So much plastic is being made that “recycling has no impact”

overflowing trash
Public Domain MaxPixel

A Canadian scientist wants us to rethink our approach to plastic and challenge the colonial system that produces it.

Recycling has been called a Band-Aid solution, but Dr. Max Liboiron, director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) in St. John’s, Newfoundland, had a far more poetic description when she said, “Recycling is like a Band-Aid on gangrene.”

Liboiron, who studies microplastics in waterways and food webs, is the subject of a 13-minute film called ‘Guts,’ created by Taylor Hess and Noah Hutton and published by the Atlantic (embedded below). She runs a laboratory that identifies itself as feminist and anti-colonial, which may sound odd in a scientific setting. Liboiron explains in the film:

“Every time you decide what question to ask or not ask others, which counting style you use, which statistics you use, how you frame things, where you publish them, who you work with, where you get funding from… all of that is political. Reproducing the status quo is deeply political because the status quo is crappy.”

The lab is concerned with preserving certain Indigenous traditions, such as smudging and praying over the disposal of dissected fish intestines following research. It implements protocols such as not wearing earbuds while working on a carcass, as this shows disrespect and lack of connection to the animal.

Liboiron is also committed to promoting citizen science. She has built two devices that trawl for microplastics, constructed from everyday materials. One costs $12, the other $500. These stand in contrast to the standard collection device, which costs $3,500. This makes it impossibly expensive for the average person to sample their own water, which Liboiron believes everyone has the right to do.

She doesn’t mince her words when it comes to recycling and its lack of efficacy:

“The only real mode of attack is to deal with the heavy decrease in the production of plastics, as opposed to dealing with them after they’ve already been created. Your consumer behaviours do not matter, not on the scale of the problem. On the scale of personal ethics, yes. Recycling has skyrocketed [with] no impact on the scale of plastic production whatsoever. Really it’s the cessation of production that will make the big-scale changes.”

As someone who advocates for personal plastic reduction, there’s a lot to take away from this statement. To the naysayers who argue there’s no point trying, the personal ethics response is powerful: We have to do these things so that we feel we are making a difference and to position ourselves to be able to challenge authority and the status quo without being a hypocrite. Does it actually help? Probably not much, if we’re being honest, but it can galvanize the broader societal change required to spur political decisions that can turn off the plastic tap eventually.

Liboiron views single-use plastic as a function of colonialism, the product of a system of domination that assumes access to land, both in terms of resource extraction and a product’s eventual disposal. She wrote in an article for Teen Vogue‘s Plastic Planet series,

“[The plastics industry] assumes that household waste will be picked up and taken to landfills or recycling plants that allow plastic disposables to go ‘away.’ Without this infrastructure and access to land, Indigenous land, there is no disposability.”

Usually this land belongs to developing nations or remote communities, which are then criticized by wealthier ones for mismanaging their waste, despite much of it being shipped there from those wealthier countries. Suggestions such as building more incinerators are made, despite the harmful environmental impact these solutions would have.

It’s clear that recycling isn’t going to solve this plastic crisis, and rethinking the system that produces it is really our only choice. Scientists like Liboiron force us to think outside the box, and it’s refreshing.

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Industrial methane emissions are 100 times higher than reported, researchers say

 

Industrial methane emissions are 100 times higher than reported, researchers say
A Cornell-Environmental Defense Fund research team equipped a Google Street View car with a high-precision methane sensor and found methane emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants to be 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate. Photo: Cornell University

Emissions of methane from the industrial sector have been vastly underestimated, researchers from Cornell and Environmental Defense Fund have found.

Using a Google Street View car equipped with a high-precision methane sensor, the researchers discovered that  from ammonia  plants were 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate. They also were substantially higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate for all  in the United States.

“We took one small industry that most people have never heard of and found that its methane emissions were three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States,” said John Albertson, co-author and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It shows us that there’s a huge gap between a priori estimates and real-world measurements.”

The researchers’ findings are reported in “Estimation of Methane Emissions From the U.S. Ammonia Fertilizer Industry Using a Mobile Sensing Approach,” published May 28 in Elementa. The work was funded in part by a grant from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s joint research program with EDF.

The use of  has grown in recent years, bolstered by improved efficiency in shale gas extraction and the perception that natural gas is a less dirty fossil fuel.

“But natural gas is largely methane, which molecule-per-molecule has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide,” Albertson said. “The presence of substantial emissions or leaks anywhere along the supply chain could make natural gas a more significant contributor to climate change than previously thought.”

To date, methane emissions have been assessed at a variety of sites—from the well pads where natural gas is extracted to the power plants and municipal pipelines downstream. MORE

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Cutting fossil fuels could save Canadians $24 billion a year by 2050

“We are still seeing efficiency standards for many buildings either weak or nonexistent.”


IEA executive director Fatih Birol speaks with attendees at the Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver on May 29, 2019 before he gave opening remarks to the gathering of 25 countries. Photo by Jennifer Gauthier

Canadians could save as much as $24 billion annually by 2050 by scaling back the use of fossil fuels to heat and cool their buildings and deploying a range of low-carbon and energy efficient technologies, according to a new joint study by a federal regulator and an international agency.

These tens of billions of dollars a year in savings would come on top of cutting energy demand by as much as 35 per cent and could be achieved through the use of existing technology, say the National Energy Board (NEB) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) in their new research.

But in order to deliver on “the energy savings potential and related emissions reduction,” Canada will need “additional policy signals” like carbon pricing and tightened energy performance requirements for buildings, they say.

That’s in part because abundant and cheaply priced natural gas in Canada poses a “particular challenge” to cutting carbon pollution and reducing energy demand in homes and offices.

“Policy support is needed to encourage shifts to efficient heat pumps in regions where natural gas and electricity prices mean there may be little economic incentive to change equipment,” the report states.

The joint report was published the same day the IEA’s executive director delivered a sobering message in Vancouver about the state of the world’s clean energy transition, in remarks to a gathering of ministers from 25 countries. MORE

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Meanwhile, the president remains clueless about the clean energy revolution.


GIANT WIND TURBINES ARE POWERED BY STRONG WINDS IN FRONT OF SOLAR PANELS ON MARCH 27, 2013 IN PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA. CREDIT: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGES.

Canada won’t perform an environmental review of most new oilsands projects. Here’s why

The future of development in Alberta’s oilsands lies in underground, steam-assisted operations that represent some of the country’s fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions. These projects have never been subject to federal environmental reviews and that’s not expected to change with Ottawa’s new-and-improved assessment rules

Image result for Cenovus in-situ oilsands mining

Unlike the pronounced nature of open-pit mines, with the accompanying heavy haulers and seemingly endless horizons of tailings ponds, in-situ — meaning in ground or in place — operations have a much less visible footprint.

Cenovus has gone so far as to dub these operations — which require the injection of steam underground to heat viscous oil, allowing it to be pumped to surface — “a different oil sands.”

While they certainly do represent the future of the oilsands — in-situ projects have already outpaced mining production and are set to increase by one million barrels per day by 2030 — they also come with their own set of problems.

To have the country’s main environmental assessment law leave the highest-carbon projects off the list is just unacceptable

In-situ oilsands operations are incredibly greenhouse gas-intensive — requiring copious quantities of natural gas, often obtained from fracking, to produce the steam that’s injected underground. MORE

New Lazard analysis shows that wind energy costs have dropped 69 per cent since 2009

Building and operating new wind energy can cost less than continuing to operate fully-depreciated conventional generation facilities

Wind energy has solidified its position as the most cost-effective source of new electricity generation, coming in now at less than one-third the price seen in 2009. The full “levelized cost” (LCOE)* for a megawatt-hour of onshore, utility-scale wind energy in the United States is now between US$29 and $56 on an unsubsidized basis, according to an authoritative analysis just released by U.S. investment firm Lazard.

Wind energy costs have dropped 69 per cent since 2009, and seven per cent just in the last year. In comparison, the key conventional energy sources of coal plants, natural gas combined cycle plants, and natural gas peaker plants have seen much more modest declines in the same period, while the LCOE of nuclear has actually increased.

Remarkably, the low-end of the wind energy cost range also falls within the range of operating costs alone for existing nuclear and coal generation. In other words, it can be less expensive to build and operate new wind generation than to continue to operate fully-depreciated conventional generation facilitiesMORE

Canada won’t perform an environmental review of most new oilsands projects. Here’s why.

The future of development in Alberta’s oilsands lies in underground, steam-assisted operations that represent some of the country’s fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions. These projects have never been subject to federal environmental reviews and that’s not expected to change with Ottawa’s new-and-improved assessment rules. MORE