Joe Biden Is Stuck Between BlackRock and a Hard Place
By Jo Harper
The Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden proposes net-zero CO2 emissions in the United States by 2050. It's an ambitious target, but 30 years is a long time in politics and there is a key tension between the party's moderate nominee with links to corporate funders, such as the asset manager BlackRock, and progressives whose votes he needs to win. This is nowhere better seen perhaps than on environmental issues, where campaigns to green corporate America have tended to fizzle out.
Examples of good intentions abound. Nonprofit organization Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) this week, for example, launched a campaign with a $20 trillion-strong group of investors to encourage companies to commit to stronger action on climate change. In the campaign, 137 institutions asked 1,800 companies to set science-based targets for reducing CO2 emissions. The group of 1,800 represent 25% of total global emissions and represent 40% of the MSCI ACWI Index, which is MSCI's global equity index.
"The importance of investor engagement to drive sustainable corporate action cannot be overstated," Emily Kreps, global director of Capital Markets at CDP, said in a press release.
But words and actions have often been out of sync in environmental policy in the U.S. This is well illustrated by the ambitious-sounding plans of the world's largest asset manager, BlackRock.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink said earlier this year that by the end of 2020 the financial corporation would stop its actively managed funds from investing in companies that get 25% or more of their revenue from coal operations. Furthermore, it would enhance transparency over how it votes in shareholder meetings of firms in its portfolio, create investment products that screen for fossil fuels, and ask companies how they plan to navigate the climate crisis.
BlackRock is close to Biden and some, though not that many, believe a partnership of the two could herald real change in the U.S.'s environmental strategy.
But, says Friends of the Earth, BlackRock conspicuously failed to include a promise to stop investing in companies that cause deforestation, while others worry that a voluntary solution by a passive investment vehicle is not the best way forward.
Friends of the Earth criticized BlackRock this week and other asset management firms in a report for not doing enough to curb global deforestation, which has increased by 40% since 2014 and is a major contributor to climate change. Supply chains for commodities like beef and soy are a key driver of those fires, the group said. Its report accused the "Big Three" asset managers, BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street, of enabling companies in their investment portfolios to avoid promises they made to prevent their supply chains from contributing to destruction of rainforests.
AmazonWatch, part of a coalition of green groups and campaigners called "BlackRock's Big Problem," wrote in a 2019 report that BlackRock was one of the biggest investors in the agribusiness firms responsible for deforestation in the Amazon, with over $2.5 billion worth of shares of such companies. The report found that BlackRock and Vanguard — the largest shareholders in 18 of the 28 carbon-intensive energy and utility companies analyzed — voted 99% of the time for the directors those companies proposed in 2019. And their votes helped kill 16 climate-related shareholder resolutions that year.
At the Heart of Things
"This [CDP campaign] doesn't appear to directly impact BlackRock as it's voluntary," Moira Birss, climate & finance director at Amazon Watch, told DW. "But BlackRock should certainly be asking for 1.5-degree transition plans of all the high emitting companies it invests in."
Birss also says that BlackRock is "again absent from this leading initiative" despite claims by its CEO that no company had done more for climate in 2020.
"Fink claims that BlackRock had 950 'engagements' with companies on climate this year but doesn't provide any transparency on what that means. That's not climate leadership. I would think that if BlackRock leadership could show the impact it is having on climate through these 'engagements,' it would. Instead Fink is making claims about climate action that he can't, or won't, back up," she adds.
Passive Funds Active
BlackRock reported healthy third-quarter profits, the recovery in global financial markets helping it end the quarter with a record $7.81 trillion in assets under management. The New York-based company's net income rose 27% to $1.42 billion, while its shares are up 22% this year.
Supported by an index-fund collection called iShares, it is the world's largest asset manager, with $7.81 trillion of other people's money under its control, a third of it in Europe. This is roughly equal to the world's top 20 pension funds combined. The fund employs 13,900 people spread across 30 countries.
BlackRock's Aladdin risk-management system — a software tool that can track and analyze trading — is used by the U.S. Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB). Today, $21.6 trillion sits on the platform from just a third of its 240 clients, according to public documents verified with the companies and first-hand accounts. That figure alone is equivalent to 10% of global stocks and bonds.
But BlackRock has expanded its power well beyond asset management, including also auditing of banks for regulatory authorities and advising governments on privatization.
"BlackRock is in effect a branch of government, a public utility," Harald Schumann, founder of Investigate-Europe in Berlin, told DW. "It could exert great influence for good but given that two-thirds of its business is index-linked, they have no real power to push for greening of the companies they are invested in," he says.
"Fink personally may well be committed, and it is after all more powerful than many states, a unique phenomenon. But it has an inherent conflict of interest, as an advisor, auditor and investor. The Chinese Wall exists, but how well it actually works is another issue," says Schumann, referring to the strict separation of the firm's services required under financial laws.
Massive Political Influence
Created in 1988, BlackRock has close ties to the Biden campaign, although the company's investments to influence Washington, mean that Fink has also advised the Trump administration on infrastructure privatization and the COVID-19 pandemic. Fink is reportedly hoping for a position in a Biden administration.
BlackRock has avoided being designated a Systemically Important Financial Institution (or SIFI) by the U.S. Treasury's Financial Stability and Oversight Council (FSOC), set up by Dodd-Frank financial regulations, which would require it to be regulated by the American central bank.
The company has spent the last decade lobbying lawmakers, US Treasury officials, and FSOC members with donations. In its Transparency Project report, BlackRock says that it has hired at least 84 former government officials, regulators, and central bankers worldwide since 2004. The world's largest asset manager has also been tapped by the Federal Reserve to oversee three government debt-buying programs designed to fend off economic catastrophe.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction in Deutsche Welle's original story.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
While tossing orange peels and coffee grounds in the garbage might seem inconsequential, sending food waste to landfills has a real impact on climate change. When trapped without air, decomposing food in landfills produces methane: a greenhouse gas that's at least 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term.
As much as we try to cut down on food waste in our kitchens, there will always be leftover banana peels, apple cores and other things that can't be used – much of which can be diverted from landfills by composting.
Composting recycles organic material and allows for the natural processes that decompose food, yard waste and other organics to create a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer. Compost piles heat up as microorganisms break down leaves and kitchen scraps in the presence of oxygen, giving them a second life as "black gold" to fertilize gardens, houseplants and yards. Of the waste created by the average person – generally about nine times their body weight every year – more than 30% of it can be composted.
Luckily, composting isn't only for those with spacious backyards and large outdoor composting systems; there are plenty of options for composting with limited space, even in your own apartment.
Compost tumblers are a common composting solution, and are ideal for lucky apartment-dwellers with access to a yard, patio, or balcony. These outdoor, airtight containers don't attract pests (a point of concern for many urban composters) and trap heat, allowing decomposition to occur much faster. Unlike traditional compost bins or piles that require shoveling, tumblers can be easily turned with a crank and are attractive and discrete for common spaces.
Add yard and kitchen scraps to the tumbler over time, giving it a few turns each week. Once the tumbler is full, stop adding new material and continue turning once every few days for two to three weeks until the contents have completely decomposed. Some people even maintain two tumblers: one to which scraps are added, and one that's in the process of decomposing.
Ideally, to allow the compost to heat up properly and prevent undesirable odors, a composter should have a healthy ratio of "brown" (carbon-rich) and "green" (nitrogen-rich) waste. Brown waste can include leaves, shredded newspaper, nut and egg shells,and twigs, while green waste encompasses all fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grains and soil. On a molecular level, an optimal carbon:nitrogen ratio is about 25-30:1, although some argue that when judging by sight, following a 3-4:1 ratio is sufficient.
Also known as vermicomposters, worm composters are small, efficient, odorless, require little money and effort, and result in rich, nutrient-packed compost. A DIY-worm composter can cost less than $30, requiring only a few plastic storage bins, organic matter for bedding, and worm castings, and can live out-of-sight in a closet or under a countertop.
Darkness, drainage and ventilation are the main components of a healthy worm composter. Start by drilling a few holes in the sides and on the bottom of a medium-sized plastic bin, and placing it inside a shorter bin or one of equal size. The smaller bin should be slightly raised, which might require stacking a few plastic bottles or containers underneath to allow for optimal airflow.
Inside the smaller bin, create the bedding for your worms; soil mixed with shredded paper or cardboard should be layered and dampened before adding in the worms. A good guideline for adding worms – generally red wigglers, which can be ordered online or bought in fishing stores – is one pound (about 1000 worms) per square foot.
Worm composters have some limitations based on what the critters can digest, and the amount of food waste that should be added at once. Freezing food scraps and adding them gradually will give the worms time to do their work without overloading them with food, especially when just starting out.
For those with very limited space, countertop electric composters are small, odorless and can process food waste within hours, producing a rich, dry fertilizer. While not exactly composting, these machines aerate, heat and pulverize food scraps, mimicking the process of traditional compost piles on a much tighter timeline – and, unlike traditional at-home compost piles, can safely process meat and dairy products.
While many electric composters can cost upwards of $300, their compact and user-friendly design makes them an attractive option for apartment-dwellers. Unfortunately, given the electricity needed to run them, the environmental impact of these composters is higher than more natural methods.
Government-Run Composting Programs
Some cities have taken food waste reduction into the own hands: San Francisco, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon all have their own government-run composting initiatives. City-wide composting programs take different forms, but are often free or entail a small fee similar to trash and recycling. Residents usually fill a container with food scraps throughout the week and leave it on the curb to be replaced with an empty bucket, or bring scraps out to a designated bin alongside trash and recycling that's collected at regular intervals. Seattle and San Francisco have even made composting mandatory for all homes and businesses.
As you begin composting, it's a good idea to check whether your city already has a program in place for its residents.
Community Composting and Privately-Owned Collection Services
In the absence of city-wide composting programs, many non-profit and privately-owned organizations have stepped up to the plate.
In New York City, where curbside compost collection was suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19-related budget cuts, Big Reuse – a local non-profit – partners with community organizations to host free weekly drop-off sites. If tumblers and worm composters aren't for you, research compost drop-off locations in your city where you can bring your scraps for free. Some community gardens and farms might accept composted materials as well.
Composting has also become a lucrative business, especially in cities without government-run programs. CompostNow in North Carolina, Bootstrap Compost in Boston and WasteNot Compost in Chicago all charge a fee for pick-up services, offering a very convenient option for those without the time or space to compost at home.
Between trips to the compost tumbler or drop-off site, you'll need somewhere to store your scraps.
While a simple Tupperware container or glass jar would do, many countertop compost bins are attractive and discrete while controlling odors. Some are even dishwasher safe or use replaceable filters to prevent any smells from escaping.
When the pail fills up, scraps can be stored in the freezer until drop-off or pick-up day. Designating a container in the freezer specifically for compost can also keep things tidy and organized.
Adene Sanchez / E+ / Getty Images
As you begin your composting journey, make sure you know what items can be composted. To prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, meat and dairy products should be kept out of most small-scale composting systems, although larger composting facilities – where compost piles reach very high temperatures – might accept them.
Once your food scraps have completed their journey from "trash" to fertilizer, you'll have plenty of black gold to use. If you have limited outdoor space, or no garden on which to spread your finished compost, use it to fertilize house plants or window boxes, or offer it to friends and neighbors who might need it for their own gardens.
Apartment-composting requires some creativity! Consider all of the options in your area – whether it be a drop-off location, pick-up service, or city-run program – as well as your personal limitations and desires. Even with limited space, you can lower your environmental impact and give your waste a second life through composting.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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By Andrew McCormick
Terri Domer knows well what a brewing storm looks like.
Domer, 62, an Iowa native, has spent her life watching thunderstorms gather and tornadoes dash across rolling hills. Last August, when the midday sky darkened over the riverside homeless encampment where Domer and four other people spent most nights — built on a sandy bank near downtown, under tall trees — she quickly set about covering up their supplies.
A campmate said Domer was overreacting and left for a walk. "Suit yourself," she told him.
Domer was busy weighing down a tent when she heard a shout: "I was wrong!" She turned to spot her companion racing back to camp. The sky behind him was "black," Domer said — darker than it had been just moments earlier, darker than she'd ever seen it.
The derecho hit with a fury, winds whipping up sand and snapping limbs overhead. Domer rushed for cover, pulling a tent canopy over her head. Tornadoes typically come and go in minutes. But the derecho, a straight-line windstorm, was relentless. All around Domer, branches and whole trees crashed to the ground.
"I kept thinking, 'When is it going to stop?'" Domer said. She said a prayer that she would live.
It's an immutable truth of the climate crisis that the most vulnerable are hit first and hardest. At a time of rising homelessness in the U.S. and as climate-related disasters become common — wildfires in California, monster hurricanes that thrash the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, an arctic blast in Texas — the rule holds.
Terri Domer visits the riverside encampment in Cedar Rapids, where she weathered last August's derecho. Andrew McCormick
"We're definitely seeing more homelessness, more housing disruption, as a result of these disasters," said Steve Berg, programs and policy director at the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Climate change didn't directly cause the Midwest derecho last year or any of those other disasters. Scientists are clear, however, that a warmer planet makes extreme weather more likely and more ferocious. For people experiencing homelessness, like Domer, the storms make matters only more difficult. Others are made homeless. In both cases, government agencies and nonprofits provide support, but increasingly the needs exceed their capacity.
Together, these experiences constitute a grim warning that the climate emergency is here already, draining resources and devastating lives.
There are an estimated 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in America, based on a single-night count in January 2020 — the fourth straight year homelessness had increased, according to a study released last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was the first year since HUD began collecting data that the number of homeless people with children had gone up. And, as usual, people of color remained starkly overrepresented compared with the U.S. population overall.
Crucially, that's all pre-pandemic data, and the reality is likely to be worse than we know. Millions lost work because of Covid-19, and even as the economy recovers, there remain 8.4 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic hit. Eviction moratoriums have helped, advocates say, but as some of those expire soon, the situation could grow more dire still.
The homeless population in Cedar Rapids numbers in the hundreds. It's a far cry from the tens of thousands in larger cities, like Los Angeles, but the derecho's lingering impact here is a microcosm of the various crises that can befall homeless groups in the aftermath of extreme weather.
When the windstorm finally did let up, about 45 minutes after it had begun, Domer's campsite was in tatters: tents ruined, stoves and lanterns simply gone and just about everything else soiled with wet grime.
What struck Domer most, however, was the quiet. Gone were the normal afternoon sounds of the city. Even the nearby corn processing plant, a reliable source of ambient churning, was silent.
"I realized the whole town had been hit, and I thought, 'Oh, my God,'" Domer said.
The derecho swept across multiple states that day, leaving widespread and often severe damage in its wake. The Cedar Rapids area fared worst, with winds reaching 140 mph, the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. Two-thirds of the city's famously lush tree canopy was gone, much of it displaced onto streets and homes. And the power was out. In some parts of town, it would be weeks before it returned.
For the homeless, natural disasters prove torturous for more than the obvious fact that it's worse to be outside than inside during a storm.
Only one-quarter of the homeless population is considered "chronically homeless," meaning homeless for more than a year or experiencing repeat bouts of homelessness. At any given time, then, the vast majority of homeless people, including some who are chronically homeless, are scraping their way back toward stability. After disasters, backslide is all but inevitable.
Encampments are destroyed. Resources, often hard-won, are lost. If infrastructure is damaged, a job might become more difficult or impossible to get to.
Furthermore, many people who are homeless wrestle with untreated medical or mental health conditions that disasters might worsen. Domer, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said the derecho triggered substantial anxiety and depression, which she's still coping with. Christian Murphy, who was also on the riverbank during the storm, said he worries that Cedar Rapids' devastated tree stock will lead to lower air quality, complicating trouble he has already with breathing.
After the derecho, a short distance from Domer's and Murphy's encampment, Kari Fisher surveyed the damage to the duplex where she lived with her husband and six children, ages 1 to 10.
When the storm hit, Fisher had been home-schooling, a new responsibility due to the pandemic but one she enjoyed. Structural damage to the home was clear; in the unit opposite Fisher's, a tree had smashed into the kitchen. City officials declared the home unfit for habitation, but with nowhere else to go, Fisher's family stayed. Power was shot for good, so for months they got by using plastic coolers and a propane camping stove. (Thanks to the downed trees, Fisher jokes, they also had plenty of wood.)
In November, police cited the family for unlawful habitation. (Fisher is fighting the citation; she faces possible jail time, even though the family had continued to pay rent.) They were directed to Willis Dady, a homeless services nonprofit, which moved the family into a Hampton Inn & Suites north of town, using federal emergency funds made available to the city.
Fisher expected they'd be there for a couple weeks. Six months later, fully eight months on from the derecho, they're stuck. In two hotel rooms, it's Fisher, her husband, an ex-husband who has a disability, seven children — Fisher gave birth to a boy in February — and two dogs. In the same Hampton Inn & Suites, there are dozens more like Fisher, and it's not the only hotel in town still housing people made homeless by the storm.
"It feels like sardines," Fisher said. "It's not sustainable."
While her husband works, Fisher spends days searching Zillow, Zumper, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for available homes. On rental application fees alone, the family has spent $4,500 — dipping ever further into diminished savings — but nothing comes through. With so many people looking, prices are high. By the time most units are listed, they're already gone.
"We're in a hole," Fisher said. "No matter how much I do, no matter how many phone calls I make, we're still here." Her "worst nightmare" is that the money supporting their hotel stay will run out before the family finds new shelter.
For six months, after the August derecho destroyed their former home, Kari Fisher and her family have crowded into rooms at a Hampton Inn and Suites. Andrew McCormick
"I'm waiting for it," she said. "And when that happens, it's 'OK, what are we going to do now?' A tent at a campground? I can't raise children in a minivan." As of mid-April, the family hoped to move into a trailer.
Fisher's situation, advocates said, is characteristic. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — the first major storm in the U.S. that scientists linked to climate change — disasters have been routine drivers of new homelessness.
In Houston, for example, homeless rates fell year over year starting in 2012. In 2018, the year after Hurricane Harvey, they ticked back up. Last year, 11 percent of the city's unsheltered homeless population said they had become homeless because of the hurricane or another natural disaster, according to a survey by Houston's Coalition for the Homeless.
The problem isn't just that homes are destroyed. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, America is short nearly 7 million affordable housing units. During an extreme weather event, affordable housing — more likely to have been built in disaster-prone areas in the first place — is especially vulnerable and often hit the hardest, shrinking the already limited inventory. Pricier homes aren't immune to destruction, of course, so families who are financially better off might also find themselves in need of short-term, lower-cost options. Demand peaks at the same time that options are depleted the most.
"Disasters of this magnitude really trickle out," said Ana Rausch, program operations director at the Coalition for the Homeless. After Harvey, she said, "our regular housing of the homeless pretty much came to a halt, because we were trying to house people in the disaster shelters. And not all of those individuals were homeless."
The pattern goes like this: Disasters push people who had been housing secure toward insecurity. People who were already insecure or severely burdened by housing costs are pushed to the edge of homelessness. And, finally, people who were already homeless are pushed further back in the long wait for limited resources.
The web of government agencies and nonprofits designed to help, meanwhile, is stretched to the max.
In Cedar Rapids, Willis Dady typically serves 500 people in a year, including those who are actively homeless and those who are at risk of becoming homeless. Now, given the combined effects of Covid-19 and the derecho, 500 people need assistance every day, said Alicia Faust, the organization's executive director. The staff has risen to the occasion, working overtime, extending shelter hours and taking on more clients than ever, but still it's hard to keep up.
To fully meet the demand, Faust said, she would need 16 full-time homelessness prevention case managers, working 30 to 35 cases apiece. Willis Dady has three.
Bandwidth issues like that are a nationwide problem, said Berg, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And that's in part because the government responses to homelessness and disasters have both tended to treat symptoms of problems and not their root causes.
"There's always a response to the emergency," Berg said. "But there isn't an overall response to people becoming homeless or the [already homeless people] impacted by this weather."
When it comes to homelessness, that is, the response is overwhelmingly oriented toward people already in crisis — not the broad economic currents that underlie homelessness, including soaring rent costs, stagnant wages and the dearth of affordable housing. As for disasters, the government mobilizes in their aftermath, but it hasn't yet taken robust, transformational action to curb climate change and foster resilience.
Several recent and proposed policies could be cause for hope, however. And in some cases, solutions to homelessness and the climate crisis might be one and the same.
Between coronavirus relief measures passed during the Trump administration and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed last month, nearly $80 billion was allocated to HUD, the Treasury Department and various federal grant recipients to fight homelessness and housing instability, a HUD spokesperson said in an email. Moreover, the White House's newly announced $3 trillion-plus infrastructure plan includes funding to build and retrofit 1 million affordable and energy-efficient housing units.
"The Administration's plan will extend affordable housing rental opportunities to underserved communities nationwide, including in rural and tribal areas," the HUD spokesperson said. The plan would also "flexibly support communities in creating housing for people experiencing homelessness and the housing insecure."
Another promise of Biden's infrastructure proposal and Climate Action Plan: millions of jobs, as the administration seeks to build out America's clean energy infrastructure.
Advocates for the homeless expressed cautious optimism. New affordable housing is a clear win, while the benefits of upgrading and retrofitting existing units are twofold: Just as energy efficiency is good for the planet, it lowers utility costs for renters. As for jobs, many people who experience homelessness find work in construction already. If enough training is packaged with the green jobs in Biden's plan, as the administration says it will be, those jobs could be an apt fit and a much-needed path to stability.
Indeed, after the derecho, several members of the Cedar Rapids homeless community found work helping with the cleanup effort. Some continue to work in construction-related jobs as part of a Willis Dady employment initiative.
Domer, as it happens, has a background in road and home construction, with a former specialty in woodwork. She is in her 60s, and both shoulders give her trouble, so those days are probably behind her — she hopes to find work soon driving a cab. But plenty of people she knows, Domer said, would jump at the opportunity. At a time when many are still struggling with the storm's repercussions, it could be a way to finally move on.
"Anything would help," Domer said. "The pandemic was already tough, and then a derecho. We're still trying to figure out what normal looks like."
This story originally appeared in NBC News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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President Biden will pledge to cut U.S. climate pollution to 50% of 2005 levels by 2030, according to reports.
The goal, known as a Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement, would nearly double the cuts targeted by the Obama administration in 2015.
The White House said an official decision had not yet been made.
"Wow. That's ambition with a capital A," Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb told the AP after learning of Biden's plans.
Other groups, including Sunrise Movement, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth are calling for U.S. climate pollution cuts of 70% by 2030, which they say more accurately reflects America's cumulative climate pollution.
The reports come days before the administration's virtual gathering of international leaders meant to push other countries to do more and reestablish the U.S. as a credible proponent, if not leader, of international climate action.
"The United States must be an undeniable global leader in climate action,″ Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Tuesday. "We cannot preach temperance from a barstool and not pay our fair share when approximately 40% of all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is red, white and blue."
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In just a few weeks billions of cicadas are expected to emerge after 17 years underground, swarming portions of the U.S. from Northern Georgia to New York, The Guardian reported. While some people's skin might crawl upon hearing this news, cicada researchers are hoping to learn more about the mysterious species.
Ecology and evolutionary biologists at the University of Connecticut, including Professor Chris Simon and Assistant Professor in Residence John Cooley, are among the scientists studying the molecular genetics, evolutionary biology and behaviors of periodical cicadas, which are cicadas that are tied to a 13- or 17-year life cycle. But to answer their looming questions, researchers need to understand where to find the cicadas this spring and summer, UConn Today reported.
"I used to have to contact every agricultural extension agent in every county a brood of cicadas occupied and ask them to gather information," Simon explained, according to UConn Today. "I had to go to the county courthouse, meet the agent, pick up a map of each county, get the phone numbers and address for people who reported, and then drive around to each house or farm."
Today, researchers are enlisting citizen scientists to help track cicadas on smartphones. Developed by Gene Kritsky, dean of behavioral and natural sciences at Mount St Joseph University in Cincinnati, the app, called Cicada Safari, encourages anyone to snap a photo of a cicada.
Once the photo is uploaded, the app captures the time, date and geographical coordinates, helping scientists better track the cicadas' emergence.
"Using citizen science to help map periodical cicadas goes back to the 1840s, when Gideon B. Smith wrote newspaper articles asking readers to send him details of where they saw cicadas," Kritsky told Entomology Today. "By the time of his death in 1867, he had documented all the known broods of cicadas."
The cicada swarms are expected to appear in mid-May as temperatures rise. Known as Brood X, they "may amass in millions in parks, woods, neighborhoods, and can seemingly be everywhere," Gary Parsons, an entomologist at Michigan State University, told The Guardian. "When they are this abundant, they fly, land and crawl everywhere, including occasionally landing on humans."
While cicadas don't harm people, scientists do suggest preventing pets from eating the insects because it might make them sick. The insect mating calls will also be hard to miss, as their sounds can reach up to 100 decibels — "the same sound as standing next to a motorcycle revving its engine," The Guardian reported.
The cicada emergence could give researchers access to data they've never had before, The Guardian noted. "I have been mining historical emergence records for 45 years, and in the process we have discovered new populations of broods that had been missed for over a century," Kritsky told Entomology Today. "It's amazing that an insect that has been studied for so long and by so many still has secrets to reveal."
This year, scientists behind the app are hoping to receive 50,000 observations. "This is the big one, a generational event," Kritsky told Entomology Today. "For those who weren't alive 17 years ago or who were too young at the time and can't remember, they are in for quite an experience."
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Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. According to The National Museum of American History, this popular slogan, with its iconic three arrows forming a triangle, embodied a national call to action to save the environment in the 1970s. In that same decade, the first Earth Day happened, the EPA was formed and Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, encouraging recycling and conservation of resources, Enviro Inc. reported.
According to Forbes, the Three R's sustainability catch-phrase, and the recycling cause it bolstered, remain synonymous with the U.S. environmental movement itself. There's only one problem: despite being touted as one of the most important personal actions that individuals can take to help the planet, "recycling" – as currently carried out in the U.S. – doesn't work and doesn't help.
Turns out, there is a vast divide between the misleading, popular notion of recycling as a "solution" to the American overconsumption problem and the darker reality of recycling as a failing business model.
The Myth: Recycling Began as a Plastics' Industry Marketing Tactic
A recycling dumpster in Los Angeles. Citizen of the Planet / Education Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
When it was first introduced, recycling likely had altruistic motivations, Forbes reported. However, the system that emerged was never equipped to handle high volumes. Unfortunately, as consumption increased, so too did promotion of recycling as a solution. The system "[gave] manufacturers of disposable items a way to essentially market overconsumption as environmentalism," Forbes reported. Then and now, "American consumers assuage any guilt they might feel about consuming mass quantities of unnecessary, disposable goods by dutifully tossing those items into their recycling bins and hauling them out to the curb each week."
Little has changed since that Forbes article, titled "Can Recycling Be Bad For The Environment?," was published almost a decade ago; increases in recycling have been eclipsed by much higher consumption rates. In fact, consumerism was at an all-time high in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, Trading Economics reported.
But, if the system doesn't work, why does it continue? Turns out, consumers were misled – by the oil and gas industry. News reports from September 2020 revealed how the plastic industry-funded ads in the 1980s that heralded recycling as a panacea to our growing waste problem. These makers of virgin plastics were the biggest proponents and financial sponsors of plastic recycling programs because they created the illusion of a sustainable, closed-cycle while actually promoting the continued use of raw materials for new single-use plastics.
To the masses, these programs justified overconsumption and eased concerns over trash that could be thrown into recycling bins, Forbes reported. Generations of well-meaning Americans since the 1970's and '80's – believing these communications masterminds – have dutifully used-then-recycled plastics and other materials. They trusted that their discards would be reborn as new goods instead of ending up in oceans and landfills.
The plastics industry went even further, lobbying 40 states to put the recycling triangle symbol on all plastic – even if it wasn't recyclable, Houston Public Media reported. This bolstered the public image of plastic as a renewable resource, but the cost was clarity about what actually can be recycled. As recent as 2020, a Greenpeace report found that many U.S. products labeled as recyclable could not actually be processed by most domestic material recovery facilities.
The Reality: Most Recyclables Aren't Being Recycled
An initial pre-sort removes contaminates, items that can't be recycled, at Republic Services in Anaheim, California on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register / Getty Images
The U.S. relies on single-stream recycling systems, in which recyclables of all sorts are placed into the same bin to be sorted and cleaned at recycling facilities. Well-meaning consumers are often over-inclusive, hoping to divert trash from landfills. Unfortunately, the trash often ends up there anyways – with the additional cost of someone at a recycling plant sorting through it.
The single-stream system is easier on consumers, but results in a mixed stream of materials that is easy to contaminate, hard to sort and more expensive to process. There are a variety of items – including dirty pizza boxes, old clothing, hangers, plastic bags, aerosols, batteries and electronics – that, if added to a residential recycling bin, will contaminate the entire batch of recyclables, a Miami recycling center representative told EcoWatch. At that point, it can be too costly and too dangerous for employees to hand-pick out erroneous items. Because these items cannot be processed in the same way as recyclable materials, their inclusion often means the whole batch will fetch a lower price from buyers or must be thrown away.
"Most people have the attitude that if they just put it in the blue bin, it will get taken away and somebody will figure out what to do with it, but putting something in the blue bin and actually recycling it are two very different things," said David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
Misunderstandings, misinformation and mislabeling aside, the harsh reality was and remains that most plastic can't and won't be recycled, reported NPR. For example, the EPA reported that plastic generation in 2018 was 35.7 million tons, accounting for 12.2 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) that year. Of this total, only three million tons were recycled (an 8.7 percent recycling rate). The vast majority – 27 million tons – ended up in landfills, and the rest was combusted. The environmental agency also estimated that less than 10 percent of plastic thrown in bins in the last 40 years has actually been recycled.
The situation is slightly better for other recyclables, though they make up a smaller percentage of MSW. For example, glass products totaled 12.3 million tons in 2018, or 4.2 percent of the annual MSW generation. Almost 25 percent of glass was recycled, 61.6 percent ended up in landfills and 13.4 percent was combusted.
Post-consumer paper and cardboard for 2018 totaled 67.4 million tons, or 23.1 percent of total MSW generation for the year. The material also had the highest recycling rate of any other material in MSW – 68.2 percent. 25.6 percent of paper ended up in landfills and 6.23 percent was combusted.
According to this EPA data, recyclable plastics, glass and paper accounted for 18.5 percent, 5.2 percent and 11.8 percent of MSW landfilled in 2018, respectively. Those three materials alone comprised 35.5 percent of the total landfilled trash in the U.S. for the year; had they been properly collected, processed and purchased, they theoretically could have been diverted and recycled.
The Reason: Recycling Is Bad Business Around the World
Recyclable waste must be sorted, cleaned and processed before it can be sold as a commodity on the open market. Nareeta Martin / Unsplash
Unfortunately, the EPA data also shows that 2018 was not an anomaly but rather another data point showing how the single-stream system in the U.S. has never been economically viable or feasible on a large scale. To further understand why recycling in America is failing, we need to think of recycled goods as commodities – because that's what they are.
According to the recycling center representative, municipalities and counties pay for residential and commercial recyclables to be trucked to local and regional recycling plants for processing. Clean batches are sorted and/or compressed into bales of similar plastics, paper, aluminum or glass. The centers sell the cleaned recyclables on the open market to buyers who will process them into recycled materials like plastic pellets or post-consumer paper; these can be turned into new products.
This entire process – the processing and creation of saleable recycled goods – costs money. As with any good, profitability requires selling for a higher price than it costs to make. Contaminated batches are harder to process into new products and therefore fetch a lower price on the market, if they can be sold at all. Currently, U.S. recyclables are no longer profitable, and no one wants to buy them.
China used to buy the majority of the world's plastics and paper for recycling, The New York Times reported. The U.S. has been the #1 generator of plastic waste in the world for years and used to ship more than half of its total plastic production to China, a November 2020 study found. The research also noted that up to one-fourth of American plastics sent abroad were contaminated or of poor quality, which would make it extremely difficult to recycle anyways.
Starting Jan. 1, 2018, China banned imports of most scrap materials because shipments were too contaminated, The Times reported; the country no longer wanted to be the "world's garbage dump."
As a result, the U.S. and other Western nations who had relied on China to offload their recyclables saw a "mounting crisis" of paper and plastic waste building up in ports and recycling facilities, The Times reported.
The Western nations began sending recyclable waste to other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Malaysia. These countries often lacked the infrastructure to handle recyclables, so a lot of the waste ended up incinerated or landfilled
In response, in 2019, the United Nations passed an amendment to the Basel Convention hoping to protect the poor and developing countries who'd taken up China's vacated role in the global recycling trade. The amendment ambitiously aimed to clean up the global trade in plastic waste, making it more transparent and better regulated and allowing developing countries to reject contaminated shipments. The U.S. did not ratify the amendment, and new evidence suggests it continues to send illegal and/or contaminated shipments to developing countries.
Domestically, the closing of the Chinese market to U.S. recyclables bankrupted many domestic recycling programs because there was too much supply and no real demand. The smaller Asian countries could not accept nearly as much as China had. Prices of recyclables dropped, and bales of scrap materials were sent to landfills and incinerators when they couldn't be sold, another Times article reported.
This left waste-management companies around the country with no market for recyclabes, The Atlantic reported. They've been forced to go back to cities and municipalities with two choices: pay a lot more to get rid of their recycling or throw it away. The news report noted that most are choosing the latter.
"The economics are challenging," agreed Nilda Mesa, director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program at the Earth Institute's Center for Sustainable Urban Development. "If there is not a market for the recycled material, then the numbers do not work for these facilities as well as cities, as they need to sell the materials to recoup their costs of collection and transportation, and even then it's typically only a portion of the costs," Columbia's State of the Planet reported.
Tiffany Duong is an avid ocean advocate. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and is an Al Gore Climate Reality Leader and student member of The Explorer's Club.
She spent years as a renewable energy lawyer in L.A. before moving to the Amazon to conduct conservation fieldwork (and revamp her life). She eventually landed in the Florida Keys as a scientific scuba diver and field reporter and writes about the oceans, climate, and the environment from her slice of paradise. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @lilicedt.
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