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Ethanol Plants Are Allowed To Pollute More Than Oil Refineries

In 2007, the U.S. Congress mandated the blending of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol into gasoline. One of the top goals: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But today, the nation’s ethanol plants produce more than double the climate-damaging pollution, per gallon of fuel production capacity, than the nation’s oil refineries, according to a Reuters analysis of federal data. The average ethanol plant chuffed out 1,187 metric tons of carbon emissions per million gallons of fuel capacity in 2020, the latest year data is available. The average oil refinery, by contrast, produced 533 metric tons of carbon.

The ethanol plants’ high emissions result in part from a history of industry-friendly federal regulation that has allowed almost all processors to sidestep the key environmental requirement of the 2007 law, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), according to academics who have studied ethanol pollution and regulatory documents examined by Reuters. The rule requires individual ethanol processors to demonstrate that their fuels result in lower carbon emissions than gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with writing the regulations to meet the goals set by Congress. For processors, that translates to an EPA requirement that the plants use certain emissions-control processes the agency assumes will result in lower-than-gasoline emissions. But the agency has exempted more than 95% of U.S. ethanol plants from the requirement through a grandfathering provision that excused plants built or under construction before the legislation passed. Today, these plants produce more than 80% of the nation’s ethanol, according to the EPA.

Some of the exempted plants produced much less pollution, including some owned by the same companies producing the highest emissions. The EPA said about a third meet the law’s environmental standard even though they are not required to do so. But as a group, the plants freed from regulation produced 40% more pollution per gallon of fuel capacity, on average, than the plants required to comply, the Reuters analysis found.

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Uber and Lyft equals more pollution

The efficiencies of ride hailing were supposed to all but end car ownership; instead vehicle sales are on the rise again this year, after a down year in 2020. There is also evidence that Uber and Lyft may actually spur an increase in car sales in cities where they begin operating.

Passengers have largely eschewed pooled rides and public transit in favor of private trips, leading to downtown bottlenecks in cities like San Francisco.

The need for drivers to circle around waiting for or fetching their next passenger, known as deadheading. Deadheading, Lyft and Uber estimated in 2019, is equal to about 40 percent of rideshare miles driven in six American cities. The researchers at Carnegie Mellon estimated that driving without a passenger leads to a roughly 20 percent overall increase in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to trips made by personal vehicles.

The researchers also found that switching from a private car to on-demand rides, like an Uber or Lyft, increased the external costs of a typical trip by 30 to 35 percent, or roughly 35 cents on average, because of the added congestion, collisions and noise from ridesharing services.

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Volkswagen, BMW Fined $1 Billion For Colluding To Make Dirtier Cars

Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler spent years illegally colluding to slow the deployment of cleaner emissions technology, says the European Union, which is dishing out fines as a result. From a report:
The EU’s executive branch hit the Volkswagen Group (which owns Audi and Porsche) and BMW with a collective $1 billion fine on Thursday for their role in the scheme. Volkswagen Group must pay $595 million, while BMW will pay $442 million. Daimler, however, evaded a $861 million fine of its own because the automaker revealed the collusion to the regulators.

The scheme described by EU authorities is separate from the Volkswagen Group’s massive Dieselgate scandal, in which the company installed software on its diesel vehicles that helped fool environmental regulators into believing they were compliant, when in reality, they were polluting far more than the legal limit. Dieselgate ultimately led to nearly $40 billion in fines, buybacks, and legal fees for the Volkswagen Group. Daimler also installed software on some of its diesel vehicles to cheat emissions tests and has paid billions of dollars in fines. BMW was careful to point out Thursday that, unlike the other companies it was caught colluding with, it had not cheated emissions testing.

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US Air Pollution Monitoring Network Falling Into Disrepair

The U.S. air pollution monitoring network has fallen into disrepair after years of budget cuts and neglect, leaving tens of millions of Americans vulnerable to undetected bad air quality from events like wildfires to industrial pollution, according to a report by the investigative arm of Congress. Reuters:
The conclusions from a 2-1/2-year audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirm key findings in a Reuters special report published last week that detailed broad failures in the air-pollution monitoring system, whose data guides U.S. regulatory policy and informs the public about health risks. Federal funding for the air monitoring network, which is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and operated and maintained by state and local environmental agencies, has declined by about 20% since 2004, after adjusting for inflation, leaving it in poor condition, according to the GAO report viewed by Reuters. The GAO report said some agencies have reported termite damage and leaky roofs at shelters housing sensitive but aging pollution monitoring equipment, and one state agency resorted to shopping on eBay to find used monitor parts because the manufacturer had stopped making them.

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Many Amazon Returns Are Just Destroyed or Sent to Landfills

Experts say hundreds of thousands of returns don’t end up back on the e-commerce giant’s website for resale, as customers might think. Marketplace journalists posing as potential new clients went undercover for a tour at a Toronto e-waste recycling and product destruction facility with hidden cameras. During that meeting, a representative revealed they get “tons and tons of Amazon returns,” and that every week their facility breaks apart and shreds at least one tractor-trailer load of Amazon returns, sometimes even up to three to five truckloads…

To further investigate where all those online returns end up, Marketplace purchased a dozen products off Amazon’s website — a faux leather backpack, overalls, a printer, coffee maker, a small tent, children’s toys and a few other household items — and sent each back to Amazon just as they were received but with a GPS tracker hidden inside… Of the 12 items returned, it appears only four were resold by Amazon to new customers at the time this story was published. Months on from the investigation, some returns were still in Amazon warehouses or in transit, while a few travelled to some unexpected destinations, including a backpack that Amazon sent to landfill…

Marketplace asked Amazon what percentage of its returns are sent to landfill, recycling or for destruction. The company wouldn’t answer. A television investigation in France exposed that hundreds of thousands of products — both returns and overstock — are being thrown out by Amazon. As a result of public outcry, a new French anti-waste law passed earlier this year will force all retailers including e-giants like Amazon to recycle or donate all returned or unused merchandise. Shortly after the show aired in 2019, Amazon also introduced a new program in the U.S. and U.K. known as Fulfillment by Amazon Donations, which Amazon says will help sellers send returns directly to charities instead of disposing of them. No such program exists in Canada.

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Exxon’s Plan for Surging Carbon Emissions Revealed in Leaked Documents

Exxon Mobil Corp. had plans to increase annual carbon-dioxide emissions by as much as the output of the entire nation of Greece, an analysis of internal documents reviewed by Bloomberg shows, setting one of the largest corporate emitters against international efforts to slow the pace of warming.

The drive to expand both fossil-fuel production and planet-warming pollution has come at a time when some of Exxon’s rivals, such as BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, are moving to curb oil and zero-out emissions. Exxon’s own assessment of its $210 billion investment strategy shows yearly emissions rising 17% by 2025, according to internal projections.

The internal estimates reflect only a small portion of Exxon’s total contribution to climate change. Greenhouse gases from direct operations, such as those measured by Exxon, typically account for a fifth of the total at a large oil company; most emissions come from customers burning fuel in vehicles or other end uses, which the Exxon documents don’t account for.

That means the full climate impact of Exxon’s growth strategy would likely be five times the company’s estimate—or about 100 million tons of additional carbon dioxide—had the company accounted for so-called Scope 3 emissions. If its plans are realized, Exxon would add to the atmosphere the annual emissions of a small, developed nation, or 26 coal-fired power plants.

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More than 14m tonnes of plastic believed to be at the bottom of the ocean

At least 14m tonnes of plastic pieces less than 5mm wide are likely sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans, according to an estimate based on new research.

Analysis of ocean sediments from as deep as 3km suggests there could be more than 30 times as much plastic at the bottom of the world’s ocean than there is floating at the surface.

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Installing Air Filters in Classrooms Has Surprisingly Large Educational Benefits

An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.

That’s what NYU’s Michael Gilraine finds in a new working paper titled “Air Filters, Pollution, and Student Achievement” that looks at the surprising consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015. The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children. And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.

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‘I Oversaw America’s Nuclear Power Industry. Now I Think It Should Be Banned.’

Friday the Washington Post published an essay by Gregory Jaczko, who served on America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005 to 2009 and was its chairman from 2009 to 2012. He says he’d believed nuclear power was worth the reduction they produced in greenhouse emissions — until Japan’s 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.

“Despite working in the industry for more than a decade, I now believe that nuclear power’s benefits are no longer enough to risk the welfare of people living near these plants…”

The current and potential costs — personal and economic — are just too high…. The technology and the safety needs are just too complex and demanding to translate into a facility that is simple to design and build. No matter your views on nuclear power in principle, no one can afford to pay this much for two electricity plants. New nuclear is simply off the table in the United States….

Fewer than 10 of Japan’s 50 reactors have resumed operations, yet the country’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. How? Japan has made significant gains in energy efficiency and solar power…. What about the United States? Nuclear accounts for about 19 percent of U.S. electricity production and most of our carbon-free electricity. Could reactors be phased out here without increasing carbon emissions? If it were completely up to the free market, the answer would be yes, because nuclear is more expensive than almost any other source of electricity today. Renewables such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power generate electricity for less than the nuclear plants under construction in Georgia, and in most places, they produce cheaper electricity than existing nuclear plants that have paid off all their construction costs…

This tech is no longer a viable strategy for dealing with climate change, nor is it a competitive source of power. It is hazardous, expensive and unreliable, and abandoning it wouldn’t bring on climate doom. The real choice now is between saving the planet or saving the dying nuclear industry. I vote for the planet.

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The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs

The e-waste industry is booming in Southeast Asia, frightening residents worried for their health. Despite a ban on imports, Thailand is a center of the business.

Crouched on the ground in a dimly lit factory, the women picked through the discarded innards of the modern world: batteries, circuit boards and bundles of wires. They broke down the scrap — known as e-waste — with hammers and raw hands. Men, some with faces wrapped in rags to repel the fumes, shoveled the refuse into a clanking machine that salvages usable metal. As they toiled, smoke spewed over nearby villages and farms. Residents have no idea what is in the smoke: plastic, metal, who knows? All they know is that it stinks and they feel sick.

The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving e-waste industry across Southeast Asia, born of China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s electronic refuse, which was poisoning its land and people. Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even as activists push back and its government wrestles to balance competing interests of public safety with the profits to be made from the lucrative trade. Last year, Thailand banned the import of foreign e-waste. Yet new factories are opening across the country, and tons of e-waste are being processed, environmental monitors and industry experts say. “E-waste has to go somewhere,” said Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against trash dumping in poor countries, “and the Chinese are simply moving their entire operations to Southeast Asia.”

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Food Delivery Apps Are Drowning China In Plastic

“The astronomical growth of food delivery apps in China is flooding the country with takeout containers, utensils and bags,” writes Raymond Zhong and Carolyn Zhang for The New York Times. “And the country’s patchy recycling system isn’t keeping up. The vast majority of this plastic ends up discarded, buried or burned with the rest of the trash, researchers and recyclers say.” From the report:

Scientists estimate that the online takeout business in China was responsible for 1.6 million tons of packaging waste in 2017, a ninefold jump from two years before. That includes 1.2 million tons of plastic containers, 175,000 tons of disposable chopsticks, 164,000 tons of plastic bags and 44,000 tons of plastic spoons. Put together, it is more than the amount of residential and commercial trash of all kinds disposed of each year by the city of Philadelphia. The total for 2018 grew to an estimated two million tons.

Recyclers manage to return some of China’s plastic trash into usable form to feed the nation’s factories. The country recycles around a quarter of its plastic, government statistics show, compared with less than 10 percent in the United States. But in China, takeout boxes do not end up recycled, by and large. They must be washed first. They weigh so little that scavengers must gather a huge number to amass enough to sell to recyclers. “Half a day’s work for just a few pennies. It isn’t worth it,” said Ren Yong, 40, a garbage collector at a downtown Shanghai office building. He said he threw takeout containers out.

Many people in urban China are using the delivery apps because “delivery is so cheap, and the apps offer such generous discounts, that it is now possible to believe that ordering a single cup of coffee for delivery is a sane, reasonable thing to do,” the report adds.

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Why Energy Is A Big And Rapidly Growing Problem For Data Centers

U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants. Global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts (4.16 x 1014 watts) (or about 3% of the total electricity) last year, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom. And this consumption will double every four years.

Streaming video has already changed the game, but the explosion of artificial intelligence and internet-connected devices will change the entire landscape. AI is the future, and AI is hungry for processing power. IoT is projected to exceed 20 billion devices by 2020 (some analysts believe we will reach that number this year alone). Given there are currently 10 billion internet-connected devices, doubling that to 20 billion will require massive increases to our data center infrastructure, which will massively increase our electricity consumption.

How on earth can we possibly build all the power plants required to supply electricity to twice as many data centers in the next four years? The simple answer is that we can’t.

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Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

The Hidden Environmental Cost of Amazon Prime’s Free, Fast Shipping

Amazon has changed the way Americans shop. This year, the e-commerce giant said its annual Prime Day sale was “the biggest shopping event in Amazon history.” During the 36-hour event, people bought over 100 million products, crashed the website, and signed up for more Prime memberships than ever before. The behavior is indicative of the buying culture Amazon created. The company’s ease, speed, and savings — underscored by killer perks like free, expedited shipping and simple returns — has encouraged more people to shop online, more often.

But these free benefits come with a hidden environmental cost that doesn’t show up on the checkout page, experts say. Expedited shipping means your packages may not be as consolidated as they could be, leading to more cars and trucks required to deliver them, and an increase in packaging waste, which researchers have found is adding more congestion to our cities, pollutants to our air, and cardboard to our landfills.

“People are consuming more. There’s more demand created by the availability of these cheap products and cheap delivery options.”

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Almost 45 million tons of e-waste discarded last year

A new study claims 44.7 million metric tons (49.3 million tons) of TV sets, refrigerators, cellphones and other electrical good were discarded last year, with only a fifth recycled to recover the valuable raw materials inside.

The U.N.-backed study published Wednesday calculates that the amount of e-waste thrown away in 2016 included a million tons of chargers alone.

The U.S. accounted for 6.3 million metric tons, partly due to the fact that the American market for heavy goods is saturated.

The study says all the gold, silver, copper and other valuable materials would have been worth $55 billion had they been recovered.

The authors of the Global E-waste Monitor predict that e-waste, defined as anything with a battery or a cord, will increase to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021.

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Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust

“Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?

After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we’ll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.”

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The Story of Electronics

The Story of Electronics explores the high-tech revolution’s collateral damage—25 million tons of e-waste and counting, poisoned workers and a public left holding the bill. Host Annie Leonard takes viewers from the mines and factories where our gadgets begin to the horrific backyard recycling shops in China where many end up. The film concludes with a call for a green ‘race to the top’ where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products that are fully and easily recyclable. Our production partner on the electronics film is the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry.

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