Monday, December 30, 2019

6 Tips for Ramping Up Your Green Lifestyle in 2020

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One of my colleagues recently posted on Facebook that they were looking for suggestions for how to ramp up their sustainability lifestyle in the coming year. They felt that they were doing quite a bit but wanted suggestions as to how to do more. I thought I would provide some simple suggestions to ramp up a green lifestyle in 2020 for those of you who are already living green.

1. Fully embrace minimalism and avoid consumerism. One of the best things we can do for the environment is to not buy things. We live in a world where consumer goods are extremely cheap and readily available. It is tempting to buy into the fast fashion or technology trends. Many of my greenest friends are major consumers and I am always trying to reign in my own impulses. I think one of the best ways to do minimalism is to go on consumption fasts. Set a time period (I like two months) where you will not make any purchases outside of the necessities and stick to it. At the end of two months, consider what you may need to purchase prior to starting another two months. During the two months, try to get rid of stuff in your home and your office that you do not need. If you think they would be on board, get your family or friends involved. Set interesting goals. Maybe you could reduce your energy use in your house by 15% or your gasoline consumption by 20%. Find some goals that work for you and your family and see how good you can do in cutting back. You'll probably save some money along the way which gets me to #2.

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2. Rethink your investments. Many of us use simple investment products like money markets that pool funds across a range of investments. We rely on the organizers of the funds to make choices for us. Of course, the job of the mangers is to make money and not to consider the ethical dimensions of our investments. Take control of the situation and put your money where your ethics are. There are a ton of green investment companies out there who can help you. A quick Google search on green investments should lead you in the right direction. Or you can find some green energy companies that may be seeking investments. There are lots of options out there.

3. Pay for your household carbon. I like to do a carbon inventory at the close of every year (I usually do this around tax time because that's the time I go through my records). To conduct the inventory, I look at my household's annual household gas and electrical use, our gasoline consumption, and our flights and train travel. It is relatively easy to calculate. Then, I go onto one of the various carbon credit sites to purchase carbon credits for my household's carbon. If you don't want to go through the math, you can use the average carbon emissions per American per year as about 168 metric tons. The current cost for this amount of offset per year on (not an endorsement, there are other companies that provide carbon offsets) is about $180.00. For my household of three, this amounts to $540.00 per year. Most of the offset sites allow you to pay in monthly installments to make the cost more palatable. If you can afford it, pay for the offsets of a student or family member who cannot afford to cover the costs.

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4. Find ways to support climate activists. Let's face it. The real action in climate activism is in the hands of young people like Greta Thunberg who are involved in a range of really creative climate action. Some of the most courageous climate activists I have seen are children protesting in Russia in the face of incredible oppression and those protesting for climate action against corrupt governments in Africa and Latin America. Young activists in Brazil have been killed in recent months. Think about how you can support young activists in your community or around the world. Is it through financial support or via sharing their voices in your social media? Maybe you want to be like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and support them by joining them. Or maybe you know of other ways to encourage them. Regardless, find a way to lend a hand so that their messages are heard.

5. Communicate your knowledge outside of your echo chamber. The environment is changing rapidly and people who understand the issues should work to communicate what they know to the general public. Offer to speak within your area of expertise to community groups, schools, and other venues. Keep positive about how we can create change. Write editorials, send letters to elected officials, and show up to public meetings and speak on the issues that concern you. The public is more and more aware of the issues we are facing and they are looking for concrete things that they can do to make the world a better place. Give them 5 take homes (sort of like this list, but different) that they can start doing right away. Teach by example.

6. Embrace wilderness more. Certainly there are many ways that we can embrace wilderness. We can spend time in it or we can find ways to support it by encouraging protection of existing wilderness and restoration of damaged ecosystems. As we have become more urban, there are many opportunities for rewinding of nature. Work in your community to preserve more and protect native species. Think about your own consumption and consider how you can change your choices so that they limit the impacts on wilderness.

I know that this is a short list. I would love to hear from others out there. Do you have any suggestions?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

My Favorite Music and Music Events of 2019

I thought it would be fun to start a new end of the year post and share with you some of my favorite music of 2019 along with some of my favorite live music events I attended. Note that the my favorite music of the year isn't necessarily new. It is just music that I found myself returning to over and over.

Favorite Music

1. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising. What is it about this 2019 album that reminds me of 1975? Give it a try and get transported by the sound and lyrics.

2. St. Vincent, St. Vincent. I know I am late to the St. Vincent party, but my nephew turned me on to this album this year. Great workout music.

3. Paula Cole, Revolution. Paula Cole's new album is full of environmental references along with an abundant sense of eco angst. I know it sounds like a downer, but it is really a beautiful work with lots of hope and inspiration for activism.

4. Flor de Toloache, Indestructible. This isn't my favorite album by this all female mariachi band, but it is their newest. If you are new to them, go back and start at the beginning and work your way up to this odd mix of covers and duets (including one with John Legend).

5. Lo Mejor de Xavier Cugat. I think it is about time for folks to rediscover the sounds of Xavier Cugat. I couldn't get enough of him this year. Great music for a backyard BBQ.

Favorite Live Music Events

1. Akhnaten, Opera by Philip Glass. I love Glass' music and ancient Egypt. The two together make for a great experience.

2. Saturday Night Fever Legends of Disco. Growing up more punk than disco, I was dubious about this event. I always liked to dance to disco music but never thought about seeing it live. This event had about a dozen acts at the sweltering Coney Island outdoor amphitheater in the hottest heat wave of the year. Great sweaty fun.

3. Paula Cole at the Musical Instrument Museum. The museum in Phoenix has an amazing theater with very comfortable seats. The concert was intimate and a perfect venue for Cole's message.

I had several least favorite music events, but in the interest of positivity, I will take a pass at sharing them here. I'll just say that one involved broadway and another involved someone with Rainbow in their name.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Understanding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

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As I have reported in this space several times, the current US administration has been rolling back many environmental laws. The New York Times recently reported on the impacts of one of the latest rollbacks associated with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Most of you have probably never heard of this act, but in fact, it is one of the earliest environmental laws signed into law in the United States. The law emerged due to the major decline in migratory birds in the late 19th and early 20th century, in part, due to the use of feathers in women's fashion. International trade in feathers, in a foreshadowing of later 20th century globalization impacts on the environment, caused a rapid decline in migratory birds. The act made it illegal to sell or trade in migratory birds. An important aspect of the law is that it made it illegal to kill migratory birds. Several other nations adopted the law making it one of the most important international agreements for the protection of wildlife.

The text of the law states " shall be unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to barterbarter, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, export, import, cause to be shipped, exported, or imported, deliver for transportation, transport or cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried, or receive for shipment, transportation, carriage, or export, any migratory bird, any part, nest, or egg of any such bird, or any product, whether or not manufactured, which consists, or is composed in whole or part, of any such bird or any part, nest, or egg thereof..."

The law has been broadly interpreted to require developers to take care not to harm migratory birds. Indeed, it was been considered a criminal offense to knowingly kill the birds in the development of a property.

The main change of the administration's interpretation of the law is that developers can knowingly kill the birds without penalty if the main intent of their death was not their death, but the development of the property. To put it another way, you could kill out a population of birds as you build a housing development because your intent is to build a housing development, not to kill the birds.

Of course, the death of the birds is the main outcome regardless. Given that the law was established to protect birds, I suspect that the interpretation by the Trump administration will likely be struck down by the courts. However, there is no doubt that major economic lobbying bodies, notably the oil and gas industry, have been pushing for the rule change. 

In the mean time, while the rule is in effect, there will be more bird deaths without penalty.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Our Virtual Versailles

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Someone I follow on Twitter alerted me to this article in Vogue about what the editors of Vogue are doing over the holidays and what they hope to find under the tree. The responses are so over the top redonkulous that they are worth a read to get a glimpse into the interesting world of luxury fashion. I think my favorite response is one to the question about what they hope to open under the tree: "My ongoing project to convert my home into a concept store, much to the amusement of my flatmates, requires the addition of an onyx tray from Monologue London." I don't think I would find it amusing to have my roommate turn my apartment into a concept store. I also haven't obsessed over an onyx tray, but I am sure it is nice.

Anyway, I don't begrudge anyone a good time, or even a fun luxury splurge. My other half works in the luxury business so please have fun and spend away. Luxury items are often a great long-term purchase and are more durable than some of our fast fashion choices we have at this moment. However, the article does provide a glimpse into our popular culture at this particular moment of time.

We live in a moment when some of us live through the lives of others virtually via magazines, Instagram, and other social media outlets. They are showing us extreme luxury lives that, in most cases, are unattainable. It is fun to read about it and fun to point and laugh about it as well. The dark side of this is that social media also urges us to consume these items beyond our means. Just as Versailles set the trends for fashion back in the 1700's, articles like this have led us into a new virtual Versailles with all of the traps. Just don't lose your head over it. The things you own don't define you.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Top 5 Environmental News Stories of 2019

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Each year I post what I think are the top 5 environmental news stories of the previous year. Overall, I feel like the environmental stories represent a quickening of environmental change and our reaction to it. Looking back at what I listed as the top stories for last year, I feel that this year was one of significant change. Let me know what you think!

1. Greta, Climate Strikes, and Extinction Rebellion. One of the most interesting news stories to come out of 2019 was the acceleration in activism on climate change. What I find fascinating is that the activism did not emerge from the standard environmental groups like Sierra Club or Greenpeace. Instead, the activism was extremely home grown and bottom up. It came mainly from children. Greta Thunberg received Time's Person of the Year accolade. She represents thousands of children who are conducting climate strikes on Fridays around the world to draw attention to global climate change and the lack of serious action on the issue. At the same time, new groups, like Extinction Rebellion, have formed and are rewriting the rules of environmental activism. This is a trend that is going to stick around for a while.

2. Record Heat, Fires, and Flooding. Several major stories have emerged over the last year about record heat, significant fires (California and Australia for example), and extreme rain events that caused flooding. Many of these extreme events can be directly attributable to climate change.

3. National and International Breakdown of Environmental Policy and Practice. There was really bad news in this area all over the world. The recent failure of the UN climate meeting in Madrid was just the latest in a string of really bad international and national policy and the overall lack of environmental leadership at this moment in time (ergo, see 1 above). However, the new policy of the president of Brazil to develop the Amazon, the scuttling of the Pacific climate talks by the Prime Minister of Australia, and the gutting of environmental rules in the US by the current administration, coupled by the presidents silly statements on environmental issues, are all examples of how bad the situation is across our planet right now. There was also bad policy in other major countries like Russia, India, and China.

4. Climate Change Enters Presidential Race and Global Consciousness. One of the striking things about the current US presidential race is that the many, many Democratic candidates all have detailed plans (I've written about two of the candidate's plans here and here). At the debates, there are questions over which plan is better. Regardless of what you think about the plans, the point is they have them! This is very different from the last time around. Also, as noted in this post about Tetra Pak's sustainability initiatives, global consumers are very concerned about global warming. We have crossed a threshold. The public fully understands that we are now in a climate crisis.

5. Earth Profoundly Changed and Increasing Concerns About Global Population. One of the smaller stores of the year, but one that I personally found significant, was part of the most recent IPCC report that noted that 70% of the planet is impacted by human activity in substantial ways. Indeed, back when I was doing mineral exploration work in the 1980's, seeing this change is what prompted me to get into the sustainability field. These changes are accelerating and now that we 7.5 billion people and growing, there is emerging concern over the impacts of current consumption rates of food and stuff and what this will mean to the sustainability of our planet.

What are your top environmental news items of 2019? If you have any thoughts you want to share, please leave them in the comments.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Fort Pulaski National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 129 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Fort Pulaski National Monument in Georgia. This is not one of the monuments that was under review for delisting as per executive order by the president. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.
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Previous On the Brink posts on the U.S. National Monuments

Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
California Coastal National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Cape Krusenstern National Monument
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Carrizo Plain National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Cascade Siskiyou National Monument
Castillo de San Marco National Monument
Castle Clinton National Monument
Castle Mountains National Monument
Cedar Breaks National Monument
César E. Chávez National Monument
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
Chimney Rock National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument
Colorado National Monument
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Devils Postpile National Monument
Devils Tower National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument
Effigy Mounds National Monument
El Malpais National Monument
El Morro National Monument
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Fort Frederica National Monument
Fort Matanzas National Monument
Fort McHenry National Monument
Fort Monroe National Monument
Fort Ord National Monument

Thursday, December 19, 2019

My 2020 Sustainability Predictions

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It is time once again to light the nag champa incense and look into the future to give you my 2020 sustainability predictions. As I noted in this post summarizing my success with last year's predications, I was a pretty good swami of sustainability for my predictions for 2019. Only the future can tell us whether or not my predictions for 2020 are correct.

1. Climate change begins to hit the coastal real estate market. One of the things that has surprised me over the last few years is the lack of serious discussion about coastal retreat and the impacts of climate change on real estate. I suspect that this year will be the year that this changes. I predict that some low-lying communities will begin to take the issue much more seriously.

2. Climate change denial becomes political poison. As more and more people are impacted by climate change worldwide, I predict that climate change denial and inaction will become political poison. As emergency workers are placed at the front line of climate emergencies in floods and fires, it will be difficult to deny the truth any longer.

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3. Elections have consequences. All of the signs point to a switch in parties in the presidency. If that happens, look for a reversal of the reversal of all of the environmental rules that the current administration reversed.

4. Big wins on plastic. More and more organizations are removing plastic from their products. In many restaurants, straws are scarcer than vegan restaurants in Oklahoma. Look to more wins on getting plastic out of our waste stream as more companies look for alternative packaging.

5. Environmental justice becomes a bigger global issue. The Flint, Michigan water crisis brought environmental justice front and center to the public's mind over the last several years. However, look to 2020 for more attention on the topic globally. Indigenous rights in South America and the fate of low lying island states in the Pacific Ocean are just two of the big environmental justice topics that will continue to receive attention.

6. Global businesses take on more sustainability responsibility. The failure of last week's climate talks and the overall lack of serious sustainability policy in many countries is creating a major vacuum in global sustainability leadership. I would never have predicted this a few years ago, but major corporations are now among the leading innovators in a variety of sustainability areas. Look to see global businesses take on a larger share of responsibility on sustainability.

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7. Climate strikes expand. As I wrote in this post, climate strikes have accelerated in the last year or two. The movement is largely a youth-led movement with a great deal of individual action taking place in local communities. I predict that the climate strike movement will expand beyond young people as the evidence of climate change continues to grow. Look to climate strikes to grow within some labor organizations, industries, and non-profit groups. I also predict that senior organizations, like AARP, will find ways to get their members involved.

8. Concerns over population. Back in the 1960's, there were some who thought that the rapidly expanding human population would overtake our ability to feed ourselves. Paul and Anne Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, was one of the most famous books that highlighted this concern. Of course, since then, our ability to feed ourselves has not been a problem for the most part. However, as the world has gotten richer as population increased, questions have emerged as to whether we can maintain the needed resources to provide stuff for everyone. Look to more conversations about global resource use and population in the coming year.

9. Nutrient pollution is a greater concern. Non-point nutrient pollution has created seasonal marine dead zones all over the world including some areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound. In addition, coral bleaching is killing coral reefs all over the tropics. Look to greater attention given to nutrient pollution in the coming year.

10. Growing interest in sustainable living. As more and more people recognize the challenges associated with global climate change and other sustainability issues, there will be growing interest in sustainable living. I predict more and more people will embrace a minimalist lifestyle to lessen their impact on the planet. Not everyone will live in tiny homes, but there will be greater interest in smaller house sizes. I predict this decade will be the peak size in American homes as it becomes more fashionable to live within a smaller footprint.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Climate Talks Failure Highlights Disconnects Between People and Politicians

A large march at COP25.
According to reporting from The New York Times, the UN's climate talks ended in failure on Sunday. The United States seems to have been the big disrupter at the meeting. However, it is clear from the article that ownership of the failure belongs to various countries including Brazil, Australia, India, and China (among others). The failure to forge any meaningful agreement highlights that lack of solid leadership internationally on global climate change and the overall breakdown of world cooperation on environmental issues.

This is a very odd time for this breakdown.

Survey after survey is showing that globally there is greater understanding of the climate crisis. Many are experiencing negative impacts of climate change first hand. Around the world the public is eager for leadership on climate change policy. However, what they are getting is either denial, deceit, or an outright embrace of anticipated changes that will negatively impact so many.

There is a growing sense of frustration in the public about the lack of leadership on this issue and I am not sure how long countries like the US, Australia, Brazil, China, and India can continue to block solid policy changes that will benefit the planet.

As you will see in my upcoming post on environmental predictions for 2020, I expect that we will start to experience even more impacts from global climate change including more inundation of low-lying areas during high tides and storms. Politically, I expect that being against climate change policy in the United States will soon be akin to being against baseball and apple pie--regardless of politically party. Against climate change policy? Then you will be against our brave emergency personnel who will have to rescue people in climate change emergencies.

The question I am asking is whether or not our politicians will wake up to the fact that the public's outlook on climate change has changed in time for them to do something about it.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Tetra Pak Sustainability Initiatives. Part V – International Considerations

Inside a Tetra Pak manufacturing plant.
This is the final post in my 5-part series on Tetra Pak's sustainability initiatives. You can find links to all of the previous blog posts at the end of this post. As I mentioned in the first blog, Tetra Pak invited me to their US headquarters in to learn more about their sustainability initiatives first hand. As such, this should be considered a sponsored post. While I was in Denton, I was able to see how they are working hard in the U.S. to make their products more sustainable and how they are seeking to enhance the recyclability of their cartons. I was also able to talk to many in corporate leadership about their international initiatives. Here are a few thoughts about some global considerations that are key to Tetra Pak's sustainability goals.

Tetra Pak is seeking to find ways to expand the recycling rate
of cartons around the world.
1. Tetra Pak is seeking to enhance the recycling rate of their cartons around the world. A great benefit of Tetra Pak cartons is that they can be easily transported to places that are food insecure. Unfortunately, these places often have limited recycling infrastructure. Thus, cartons have contributed to a waste problem in some parts of the world. Tetra Pak is very aware of this problem and is seeking to improve the carton recycling rate globally. They are doing this by partnering with local businesses and community leaders to build or enhance existing recycling operations. Tetra Pak has a website which provides information, separated by country, regarding its recycling initiatives here

2. Tetra Pak is partnering with many local recycling businesses to promote economic development in the developing world. Recycling is a business that turns waste products into usable materials. Because carton recycling is a relatively new initiative within the recycling world, there are many opportunities to grow different businesses. As this list demonstrates, Tetra Pak has worked with a number of firms to establish recycling  throughout the world and promote economic development.

3. Tetra Pak is also partnering with local farmers to increase local production of agricultural products in impoverished areas of the world. This example from Senegal demonstratesthat there is a need to enhance local food production to help decrease malnutrition and reduce poverty. Tetra Pak’s development of a new milk hub in Senegal is one example of how they are advancing their global sustainability agenda.

4. Consumers in many parts of the world are seeking greener products. This year, Tetra Pak published the Tetra Pak Index which provided extensive research on consumer attitudes about sustainability and the environment. I wrote about this in Part 3 of this series here. To address consumer demands and advance their own sustainability mission, Tetra Pak is conducting extensive research into how to make their products greener. They have already developed products without plastic and piloted paper straws in Europe and Canada. They also utilize FSC-certified paper products. 

5. Tetra Pak works with small businesses to encourage product innovation. Consumers around the world demand different types of products. As such, Tetra Pak provides opportunities for small businesses to utilize their facilities to test new products and packaging. These opportunities not only help small businesses, but also help preserve food for transportation and use when out of season.

6. Tetra Pak works with a variety of groups to expand its sustainability initiatives. The company works with a number of groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Carton Council, and the Sustainability Consortium (to name a few) to advance their sustainability agenda around the world. There is no doubt that working with other organizations helps to benchmark their efforts.

This five-part series provides a unique inside look into how corporations like Tetra Pak are addressing the sustainability issues we all care about. There is a true commitment by Tetra Pak and other corporations to create more sustainable products and processes. There is also a commitment to improve post-use recovery and recycling to help advance a low-carbon circular economy. It can be difficult for everyday people to live a sustainable life. It is even more difficult for a large, complex organization to embrace sustainability. Tetra Pak’s work shows that it is possible.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Was I a Sustainability Psychic in 2019? Checking in on My Predictions

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Each year about this time, I make predictions about sustainability for the coming year. I thought it would be a good idea to check in to see how I did over the last year. Below are the predictions I made on December 18, 2018 followed by some comments. What do you think? Was I a sustainability psychic this year?

1. Significantly worse news on biodiversity. News reports over the last year have noted ecosystem problems in many parts of the world. Expect more bad news from Africa on megafauna, from Australia on the barrier reefs, and from the Arctic on changing habitat due to climate change.

I give this prediction an A. There was an abundance of bad news regarding biodiversity and I was prescient about the exact locations of some problem areas.

2. Greater isolation of politicians who deny climate change. As we start to see accelerated impacts due to climate change, it will be harder for politicians to continue to deny the science of climate change. Politicians who deny climate change will become toxic to a national audience.

I give this prediction an A. Politicians who deny climate change are getting called out on their beliefs in greater numbers. They are becoming more isolated (and look more evil) as more and more evidence about climate change pours in.

3. Environmental justice concerns grow in autocratic countries. In places like China, Russia, and Venezuela, there is little real opposition to centralized national power. As a result, there is little voice to those who face environmental consequences of national actions. Expect to see greater focus on environmental justice in these places in the coming year.

I give this prediction an A. There is no doubt that environmental justice continues to make news in all of the places I mentioned. However, Brazil has garnered the most attention as of late due to the killing of many indigenous people as the Amazon rainforest is cut for agricultural development.

4. Good news on plastics. The world is starting to get more serious about plastic pollution as we see greater pollution problems around the world. The coming year will see a variety of actions at the local, national, and global levels. Expect to see more plastic straw bans and serious initiatives to clean up ocean plastics.

I give this prediction an A+. Plastic policy was one of the most significant issues to emerge this year. Across the world, plastic bans are going into effect and socially there is more of a move away from plastic use. Great job world! We need to do more, but this year was a watershed.

5. Water supply woes continue around the world. While there is good news coming on plastics, there is bad news coming on water. Many areas around the world have passed their ability to sustainably provide water to their populations. Whether it is Yemen or Las Vegas, many places are having more challenges to maintaining a steady water supply.

I give this prediction a B. There are certainly serious water issues that are emerging and many areas have reported shortages. However, we haven't seen a major breakdown of a system which is great news!

6. Rewilding of abandoned areas. As populations have become more urban around the world, some places are reverting back to wilderness. Expect this trend to continue in areas seeing rural population declines.

I want to give this prediction an A but I am going to give it a B. Rewilding is definitely happening, but it hasn't gotten the attention I think it deserves.

7. Questions on resiliency. Over the last several years, many have used the term resiliency to refer to the ability of populations to react to a variety of challenges such as climate change or severe storms. A number of initiatives have moved forward around the world to try to make communities more resilient. Expect to see critical evaluations of these initiatives in the coming years.

I give this prediction a D. I still believe that there will be more critical assessment of resiliency in the future, but alas, 2019 was not the year for it. Instead, there was more discussion about trying to make communities more resilient. Sigh.

8. Food quality problems grow. Last year there were several problems that emerged in the quality of the food supply. These problems will continue in the coming year as producers struggle with how to maintain high quality standards in food that needs to be shipped great distances.

I give this prediction an A. There were a number of major food recalls this year including major pork, lettuce, and chicken recalls.

9. Advances in green energy technology. Each year, there are magnificent advances in green energy technology that allow us to reduce our use of fossil fuels. There will be great advances in non-battery storage of green energy (wind and solar) to allow temporal stabilization of energy supply.

I give this prediction a B-. There were definitely major advances in green energy (particularly the recent announcement about improvement in concentrated solar energy technology). However, there was not as much movement as I thought there would be in non-battery storage of green energy.

10. Rejection of consumerism. It is becoming more and more uncool among young people to be associated with big-ticket luxury items. The young see the previous generation as responsible for many or the problems that they are facing--particularly economic and environmental problems. They see luxury items as symbolic of the generational rift. Expect to see a greater rejection of consumerism in the coming generation.

I give this prediction an A. There is no doubt that the younger generation is very concerned about the future of our planet. Climate strikes are a manifestation of this concern. Many people are also embracing minimalism and rejecting consumerism. 

Overall, I think I did pretty good with my predictions. While there were a few non-A grades, I think it is clear that I can comfortably say that I am a sustainability seer, a guru of green, and a swami of swamps. 

Stay tuned for my predictions for 2020 coming up some time in the next week or two.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Understanding Climate Strikes

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I gave a talk recently where I spoke about some emerging sustainability trends. One of the trends I mentioned was the relatively new phenomenon of climate striking. During the question and answer portion of the talk, someone asked me a great question, What is a climate strike?

This question made me pause a bit. Climate strikes have been all over the news. However, the news just shows a bunch of kids holding up signs without explaining what a climate strike actually is. This post seeks to dispel any uncertainty about climate strikes and their significance in our current culture.

Climate strikes emerged out of the UN climate meetings in Paris inn 2015. During the meeting, school children in Paris skipped school (often with support of their parents, teachers, and schools) to protest the lack of international action on climate change.

What is key to understanding the climate strikes is to recognize why children are striking. They are growing up in a world where there is abundant evidence that the climate is changing rapidly. The generations before them knew about the problem (or denied the science) and were unable or unwilling to do anything about it. They are frustrated by the times and unsure about the future.

Since the Paris meeting, children have been striking on particular days to show worldwide support for climate action and to show the world their unhappiness with the current state of affairs. Some children strike every Friday. However, there are major global strikes less frequently that mobilize millions of people around the world. The last one was on November 29th.

Some have criticized the climate strikes as just a new way for kids to skip school. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, climate strikers take some sort of action on the day away from school. They may protest, do some sort of environmental action, or in some way engage with the issue of global climate change. These kids are not slackers taking a day off to watch TV or play video games. They are trying to change the world.

Perhaps the most famous climate striker is Greta Thunberg who was just named Time Magazine's person of the year. She started her personal climate strike just 16 months ago. She certainly isn't the first person to do a climate strike, but she has quickly become the face of the movement. President Bolsonaro of Brazil recently called her a brat and the US President recently said she needed anger management training. These reactions show important generational differences in outlook. The generation of Bolsonaro and Trump are seen by the young strikers as the obstacle to serious initiatives on climate change. They are not going to be scared away from their strikes by the name calling. Indeed, it actually makes the name callers look petty and gives more power to the strikers.

The climate strikes are not going away. In fact, they are becoming much more common. Schools and other institutions should be planning how they are going to react to climate strikes. Will they support them? Provide alternative events? Punish the students who strike?

It is very powerful when children speak truth to power. The coming year or two are crucial times for climate change policy. All of us should be grateful for the children of the world for leading the way.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

My Interview with Jason Pelz, Vice President of Sustainability, Tetra Pak Americas

Jason Peltz, Vice President of Sustainability, Tetra Pak Cluster Americas.
Jason Pelz is the Vice President of Sustainability for Tetra Pak Americas. As I noted in previous posts in my Tetra Pak series (linked herehere, and here), the company is moving in a big way to further enhance their sustainability credentials. Recycling is a big part of their plan. As you will see in the interview, Jason has been involved with recycling his whole life and is one of the leading global experts on paper recycling. Note, Tetra Pak invited me to visit their corporate headquarters in Denton, Texas to see their operation to share what I learned with my readers. As such, this should be considered a sponsored post. I spent a considerable amount of time with Jason and learned a great deal about Tetra Pak’s initiatives from him.

RB.  You have an interesting background in that you grew up in the recycling business. Your family owned the largest recycling operations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin back in the day. You must have seen many changes in the recycling industry. How does recycling in the United States compare from when you were a kid to recycling operations today?

JP.  One of the cool things about my job with Tetra Pak is that I travel to many parts of the world. What I find in some of the places I visit is that it reminds me of what recycling was like in the US 40 years ago. The similarity between some of those countries and the US 40 years ago is that back then, recycling was consumer driven. People made a decision to recycle. People collected cans, bottles, newspapers, and other items and took the effort to take these materials to a recycling center. When I was a kid in the 1980’s, curbside recycling didn’t exist. Of course, back then there was some financial gain for individuals to collect and sell materials. It was up to each home to decide whether or not to take the time to recycle. I remember people coming to our center with stacks of paper and cardboard boxes. Often churches, synagogues, and schools would have paper drives as a fundraiser. Now, it is all managed by communities. You put your recyclables in a bin and it is all handled for you. This is a big difference from how it was.

RB. We are both from Wisconsin. One of the things that I value about having grown up in Wisconsin is the quality of the education I received in the public schools. Plus, there is a strong environmental ethic in not only the public schools but also many of the state’s institutions such as religious organizations, youth groups like the scouts, and in government. Plus, Wisconsin is a state with many opportunities for outdoor activities. It isn’t really a surprise that major environmental thinkers such as Aldo Leopold and John Muir called Wisconsin home. How do you think your upbringing in Wisconsin shaped your environmental viewpoint? 

JP. It is a beautiful state, even with the rough winters. There are many outdoor recreation opportunities and we also have the Great Lakes. Because the state is more rural and natural and has a strong agrarian history, there is much more respect for the land. But the state has its issues. The Milwaukee River used to be heavily polluted and now it is totally clean. I do have to note that Wisconsin was an early pioneer in paper recycling. Of course, it has a strong history of paper making with companies like Fort Howard as an early adapter of recycled paper. Wisconsin paper makers were on the forefront of using recycled fiber in their materials, which I think ties in to the broader environmental ethic in the state.

The solar array at Tetra Pak USA headquarters in Denton, Texas that
provides 6% of the power used in the facility.
RB. Tetra Pak has moved into sustainability in a big way. The latest sustainability plan contains lots of information about your initiatives. For example, your Denton plant runs on 100% renewable energy (including 6% you get from your own solar array) and you source all your paperboard from FSC certified or controlled sources. I also know you are working on trying to find alternatives to plastics used in your containers. Why do you think Tetra Pak has focused so much on sustainability since its founding?

JP. I think a lot has to do with the founder himself, Ruben Rausing. He said a “package should save more than it costs.” Because of this philosophy, sustainability is in the DNA of the company. It has always been who we are. More recently, I have heard more CEOs say that sustainability is good for business. That’s true. But our company has always had sustainability in its sights in part because of the types of products we create. We know that it is more than the right thing to do, it needs to be in our value chain in order for us to perpetuate our business.

RB. I know that Tetra Pak is working with other carton manufacturers to promote carton recycling within a group called the Carton Council of North America I would imagine the formation of this group in 2009 was transformative in that it provided opportunities to work with competitors to promote recycling and advance technology for products and recycling. What do you think is the biggest outcome from the Carton Council? 

JP. I think we have really been able to make progress. First, we showed that an industry can work together to try to solve the recycling problem we face. Second, we have grown household access to recycling and we’ve increased the number of cartons that are recycled. Third, we have become a thought leader and example to show how competing companies can work together to solve a problem. The Carton Council has become a precedent for other industries.

RB. I toured a local waste recovery plant when I visited with you in Denton. I was amazed at the technology that is in place to separate containers for recycling. I would imagine this technology is being put into place in many recycling centers. Overall, how effective is recycling of Tetra Pak cartons in the U.S. and around the world and how do you think it will improve over time? 

Outside of the North Texas Recycling Complex.
JP. We are doing everything we can to become more effective over time. On that tour, you saw a bunch of optical sorters  with one helping to sort cartons. In other recycling facilities, robots are used to sort out cartons. The geographic context matters as well. For example, in some countries, the addition of a sorting belt is a big enhancement while in more developed countries, the addition of robotics is a huge improvement. We have to also work with our own package to help make the materials more recyclable. In the US, the recycling rate is around 16% for all cartons. The global rate is 26%. We are seeing improvements in these numbers each year.

RB.  I know that Tetra Pak and other carton companies are trying to change the perception that cartons cannot be recycled. Indeed, from what I saw, there are really interesting things happening with recycling of Tetra Pak cartons. One way that cartons are recycled is that they are first pulped to separate the plastic and aluminum from the paper. The paper fiber is used to make recycled paper products such as paper towels. The plastic and aluminum (aluminum is a relatively small percentage of the two) can be turned into recycled plastic products such as outdoor furniture. Complete cartons can be turned into a building material used for roofing and wall systems.  What innovations do you see emerging within the recycling community around carton recycling?

A roofing tile made of recycled cartons.
JP. The main thing I can see coming forward is that there will be improvements in traditional recycling, such as in the pulping and the separation of the plastic and aluminum. I suspect there will be innovations where the aluminum is separated from the plastic which will allow for a polymer, aluminum, and pulp recycling stream. The technology around recycling is changing and we expect that there will be some other advances we cannot predict.

RB. The international recycling world took a major hit in the last few years due to some highly publicized cases of plastic and electronic waste dumping in developing countries. Some countries are refusing to take materials from the U.S. and other countries due to a variety of issues, including the lack of clean sorting. How is the U.S. recycling industry dealing with this problem?

JP. There are two things happening. First, we are seeing recycling capacities in the U.S. increase with new companies installing facilities and existing companies expanding their footprint. Thus, we are starting to see more local recycling taking place, which limits the need for shipping recyclable materials overseas. Second, there are major improvements taking place in sorting at all levels. At the household level, there is more education taking place to teach people how to sort their recyclables. At recycling sorting centers, there is great innovation taking place, with improved optical sorting capabilities and robotics, which I mentioned earlier. All of these initiatives are helping to ensure that the material sorting process is cleaner.

A recycling sorting line
RB. Growing up in the recycling business and being involved with waste issues every day, you must have some interesting stories to tell about your own household waste production. I know when I learned about the huge amount of waste we produce as Americans compared to other parts of the world, I really worked hard to reduce waste at my house. How do you personally try to deal with your household waste?

JP. If you looked at my recycling bin, it is 99% recyclables. If everyone was like me, most problems with  contamination of the recycling stream wouldn’t exist. I do make choices as well. I buy products that are more environmentally sound and that can be recycled. I also teach my kids how to recycle and reduce waste. The same thing goes for everyone in my house and everyone who visits my home. I feel like I need to reinforce the importance of this issue to everyone. Plus, recycling is only one part of the story. I also try to compost and make other environmentally sound choices. I try to walk the walk. I’m not perfect, but I try to do my best.

RB. Is there anything else you would like to tell my readers? 

JP. The most important thing is that everyone can make a contribution. We should all try to do our best. Plus, the whole issue of waste is a collaborative initiative. Not one person or country or company can solve the problem. We all need to work together and everyone has to do their part. It is not one person’s issue. It is everyone’s issue.

Blogging as if Our Future Depends on It

Click for photo credit.
I am giving a presentation today at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) on my blogging work called Blogging as if Our Future Depends on It. It is hard to imagine, but this blog started on Valentine's Day in 2011. Since then, my blog has become one of the most widely read sustainability blogs on the Internet. As such, I was very pleased to be part of a special session at AGU focused on geoscience and sustainability at the grass roots level organized by Geology in the Public Interest. My presentation focuses on reviewing the content and impact of my blog over the last 9 years.

Here's a quick snapshot of my presentation.

Since I started the blog, I've written over 1830 posts. The blog started as a classroom project. I assigned students in an introduction to sustainability class to create their own blogs focused on current events associated with sustainability. I blogged along with them. The first post was a silly one that emerged from a classroom exercise on how to "green" Valentine's Day. At the end of that semester, the students got their grades and stopped blogging, but I was hooked. Since then, the content and purpose of the blog has changed. Today, my main purpose is to engage students and the public on issues of sustainability in interesting and fun ways.

There are several main types of posts including general posts about news items, book reviews, interviews, information about parks and national monuments, and quite a bit of earth science—particularly karst and hydrology.

Over time, several main themes have emerged on the blog:

  • Intersections of earth science and sustainability
  • Current events in earth science and sustainability
  • Personal sustainability initiatives
  • International sustainability
  • My own publications and events
  • Higher education issues
  • Writing productivity
This map shows the countries that have visited the
blog in the last year.
The overall impact has been rather striking. I have had visitors from 163 different countries to the blog since it started. Many people stop by this space at least once a week. I regularly get emails from readers and many of the blog posts have led to radio and television interviews. Some of my blog posts are used in teaching assignments or as assigned readings. Overall, I reach more people with my blog than I do with my formal writing and articles.

As a writer and researcher, I find the blog is especially helpful to me as an historical archive. It is like my own personal annotated bibliography of things I care about.

There will be some changes coming to the blog in the coming months. Look for a new podcast, a writing workshop, some interesting interviews, and some new topical series.