Recycling Must Be Included in the Infrastructure Bill
By Keefe Harrison
As Congress and the Trump administration contemplate a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, the question of how to utilize those dollars looms large. If the focus is just asphalt and concrete, it will miss the heart of American manufacturing. At the top of manufacturers' needs is access to good, consistent, high-quality feedstocks to make into new products. Let's help meet that need with some of the best possible domestic sources of raw materials: the paper, plastics, glass, metals and packaging discarded by U.S. homes and businesses. That means including funding for improved recycling in the infrastructure bill as a way to ensure long-term reliable supply created right here at home.
Modern infrastructure means resilient cities that make decisions based on long-term thinking. Yes, we need roads and bridges, but are we just interested in rebuilding the infrastructure of today? We need to think of the infrastructure of the future, the kind of infrastructure that ensures America's competitive edge and that supports a forward-thinking circular economy that serves the environment as well as the bottom line.
We cannot thrive as a country if we don't connect environmental health and infrastructure. That's where recycling comes in. When it comes to manufacturing goods, we have two choices: take materials from the earth or keep them in cycle. Keeping them in the cycle saves an enormous amount of energy and keeps us from creating more methane-spewing landfills. More than 150 million Americans "vote" for keeping materials in the cycle by putting out their recycling bin every week. As materials move through that cycle, they create jobs every single step of the way.
To manufacturers, keeping the materials in the cycle is increasingly critical. Here's an example. The Coca-Cola Consolidated bottling plant in Greensboro, N.C. produces beverages in plastic bottles that are sold across the region. Many of those soda bottles are collected by local recycling programs and delivered to nearby Material Recovery Facilities where they're sorted from other recyclables, baled, and shipped to a recycler. Unifi, a long standing and fast-growing North Carolina textiles company, buys some of those bales and spins them into yarn called Repreve. This popular yarn is woven into lots of products made by other U.S. manufacturers from upholstery to swimsuits. Plastic bottles going into products Americans use every day is a local, regional and national success story. It means, among other things, a more competitive U.S. textile industry and factory jobs kept on-shore. Better recycling is all we need to create even more jobs and to revitalize more U.S. companies.
But we have some work to do. While recycling feels universal, only half of Americans can recycle at home. And of those that do recycle, many only recycle half of what they could. That means we're missing out on 22 million tons of recyclables that could be delivering powerful economic and environmental impacts. If recovered, our estimates based on tonnage and current market values show that those recyclables would annually deliver $1.8 billion to our economy and reduce pollution equivalent to removing 10.5 million cars off the road, every year. And that's where infrastructure funding becomes critical.
Congressmen and women have a golden opportunity to help their hometowns and their districts with funding for recycling in the federal infrastructure bill. These dollars could help communities provide universal recycling access to their households through the procurement of recycling carts, trucks and other equipment (all of which is also made in America). Further, Congress should use this infrastructure bill to move the country toward a more circular economy, one in which manufacturers design and produce products with the intent of reusing materials again in the future. Do you know who is already taking these kinds of bold moves forward? China. And who will be our greatest economic competitor in the decades to come? China.
Businesses can be—and want to be—part of the solution. This administration can champion American corporations as they work with government, cities and towns, and nonprofits to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. Today, there are 30 major corporations—The Recycling Partnership's corporate funders—that collectively have leveraged more than $27 million to improve recycling in more than 500 cities and towns across the nation. These companies know that improving recycling is to their economic advantage and that participating in recycling helps them reach their corporate sustainability goals.
It is time the federal government takes as much responsibility for recycling as our cities and towns do. Recycling is the best way for the government to join the private sector in building strong manufacturing and in working toward infrastructure—economic and environmental goals that are good for people, the planet and profits.
Keefe Harrison is the chief executive officer of The Recycling Partnership.
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To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: That our health-care system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely nonexistent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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