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Green Planet

Can Recycling Really Solve The Plastic Problem?

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The practice of recycling has everything to commend it:  On a finite planet, it conserves resources; it is meretricious allowing us, as it does, to pin a mental merit badge on our chests as we ready the assigned recycling bin once a week; and it is an activity that is all good.  We are saving the planet, albeit in a small way, from some of the excesses of the developed world.  And when everyone does their share, the impact has to be unavoidably significant.  Right.  Or, does it?  

If we examine what we recycle, that is paper, glass, metal cans and plastic, the junk mail and other paper discarded is the most copious but plastic is close.  Almost all of it used to go to the developed world’s great recycling bin in the east … China.  It absorbed some 95 percent of EU recyclable waste and 70 percent from the US.  But China began to grow its own domestic garbage with the growth of its economy.  The consequences have not been unexpected.  China announced a new policy in 2018, named inexplicably National Sword, banning the import of most recyclables, particularly plastics and contaminated materials.  

Since then China’s import of such recyclables has fallen 99 percent.  Needless to say, metals and glass are not as seriously affected.  For the American recycling industry, it has been a major earthquake.  First, about 25 percent of recyclables are contaminated and not recyclable.  Then there are plastic bags.  Not only are these, too, not recyclable but they tend to jam up sorting machinery.

The sorting of waste sent to China had been taken over by families in port side communities.  It became their livelihood, retrieving whatever fetched a price and dumping the rest.  Piling up in ad hoc landfills, it washed down waterways into the ocean.  They were not the only culprits.  Thus we have had the phenomenon of whales being washed up dead, starved because stomachs were full of plastic — 88 pounds densely packed in the stomach of one found in the Philippines and 50 pounds inside another in Sardinia.  China’s ban on waste imports has been followed by Malaysia and Vietnam.  In March of this year, India joined them.  

As the outlets for their waste disappear and as most of the plastics are not recycled, self-reliance has been forced upon developed countries.  All to the good for the environment, because it will also curtail the use of plastics out of necessity.  The truth is only a fraction of plastic waste is recyclable, generally the white transparent bottles of which some are preferred.  Most ends up in landfills.  A 2017 study in  Science Advances determined that 90% of plastics ever produced are still in the environment.  Yet in the past six decades an estimated 8 billion tons have been produced.  Moreover, the usage trend is upwards and in 2014 some 311 million tons were produced worldwide. 

There is though a small movement to restore reusable bottles, and a company called Loop Industries may be on the right track. Their founders announced at the World Economic Forum in 2019 that they aim to return to the milkman model, reusing bottles for everything from edibles to shampoo and detergent. Loop has partnered with Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, PepsiCo, and other large companies.  Perhaps, if we all return to the milk bottle model of the 1950s  — refilling containers to be used again — there may be greater hope for the planet.  The good news is, some towns and states have already banned single-use plastic bottles. 

Another intriguing possibility is to use the millions of tons of crustacean shells discarded.  Scientists are now able to extract chitin and chitosan from shrimp and lobster shells.  Still in the research stage, the process has to be made industrially feasible, and there are also problems with hazardous waste as it uses potent chemicals like sodium hydroxide.  Biodegradable chitin and chitosan can be used as plastic substitutes to make surfboards and anti-microbial food packaging.  Scotland-based CuanTec has developed a bacterial method that has eliminated 95 percent of the sodium hydroxide and also cut energy use by a third as the bacteria do all the work.  They use shells from the langoustines common in northern Europe, and have already signed a contract with the large UK supermarket chain Waitrose to supply flexible film for packaging fish.  The film’s antibacterial properties extend fish shelf life by three days.  

An unexpected and more insidious source of plastic pollution is synthetic clothing.  Researchers have determined that acrylic clothing may release more than 700,000 plastic fibers in a single wash.  Polyester releases about 500,000 fibers, and a poly-cotton blend releases about 137,000.  These fibers end up in the water we drink and the fish we eat.  Making matters worse is the presence of microplastic at depths up to the 1000 meters, investigated by Choy et al in the deep waters of Monterey Bay using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).  The ROV collected the samples at ten different depths.  Maximum pollution was found, surprisingly, not at the surface but from 200 to 600 meters below.  They also collected red crabs and found plastics in the gastrointestinal tract.  Giant “sinkers,” the particle filtering mucous houses used for feeding by larvaceans and discarded after use, were collected at depths ranging from 251 to 2967 meters to overlap and extend the range of the research.  All contained microplastics.   Clearly, ridding the oceans of plastic pollution is an almost unsurmountable problem.  

Japanese manufacturers have come up with a washing machine filter to catch microfibers, which may provide some aid if more widely distributed.  Yet we still do not know the efficacy of such devices.  Curbing the problem at the source is still the most sensible if we wish to sustain the planet.  It is up to us.

Returning to the cheap, convenient and  therefore ubiquitous plastic bags, there is hope for now there are several different types:  the most common are conventional plastic bags, then there are compostable bags designed to be recycled in industrial composters, biodegradable bags, and two types of oxo-biodegradable bags.  The latter degrade in open landscapes or on water surfaces like oceans.  None degrade too well in landfills.  There is, however,  another problem with compostable biodegradales:  to repel water and oil these have in them perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in which an hydrogen atom has been replaced by fluorine.  Known as PFAS, these persistent chemicals leach out of the plastic and remain in the compost to be absorbed by plants and later by humans to accumulate in their bodies.  

However, it’s back to landfills for the non-recyclables.  In 2015, the US alone produced 34.5 million tons (or 13 percent of total municipal solid waste) of plastic waste from which a small fraction (9 percent or 3.1 million tons) was recycled, 5.4 million tons was incinerated with energy recovery and about 26 million tons ended up in landfills.  Burning reduces volume by 87 percent.  However, open burning produces pollutants including dangerous dioxins, so safe combustion requires a contained environment.  

Unless there is a change, the plastic problem appears likely to keep growing.  In 1950, the world produced only about 2 million tons compared to over 300 million tons in present times.  The UN has taken a first step by adding plastic waste to the Basel agreement on hazardous waste — 187 countries have signed up, the US under the Trump administration remains an exception. 

Engineering institutions have become aware of the problem and are educating their young members.  As reported in their July 2019 issue of IET Member News, the British electrical engineering professional body has two competitions sponsored by Greenpeace and Greenseas.  For the Greenpeace prize, teams have to come up with methods, technologies and alternative delivery systems to reduce plastic packaging in supermarkets.  And the Greenseas challenge requires competitors to develop a robotic machine to clear beaches of plastic cigarette stubs.  The machine has to be large enough to collect a reasonable amount and painted brightly to attract attention and inform the public of the problem.  Then there is OceanX Group, headed by a young engineer, that is developing automated monitoring and cleanup technology to remove plastic from waterways and better to detect sources.  It employs artificial intelligence including drones.  

The inescapable upshot of all of this is a need for education.  Sorting recyclables initially and disposing non-recyclable material into the curbside waste bin could save energy later, and many man-hours.  Changes in the kind of plastic material produced may also help.  For instance, just reducing the coloring used in plastic bottles eases recycling as these additives are expensive to remove.  Also tax incentives for manufacturers can only aid recycling efforts.  However, the now evident danger to the food chain begs including the cost of safe disposal (like controlled combustion for example) in the price of items.  Above all, the total amount of plastic generated can no longer keep increasing; it has to be reduced.  

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CounterPunch.org

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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