This Earth Day, Stop the Money Pipeline
By Bill McKibben
Nineteen-seventy was a simpler time. (February was a simpler time too, but for a moment let's think outside the pandemic bubble.)
Simpler because our environmental troubles could be easily seen. The air above our cities was filthy, and the water in our lakes and streams was gross. There was nothing subtle about it. In New York City, the environmental lawyer Albert Butzel described a permanently yellow horizon: "I not only saw the pollution, I wiped it off my windowsills."
Or consider the testimony of a city medical examiner: "The person who spent his life in the Adirondacks has nice pink lungs. The city dweller's are black as coal." You've likely heard of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire, but here's how New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller described the Hudson south of Albany: "one great septic tank that has been rendered nearly useless for water supply, for swimming, or to support the rich fish life that once abounded there." Everything that people say about the air and water in China and India right now was said of America's cities then.
It's no wonder that people mobilized: 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day in 1970—10 percent of America's population at the time, perhaps the single greatest day of political protest in the country's history. And it worked. Worked politically because Congress quickly passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and scientifically because those laws had the desired effect. In essence, they stuck enough filters on smokestacks, car exhausts, and factory effluent pipes that, before long, the air and water were unmistakably cleaner. The nascent Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a series of photos that showed just how filthy things were. Even for those of us who were alive then, it's hard to imagine that we tolerated this.
But we should believe it, because now we face even greater challenges that we're doing next to nothing about. And one reason is you can't see them.
The carbon dioxide molecule is invisible; at today's levels you can't see it or smell it, and it doesn't do anything to you. Carbon with one oxygen molecule? That's what kills you in a closed garage if you leave the car running. But two oxygen molecules? All that does is trap heat in the atmosphere. Melt ice caps. Raise seas. Change weather patterns. But slowly enough that most of the time, we don't quite see it.
And it's a more complex moment for another reason. You can filter carbon monoxide easily. It's a trace gas, a tiny percentage of what comes from a power plant. But carbon dioxide is the exact opposite. It's most of what comes pouring out when you burn coal or gas or oil. There's no catalytic converter for CO2, which means you have to take down the fossil fuel industry.
That in turn means you have to take on not just the oil companies but also the banks, asset managers, and insurance companies that invest in them (and may even own them, in the wake of the current economic crash). You have to take on, that is, the heart of global capital.
And so we are. Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of environmental and climate justice groups running from the small and specialized to the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, formed last fall to try to tackle the biggest money on earth. Banks like Chase—the planet's largest by market capitalization—which has funneled a quarter-trillion dollars to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Agreement of 2015. Insurers like Liberty Mutual, still insuring tar sands projects even as pipeline builders endanger Native communities by trying to build the Keystone XL during a pandemic.
This campaign sounds quixotic, but it seemed to be getting traction until the coronavirus pandemic hit. In January, BlackRock announced that it was going to put climate at the heart of its investment analyses. Liberty Mutual, under similar pressure from activists, began to edge away from coal. And Chase—well, Earth Day would have seen activists engaging in civil disobedience in several thousand bank lobbies across America, sort of like the protest in January that helped launch the campaign (and sent me, among others, off in handcuffs). But we called that off; there's no way we were going to risk carrying the microbe into jails, where the people already locked inside have little chance of social distancing.
Still, the pandemic may be causing as much trouble for the fossil fuel industry as our campaign hoped to. With the demand for oil cratering, it's clear that these companies have no future. The divestment campaign that, over a decade, has enlisted $14 trillion in endowments and portfolios in the climate fight has a new head of steam.
Our job—a more complex one than faced our Earth Day predecessors 50 years ago—is to force the spring. We need to speed the transition to the solar panels and wind turbines that engineers have worked so mightily to improve and are now the cheapest way to generate power. The only thing standing in the way is the political power of the fossil fuel companies, on clear display as President Trump does everything in his power to preserve their dominance. That's hard to overcome. Hard but simple. Just as in 1970, it demands unrelenting pressure from citizens. That pressure is coming. Indigenous nations, frontline communities, faith groups, climate scientists, and savvy investors are joining together, and their voices are getting louder. Seven million of us were in the streets last September. That's not 20 million, but it's on the way.
We can't be on the streets right now. So we'll do what we can on the boulevards of the Internet. Join us for Earth Day Live, three days of digital activism beginning April 22. We're in a race, and we're gaining fast.
Bill McKibben is the founder of climate change campaign 350.org, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and the author of the new book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?.
This story originally appeared in The Nation, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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