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Plastic recycling is broken. So why does Big Plastic want $1 billion to fix it?

As the coronavirus pandemic cripples the U.S. economy, corporate giants are turning to Congress for help. Polluting industries have been among the first in line: Congress has already bailed out airlines, and coal companies have snagged over $30 million in federal small-business loans. Big Plastic is next in line with what might seem a surprising request: $1 billion to help fix the country’s recycling.

A group of plastic industry and trade groups sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on April 16, asking Congress to allocate $1 billion to municipal and state recycling infrastructure in the next pandemic stimulus bill. It would be part of legislation known as the RECOVER Act, first introduced in Congress last November. Recycling sounds great, and has long been an environmental policy that almost everyone — Republicans and Democrats both — can get behind. To some environmentalists and advocates, however, the latest push is simply the plastic industry trying to get the federal government to clean up mountains of plastic waste in an attempt to burnish Big Plastic’s image.

“Plastic recycling has been a failure,” said Judith Enck, a former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency and the founder of the organization Beyond Plastics. “And there’s no reason to try to spend federal tax dollars to try to prop up plastic recycling when it really hasn’t worked for the last 30 years anyway.”

Put simply, very little of your plastic recycling actually gets recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10 percent of the plastic produced in the past four decades has been recycled; the rest has wound up in landfills or been incinerated. In 2017, the U.S. produced over 35 million tons of plastic, yet less than 3 million tons was made into new products.

Part of the problem is that some items are composed of different types of plastic and chemicals, making them difficult to melt down and process. Only plastics with a “1” or “2” symbol are commonly recycled, and even then, they are more often “downcycled” into different types of products. A container of laundry detergent or a plastic soda bottle might be used for a new carpet or outdoor decking, but rarely into a new bottle. And downcycling is one step closer to the landfill. “The logo of recycling is the arrow that goes around and around — but that’s never been the case with plastic,” said Enck.

Big plastic-producing companies also have little incentive to use recycled materials rather than virgin materials. Plastics are made from petroleum, and when the price of crude oil is as low as it is now, it costs more to manufacture goods from recycled polymers than from crude.

Some analysts say that the RECOVER Act doesn’t take on these larger issues. The act is aimed at the “curbside” aspect of recycling: funding city and state recycling collection, improving sorting at processing plants, and encouraging consumer education — teaching people what can (and cannot) go into recycling bins. (The legislation is also backed by the American Chemistry Council, which represents Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil, and has long fought against municipal plastic bag bans.)

There are some curbside problems with recycling. If plastic bags or containers covered with food waste get into recycling bins, they can contaminate other items and make sorting and reuse more difficult.

But Jonathan Krones, a professor of environmental studies at Boston College, said the real problem isn’t at the curb. It’s that “there aren’t robust, long-term resilient end markets for recycled material.” Even if cities manage to collect and sort more recycling, without markets all those perfectly processed plastics have nowhere to go.

For decades the U.S. solved part of the problem by selling hundreds of thousands of tons of used plastics to China. Then, in 2018, the Chinese government implemented its “National Sword” policy, forbidding the import of 24 types of waste in a campaign against foreign trash. The U.S. suddenly had lost the biggest market for its used plastics, and cities across the U.S. began burning recyclables or sending them to landfills. Some cities have stopped recycling plastic and paper altogether.

Piles of plastic and paper at a city recycling processing plant in Brooklyn, New York. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images

So why is Big Plastic pushing the RECOVER Act? Some argue that petroleum companies are trying to paper over the failures of plastic recycling. If consumers realized that only 10 percent of their plastics are ultimately recycled, they might push for bans on plastic bags and other single-use items, or more stringent restrictions on packaging. Keeping the focus on recycling can distract public attention from the piles of plastic waste clogging up our landfills and oceans. And a recent investigation by NPR and Frontline revealed that since the 1970s the plastics industry has backed recycling programs to buttress its public image.

“Had this bill been proposed 10 years ago, I think I would have said it was a good idea,” Krones said, referring to the RECOVER Act. “But what has been revealed after National Sword is that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a technology problem. It’s a consumption problem and a manufacturing problem.” He argues that any attempt to fix plastic recycling should come with constraints on the production of new materials — only manufacturing plastics that can be easily broken down and reused, for example, or mandating that companies include a certain percentage of recycled materials in their products.

There are other ways to deal with the plastic problem. In February, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat, introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would phase out many single-use plastic items like utensils and straws and require big companies to pay for recycling and composting products — what’s known as “extended producer responsibility.” Other countries have similar laws on the books: Germany has required companies to take responsibility for their own packaging since 1991, and it’s been credited with dramatically reducing waste.

For now, plastic use is on the rise. According to Meidl, the pandemic is bringing piles of takeout boxes and plastic bags to landfills, as cities ban reusable bags and enforce social distancing. She thinks that the RECOVER Act could be helpful, but that it needs to be coupled with other interventions.

“No matter how much government funding is allocated towards recycling efforts, there first needs to be a significant paradigm in human behavior,” she said. “Where plastic is viewed as a resource, not a waste.”

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Plastic recycling is broken. So why does Big Plastic want $1 billion to fix it?

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One more way the world wasn’t prepared for coronavirus: Air pollution

The coronavirus pandemic is changing everything — including the quality of the air we breathe.

In three coronavirus hotspots, satellite imagery revealed a dramatic decline in air pollution in recent weeks as China, Italy, and Iran were brought to a standstill. One Stanford scientist estimated that China’s coronavirus lockdown could have saved 77,000 lives by curbing emissions from factories and vehicles — nearly 10 times the number of deaths worldwide from the virus so far.

But the blue skies are unlikely to last. Just as the temporary dip in global carbon dioxide emissions could be reversed when companies eventually increase production to make up for lost time, air pollution could rebound with a vengeance when factories and traffic spring back to life. On Tuesday, the Chinese government said it plans to relax environmental standards so factories can speed up production.

Air pollution and the virus have a close relationship. Breathing unclean air is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and respiratory disease, conditions that doctors are starting to associate with higher death rates for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Physicians say that people with these chronic conditions may be less able to fight off infections and more likely to die of the disease.

“The air may be clearing in Italy, but the damage has already been done to human health and people’s ability to fight off infection,” said Sascha Marschang, acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, in a statement.

Evidence suggests that bad air quality may have increased the death toll of a previous coronavirus outbreak, the SARS pandemic of 2003. One study of SARS patients found that people living in regions with a moderate amount of air pollution were 84 percent more likely to die than those in regions with cleaner air.

And now, health officials are warning that people who live in polluted places anywhere may be at greater risk again. “I can’t help but think of the many communities where residents breathe polluted air that can lead to chronic respiratory problems, cancer, and disease, which could make them more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19,” wrote Gina McCarthy, the president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a post this week about how the organization is responding to the coronavirus.

Clearing the air could help vulnerable people fight off the threat of deadly disease — during this pandemic as well as any future ones — and save millions of lives in the meantime. Governments already have a pretty good idea of how to clean up air pollution, and it doesn’t involve a global pandemic.

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One more way the world wasn’t prepared for coronavirus: Air pollution

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Coronavirus: The worst way to drive down emissions

The rapidly spreading coronavirus has infected over 90,000 people worldwide, stoked fears about a worldwide pandemic, and rattled global markets. The coronavirus is also having an unexpected environmental effect: It’s cutting carbon emissions.

China’s work stoppages and flagging industrial output have decreased the country’s normally sky-high carbon emissions by at least a quarter, according to an analysis recently published in CarbonBrief by Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. That drop translates to a 6 percent decline in overall global emissions. New research from China’s statistics bureau shows that the country’s factory activity suffered the deepest contraction on record last month.

A decline in air travel might be playing a supporting role. By mid-February, around 13,000 flights a day had been canceled, with many airlines suspending flights to and from mainland China. Aviation remains one of the most carbon-intensive activities, accounting for 2 percent of emissions worldwide.

But how should we think about something as objectively terrible as the coronavirus — which has left more than 3,000 people dead — temporarily slowing climate change?

The truth is that there are a lot of bad things in the world that also happen to (temporarily) lower carbon emissions. Experts have attributed a 10 percent decrease in fossil fuel pollution in the United States between 2007 and 2009 to the global recession and financial crisis then gripping the country, putting millions of people out of work. The Chinese government’s one-child policy was widely decried as causing an epidemic of forced abortions and even infanticide. But the government has boasted that it prevented 1.3 billion tons of carbon emissions.

These respites from fossil fuel pollution aren’t actually “good for” the climate. For one thing, they rarely last. In 2010, post-recession, the U.S. economy resurged, and with it fossil fuel emissions that wiped away losses from the previous years. The drop in Chinese emissions from the coronavirus is also likely temporary; China has been known to increase production dramatically in the aftermath of a crisis in order to make up for lost time.

Moreover, in times of global stress, green projects often take a back burner to more pressing issues. Distracted by the problem at hand, governments funnel political attention and subsidies into the pandemic or the economic meltdown. The environment gets short shrift.

The problem of climate change isn’t about how we save the earth (the earth will be just fine without us). It’s about how humans can thrive, not just survive, in a greenhouse gas-constrained world. So, even if a Thanos-style reckoning might sound nice when you are depressed by species extinction, melting polar ice, etc., you can’t save a world by destroying it.

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Coronavirus: The worst way to drive down emissions

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Can Growth in Sustainable Energy Reduce Natural Resources Overspend?

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Globally, we are consuming resources faster than the Earth can replenish them. If we think of these resources — such as timber, water, and clean air — like an allowance, then we spent our allotment for 2019 on July 29. We are over-fishing, extracting, mining, polluting, depleting, and harvesting resources across the globe.

We reach Earth Overshoot Day, the day when annual consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to renew itself, earlier and earlier each year. This means that we are consuming more resources than ever before — and at an increasing rate. For example, Earth Overshoot Day occurred in September in 2000, while in 1980 society overshot in November.

“It’s a pyramid scheme,” said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and founder of Global Footprint Network. “It depends on using more and more from the future to pay for the present.”

Another daunting thought is that many people throughout the world consume far fewer resources than people in developed countries. Thus, one person in the United States will consume as many resources as 35 people in India. We would need 5 Earths to sustain us if the whole world lived like Americans. For comparison, we would need 3 Earths if we all lived like Germans, or 2.2 Earths if we all lived like Chinese. If the whole world lived like Indians, we would need 0.7 Earths to sustain us — in other words, we wouldn’t consume resources faster than our planet can replenish them.

Per capita carbon emissions in the United States are nearly double that of other wealthy nations, and roughly twice as many Americans are obese as our European counterparts. In other words, Americans could live a very comfortable life but consume far fewer resources.

What can be done to reverse this trend? It will take a political and cultural shift. Thankfully, there are many actions that we can all take to move in the right direction.

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

A great way to get started is to calculate your personal ecological footprint. This can help pinpoint areas for improvement. Some of the easiest ways to reduce your impact are to use renewable energy, to reduce overall energy consumption, eat fewer animal products, buy less new stuff, live in a smaller home, drive less, and waste less food.

Celebrate Clean Energy Production Gains

Although the concept of Earth Overshoot Day is quite daunting, there is also good news about conserving resources. U.S. power generation from renewables  (that is, biomass, wind, geothermal, solar, and hydropower) surpassed coal in April 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Wind and hydropower comprise the lion’s share of renewable energy production, but solar energy production is increasing. Renewables now comprise 23 percent of U.S. power generation compared to 20 percent from coal. This trend is helpful for reducing carbon emissions and resource consumption.

Power production from coal has decreased from its peak a decade ago, and another 4.1 gigawatts of capacity is expected to be retired this year. Meanwhile, much of the growth in renewable energy is attributed to growth in wind and solar energy capacity. In 2018, 15 gigawatts of capacity came online. To put this big number in context, 1 gigawatt of power is equal to the energy production from 3.125 million photovoltaic (PV) panels or 412 utility-scale wind turbines. It is enough energy to power 110 million LED lights.

This happened for a variety of reasons. The price of renewable energy is decreasing, people and companies have been demanding cleaner power.

Determine Your Electricity Mix

There are many simple items we can do to cut our personal ecological footprints, which can make a big difference collectively.

A great place to start is by examining where your power comes from and finding greener sources of energy. The power mix varies largely by subregions of the country. Some areas use more wind and hydropower, while some areas still use a lot of coal — and this has a big impact on our ecological footprint. The Environmental Protection Agency provides this information by subregions.

If your area uses more fossil fuels for power generation, then you will generate more emissions when consuming electricity. Look into how to offset your dirty-energy emissions.

Switch to Clean Power

Many utility companies offer optional programs to source more renewable energy. This is a great way to support clean energy without installing solar panels. CleanChoice Energy has a website to find out more about programs offered in your area.

Consider Going Solar

Installing solar panels on your roof is a great way to go green. In many states, homeowners can save money by going solar rather than purchasing power from the local utility company. As utility rates increase, going solar becomes more lucrative. Installing a solar system is also a great way to increase your property value.

Visit the EnergySage website for free solar quotes from local solar energy contractors.

Join a Community Solar Project

Unfortunately, many homes aren’t ideal for solar panels. Renters, condo dwellers, low-income households, and people with shaded roofs might not be good candidates for solar. In some cases, community solar farms or solar gardens are a great option.

Solar gardens are solar energy plants that are owned by a community of people or a third party. These projects allow a group of people to use the solar power that is generated nearby without having solar panels on their property. In many cases, the energy from community solar farms costs less than what people otherwise pay the local utility company. It often works like a subscription where you pay more to the solar farm but have a lower electric bill.

The prevalence of community solar farms varies a lot by state because some states have policies that make it difficult to develop such projects.

Launch a Clean Energy Campaign

If your utility company generates a lot of power from fossil fuels, consider launching a campaign to get your utility to use more clean power. Change.org is a great platform to utilize to gain momentum behind this project. You can also urge your state politicians to create stringent renewable portfolio standards. These state-wide regulations vary greatly by state and require utilities to increase their use of renewable power sources. If you live in an area with a weak standard, consider launching a campaign for stronger standards.

When will Earth Overshoot Day occur next year? Ultimately, it depends on our collective actions. Let’s get started to reduce our impact in 2020.

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Can Growth in Sustainable Energy Reduce Natural Resources Overspend?

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Can hamburgers survive the Green New Deal? The facts behind Trump and Ocasio-Cortez’s latest beef

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There’s been an awful lot of talk about cow farts and the Green New Deal, despite the fact that the resolution for a Green New Deal never mentions the word cow, nor fart (more’s the pity). It was President Donald Trump who made that connection.

The resolution’s co-sponsor, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, recently clarified the point on Showtime’s Desus & Mero show: “It’s not to say you get rid of agriculture. It’s not to say we’re gonna force everybody to go vegan or anything crazy like that,” she said. “But it’s to say, ‘Listen, we gotta address factory farming. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Politically, it makes sense to tell people that they can keep something popular, like eating (just a little less) beef, while promising to crack down on something unpopular like factory farms. But if you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a bit backwards. Get rid of factory farms, and we’d have to cut way, way back on the hamburgers.

As you can see in the graph below, the biggest climate problem with beef isn’t farting cows, it’s the space that grass-fed beef takes up.

World Resources Institute

Because feedlots, or “factory farming,” minimizes land use and shortens the time cattle need to grow to full size, feedlot beef often has a lower greenhouse gas footprint than pasture-raised variety. There are exceptions: A few studies have shown that, with the right management and conditions, pastures can suck up more carbon than the cattle belch out (yes, it’s mostly belching, not farting).

To be sure, there are other thorny issues surrounding cattle on feedlots, but none of them are clear cut. Whether you are talking about the environment, health, or animal welfare, it’s all complicated. One way or another, those champion carnivores known as Americans are going to have to eat a lot less beef if we want to reverse climate change.

It’s no surprise that Trump tweeted that the Green New Deal would “permanently eliminate” cows, and no surprise that Ocasio-Cortez attempted to deflect the criticism to factory farms. It’s the perfect provocation. Food isn’t just fuel, it’s the stuff of sensory memories, families gathering around the table. It’s a tool by which culture is transmitted through generations. Mess with someone’s food traditions and you are messing with their identity.

As the Chinese writer Lin Yutang asked: “What is patriotism but the love of food one ate as a child?”


Can hamburgers survive the Green New Deal? The facts behind Trump and Ocasio-Cortez’s latest beef

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To clean up space junk, some people grabbed a net and harpoon

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This story was originally published by WIRED and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Clyde Tombaugh spent much of his life peering at telescope data. He discovered Pluto in 1930, and he spent years poking around the outer solar system. But as the scientific community began to dream about launching a vehicle into the great beyond, he focused his gaze much closer to home.

At the time, the smaller stuff in our immediate space environment remained largely a mystery. People like Tombaugh worried whether orbiting gunk would make spaceflight that much harder. If they ever built a spaceship, would space litter pummel it irreparably?

As part of a 1950s Army project, Tombaugh tried to find out. But before he finished, the Soviets sent the world’s first object to orbit. When Sputnik first spun around Earth, in 1957, Tombaugh’s equipment caught it: a shiny sphere, just about two feet across. The fact that he could spot it meant that if dangerous debris had been orbiting, he likely would have found it, too. And he hadn’t. When he published his final report in 1959, Tombaugh concluded that rockets faced little risk of colliding with natural objects.

Humans have since sent thousands of rockets to space. In their cargo holds, they have stored satellites that help humans communicate, wage war, watch TV, and grok planetary processes. Sometimes, as Sputnik did not long after launch, these objects finish their useful lives, slip back into the surly bonds of Earth, and burn up in the atmosphere. There’s the glove that a Gemini astronaut let slip from the first spacewalk, and a spatula from a shuttle mission. Once, a tool bag escaped an ISS astronaut and floated around for eight months. Other times, however, junk remains in orbit long after it’s useful. A Chinese missile, for instance, smashed a Chinese satellite into thousands of pieces, some of which continue to circle and circle.

These pieces of trash could pose a version of the threat that Tombaugh had worried about: that they’ll get in the way of humans’ desire to send stuff to (and keep it in) space. Earth’s front porch is now littered with around 24,000 pieces of debris bigger than a large orange, and millions and millions of bits smaller than that. Meanwhile, the number of new satellites humans want to launch is on the rise. According to consulting company Euroconsult, around 7,000 smallsats may hop to orbit in the next decade. Elon Musk, though famous for missed deadlines, plans to launch the initial satellites in his space-internet megaconstellation in 2019, as does internet provider OneWeb.

Satellites in low Earth orbit are supposed to spiral back down, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere 25 years after they complete their missions. The process can happen naturally as their orbits decay over time. Alternately, these craft can point thrusters into space and willfully plunge into the atmosphere. But sometimes more aggressive measures are needed to clean up the junk circling overhead. Making sure satellites obey the 25-year guideline, and watching them closely in the meantime, has spawned a whole sector of creative solutions. Here are some of the latest experiments in de-junking space:

Grim Reapers

The satellite industry calls it “active debris removal,” but think of it as a space robot that’s out to kill. In June, scientists at Surrey Space Center and their partners dispatched a mission called RemoveDEBRIS from the International Space Station. Soon after, it deployed a net and captured a small CubeSat that the team had previously released. The net wrapped around the satellite, cocooning it and ending its life. RemoveDEBRIS will also test a harpoon on a dead satellite, and use a sail to then drag itself back down.

A company called Astroscale is pursuing a similar approach. “The best way to avoid a bunch of small pieces of debris that could harm large satellites is to remove large satellites that become small pieces of debris,” says Chris Blackerby, the company’s COO. Astroscale’s first mission, called ELSA-d, a cheery acronym that hides the ominous “End-of-Life Service” hidden within it, aims to show that a reaper-style space robot can find lost debris, match a dead satellite’s tumble, and dock.


Traditionally, satellites have thrusters that push them to the orbits they need, keep them there, and then (assuming the gas gauge doesn’t read “empty”) send them shooting down to Earth when the time comes. But conventional chemical engines are way too heavy for small satellites, so lots of the little guys don’t really have propulsion systems — which can pose a space-junk problem if their orbits don’t wind down quickly. They need thrusters that are appropriately sized for smallsats.

“The use of propulsion is the beginning, middle, and end of a mission,” says Beau Jarvis, an exec at a propulsion company called PhaseFour. The PhaseFour system, which you will be able to plunk on your satellite, uses radio waves to turn gas into plasma, which shoots from the spacecraft, pushing it in the opposite direction.

Many similar gas pedals require expensive cathodes and anodes, but ones that don’t are easier to make en masse. Another engine-maker, Accion, also dispenses with the expensive parts: Its engines use a liquid salt that shoots from the craft. Zoom zoom.


Not long ago, a distressed customer approached Roccor, a space manufacturer. “They had a satellite that was basically built and ready for launch,” says CEO Douglas Campbell. They had just one problem: Their de-orbit plan needed some work. So Roccor made them a new one, involving … space feathers.

At the end of a satellite’s life, two thin composite sheets — coiled tight like a tape measure during the rest of the mission — will pop from it, making the satellite resistant enough that it slips down and crosses the Kármán line that delineates Earth and space. The system weighs between around 1 and 4 kilograms (2.2 to 8.8 pounds), and is basically another way of doing a dragsail. “Low Earth orbit is beachfront property,” says Campbell, who plans to sell the “Rocfall” feathers so more satellites don’t become space junk. “Everyone wants to be there. We don’t want to ruin the environment.”


Two government groups in the U.S. keep abreast of what’s what in space, and help orbiters avoid collisions. NASA’s Orbital Debris Office deals with the minute, while the US Strategic Command tracks everything bigger than 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) and issues the “duck!” alerts to satellite operators. Last year, though, the Trump administration said it would turn some responsibility for space traffic management over to the Department of Commerce (although the details of how aren’t yet fully fleshed out). Why? Because satellites are increasingly commercial operations.

“In the past, the U.S. government got into ‘space situational awareness’ because it was primarily a military issue,” says Dan Ceperley, CEO of the private satellite-tracking company LeoLabs. It’s still a military issue — secret communications, spying, navigation — but it’s also morphed into an everyone-else issue. So the Department of Commerce and companies like LeoLabs will help shoulder some of the defense sector’s past burdens. LeoLabs has two radar systems, with plans for more, and they hope to give customers information about satellites’ whereabouts with more regularity than the government.


Federal trackers traditionally find satellites using either radar or optical telescopes. But those devices don’t necessarily tell you whose object you’re pinging, or give you its position every hour of every day. You have to extrapolate an object’s orbit using physics, so there’s some fuzziness in the calculation of its position, and uncertainty in collision red-flags. But a scientist at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, has a reasonable question. Why not put GPS transponders on new craft? Just like if you put one on your enemy’s car, you could know where it was, and what it was, all the time, no home radar required. Similarly, a Los Alamos project called ELROI proposes slapping laser-beaming “license plates” on orbiters so that they’re easier to detect and identify.

The metal bits and spent rocket stages already dirtying Earth orbit are unlikely to get license plates or GPS devices. They’ll continue to circle our planet like overhead reminders that our environmental contamination has expanded, like a growing gray cloud, beyond terra firma. But because there are so many clean-up artists, maybe it won’t be too late.

If we end up with too much trash, we won’t only make our desire to launch lots of little satellites untenably complicated. We could also, someday, make it impossible to send a rocket safely beyond Earth, just like Tombaugh and his cohort feared before anyone had even tried.

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To clean up space junk, some people grabbed a net and harpoon

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What the Los Angeles Auto Show tells us about the future of cars

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If you ask anyone about the future of the auto industry, it’s all about electrification, ride sharing, and autonomous driving. But in the short-term, at least for automakers, it’s pure anxiety.

Not only did General Motors recently reveal plans to discontinue six of its car models by the end of 2019 (including its only electric offering, the Chevrolet Volt), the Trump administration announced earlier this week that it intends to end automaker subsidies for electric cars after 2022. If pleasing the consumer weren’t enough, now car manufacturers have to worry about a president who clearly doesn’t grasp the complexities of their industry.

Caught between the consumer demands of today and the technology of tomorrow, American auto manufacturers are being pulled in two very disparate directions. Case in point, The Los Angeles Auto Show, which kicked off this weekend to packed crowds, has come to be about two, at times, contradictory concepts: luxury and the environment.

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Finally for those awaiting an electric car that doesn’t look like a science experiment, there’s the Range Rover Plug-in hybrid, Jaguar I-pace (a hybrid SUV), and BMW i8 Roadster and Convertible. Despite the death of the Chevy Volt, nearly every manufacturer is making some sort of entry into electric vehicles, meaning there is more room for fun. EVs aren’t just econo-boxes anymore; the technology is reaching into all aspects of the auto industry, which offers (greener) hope for their future.

In the meantime, however, American car companies still rely heavily on sales of pickup trucks and SUVs. In recent years the balance in the car world has shifted from passenger sedans to SUVs and pickup trucks. When General Motors recently announced it was restructuring, laying off nearly 15 percent of its salaried employees and changing its production offerings, it wasn’t so much an industry shake-up as an aftershock. Ford and Chrysler have largely abandoned sedans, GM is the last of the big American carmakers to make the move.

So how can industry aficionados pursue both what we want (SUVs) and (what we need) new electric options, both snazzy and standard?

The L.A. auto show says as much about the city as it does the state of the industry. The City of Angels is one of the biggest and most important car markets in the U.S., and what happens at this auto show has consequences. As someone who’s been covering the industry for nearly a decade, there’s a lot on display beyond the shiny coats of wax and ginormous red bows.

Here’s what the auto show’s offerings say about the future direction of the auto industry:

SUVs are getting greener

In the U.S., more SUVs and pickup trucks are sold than cars. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people want to drive gas-guzzlers. Consumers are flocking to more fuel-efficient crossover SUVs, such as the Honda CRV. Companies such as Volvo are introducing hybrids, and Kia unveiled its Niro EV. SUVs are getting more fuel-efficient, though three-row SUVs are showing no signs of going away — Ford’s Lincoln brand debuted a new Navigator and BMW showed off its xDrive40i model.

Electric vehicles are still the future (globally)

At a time when other automakers are turning out new hybrid models, what are we to make of GM putting the Volt on the chopping block? It’s not the first time the car company has done away with its electric vehicle offerings. (GM killed the EV-1 back in the ‘90s, then introduced the Volt in 2011.)

Environmentalists have long worried carmakers would abandon electric vehicles due to lagging sales (as they have before). And despite all the space on the show floor for electric cars, U.S. consumers have still not embraced them. Without the federal government incentivizing EVs, you’d expect carmakers to be running in the other direction.

But the good news is even if the current administration isn’t interested in the electric vehicles, California, China, and European nations surely are. China has followed the Golden State’s lead in pushing hard for electric vehicles. Air quality in China is an important political issue. On a tour I took of Chinese manufacturers last year, officials admitted that party leaders feel popular opinion about the environment could threaten their hold on power.

Because of the Chinese and European commitments to electric vehicles, the global market for EVs doesn’t appear to be facing extinction. But despite Tesla’s popularity, EV sales are not what they need to be domestically to make them major market winners.

Vehicles are getting more autonomous and more craaaazy

Veteran car journalist Jean Jennings told me, with a bit of regret in her voice, that the future of the industry is “shared rides, electric cars, and autonomous.” In many ways Jennings says the work that it’s going to take for GM to get to a cleaner, safer, profitable future demands rethinking how the cars are made — and that mean no driver instead of no gas.

A person driving a 2003 Honda Civic would barely recognize the driver-assist technology of today like automated braking and adaptive cruise control. Now, the most exciting tech geared toward driver-assist includes I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-magic features that allow a driver to essentially see through the engine block (making parking easier), and map-the-city visualizations that use the pipes and wires under the road to help autonomous vehicles find their way.

Tough air quality standards are likely here to stay

California’s Air Resources Board, soon to be led by California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, is expected to fight a long battle with federal regulators to preserve the right for the state to set tougher emissions standards than the rest of the country. Trump being in office might seem like an opportune moment for the auto industry’s air quality standards to relax significantly; but China is the market driving these regulations now, and people there really care about air quality.

Politics and the auto industry typically do not mix well

The talk of this auto show was GM, in part because so many GM workers at the show only have months left at their jobs. It was these job cuts, after a bailout from taxpayers, that drew the ire of President “Tariff man” Trump, whose threats to discontinue electric car subsidies have not played well with industry professionals.

President Trump isn’t the first politician to try to use auto executives as a convenient punching bag. CEOs of car manufacturers haven’t done themselves any favors by, say, opposing airbags and fuel economy standards in the past. But this administration’s public feud is causing major road burn in the industry — and not only for GM. If the president intended to punish the Detroit-based company, he failed to grasp an important part of the electric vehicle rules from the Obama era: Because GM got in early on plug-in electric vehicles, it’s already used up most of its federally backed incentives to sell electric cars. (And its credits drying up is what made the Volt expendable.

Buckle up, because auto trends are part of a cycle

If the future of the industry were a race, it’d be the Indianapolis 500: fast and circular. Take GM’s cuts: The auto industry is cyclical, and layoffs are no surprise. Reshaping the current GM line-up also seems to this reporter (the child and grandchild of auto workers) to be a part of that cycle.

What’s interesting to me about this auto show is the feeling of déjà vu. American car makers are turning away from sedans, just as they did in the early 2000s The shift may not be forever — especially considering that some companies, such as Honda, are investing MORE money in its small cars. As Honda executive Sage Marie pointed out, the company is both investing in sedans and looking to emerging markets, while the American car companies stay wedded to pickups.

So when it comes to predicting the future of the auto industry, don’t get trapped by what’s just around the bend. Automakers are still, in general, looking toward a greener future… but there might be a few pit stops along the way.

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What the Los Angeles Auto Show tells us about the future of cars

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After decades of global action, the ozone layer is on the road to recovery

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This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In a rare piece of good news about the environment — and proof of what concerted global action can achieve— the United Nations announced in a Monday report that the ozone layer, which was significantly damaged over the course of decades by humans, is on the road to recovery.

Parts of it could even be fully repaired by the 2030s, the report said. And if current rates of recovery continue, the entire protective layer ― even the highly depleted parts over the poles ― could heal completely by 2060.

The ozone layer’s recuperation has been credited to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which mandated that countries phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals. The treaty, which was signed by 197 nations, has been described as the most successful environmental global action in history.

“If ozone-depleting substances had continued to increase, we would have seen huge effects. We stopped that,” Paul Newman, a NASA scientist and co-chairman of the new U.N. report, told the AP. He noted that if nothing had been done, two-thirds of the ozone layer would have been destroyed by 2065.

“It’s really good news,” Newman said of the protective layer’s recovery.

According to the report, the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun, has been recovering steadily at a rate of 1 to 3 percent since 2000 thanks to the global efforts to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals.

If this rate of recovery continues, the ozone layer over the northern hemisphere and mid-latitudes could heal completely by the 2030s, the report said. Over the southern hemisphere and the polar regions, full recovery of the layer could be expected to occur around 2050 and 2060, respectively.

Despite the promising news, scientists have cautioned against doing a “victory lap” too soon. Recent reports have found that emissions of a banned CFC are increasing in China — something the Chinese government has vowed to crack down on. And the Montreal Protocol is set to be enhanced in early 2019 with the ratification of the Kigali Amendment, which seeks to curb future climate change by targeting powerful greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning. Newman said we’ll need to ensure that the replacements for these gases don’t worsen global warming.

Scientists have also noted that the recovery of the ozone layer above Antarctica could slightly worsen the impacts of climate change in that region as the hole in the protective layer there has shielded the area from the full impacts of global warming. It’s unclear, however, how much more warming can be expected once the Antarctic ozone hole heals.

“I don’t think we can do a victory lap until 2060,” Newman told AP. “That will be for our grandchildren to do.”

Still, the U.N. said they were heartened by their findings about the ozone layer ― and what its recovery could mean for future climate action.

“The Montreal Protocol is one of the most successful multilateral agreements in history for a reason,” Erik Solheim, head of U.N. Environment, said in a statement. “The careful mix of authoritative science and collaborative action that has defined the Protocol for more than 30 years and was set to heal our ozone layer is precisely why the Kigali Amendment holds such promise for climate action in future.”

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After decades of global action, the ozone layer is on the road to recovery

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‘It’s hyped up’: Climate deniers in the path of Hurricane Florence

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Scientists warn that human-induced climate change is responsible for an increase in the number and severity of storms — such as Hurricane Florence, which has engulfed the Carolinas in the last week.

But many who weathered the tempest, deep in Trump country, don’t believe global warming fueled it and don’t think humans are the problem — or the solution.

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As the world’s oceans warm at a faster rate, hurricanes become more likely, and there has been an increase in storms since the start of the 20th century. Experts warn more numerous and even more ferocious hurricanes are on the way, and the U.S. government is not addressing the central issue even as America’s coasts get battered and inland areas inundated.

But based on the evidence in North Carolina on Wednesday, the random man and woman in the street is still not convinced about the science — even those who have faced two major storms in two years.

“We live on the coast. It’s cyclical,” said Bob Slattery.

“We may get two or three in a year, then go four or five years with nothing,” he added.

Slattery, 74, and his wife Gerda, 73, were sitting in the pretty downtown area of Fayetteville on Wednesday. The couple live six miles southwest of Fayetteville and weren’t hit too badly by the storm, but much of the city was, as the Cape Fear river reached record flood levels, spilling over its banks into neighborhoods and roads.

While miles of North Carolina is inundated, downtown Fayetteville had been fortunate enough to avoid flooding this week, although locals said a wine bar roof had partly caved in.

“There’s a group of people that want to control things, and they’re using climate change to control things, and they want to put a tax on things,” Bob said.

There is scant evidence for a shady group using the concept of climate change to control and tax society — but it appears there is wider support for the theory in these parts.

“That’s our opinion,” Gerda said.

“And many other people I speak to think that, too,” Bob said.

Florence hit North Carolina just two years after Hurricane Matthew blew through the state. Matthew set a slew of unwanted flooding records in October 2016 and at the time was described as a “once in a 500 year event.” But just 23 months later, Florence has shattered that prediction, surpassing Matthew’s flooding totals and in many places having a worse impact.

Despite the proximity of the storms, and expert views, some believe the science is overblown and it’s no more than natural global rhythms.

“It comes down to cyclical climate change,” said Matthew Coe. “I don’t think we play as big a factor in climate change as people say we do — when you think of the fact that the sea level rises naturally anyways.”

Coe 37, originally from Florida, is studying for an associate’s degree, alongside working at a downtown Fayetteville cafe. He lost power for three days after Florence roared in.

“Mother Nature is its own entity,” he said. “Whatever happens, it’ll fix itself eventually.” He pointed out that there had been fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature before, and predicted there could be another “ice age” which would correct the current trajectory of the climate.

“I think everything is hyped up a bit,” he said. In his opinion, there are “scientists on both sides” of the climate change argument.

There is actually a 97 percent expert consensus among climate scientists that humans are responsible for global warming, although Coe and the Slatterys are far from alone in their beliefs: A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 51 percent of Americans do not believe global climate change is due to human activity. Donald Trump is among the 51 percent — or at least was in 2015. That year he wrote in his book Crippled America that climate change was not human-caused, although he did not explain the reasoning behind his belief. During the 2016 presidential election, he called it a Chinese hoax. On Wednesday he was in North Carolina and South Carolina, promising “100 percent support” to displaced residents and those with flooded neighborhoods and power outages, but not mentioning measures to deal with climate change, different impacts on rich and poor, or coastal over-development.

Further along Hay Street, the thoroughfare through downtown Fayetteville, the retired air force member Andre Altman was sitting in the Huske Hardware House bar.

“Ask Mother Nature,” said Altman, 57. He echoed Coe’s belief that Earth’s capricious matriarch could be responsible for climate change and the ensuing increase in the number and force of storms.

“Really the Earth goes through cycles. So it’s just we’re on that particular cycle where we’re grabbing more storms,” Altman said. “Back in the industrial age we were burning coal and it didn’t get hotter then.”

Despite his belief that climate change was mostly a natural phenomenon, Altman accepted some of the science that said humans were also to blame. He recycles, he said, but believes his own actions are likely to have little impact.

“I try to worry about what I can affect. If I could actually do something about it, I would,” Altman said.

“But I’m not in politics.”

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‘It’s hyped up’: Climate deniers in the path of Hurricane Florence

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The Secret Life of Lobsters – Trevor Corson


The Secret Life of Lobsters
How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean
Trevor Corson

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: October 13, 2009

Publisher: HarperCollins e-books


In this intimate portrait of an island lobstering community and aneccentric band of renegade biologists, journalist Trevor Corson escorts the reader onto the slippery decks of fishing boats, through danger-filled scuba dives, and deep into the churning currents of the Gulf of Maine to learn about the secret undersea lives of lobsters. This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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The Secret Life of Lobsters – Trevor Corson

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