Is the Future of Grocery Shopping B.Y.O. Container?
By Jeff Turrentine
If you think this is going to be yet another column admonishing you for not doing enough to curb the amount of single-use plastic in our waste stream, you can relax. You don't need a lecture at this point.
You might already know, for instance, that global consumer culture has generated more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the middle of the last century, and that we currently produce 300 million tons of it a year, half of which is made up of items used only once. And you're probably aware that roughly 8 million metric tons of this discarded plastic ends up in the ocean, where it threatens marine life of all kinds. It's unlikely anyone needs to tell you that every year we throw enough plastic away to circle the planet four times, or that a mass of plastic waste floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is three times the size of France.
So instead of piling on to the guilt you probably already feel, allow me to offer a glimmer of hope. Increasingly there are signs—not big ones, but signs all the same—that a new generation of businesses and manufacturers, and even some of the older ones, are ready to change the way products are packaged and delivered so that single-use plastic is all but removed from the equation. Right now, these companies' actual impact on the waste stream is small. But if their solutions catch on and become the norm, the impact could be tremendous.
byHumankind's personal-care products.byHumankind
Last week brought news of a start-up called byHumankind, which delivers a variety of personal-care products directly to the doors of its online customers. At first glance, this doesn't appear to be anything particularly new. But what is novel is the role of plastic in this most familiar of transactions. It's practically nonexistent. Mouthwash comes in the form of a tablet that dissolves in water. Shampoo comes in a bar, like soap, and arrives wrapped in paper. Deodorant is delivered at first in an elegantly designed plastic container—but refills come paper-wrapped and ready to be popped into the original holder, turning what would typically be single-use plastic into something that can potentially last for years.
Another new startup, Loop, carries out its mission of reducing plastic waste by leveraging the popularity of other brands. Its creators describe Loop as a "circular shopping platform," which sounds oh-so-disruptive but is actually just a fancy way of describing what used to be relatively common only a few generations ago, when the milkman would come around delivering fresh milk in glass bottles and collecting the empties from the previous week.
Loop's refillable Häagen-Dazs ice cream container.Loop
Loop has updated this admittedly quaint-seeming idea for the modern era. A wide range of products from big-name personal-care, household, and food and beverage brands come to you in durable, reusable containers. When you're finished with them, you can either ship the containers back to Loop or schedule a pickup. That triggers the next shipment to come your way. Once returned, your discards are sanitized and refilled with products to be sent out to another customer, posthaste.
Loop is still in the pilot stage; it will begin testing its model in the New York City and Paris markets this spring. One of the people behind it, Tom Szaky (CEO of TerraCycle, a company that specializes in recycling hard-to-recycle items) has cited the travesty of ocean plastics as a primary motivator in getting the new company off the ground. Brian Bushell, the founder and CEO of byHumankind, writes on the company's website that the idea for his start-up came while he was on a small boat off the coast of Thailand, exploring "tiny, uninhabited islands, in an environment I'd expected to be untouched," when his boat became surrounded by plastic waste. "I'd expect to see these things floating in Manhattan's East River, I thought. But here?"
A big part of Bushell's pitch to customers—beyond the quality of the products he's selling—is the opportunity to keep five pounds of single-use plastic out of the waste stream every year, "just by getting ready in the morning."
Katerina Bogatireva, founder and owner of Precycle.Marina Moskvina-Williams
With their emphasis on refillables and circular shopping, byHumankind and Loop join a vanguard of young, forward-thinking companies that are building sustainability into their business models, rather than simply offering customers a "green option" or vowing to reduce the carbon footprints of their operations and supply chains. This movement also includes zero-waste, packaging-free grocery stores like Brooklyn's Precycle or Idaho's soon-to-open Roots Zero Waste Market, where customers bring their own containers and buy items loose or in bulk. This new wave of entrepreneurs are banking on the idea that consumers are sick and tired of feeling like they're hastening the end of humanity every time they buy hair conditioner or yogurt.
Whether their hunch is correct remains to be seen. (Zero-waste groceries can prove to be a tough sell even in famously progressive cities like Austin, Texas.) But certain retailing and cultural phenomena—online shopping, direct-to-consumer delivery, improvements in storage and shipping technology, and a growing environmental awareness among millennials, whose proclivities guide the decisions of some of our biggest brands—are definitely converging in ways that make it easier to opt out of plastic packaging.
Today, sure, it's just a noteworthy trend. But with the right timing and the right amount of public buy-in, today's trend might actually become tomorrow's industry standard.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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