By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.
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Hazardous Contents<p>Batteries pose more complex recycling and disposal challenges than metals, plastics and paper products because they contain many chemical components that are both toxic and difficult to separate.</p><p>Some types of widely used batteries – notably, lead-acid batteries in gasoline-powered cars – have relatively simple chemistries and designs that make them straightforward to recycle. The common nonrechargeable alkaline or water-based batteries that power devices like flashlights and smoke alarms can be disposed directly in landfills.</p><p>However, today's lithium-ion batteries are highly sophisticated and not designed for recyclability. They contain hazardous chemicals, such as toxic lithium salts and <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/transition-metal" target="_blank">transition metals</a>, that can damage the environment and leach into water sources. Used lithium batteries also contain embedded electrochemical energy – a small amount of charge left over after they can no longer power devices – which can cause fires or explosions, or <a href="https://www.epw.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/e/5/e5530917-434d-451c-8a6b-c5cdfad1b5ec/EED12407A6BF7DE6C86A4B39C25CF6A4.greenberger-testimony-07.17.2019.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">harm people that handle them</a>.</p>
<div id="007de" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="34d57a5a359e141bcf74c9b1f66eae5f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1026491976722468865" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The dangers of disposing of lithium batteries improperly - Battery blamed for Guernsey recycling site blaze https://t.co/Xcs76DI520</div> — Daniel Kinsbursky (@Daniel Kinsbursky)<a href="https://twitter.com/kbirecycling/statuses/1026491976722468865">1533569733.0</a></blockquote></div>
Safer and Simpler<p>While it will be challenging to bake recyclability into the existing manufacturing of conventional lithium-ion batteries, it is vital to develop sustainable practices for solid-state batteries, which are a next-generation technology expected to enter the market within this decade.</p><p>A solid-state battery replaces the flammable organic liquid electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries with a nonflammable inorganic solid electrolyte. This allows the battery to operate over a much wider temperature range and dramatically reduces the risk of fires or explosions. Our <a href="http://zhengchen.eng.ucsd.edu/" target="_blank">team of nanoengineers</a> is working to incorporate ease of recyclability into next-generation solid-state battery development before these batteries enter the market.</p><p>Conceptually, recycling-friendly batteries must be safe to handle and transport, simple to dismantle, cost-effective to manufacture and minimally harmful to the environment. After analyzing the options, we've chosen a combination of specific chemistries in next-generation all-solid-state batteries that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1557/mre.2020.25" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">meets these requirements</a>.</p><p>Our design strategy reduces the number of steps required to dismantle the battery, and avoids using combustion or harmful chemicals such as acids or toxic organic solvents. Instead, it employs only safe, low-cost materials such as alcohol and water-based recycling techniques. This approach is scalable and environmentally friendly. It dramatically simplifies conventional battery recycling processes and makes it safe to disassemble and handle the materials.</p>
Rules for Battery Recycling<p>Developing an easy-to-recycle battery is just one step. Many challenges associated with battery recycling stem from the complex logistics of handling them. Creating facilities, regulations and practices for collecting batteries is just as important as developing better recycling technologies. China, South Korea and the European Union are <a href="https://www.epw.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/d/c/dc43cdc9-ef56-4f8c-b442-d325aa8acf72/D775B276380B37ABF9A49BFD581DD1A5.sanders-testimony-07.17.2019.pdf" target="_blank">already developing battery recycling systems and mandates</a>.</p><p>One useful step would be for governments to require that batteries carry universal tags, similar to the internationally recognized standard labels used for plastics and metals recycling. These could help to educate consumers and waste collectors about how to handle different types of used batteries.</p><p>Markings could take the form of an electronic tag printed on battery labels with embedded information, such as chemistry type, age and manufacturer. Making this data readily available would facilitate automated sorting of large volumes of batteries at waste facilities.</p><p>It is also vital to improve international enforcement of recycling policies. Most battery waste is not generated where the batteries were originally produced, which makes it hard to hold manufacturers responsible for handling it.</p><p>Such an undertaking would require manufacturers and regulatory agencies to work together on newer recycling-friendly designs and better collection infrastructure. By confronting these challenges now, we believe it is possible to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of battery waste in the future.</p>
By Kristie Pladson
U.S. electric carmaker Tesla has more than doubled its third-quarter profits, the company has announced, delivering a record number of electric automobiles amid a pandemic that has crippled fellow automakers.
CO2 Offset Sales Still Key<p>An uptick in demand abroad countered a drop in US car sales of nearly 10% over the last year; global deliveries increased 44% in the third quarter.</p><p>But Tesla still partly owes its success to competitor carmakers: as in past quarters, the electric car company's profits relied on the sale of CO2 credits to fellow carmakers, which allow them to offset their emissions and reach government climate targets. Valuing $331 million in the third quarter, Tesla would not have been profitable otherwise. </p>
Competition Heats Up<p>While traditional automakers are suffering in a global economy marked by a pandemic, Tesla is no longer alone in its electric ambitions.</p><p>"The company is still incredibly highly rated, as if it were working in a vacuum. But the competitors are working like mad to catch up," said analyst Craig Irwin of Roth Capital Partners, pointing to hundreds of new battery-powered vehicles that are expected to be released by 2024.</p><p>Volkswagen group is investing over €40 billion ($47 billion) into developing an electric car portfolio, and other competitors have announced similar initiatives.</p><p>"With more electric vehicle launches on the horizon, Tesla has a big red target on its back," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for the Edmunds.com auto website.</p><p>In its letter, Tesla admitted that reaching its production targets "has become more difficult" and it will rely on of its Model Y small SUV as well as greater activity at its China plant.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Friday will be the latest "fireside" chat guest to join actor and activist Jane Fonda, whose Fire Drill Fridays campaign—which has resulted in the arrests of fellow notable actors—has boosted demands for urgent action to rein in the climate emergency.
<div id="7bafb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1669c4d28a3e920d9e21791ea6f8a469"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318584259825848321" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🔥FRIDAY🔥 @JaneFonda, @GreenpeaceUSA, and @FireDrillFriday are thrilled to be joined by Rep. @AOC for a critical con… https://t.co/omILPXRe9W</div> — Fire Drill Fridays (@Fire Drill Fridays)<a href="https://twitter.com/FireDrillFriday/statuses/1318584259825848321">1603209960.0</a></blockquote></div>
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Thousands of homes were evacuated Wednesday after a Colorado wildfire exploded in size, growing at a rate of 6,000 acres per hour.
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By Jessica Corbett
Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.
<div id="815e9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="eb5133bc08c84a247e6c577bb4c4ba59"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318967338482364416" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Yes! @SenJeffMerkley just introduced new legislation that would stop banks and other financial institutions from fu… https://t.co/Bk15N9Sewk</div> — Stop the Money Pipeline (@Stop the Money Pipeline)<a href="https://twitter.com/StopMoneyPipe/statuses/1318967338482364416">1603301293.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="f84b7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f6742078b73d4f72ad0cdb0b28c45bf8"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318975843717287936" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">"When there’s an out of control fire, the worst thing you can do is pour more gas on it. It’s time for Congress ste… https://t.co/YfjbtiWeRY</div> — 350 dot org (@350 dot org)<a href="https://twitter.com/350/statuses/1318975843717287936">1603303321.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="f35ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0306ad9e315c3763299c349c4056f90"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318969691767930880" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">BREAKING: @SenJeffMerkley just introduced new legislation that would help end the financing of fossil fuels! 👏👏👏 W… https://t.co/831xi0UPfo</div> — Moira Birss (@Moira Birss)<a href="https://twitter.com/moira_kb/statuses/1318969691767930880">1603301854.0</a></blockquote></div>
General Motors is reintroducing the gas-guzzling, military-style vehicle known as The Hummer. This time, it's getting a green makeover as a zero-emissions, fully electric pickup truck, NPR reported.
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The excess carbon dioxide emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution has already raised the Earth's temperature by more than one degree Celsius, increased the risk of extreme hurricanes and wildfires and killed off more than half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. But geologic history shows that the impacts of greenhouse gases could be much worse.
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An annual comprehensive report on air pollution showed that it was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide, including the premature death of 500,000 babies, with the worst health outcomes occurring in the developing world, according to the State of Global Air, which was released Wednesday.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
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Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Leaders of climate and conservation groups on Tuesday welcomed House Democrats' introduction of landmark legislation that aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management—recognizing that, as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva put it, "a healthy ocean is key to fighting the climate crisis."
<div id="a858f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99d487bc34e6e570edd2a3089e616347"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318606309256798208" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🎥 We're live! @NRDems, @RepRaulGrijalva, and @USRepKCastor are unveiling #OceanClimateAction legislation. W… https://t.co/pPdylA6cKQ</div> — Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (@Select Committee on the Climate Crisis)<a href="https://twitter.com/ClimateCrisis/statuses/1318606309256798208">1603215217.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="17f05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="28d7040a5dd41c4d26fed8e93a225655"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318614724842524674" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">.@RepRaulGrijalva’s climate bill will ignite #OceanClimateAction to help fight inequality by prioritizing funding f… https://t.co/oeH1W214em</div> — NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC 🌎🏡)<a href="https://twitter.com/NRDC/statuses/1318614724842524674">1603217223.0</a></blockquote></div>
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