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It Won’t Go Away!
It's Friday, it's 28th June, I'm Anthony Day and this is your latest Sustainable Futures Report. Welcome. In the week when Network Rail told its staff that if they needed to travel on business they should not take the train if it was cheaper to fly, I bring you yet more on plastic pollution– It's just won't go away.
Now here’s a special announcement exclusively for patrons. I think it’s time we got together on line to share ideas and discuss pressing climate issues. I’m going to set something up and I’ll publish details to all patrons via the Patreon site very shortly. If you’d like to become a patron and support the Sustainable Futures Report with as little as $1 per month please go across to patreon.com/sfr for all the details.
Have you been watching the BBC’s War on Plastic? The last episode was this week and you should be able to pick it up on BBC iPlayer if you’re in the UK. In case you don't have
time to catch up on iPlayer here are some points that I picked out of the last two episodes.
First they looked at wet wipes and surprised many people by revealing that most of these products are 85% plastic. They visited a sewage farm in Bristol where 16 tons of wet wipes had been extracted from the drains over a 3 1/2 day period. Apparently this is normal. 11 billion wipes are sold each year in the UK. The programme contacted the principal manufacturers of wipes: Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Kimberly-Clark. The first two did not respond while Kimberly-Clark offered to arrange an interview but then changed its mind.
Abandoned not Recycled
In a previous episode we mentioned the vast amounts of abandoned recycling discovered in Malaysia. Local authority recycling bags made it quite clear that this rubbish had come from United Kingdom. The programme took the bags back to the local authority in question who were quite unable to respond and terminated the interview.
We've heard about micro-plastics and the programme looked at polyester and acrylic clothing and how these fabrics shed fibres every time they are washed. A single wash could release 700,000 fibres and while most of these will make their way into the oceans they discovered that there are more particles in the atmosphere than in any fish you may eat. There are plastic fibres in rainwater which are shed from clothing. These particles are found everywhere and are the type of particles that are capable of deep lung penetration. The long term health effects of this pollution are not yet known.
In the latest episode the programme visited the INEOS plastics production factory at Grangemouth. There they produce between 60 and 70 billion plastic pellets, or nurdles, each day. They have a special fleet of ships which bring fracked gas from the United States as the raw material for production. Apart from the gas, the energy requirement for the plant was equivalent to the electricity consumption of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen combined. It's unsurprising then, that the plastics industry accounts for 15% of global carbon emissions. Plastic production is expected to increase by anything between four and six times by 2050. The reaction of the plant director to the problem of plastic pollution was that it could be curbed by recycling. In his view chemical recycling would be practical within two or three years, allowing scrapped plastic to become raw material in the circular manufacturing process.
Toys no Joke
We learnt that plastic toys, particularly those given away by restaurant chains like Burger King and McDonald's, cause recycling problems. It says on the pack that they can be recycled but a spokesman from the Recycling Association said that in practice they are often made from different plastics bonded together and while each could be recycled it is simply not cost-effective to break down these toys and separate the materials. These toys have to be manually separated from the waste stream, otherwise they contaminate it. We were told that McDonald's is the largest distributor of toys in the world and a straw poll of parents and children reveals that toys given away with a meal are likely to be thrown away very quickly. Two schoolgirls raised 160,000 signatures on a petition asking for these toys to be stopped. Having no reply to letters, the programme team took them to McDonald’s HQ to deliver the petition. They asked for the sustainability director and were told someone was coming down.
Turned Off Site
He proved to be the security manager, who escorted them off site. Nice one, McDonald’s, to do that on prime time nationwide tv. They did eventually invite the girls back in to leave the petition at reception, but that was hardly a PR triumph.
The Minister Responds
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall visited Environment Secretary Michael Gove twice during the series and made him aware of the plastic pollution problem and its international dimension. At present producers pay 10% of disposal costs and local authorities pick up the rest. Gove agreed that producers should bear 100% and provided for that in his Waste and Recycling Strategy. That is not yet legislation. We need to be sure that the legislation goes through.
#take it back.
The series ended with a call to #take it back. To take back plastic to the supermarkets with your message written on it about what supermarkets should be doing about plastics. The closing shots of the programme showed celebrities including Sir David Attenborough writing out their messages.
While researching this piece I came across a statement from the Recycling Association called DON'T DISMISS RECYCLING EXPORTS ON THE BASIS OF A FEW BAD APPLES.
“The export of recycled materials has a place in part of a global economy, but these need to be high-quality materials.
“After launching its Quality First campaign more than three years ago, our membership has committed to producing a high-quality secondary commodity and wants the rest of the supply chain to work to the same goals. This means that manufacturers, retailers and local authorities all need to commit to producing a high-quality product for use by both UK and export recyclers. News that Malaysia is returning containers of materials back to the UK and other countries shows the need for joined-up thinking to achieve this.
“Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin said: "We are entering very difficult waters. From the photos I have seen of the material being sent back to countries around the world, it looks like the mixed supermarket films that are collected from the kerbside collection schemes by local authorities.
“These particular materials are so variable and difficult to separate and recycle that we have a stark choice now of whether to stop collecting them altogether or move the material down the waste hierarchy and incinerate them while recovering the energy. The longer-term solution of course is for the producers not to produce them in the first place – a trip around any supermarket fruit and vegetable aisle has me shaking my head in disbelief at the plethora of unnecessary plastics ‘protecting’ the produce.
“The Recycling Association is against illegal exports of general waste rubbish and poor quality materials to other nations. That is why we launched our Quality First campaign three years ago to push for materials to meet the legal specifications of the importing country. Our members want to trade quality secondary commodities to these nations.”
It was claimed this week that the fashion industry creates a bigger carbon footprint than the whole of the aviation industry. Sounds like a shocking statistic and makes a good headline, but is it true? It appears to come from a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which says,
“… total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
Incidentally, it goes on,
“Hazardous substances affect the health of both textile workers and wearers of clothes, and they escape into the environment. When washed, some garments release plastic microfibres, of which around half a million tonnes every year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics. Trends point to these negative impacts rising inexorably, with the potential for catastrophic outcomes in future.”
Environmental Audit Committee
This was picked up by the Environmental Audit Committee in its report “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability”, which includes 18 recommendations. There’s a link to the document which include the government’s response to each point. A wide range of issues is covered. Here’s Recommendation 15:
The Government must end the era of throwaway fashion. It should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. A charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million for investment in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK. This could create new ‘green’ jobs in the sorting sector, particularly in areas where textile recycling is already a specialist industry such as Huddersfield, Batley, Dewsbury and Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The Government’s recent pledge to review and consult on how to deal with textile waste by 2025 is too little too late. We need action before the end of this parliament (2022)
The government declined to impose the 1p levy, and generally rejected all the committee’s recommendations on the grounds that existing measures were adequate. Mary Creagh MP, committee chair, said:
“The Government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers despite having just committed to net zero emission targets. Ministers have failed to recognise that urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the earth.”
Another source of carbon footprints that you might not immediately think of is AI. Yes, artificial intelligence. According to the MIT Technological Review training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes. How can this be?
The story is based on a paper published by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The paper specifically examines the model training process for natural-language processing (NLP, no, not that NLP), the subfield of AI that focuses on teaching machines to handle human language. In the last two years, the NLP community has reached several noteworthy performance milestones in machine translation, sentence completion, and other standard benchmarking tasks. OpenAI’s infamous GPT-2 model, as one example, excelled at writing convincing fake news articles.
But such advances have required training ever larger models on sprawling data sets of sentences scraped from the internet. The approach is computationally expensive—and highly energy intensive. Hence the conclusion that training an AI model could release as much CO2 as the lifetime emissions of five American cars, including the emissions from their manufacture.
Do we need an AI model that can write fake news? How about one that can write podcasts? And one that can listen to them.
And now for a change of Air
DAC - Direct Air Capture
Patron Tom de Simone draws my attention to Climeworks, a direct air capture company. This is geo-engineering or negative emissions technology, a process which takes CO2 from the air and either stores it or sells it for commercial use. In common with Carbon Engineering of British Columbia and Global Thermostat which is very coy about its location but is probably in the US, this organisation emphasises the fact that the IPCC has said that cutting carbon emissions on its own will not be enough to avoid the 1.5°C warming threshold and that carbon extraction from the atmosphere will be needed as well. CO2 is used in carbonated drinks and you may remember that there was a shortage last year. It's also used in fertilisers, plastics, synthetic fuels and horticulture. With the possible exception of plastics, all these uses release the CO2 back into the atmosphere. The capture may have reduced the production of new CO2 from other sources but it surely cannot have any significant overall effect. The commercial reality is that it takes energy and therefore incurs cost, to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and contain it.
What makes Climeworks different appears to be that some of the CO2 which they extract is permanently stored. They inject it into underground rocks where it reacts to become an inert mineral, locked up effectively for ever. Is this the elusive carbon capture and storage?
There are still costs involved in this process, of course, but Climeworks’ main capture and storage facility is in Iceland where they can use geothermal energy to power the whole process. Climeworks are offering an offset scheme to travellers. For €7 per month you can offset 15% of a global average travel footprint, but 100% costs a monthly €49.
The Climeworks website has an interesting comparison between storing CO2 by growing more trees, by using biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), with enhanced weathering and with their direct air capture and storage system. (Enhanced weathering involves spreading crushed silicate rocks on the land to absorb and bind CO2 chemically.)
They found that growing trees and using BECCS both require very significant amounts of water and large areas of land while enhanced weathering also occupies land and could change the chemistry of watercourses and be a threat to wildlife. Unsurprisingly they find that the Climeworks system has none of these drawbacks. Patron Tom saw a post on Twitter endorsing the benefits of the Climeworks system and posed what I thought were some very pertinent questions:
1. Will it scale?
2. Where's the energy coming from to power it?
3. How carbon-intensive is it to manufacture the chemicals?
4. Can we justify other DAC outputs (fizzy drinks, synthetic fuels etc), given the massive CO2 reductions needed right now?
To which the enigmatic response came: Fret less. Do more.
The correspondent seems to have worked for Exxon in the past, but beyond that we know nothing.
An offset that works?
We spoke last week about offsets involving trees and how the plantations have been cut down in some cases long before they have achieved their objective. A tree needs to live for 100 years to offset the persistence of co2 in the atmosphere. Carbon capture by combining co2 into rock must be attractive, because unlike a tree it never needs any maintenance or attention. Tom’s question is key: will it scale? I’m sure Drax power station would love to know. In Iceland the right sort of rocks for the sequestration are underneath the capture stations, next to the geothermal sources which power the process. Other regions, like the Vale of York where Drax is located, may not be suitable.
We need systems like these but they must be regulated, inspected and controlled. We need to verify that operators have extracted what they said they would extract. We need to know that no sequestered CO2 is ever sold more than once to different people. And we surely can’t rely on conscience-stricken travellers to fund the technology that’s going to save the rest of us. If it works and if it scales then governments should be taking it over and operating it as part of our armoury against the climate crisis.
Let’s hope it scales, because Climeworks has vowed to extract 1% of global CO₂ emissions from the air.
Have you gone vegetarian yet, like all responsible environmentalists? No neither have I.
Consultants A T Kearny have written a paper in which they suggest that a number of meat alternatives are evolving, each with the potential to disrupt the multibillion-dollar global meat industry. They report that according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), nearly half of the worldwide harvest is required to feed the livestock population, which consists of about 1.4 billion bovines, 1 billion pigs, 20 billion poultry, and 1.9 billion sheep, lamb, and goats (see figure 1). Agricultural production directly for human consumption accounts for just 37 percent, representing the second largest harvest consumption block (ahead of biofuel, industrial production, and others). Thus, most of the harvest is fed to animals to produce meat, which finally is consumed by humans. Clearly this is not an efficient way to feed the global population, which is expected to grow from the current 7.7 billion to some 10 billion by 2050. The authors calculate that we could feed around twice as many humans with today’s global harvest if we did not feed livestock but rather consumed the yield ourselves. They also suggest that solutions for Increasing the Efficiency of Conventional Meat Production Have Been Almost Exhausted.
Vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes have been around for many years and high-protein insects are a significant element of the diet in many parts of the world. Now wholly plant-based products are available which look like, taste like and have the texture of meat. Impossible Foods meat-like products are available in over 6,000 restaurants in the US. A company called JUST offers scrambled eggs, and a whole range of egg dishes, without eggs. Beyond Meat claims its sausages, patties and mince can be found in over 33,000 GROCERY STORES, RESTAURANTS, HOTELS, UNIVERSITIES.
Clearly it will take time to scale up production to a level which will significantly replace farmed meat and I’ve not been able to find information about the relative costs of these products. Nevertheless, the revolution has started and Kearney concludes that by 2040 the market for conventionally produced meat will have fallen by over 33%.
Ruffian at Large
I’m sure there were no veggie burgers on the menu at the Mansion House banquet in the City of London the other night. There was a band of Greenpeace protesters, ladies in long dresses, who invaded the event shouting down the speaker and handing out leaflets about the climate crisis. Government minister Mark Field pushed his chair in front of one of the ladies, shoved her against a pillar, grasped her firmly by the neck and manhandled her out of the building and into the street.
To their shame, some diners applauded his action. To her credit, as soon as she heard about the incident Prime Minister May suspended Field from his post. Whether Mark Field was angry at having his meal disturbed, angry because the speech by Chancellor Philip Hammond was interrupted or cross because he did not want to face up to people warning of climate catastrophe, we shall probably never know. When Philip Hammond resumed his speech he remarked that it was ironic that such a protest should take place in the week when the prime minister had committed to a 100% reduction in emissions by 2050 (something which he himself opposed, by the way.) Let’s just look at that legislation again. Here’s the full text:
Amendment of the target for 2050
2.—(1) Section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), for “80%” substitute “100%”.
Bit short on detail, don’t you think?
In Other News
In Bihar, one of the poorest areas of India, 49 people died on Saturday of heatstroke in just 24 hours.
With temperatures in Bihar hovering consistently at around 45C (113F), hospitals were inundated with people suffering from heatstroke. The death toll has since risen to at least 60 and, with many heatstroke victims still in hospital, is expected to rise further.
The Guardian and other papers published a picture of scientists riding their dog sleds out across the ice sheet in Northern Greenland. The dogs are wading through ankle-deep meltwater.
Meanwhile, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have refused to sign up to an EU document setting out a net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050.
On the other hand, an ethical investment operation by the UK’s largest asset manager, Legal and General Investment Management, has dumped shares in a string of US companies it has deemed climate crisis laggards, including oil giant ExxonMobil and insurer Metlife.
Six House of Commons select committees have announced that a citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis will be set up later in the year. It is the second of the three demands made by the Extinction Rebellion. Mrs May has already addressed their first demand for a zero-carbon Britain, although she did not go as far as their third demand, which was that this should be achieved by 2025.
Last week I spoke about New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget. Richard Lane tells me that Scotland has a National Performance Framework setting out a range of non-economic measures of its worth as a country and charting its progress to improve them. There’s a link on the blog.
David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has just sold 120 of his guitars and decided to donate the proceeds to a good cause. This means that Client Earth receives £17m. I’ve mentioned Client Earth several times previously and its actions against the British government for not acting to clean up illegal levels of air pollution.
James Thornton, ClientEarth CEO said: “I’d like to express my deep and heartfelt gratitude to David Gilmour for this utterly remarkable gift. David has a long history of supporting charities and I am honoured that he has chosen ClientEarth to benefit from this landmark auction.
“ClientEarth is working across the world, using the law to fight climate change and protect nature, and this gift will do an enormous amount to support our efforts to ensure a sustainable and hospitable planet for future generations”
And On That Note…
…I leave you for another week.
I'm Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report and, as promised, there will be another episode next week and it will be about rare earth.
Most 'meat' in 2040 will not come from dead animals, says report
Mansion House Fracas
India heatwave: rain brings respite for some but death toll rises
Photograph lays bare reality of melting Greenland sea ice
Central European countries block EU moves towards 2050 zero carbon goal
Major global investor drops US firms deemed climate crisis laggards
UK citizens’ assembly on climate emergency announced
Scotland has a National Performance Framework setting out a range of non-economic measures of its worth as a country and charting its progress to improve them:
Sweet Music for Client Earth