Ending The (Re)Cycle
What's Going On?
Up until a year ago China bought nearly half the world's recyclables. In January 2018, they placed a ban on most recyclables from other countries (dropping what they would accept by 99%), leaving those countries scrambling to figure out what to do. China's main concern was the influx of unusable dirty plastics that overwhelmed their processing facilities.
So Where Are Recyclables Going Now?
Landfills, incinerators (which emit harmful pollutants), and the ocean. Cities in the US and Europe relied on the ability to export to China for decades and no domestic alternatives or infrastructure were ever developed. Many larger cities (like Portland, SF, and NY) have found alternative markets or expanded their own cities' abilities to process materials while others have reduced what they'll take (i.e. Sacramento stopped accepting #4-7). Some Chinese processing plants have announced plans to open up shop in the US.
How Did It Get This Bad?
Most people tend to think of recycling as something the government provides. But it's a business — there aren't any national laws and many cities use private contractors to buy, clean, and resell recyclables. Now that China has stopped buying up all the excess, the market has collapsed — cities are now having to pay their contractors to take recyclables.
Recycling has never been a great system. Even when China was accepting pretty much all recycling waste, only 9% of plastics were actually recycled. Cities used to require residents to sort their recycling (plastic, paper, cardboard, etc) but most have moved to a single blue bin. This leads to "aspirational recycling." We've all done it — tossing something into the recycling bin with the vague hope that it'll be recycled. Our ignorance stems from the fact that when we throw something away, we never have to see it again, until it pops up in the ocean on a BBC nature documentary.
But what begins as plastic ends as plastic, no matter how well it's recycled. We've produced 8 billion tons of it globally over the last 60 years, and the number keeps going up. It's short-sited and unnecessary, and time to rethink our culture of convenience.
How Can I Help?
Reduce the waste you generate. Start at the grocery store (or even better, the farmer's market). Buy a set of reusable mesh produce bags and a set of reusable cotton bulk bags. Only buy loose, unpackaged produce (sorry Trader Joe's) and shop in the bulk section. It's cheaper, healthier, and cuts down on food waste. Limit your single-use plastic in general — bring your own mug to get coffee, don't use plastic straws or utensils, and reuse the items you already have in your home.
It might be tough to adjust at first, but once you develop the habit, it becomes second nature — soon you'll find yourself cringing at all the overpackaged goods lining the inside aisles of stores. And luckily, it keeps getting easier to shop this way. In many stores you can bring your own containers to fill with soap and shampoo, bulk sections are expanding, and zero waste grocery stores are starting to sprout up.
It's important for cities to take action as well. Some are considering the pay-as-you-throw model, where residents are charged for how much waste they put in their curbside bins.
The Last Wilderness
What's Going On?
The fight for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) continues. In the most recent development of the saga, a bipartisan group of House representatives introduced a bill that would ban oil and gas drilling in the area.
Remind Me, What's The ANWR Again?
19.6 million acres of incredibly biodiverse wilderness on the northeast corner of Alaska — it was created in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It's the largest national wildlife refuge in the country, and one of the few places where black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears coexist. More than 200 species of birds populate the area, along with muskoxen, caribou, wolves, and many other species (full list here).
Why Is It Under Threat?
Well, it sits on top of somewhere between 7-12 billion barrels of oil... The area has been highly contested since it was established — the center of controversy is a stretch of the coastal plain called the 1002 Area. This is where the main drilling operation would be established. It's also part of the yearly migration of the Porcupine Caribou herd (one of the longest land mammal migrations in the world), where they return each spring to calve and raise their young. The 1002 Area is sacred to the Gwich’in people, who have lived there for thousands of years and depend on caribou for survival (we're talking 80% of their diet). They have a saying, "what befalls the caribou, befalls the Gwich’in".
And the land itself is fragile. It's already under profound stress from climate change. In addition, tracks from trucks that performed seismic testing in the 1980s to explore the area's energy potential remain today — those tracks can alter how surface water flows over the tundra, contribute to lakes draining, and increase the rate of permafrost thaw.
What's Happened In The Struggle Lately?
The GOP's 2017 tax bill included a provision to open the ANWR up for drilling, spearheaded by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (who loves to tout her "environmental" agenda). The Department of Interior planned to start leasing the land for drilling this year, but there have been delays in performing the seismic testing that usually happens before a lease of this kind — it's now slated to occur in December 2019, which buys some time for those fighting to preserve the land.
Several major financial institutions, not usually known for their environmental concern, have rejected financing for drilling or exploration in the refuge. Last week more than 300 scientists nationwide signed a letter to Congress asserting that the Interior Department’s assessment of the environmental impacts of drilling is inadequate. And lawmakers introduced the aforementioned Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, which states that repealing the drilling provision in the tax law "would best protect the unspoiled ecosystem of the Coastal Plain, the human rights of the Gwich'in, and the integrity of the National Wildlife Refuge System". No one knows exactly what will happen next.
How Can I Help?
70% of American voters oppose drilling in the ANWR. Be vocal about your opposition. The Bureau of Land Management is currently taking public comments on the plan to drill — go here to submit a public comment opposing the destruction of the refuge.
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