Tag Archives: Climate change

All the ways recycling is broken—and how to fix them

You may throw a plastic container in the recycling bin and assume it’s going to easily become a new item. But every step of our recycling system—from product design to collection to sorting—has major flaws. Fortunately, promising technology is starting to come online that could revolutionize the process.
By Adele Peters – You may have read that there’s a recycling crisis in the U.S. After years of accepting our used plastic and cardboard, China now won’t take it, which often means there is no place for it to go. Some city recycling programs—unable to find other buyers—have quietly started sending recyclables to incinerators or landfills, news that could make anyone question the point of separating your trash at all.

Each year, by one estimate, Americans throw out around 22 million tons of products that could have been recycled. Tens of millions of homes don’t have access to recycling; for those that do, everything from broken blenders to old clothing still ends up in the trash. If you drop an empty package in a recycling bin and it’s trucked off to a sorting facility, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be recycled. You might have unwittingly tossed something that your local recycling service doesn’t accept, or the package might have been designed in a way that makes it unrecyclable.

Some parts of the system do work. The aluminum in a beer can, for example, can easily be made into new beer cans, over and over again. But a plastic package might be chopped up, melted, mixed with other types of plastic, and “downcycled” into a lower-quality material that can only be used for certain products, like park benches or black plastic planters.

When the U.S. was sending much of its paper and plastic trash to China, for more than two decades, the bales were often so poorly sorted that they contained garbage. The system never extracted the full value from those materials.

When a truck picks up recyclables from curbside bins, they take them to sorting facilities. Inside these centers, called “MRFs” or materials recycling facilities, people work with automated equipment to sort through the detritus of everyday life. Trucks dump mixed materials into the facility, where it’s loaded onto a conveyor belt; typically, in a first step, people standing next to the machine quickly pull out trash and materials like plastic bags that can jam equipment.

As materials move through a facility, the system uses gravity, screens, filters, and other techniques to separate out paper, metal, glass, and plastics; optical sorting equipment identifies each type of plastic. more>

Updates from Siemens

Simulation & Test for Process Industry Applications
Siemens – Operational excellence and innovation are critical requirements to lead and succeed in today’s chemical and petrochemical processing industries. Our integrated simulation solutions for multi-physics and test will enable your engineering teams to predict process performance, optimize for energy and process efficiency, reduce byproducts and waste, and troubleshoot sub-optimal processes.

To outperform in today’s competitive process industry, engineers need tools that enable them to develop the most complete understanding of the complex physical and chemical processes occurring in the equipment they design and troubleshoot; levels of understanding far beyond those provided by experiments or basic engineering principles. more>

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Updates from Chicago Booth

Raghuram G. Rajan says capitalism’s future lies in stronger communities
By Raghuram G. Rajan – You have a new book out called The Third Pillar. What is the third pillar?

It is the community. Around the world, there is widespread economic anxiety, domestic political tension, strife between countries, and now talk of a cold war reemerging between the United States and China. Why?

I argue that every time there’s a big technological revolution, it upsets the balance in society between three pillars: the political structure—that is, government or the state; the economic structure—that is, markets and firms; and the sociological, human structure—that is, communities.

When that balance is upset, we see anxiety and conflict, a signal that we’re striving for a new balance.

To really understand capitalism’s success, one has to understand the important role of the community. As it voices its concerns through democracy, the community is critical to maintaining the balance between the state and markets. When the community is appropriately motivated and engaged, it enables liberal market societies to flourish.

Recently, some communities have been weakened significantly while others have sped ahead. Technological change is creating a new meritocracy, but one that is turning out to be largely hereditary, denying opportunities to many. The many, in economically disadvantaged and thus socially dysfunctional communities, could turn their backs on markets. The consequent imbalances could undermine liberal democratic society. more>

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Why We Stink at Tackling Climate Change

By David P. Barash – What’s wrong with us? Not us Democrats, Republicans, or Americans. Rather, what’s wrong with our species, Homo sapiens?

If human beings are as Hamlet suggested, “noble in reason, infinite in faculty,” then why are we facing so many problems?

In many ways, people are better off than ever before: reduced infant mortality, longer lifespans, less poverty, fewer epidemic diseases, even fewer deaths per capita due to violence.

And yet global threats abound and by nearly all measures they are getting worse: environmental destruction and wildlife extinction, ethnic and religious hatred, the specter of nuclear war, and above all, the disaster of global climate change.

For some religious believers, the primary culprit is original sin. For ideologues of left, right, and otherwise, it’s ill-functioning political structures.

From my biological perspective, it’s the deep-seated disconnect between our slow-moving, inexorable biological evolution and its fast-moving cultural counterpart—and the troublesome fact we are subject to both, simultaneously.

It seems inevitable that as these cultural skills developed and provided leverage over the material and natural world—not to mention over other human beings, less adroit at these things—natural selection favored those individuals most able to take advantage of such traits. Up to a point, our biological and cultural evolution would have been mutually reinforcing. We are now past that point.

There is no reason for our biological and cultural evolution to proceed in lockstep, and many reasons for them to have become disconnected. more>

When the monsoon goes away

By Sunil Amrith – More than 70 per cent of total rainfall in South Asia occurs during just three months each year, between June and September. Within that period, rainfall is not consistent: it is compressed into a total of just 100 hours of torrential rain, spread across the summer months. Despite advances in irrigation, 60 per cent of Indian agriculture remains rain-fed, and agriculture employs around 60 per cent of India’s population. No comparable number of human beings anywhere in the world depend on such seasonal rainfall.

Both before and after independence, the imperious power of the monsoon troubled India’s rulers. In the first decade of the 20th century, the finance minister in the imperial government declared that ‘every budget is a gamble on the rains’ – a statement that is still quoted regularly in the Indian media.

In the late 1960s, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi said: ‘For us in India, scarcity is only a missed monsoon away.’ The foreboding remains.

The scale of the monsoon system exists far beyond human intervention. If technology could intervene, it was on the landscape, in the form of infrastructure. By the early 20th century, engineers around the world were confident that they could neutralize the risk of climatic variability by constructing dams that would fuse water storage, flood control, irrigation and power generation. India was no exception. more>

As the Climate Changes, Are We All Boiling Frogs?

New research finds that we normalize rising temperatures remarkably quickly.
By Tom Jacobs – Climate change is significantly increasing the chances of more unsettling weather in the years to come, including longer and more severe heat waves. But if you’re hoping the strange conditions will inspire people to realize that something profoundly dangerous is occurring—and will prod politicians into acting—new research suggests you’re likely to be disappointed.

An analysis of more than two million Twitter posts finds that people do indeed take note of abnormal temperatures. But it also reports that our definition of “normal” is based on recent history—roughly, the past two to eight years.

These findings suggest that, in less than a decade, climate change-induced conditions cease to seem all that unusual. That lack of historical perspective may make it hard to grasp the enormity of the changes that are already underway, and which promise to accelerate.

“This data provides empirical evidence of the ‘boiling frog’ effect with respect to the human experience of climate change,” writes a research team led by Fran Moore of the University of California–Davis. As with the imaginary amphibian who fails to jump out of a pot of water as the temperature slowly rises, “the negative effects of a gradually changing environment become normalized, so that corrective measures are never adopted.” more>

Democracy splutters—good governance under pressure

Amid political polarization and declining democratic standards, can OECD and EU countries sustain the good governance challenges such as globalization, social inequality and climate breakdown demand?
By Christof Schiller – Eroding standards of democracy and growing political polarization are severely hampering the implementation of sustainable reforms. This is one of the main findings in the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2018 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

SGI is an international monitoring tool, which sheds light on the future viability of all 41 countries in the OECD and the European Union. On the basis of 140 indicators, we assess democratic standards, the quality of governance and reforms in the areas of economics, social affairs and the environment. More than 100 international experts are involved in our cross-national survey.

The most recent study highlights how waning standards of democracy and growing political polarisation hamper sustainable reform. Governments in countries including the United States, Hungary and Turkey are deliberately stoking social tensions rather than seeking consensus.

The report shows that the quality of democracy in many western industrial nations is waning, with democratic standards declining in 26 of the countries surveyed, compared with similar data from four years earlier. ‘Even within the OECD and the EU, the model of liberal democracy is subject to growing pressure—in some countries this means that even central democratic and constitutional standards such as media freedoms are already severely damaged or undermined,’ it finds.

Compounding this worrying trend, the study’s authors identify a simultaneous decline in the adequacy of governance, with many countries losing ground on key measures of good governance. more>

Can Sustainable Agriculture Survive Under Capitalism?

By Sophie Yeo – Agriculture is responsible for around 9 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions—from fertilizer releasing nitrous oxide, for instance, or from cows emitting methane. And large-scale farming isn’t just bad for the environment; the application of pesticides has serious health implications for those who work on farms. Recent studies have linked high pesticide exposure to a poor sense of smell and a doubled risk of cardiovascular disease among Latino farm workers.

Sustainable agriculture offers a way to bypass these pitfalls. Instead of filling their baskets at Walmart, ethically minded consumers can buy local and organic produce directly from the farmer who grew it, whether at farmers’ markets or through a community-supported agriculture program, reducing food miles and avoiding the industrial contamination and erosion associated with conventional agriculture.

But Ryanne Pilgeram worries that this improved model of agriculture is fundamentally incapable of surviving in a corporatized America—and that the sacrifices these people are making to survive are steadily chipping away at their claims of sustainability.

One problem is the price of the produce.

Then there’s the problem that the system ultimately rests on a sequence of compromises and sacrifices that the farmers themselves must make, regardless of their ideological commitment to the cause. These sacrifices are personal, environmental, and social. “Only the select few, the … richest amongst us are really taking care of land in a truly sustainable way,” one farmer reported.

“The economic system that we have in place makes it impossible, really, to create a socially just food system. It’s not possible under capitalism,” Pilgeram says. more>

Europe’s energy transition must steer towards social justice

By Kristian Krieger, Marie Delair and Pierre Jean Coulon – The fundamental transformation of Europe’s economies towards carbon neutrality does not however present only a vast technological challenge. The popular demonstrations by the gilets jaunes in France against increasing fuel taxes testified to a feeling of fiscal unfairness surrounding the energy transition. Local resistance against offshore wind is another indication of the political difficulty of turning Europe’s economies upside-down within an extremely tight time-frame.

Critically, as with any major transformation, benefits and risks are unevenly distributed regionally and socially across Europe. By focusing on market integration, climate change and energy security, the political system struggles to pay sufficient attention to the social dimension of the energy transition.

A case in point is energy poverty, where individuals are not able to afford services they need—heat, light, air-conditioning and so on—in their homes. It is estimated that about 10 per cent of the EU population might be affected.

Progress within EU policy-making has been slow. Even though energy poverty became a legally recognized concept in 2009 with the Third Energy Package, the legislation did not translate into substantive, binding obligations on member states or concrete actions addressing the challenge.

Where governments lag behind, civil society emerges as a main advocate, raising awareness at European level. more>

Are We Living Through Climate Change’s Worst-Case Scenario?

By Robinson Meyer – The year 2018 was not an easy one for planet Earth.

In the United States, carbon emissions leapt back up, making their largest year-over-year increase since the end of the Great Recession. This matched the trend across the globe. According to two major studies, greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide shot up in 2018—accelerating like a “speeding freight train,” as one scientist put it.

Many economists expect carbon emissions to drop somewhat throughout the next few decades. But maybe they won’t. If 2018 is any indication, meekly positive energy trends will not handily reduce emissions, even in developed economies like the United States. It raises a bleak question:

Are we currently on the worst-case scenario for climate change?

When climate scientists want to tell a story about the future of the planet, they use a set of four standard scenarios called “representative concentration pathways,” or RCPs. RCPs are ubiquitous in climate science, appearing in virtually any study that uses climate models to investigate the 21st century. They’ve popped up in research about subjects as disparate as southwestern mega-droughts, future immigration flows to Europe, and poor nighttime sleep quality.

Each RCP is assigned a number that describes how the climate will fare in the year 2100. Generally, a higher RCP number describes a scarier fate: It means that humanity emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the 21st century, further warming the planet and acidifying the ocean. The best-case scenario is called RCP 2.6. The worst case is RCP 8.5.

“God help us if 8.5 turns out to be the right scenario,” Jackson told me. more>