COVID & Plastic: A 2020 Love Affair

Animalia Weekly
Plastic Loves a Good Pandemic

In the beginning of the pandemic (if you can even believe that was A YEAR ago), it seemed as if humans staying at home was ‘healing the earth’. Photos and stories were shared wide and far of wildlife reclaiming their land in empty cities, mountains and skylines that were usually covered with thick smog becoming visible, and water sources that were once dirty and polluted turned safe for drinking.

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere

While many of these things were in fact silver linings of a larger, more tragic situation that was devastating the world at the time, that was only one part of the story. The other, uglier, and more discreet side is that many aspects of the pandemic have surged demand for plastics, especially the non-recyclable, single-use types.

According to Business Insider, the global plastics market is expected to rise from $909 billion in 2019 to $1.1 trillion in 2021 due to the pandemic. That’s in the, uh, opposite direction of where we need to go.

  • There has been a massive rise in take-out food orders which are major culprits for single-use plastics. The top 4 food delivery apps in the US saw revenue spike 300% from Q3 2019 to Q3 2020.

  • Grocery stories have moved to putting everything in small, single-use plastic containers vs. allowing customers to hand-pick larger portions

  • Disposable face masks and gloves are ending up in oceans at an alarming rate.

  • Try walking into a Starbucks to get your thermos filled up….nope. Because of COVID, we’ve all had to return to disposable containers.

  • E-commerce is up 40-60% in most parts of the world, which leads to, you guessed it, more packaging!

In fact, hospitals in Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, alone produced more than 240 tons of single-use plastic based medical waste (such as disposable face masks, gloves, and gowns) per day at the peak of the pandemic. That is about six times more than the daily average, before the pandemic occurred. Based on these data, the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.

These items and precautions that have been implemented to slow the spread of the virus have been vital in supporting society and fighting against covid, especially for frontline healthcare workers. And many of the precautions likely DID save many lives, so there is no arguing that it was worth it.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The pandemic came at a time when plastic was already a major concern for a growing share of the world. Various federal and local governments implemented bans and taxes on single-use plastics. Many large companies and firms even invested in recycling initiatives and more environmentally friendly packaging. The EU had plans to ban various single-use plastic items in 2021, and the US was even considering a similar ban.

Fast forward to today aka ‘unprecedented times’, the demand for oil has actually been punctured amid the economic slowdown. In turn, this has cut the price of new or ‘virgin’ plastic, as every piece of plastic begins its life as a fossil fuel. Reminder: plastics do not decompose and are a significant driver of climate change, accounting for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For reference, that's almost double the emissions of the aviation sector. To make matters worse, a study by Carbon Tracker reported that the oil & gas industry plan to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastics.

This drop in price of oil has instigated a price war between recycled and new plastics, propelled by the oil industry. And yes, you guessed it; recyclers are losing this war. This is going on while simultaneously the covid pandemic has created more plastic trash. Recyclers worldwide told Rueter Investigators that their businesses have shrunk more than 20% in Europe, 50% in Asia and 60% in the U.S.

From Bad to Worse

Concern about safety and cross-contamination has caused statewide, municipal, and corporate repeals of single-use plastic bans on grounds of health concerns, citing that reusable bags and other substances live on reusable bags. Researchers led by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a U.S. government agency, found later that month that the coronavirus was still active on plastic after 72 hours, compared with up to 24 hours on cardboard and copper. These plastic bags, along with plastic cups and to-go containers, masks and other sanitary materials, don’t even just go to the landfill- they end up where they’re not supposed to be, like the ocean. Microplastics expert Dr Christian Dunn said the damage of single-use plastic "would last forever" and government action was needed.

Even if we had stayed on track with our goals to reduce plastic waste and increase recycling, a recent study published in June by Pew Trusts reported the plastic going into the oceans is on track to rise from 11 million tons to 29 million by 2040. So things were already bad, but in this pandemic they have absolutely gotten worse.

The world clearly already had a plastic problem; a problem that is being exacerbated by measures meant to protect human health. And while there is clearly an issue with waste management that lies at the top, the overall arching consensus is that we must get out of this pandemic, not only for human health, but for environmental health too.

Flying Grasshopper Recovery

Ok, well, by flying grasshopper we mean the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.

This teeny tiny bird native to Florida was on the brink of extinction. In 2013 there were just under 200 left. By 2018, that number was down to 80 in the wild, with just 20 breeding pairs. However, thanks to some Herculean efforts from biologists, they are on the road to recovery.

The Grasshopper Sparrow has the name for a reason. They stand just 5-inches tall. And earned the name "grasshopper" for the call they make. A couple tiny churps followed by an insect-like buzz.

Saving this species has been a challenge. Not just because they can be hard to spot and track, but they frankly don't get the love of larger "classic" birds or more adored species like lions or elephants.

“It’s easy to rally support for the tiger and the gorilla,” says Joel Sartore, who began photographing the species’ slide toward extinction for the National Geographic Photo Ark. “Doing the same for the Florida grasshopper sparrow means you’ve really accomplished something. In terms of degree of difficulty, it’s Mount Everest.”

Still, this would have been the first bird to go extinct in the US in 34 years.

An Unusual Approach

Typically when biologists work to rescue a bird species, they bring in specimens to conduct captive breeding in order to control the elements and give the birds the best possible chance for procreation and safety.
However, in an attempt to minimize the impact on the already dwindling wild population, they instead brought in eggs into a hatchery to ensure their survival from the elements and from predators. They practiced on surrogate species for 3 years to get it right before moving into the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow eggs.

It took them another year to get the incubation parameters just right, and on May 9th of 2016, the first eggs successfully hatched. A major breakthrough in ornithology.

However, due to a parasite found in the breeding facility, the team had to wait until 2019 to actually safely release the birds for fear they would unleash the parasite into the wild. Since then, over 250 captive bred grasshopper sparrows have been successfully released.

 

Why This Matters

So why go through all the trouble and money ($1.2M) to save such a tiny bird? Well, altruism doesn't work on everyone right?
There are good reasons. For one, these sparrows are critical for seed dispersion. They also serve as food for larger predators. You know, that whole food chain thing.

But there is a deeper reason still. By standing up for a species like the Florida grasshopper sparrow, we are standing up for their entire ecosystem and natural habitat.

“When we care about the ‘least among us,’ it can lead to broader environmental thinking, from consumer spending to saving rainforests,” Sartore says. “I think of the Florida grasshopper sparrow as a gateway drug for nature.”

Read Full story on National Geographic

 

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Elon's $100M Challenge

In case you aren't aware, Elon Musk likes the sound of his own voice. And his own tweets. The richest or second richest (depending on the ever changing Tesla stock price) man in the world, Elon loves attention.

And millions of people love Elon. He literally can change the fortune of companies just with one comment. From Etsy to the app Signal to recently Bitcoin, and oh yeah, the absurd stock price of Tesla. He's a modern day Oprah Winfrey in this regard.

Well he's at it again, this time offering $100M payday via Twitter to whoever comes up with the best carbon capture technology. Judged by, of course Elon.

What is Carbon Capture?

The promise of carbon capture is securing a safe and reliable way to quite literally, "suck" the carbon out of that atmosphere. And for good reason. Carbon is a big problem. CO2 is sitting at 410 parts per million, a 100 million increase since 1960 for context, the previous 100 million increase took nearly 12,000 years). All of this carbon traps hot air and is leading to global warming. We are simplifying here of course, but here's a great read if you want to learn more.

Carbon Capture technology has been researched for a while now. There are several companies that are already in this space such as Climeworks and Carbon Engineering that are no doubt eyeing the Elon prize. In fact, the Climeworks made this not so subtle video.

Problem is this tech is expensive AF. In 2018, Carbon Engineering showed they could capture carbon for $94 to $230 per ton. Doesn't sound like much? Well scientists say we likely need to capture 3 to 7 gigatons per year by 2050 to hit our temperature targets. So multiply that dollar amount x 3 to 7 gigas = a shit ton of money. Actually it's about $750 billion or so. Even Elon can't pay for that at the current rate. So he's pushing for better tech.

Where Does the Carbon Go?

Good question. Once we capture all of this carbon, where the heck does it go? Well that's another part of the challenge. And Elon has not been clear if he's including requirements for that in his public contest.

Some folks believe the carbon can be inserted far underground back into the natural resource reservoirs we've been depleting. Others think we can use minerals that react with carbon to turn it into stable carbonates. Then there is the potential of putting it back into the soil which could boost agriculture.
Nothing is proven out yet. But there is work to do on this front and hopefully Elon will factor this into his prize.
Here is an interesting article about storing carbon underground if you want to take a look!

 

Green Chocolate

Doesn’t ‘regenerative-farmed cacao’ just roll off the tongue? Well it sure does for Bay Area chocolate company Alter Eco. You probably have heard of carbon offsetting as a way to reduce overall carbon footprint- a strategy that many companies have started implementing in an attempt to shift their processes green. Well Alter Eco is going the other direction, towards carbon insetting. Same goal, but much different execution and strategy.

Through this method, Alter Eco will invest funds in the regions where it all starts and their cacao grows; in Central and South America. With these farms and farmers is where their supply chain begins, and where the ramifications of climate change, deforestation and mono-cropping are felt the most. By investing funds in the areas that they depend on for their supply and the ones that are at risk, they in turn build resilience in the supply chain and make a positive difference from the ground up (no pun intended!). Meanwhile, the company's goal is to transition to regenerative farming, which is the practice of reversing climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.

Sweet, Sweet Change 

To help their broader goals, Alter Eco has created a foundation and has already allocated $1.5 million towards a fund to assist farmers pursue agroforestry. 400 of their 1800 cacao farmers in Ecuador have made the transition, with the rest not far behind due to the support and funding of Alter Eco. While what they are doing is obviously incredible, the impact would double tenfold should more cacao growers join in and follow suit. Regenerative-farmed cacao would sharply cut the amount of carbon production and make a huge difference in the fight against climate change. 

But this isn't the only positive; agroforestry also encourages the farming of a wider variety of crops, making their diets more nutritious and their business opportunities more lush. And if that wasn't enough evidence this is a positive system, there are now studies beginning to make the connection between shade grown cacao and increased yields (with the additional bonus of storing more carbon.) All of this bodes well for the well-being of the farmers themselves, too, which is an element not enough people think about.

Theres A First Time for Everything....

Although Alter Eco is only one chocolate company, we believe that as consumers we do have the power to build demand for products that are environmentally and socially responsible. We hope that Alter Eco is not the last in the chocolate industry to make this move, and that other companies and industries watch closely.

Read the full story here. 

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