The Week’s Sustainability, Recycling, Business and Science News

The Earth911 team combs news and research for interesting ideas and stories about the challenges of creating a sustainable world. We call it the Earth911 Reader and we hope you find it useful.


Arctic Sea Ice Loss May Set Off Accelerated Global Warming

According to a research team at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the collapse of Arctic ice can accelerate global warming. New Scientist reports that climate feedback loops could add an extra 0.19°C to global temperatures by 2050. The feedback could come in the form of additional heat absorbed by the sea because there is no ice to reflect solar heat into space, among one of just many such mechanisms. When accompanied by methane releases from thawing permafrost, soil carbon release could further amplify climate change. But scientists are still seeking to understand all the factors. It is time to accelerate carbon capture and sequestration efforts to restore Arctic Ice by mid-century.

Two-Degree C Warming Will Lead to Huge Soil Carbon Release

When the planet warms to two degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, as much as 230 billion tons of carbon could be released from soils. “Our study rules out the most extreme projections—but nonetheless suggests substantial soil carbon losses due to climate change at only 2°C warming, and this doesn’t even include losses of deeper permafrost carbon,” Dr. Sarah Chadburn of the University of Exeter and co-author of a paper on carbon soil turnover told Phys.org. As reported by Nature, another example of a feedback loop, soil carbon release would contribute roughly twice U.S. emissions over the past century to already increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Halting Deforestation and Wildlife Trade Can Reduce Pandemic Outbreaks

Human expansion into previously wild areas brings animals and people into closer contact, increasing the chance of a disease jumping species and starting a pandemic, New Scientist reports. EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based environmental health non-profit, released a new report that calls for investments of up to $40 billion to $598 billion annually to preserve wilderness, prevent deforestation, and limit wildlife trade. Compared to the global cost of COVID, which is currently estimated to be between $8 trillion and $16 trillion, the proposed plan’s cost is trivial. If, after 20 years of maximum investment in wilderness preservation, humanity prevented another COVID pandemic, the program’s minimal return on preserving these environmental services would be more than 800%.

Transparent Solar Cells Research Points to Personal Power Stations

Solar power generation can be embedded in windows, smartphones, vehicles, and many other products to deliver “personalized energy,” a transparent solar cell technology research team told Science News. The technology processes ultraviolet light beyond the range visible to humans and could be perfected soon. Solar Daily also reports that luminescent solar concentrators built into textiles can provide electricity for the wearer. Your sweatshirt could power your phone and headset while you walk to work. Imagine an environment replete with energy. The hardwired fossil fuel-powered electric grid starts to look like tired technology waiting to be disrupted by comparison. Let’s get started.

couple laying on a natural green bed and smiling


What Will Happen After U.S. Abandoned The Paris Accord?

The United States exited the Paris climate accord on November 4, as the nation waited for the presidential election results. Nature assesses the consequences and explores how Trump Administration regulatory roll-backs have set the stage for the U.S. to become a climate laggard. America’s exit could also empower China to resist transparency about its progress while U.S. subsidies for fossil fuels continue, harming both nation’s progress toward zero emissions. Meanwhile, corporate leaders and climate non-profits in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN-affiliated organization, have put forward a viable plan for U.S. net-zero emissions by 2050, Triple Pundit reports.

Trump Atmospheric Oversight Official Sanitizes Radical Views

At this writing, we don’t know who will win the presidency. However, we still need to stay tuned to the Trump Administration’s environmental policy actions. Heated reports that the new chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ryan Maue, is a prolific troll on Twitter who sanitized his profile to cover his anti-science and anti-climate press messages over many years. We need people who do not hide their records and embrace transparency leading our climate policy. The Washington Post, however, reports that newly appointed director of the National Climate Assessment, Betsy Weatherhead, is an accomplished climate scientist. She must collaborate with Maue on the next National Climate Assessment, but perhaps he will be gone by then. Finally, in the Trump vs. Science battle, the President has issued an executive order that will “make it easier to ‘get rid of people who don’t toe the right political line,’” an Environmental Protection Agency scientist told Nature.

Electrification Of Commercial Building Heating Could Cut Emissions 44%

Switching from gas-burning furnaces to electric heat-pumps would reduce commercial buildings’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 44% annually, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy said in a new report. Electrification would make a considerable dent in U.S. emissions because commercial buildings account for almost one-third of the GHGs produced by U.S. Subsidies can accelerate the process. Even with today’s tax credits for upgrades, 27% of commercial space could be converted to electric heat-pumps and break-even based on energy savings by 2030. Read the whole report here.

Researchers: Human Lighting Is A Form Of Pollution

Photons are pollutants that impact the behavior of animals, insects, birds, and people, a new report in Nature Ecology and Evolution explains. “Hormone levels, breeding cycles, activity patterns and vulnerability to predators are being affected across a broad range of species,” The Guardian reports in its coverage of the research. Have you noticed trees or bushes budding early or later in the year? How about confused baby turtles? It is due in part to human lighting that is increasing in intensity by two percent a year. At that pace, nights will be twice as bright in about 36 years. That also means human light is now roughly twice as bright as in the mid-1980s.

U.K. Adds Sustainability Marketing Claims Watchdog

Britain will appoint a regulator to review claims that consumer products are sustainable, The Guardian reports. The U.K. Competition and Markets Authority will review sustainability claims because rising demand for environmentally friendly products will increase the opportunity and profitability for fraudulent claims. Greenwashing is a well-known problem, but as green values grow in influence, consumers need more information to confirm sustainability claims. No similar proposals are currently under discussion in the United States.

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Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement Not Moving The Needle

Despite pledges by investors to divest their fossil fuel holdings totaling more than $14 trillion, there is too little progress toward the renewable energy transformation. Felix Mormann of Texas A&M University writes in Nature that simplistic thinking has prevented investors from recognizing the relative CO2 emissions generated by companies. Simply choosing non-fossil fuel-producing companies does not result in lowered emissions. He also suggests that individual investors, who provide institutional investors with funds, are critical to making the turn to renewables. Yet, they lack access to reliable guidance about how to make smart, sustainable investing choices. In a related article, EcoWatch reports that a new paper from an environmental advocacy organization, portfolio.earth, shows that during 2019 10 banks made $2.6 trillion in loans that resulted in lost biodiversity. We must move past simplifying the environment and economy, complex systems that cannot always be reduced to slogans and marketing taglines.

Regardless Of The President, Corporate Climate Action Will Remain

The business community has embraced climate action and will not back down, the Environmental Defense Fund reports. Recent extreme weather events, wildfires, and a growing body of evidence convinced companies that their customers would not tolerate continued environmental damage. Investors, non-profits, and the government are raising the pressure for sustainable business practices. According to a new survey, Business Green reports that two-thirds of businesses will increase their investments in achieving net-zero goals. At Carbon180, the fourth article in a worthwhile series suggests that corporate momentum for carbon removal technologies is growing. Companies are beginning to offset their emissions as well as turn to solar and other renewable energy sources.

Venture Investments Flowing To Sustainability Startups

A wave of sustainablity-focused venture investment and startup announcements is building. This week, we read about Phood, a food preparation technology for restaurants and food packagers that reduces food waste with artificial intelligence-enabled measurement technology. Zero Co, an Australian Kickstarter-fueled company that makes home and personal care products delivered in refillable packaging (made from recycled ocean plastic), raised venture funding in Silicon Valley. And Emitwise, a startup that makes carbon tracking and accounting technology, also raised $3.4 million to accelerate its growth. Meati Foods, a Colorado-based meat alternative producer that uses fungi mycelium to create its foods, raised $28 million. Solutions are on the horizon. The question is whether social justice will come with the prize.

Chipotle Adds Footprint Information For Meal Ingredients

Foodprints explain meals’ environmental footprint, and Chipotle is bringing ingredient-level guidance about its meals’ water usage required to grow the produce or meat, EcoWatch reports. The Real Footprint site lets users explore Chipotle foods’ environmental impacts, including how much organic farmland it supports and advising on the antibiotics used by non-organic alternatives. The food sustainability data comes from HowGood, an independent research company that uses peer-reviewed sources and certification information to validate its guidance. The next time you order a chicken burrito with guacamole, you’ll know that it saved 1.7 gallons of water, avoided the use of 42.3 milligrams of antibiotics, and contributed to the improved soil health of 1.8 square feet of land. These metrics play to Chipotle’s organic sourcing strengths but don’t address CO2 emissions contributing to climate change. Chipotle is taking steps toward real transparency, but we didn’t find the information comprehensive yet.

Estée Lauder Leads Personal Care Industry With Net-Zero Emissions

Estée Lauder is proving beauty can run planet deep, Environmental Leader reports. The company announced it achieved net-zero emissions, an impressive feat for our times. It transitioned its operations to renewable energy sources and, where it could not install solar or wind generation, used renewable energy certificates to access clean sources. However, Estée Lauder continues to emit CO2 internally and in its supply chain but offsets its carbon footprint by purchasing carbon credits. By 2030, it will reduce its internal CO2 emissions by 50% from 2018 levels while eliminating 60% of GHG output in its supply and distribution networks.

Learning From Amazon’s Delivery Fleet Electrification Experience

Building out a charging infrastructure remains the biggest challenge facing Amazon’s migration to an electric delivery fleet, GreenBiz reports. In a review of Amazon’s pioneering effort to use renewable energy and electric vehicles as part of its last-mile distribution system, writer Mike De Socio also explores the new relationships between the company and local government, which build the roads needed to reach customers. Amazon’s power needs already outstrip local renewable resources in some areas. The on-demand delivery system could become more efficient that traditional retail, but society must partner with private enterprise to complete the puzzle. In a related development, a former Walmart executive recently launched HwyHaul. This Uber-like system will connect truckers with loads of produce. By provisioning on-demand transportation, HwyHaul seeks to reduce food spoilage and lower the U.S.’ globe-leading levels of food waste.


Making Solar Panel Recycling Happen

CleanTechnica‘s four-part examination of solar panel recycling trends concludes with a useful summary of the solar industry’s response to the first generation of photovoltaic (P.V.) cells reaching the end of its useful life. While there is a market for the metals old solar panels contain, the value of recycled glass has collapsed in recent years. Recyclers are emerging to address P.V. processing. The Solar Energy Industries Association has launched a national program to lower the cost of solar recycling. In one case, First Solar is embracing the burden of recycling what it sells. The company builds the price of recovery and recycling into installation pricing. The industry appears to be aware of the future recycling challenge. It could be the first to address the full lifecycle of its products.

Smart Dumpsters Identify Contamination, Alert Customers

What if your business’ dumpster could measure its contents and tell a hauler it is ready to be emptied, as well as warn you that the recyclables are contaminated. Recycling Today reports that San Francisco-based startup Compology announced a smart dumpster. It monitors its contents and send text messages or email to help customers eliminate contamination. Similar technology is already available in Europe.

Recycling Volumes Up In Key Materials, But Contamination Rates Persist

Resource Recycling reports that recycling rates have soared during the pandemic. De-Con Companies, a Shakopee, Minn. recycling company, has resorted to storing Plastic #1 (PET) for the first time because 150% more plastic is coming into the facility from consumers. Cardboard and aluminum recycling has increased. The value of a pound of PET has fallen from 14 cents in 2019 to eight cents in August. People are not doing a better job of recycling. U.S. contamination rates remain stubbornly high compared to many nations, making our recycled material less profitable for processors. For example, Vietnam last week announced it would stop accepting mixed-paper recyclables because of high contamination rates. However, the country will continue to import cardboard, which is less likely to be contaminated during everyday use and recycling.

Plastic Recycling Research Suggests More Curbside Recycling Possible

Flexible plastic packaging (FPP) manufacturers spent the past five years seeking better plastic sorting and recycling technology to support continued consumer interest in their products. FPP includes plastic bags, wrap, and films that have long jammed equipment at materials recovery facilities. Resource Recycling reports that the Materials Recovery for the Future research program has produced an optical sorting process that can substantially increase recovery rates. Consumers are seeking more recycled plastic packaging, and brands are offering more options. Successfully recycling plastic is essential (though we can also use much less of the material). It can reduce our reliance on virgin petroleum and prevent some plastic pollution. Take a peek into the innovative plastic recycling ideas recently recognized by the Association of Plastic Recyclers.

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