, over 5 million migrating birds comprised of 250 species pass over Chicago, where the city’s glass skyscrapers and artificial light become a death trap. Scientists from the Field Museum in Chicago have been counting dead birds at just one building (McCormick Place) since 1978. By 2002, the numbers had totaled 29,842 birds from 140 species. Chicago clearly has to be a major focus for conservation efforts during migration periods, as should the other hazardous cities identified in the study.

Another useful lesson from the Cornell study is one of timing, and this can help birds in many geographic regions of the U.S. Particularly crucial is the ability to pinpoint specifically when the birds face the greatest risks in each region. Fine-tuning the weeks when help is most needed can have a substantial impact on saving birds.

Researchers discovered that while a migration may continue over a six-month period, it “occurs in sporadic waves,” with the vast majority of birds passing through dangerous locales on just a few nights. Half of all migratory birds each season passed a metro location on approximately 7 to 10 nights during their migrations. This means helping birds, even for a period as short as a week, can have a significant impact. Really though, we must do more.

How Can We Lower the Rate of Bird Collisions?

For low-rises and high-rises, minimizing artificial window light is highly beneficial. This can be done by turning out the lights at night, drawing curtains and blinds, using a small lamp on a table rather than bright ceiling lights and introducing lights with motion sensors in office buildings.

Additionally, participating in Lights Out projects during peak migration times saves many birds. For the average reader, this is as simple as turning the lights out after 11 pm during fall and spring migration months. For building owners, minimizing exterior lighting is also essential. Lights Out programs are being organized in many major cities and have saved thousands of birds. A two-year study by the Field Museum using McCormick Place in Chicago found that turning off the lights resulted in an 83 percent reduction in bird window-collision deaths.

Chicago Bird Collision Monitors rescues injured birds and counts fatalities each morning during migration. Notably, they rescued an injured peregrine falcon (on the endangered list) that was restored to health and released. “We know that before all buildings were participating consistently in Lights Out, there was a foggy night in 2002 when many birds were migrating where a single building was reported to kill over a thousand birds in one evening,” said Annette Prince, the program’s director. “Chicago Bird Collision Monitors worked with buildings to get better participation in Lights Out and by 2004, saw 100 percent participation in light reduction so that subsequently we have never had a single building kill so many birds at once.” 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a live bird migration map, so one can view in real time when birds are migrating through one’s locale and be cognizant of light pollution during peak days. It is important to note that turning lights out whenever possible is also beneficial outside of migration periods, as scientists have shown that substantial numbers of collisions can and do occur outside of migration periods, even in winter.  

Bird-friendly architecture for new construction is essential, as is mandatory legislation. Additionally, adding bird-safe architecture to green building certification standards is recommended by scientists. The extent to which architectural changes can affect bird collision incidence is illustrated by the recent renovation of New York’s Javits Center – a building previously responsible for the most bird deaths per year in New York. To help mitigate the problem, architects replaced dark-mirrored glass with glass that had a subtle fritted pattern, and also added a green roof for nesting. The project was a remarkable success, reducing bird collisions by 95 percent.  Other architectural strategies are installation of UV-coated glass, translucent glass and indented windows with shutters. Legislation requiring implementation of these strategies is crucial to saving birds from collisions.

Chicago proposed bird-friendly building legislation at the beginning of the year.  The ordinance would limit the percentage of transparent or reflective glass that can be used in new and renovated construction exteriors. Specifically, it would require that from the ground to 36 feet up, at least 95 percent of the exterior cannot be covered in glass, or must use glass containing frosting, etching or screens.  Nonessential exterior lighting would also be required to automatically shut off after 11 pm. Chicago’s legislation was introduced by Alderman Brian Hopkins and is supported by Bird Friendly Chicago. It is expected that real estate developers will oppose the bill. Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, communicated that the portion of the bill requiring adoption of bird-friendly architecture to renovations of existing buildings would be “a potential sticking point.” San Francisco and Toronto already have bird-friendly legislation in place to serve as a model.

On a national level, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat who is also a Chicago resident, has reintroduced the Bird-Safe Buildings Act (H.R. 919), which he has tried four times to pass since 2010. Dr. Christine Sheppard, director of American Bird Conservancy’s Glass Collisions Program, notes, “The legislation would help address one of the greatest human-caused threats to birds. Although this legislation is limited to federal buildings, it’s a very good start that could lead to more widespread applications of bird-friendly designs and use of bird-smart glass solutions.” 

When enacted, these bills will reduce bird collision deaths, and in the next few months, we will see how they fare.  

In the meantime, researchers recommend that residents take a few of the following precautions to help minimize window collisions: angling windows to reduce reflection, keeping indoor vegetation away from windows, installing netting, ultraviolet-reflecting glass or decals spaced closely together.  And of course, simply turning out the lights helps. 

These same strategies can be used in any city around the world where migratory birds traverse.  Collectively, we can reduce the incidence of bird collisions and help the many already threatened species to have a better chance of survival.

In the coming months, look to the sky and around you. Stop awhile and you will hear birdsong, more in the morning but also during the day; wee warblers with deceptively loud melodies, cardinals singing their sweet song, and if you look carefully you might catch a glimpse of a puff of bright yellow, the source of that surprising volume. These and others are growing families and enriching our lives before they prepare for the thousands of miles long autumn journey to their winter homes.

Author’s note: first published in Truthout.org

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