How the chemicals industry’s pollution slipped under the radar

How the chemicals industry’s pollution slipped under the radar While the industry has an important role to play in moving to low-carbon economies it’s also hugely carbon intensive and predicted to become more soIt’s one of the biggest industries in the world, consumes more than 10% of fossil fuels produced globally and emits an estimated 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, more than India’s annual emissions – yet the chemicals sector has largely slipped under the radar when it comes to climate.The shipping industry faces a climate crisis reckoning – will it decarbonize?Read moreThis sprawling industry produces a huge range of products, many of which support other industries – pesticides for agriculture, acids for mining, lubricants for machinery, ingredients in cleaning agents, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals and plastics.While the industry has an important role to play in moving to low-carbon economies – providing coatings for solar panels, lightweight plastics to reduce vehicles’ energy consumption and insulating materials for buildings – it’s also hugely carbon intensive and predicted to become more so. Oil companies have been betting on chemicals as a way to remain profitable as the world pledges to turn away from fossil fuel energy. The International Energy Agency predicted that petrochemicals could account for 60% of oil demand in the next decade.The chemicals sector is the largest industrial user of oil and gas but it has the third-largest carbon footprint – behind steel and cement – because only about half of the fossil fuels that the industry consumes are burned for their energy. The rest is used as feedstock for products such as plastics with the emissions released only when these products reach the end of their lives, for example, when waste plastic packaging or an old mattress is incinerated.Lowering the industry’s emissions is possible but technically daunting. Plus this large, complex industry, which supports millions of jobs worldwide, has significant political and economic clout. “They’ve become a bit of an untouchable sector for many politicians,” said Jan-Justus Andreas, who leads industrial policy at the Norwegian environmental non-profit Bellona Europa.Yet the chemicals industry is finding itself increasingly under scrutiny – both from nations that need to meet ambitious emissions reduction targets and from researchers, scientists and campaigners calling on the industry to cut its polluting products.Moving away from dirty energyOne way to lower emissions is to focus on chemical plants – improving efficiency and switching to low-carbon energy.Most of the industry’s direct carbon dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels to power chemical transformations, many of which take place at high temperatures and pressures. These emissions could be significantly reduced if the industry moves away from dirtier fuels such as coal.If renewable wind or solar energy is available, certain chemical processes that are already driven by electricity, such as the production of chlorine used to make other materials such as PVC pipes or solvents like chloroform, could immediately become low carbon. And chemists continue to look for ways to power traditionally heat-driven chemical transformations with electricity instead – such as the process of converting nitrogen to ammonia, mostly used for fertilizer, which requires temperatures of about 500C (932F).While chemical companies are counting on efficiency improvements and investing in renewable energy to meet their climate goals, many chemical products themselves cannot be decarbonized because they are made of carbon, said Martin Scheringer, an environmental chemist at the public research university ETH Zurich.Removing fossil fuels from the raw materials used to create carbon-based chemicals and materials is crucial, said Jonatan Kleimark of the non-profit ChemSec. Kleimark likens products made from fossil fuels – such as clothes, toys and paints – to a carbon debt, because the carbon embedded within them will only be emitted in the future. “The longer we wait to change, the larger debt we will build, and that will be very hard to do something about if we don’t start,” Kleimark said.Are clothes made from recycled materials really more sustainable?Read moreTo stop adding to this debt, chemicals and materials could be made with sources of carbon that are already above ground, such as plants. Bioplastics – made with plant materials such as sugar, corn or seaweed – are booming, for example, as companies and scientists try to remove fossil fuels from plastic production.Another idea is to turn waste products into raw materials for the chemical industry. Chemists have been using agricultural waste or waste plastics – even the ultimate waste material, carbon dioxide – as feedstocks. A Berlin-based startup, Made of Air, is attempting to create plastics from wood waste, while an Icelandic company, Carbon Recycling International, turns captured carbon dioxide emissions into methanol, used in fuels and for making other chemicals such as formaldehyde.‘Why don’t you deal with someone else first?’But all these ideas – especially those involving a shift in feedstocks – are very hard to implement.Technologies to turn agricultural or plastic waste into new chemicals are still unproven on a large scale and using carbon dioxide as a raw material will require vast amounts of zero-carbon energy.Manufacturers making products with plants rather than fossil fuels need to ensure that they do not create new problems through deforestation, destroying wildlife habitat, raising food prices or increasing the use of water or pesticides. Biomass resources also tend to be more spread out, whereas traditionally, chemical plants stay close to where fossil fuel resources are easily accessible.“With renewable feedstocks, you will need to reestablish new supply chains,” said Zhanyun Wang, a senior scientists at ETH Zurich. In addition to delivering a steady stream of renewable raw materials to chemical plants, the new supply chains would need to be competitive with well-established ones making products from fossil fuels at low prices, Wang said.The clean power infrastructure requirements alone are tremendous. Electrifying Europe’s chemicals sector would require 4,900 terawatts of renewable electricity, according to an estimate by the European Chemical Industry Council, almost double the total amount of electricity Europe generated in 2019.“If you are a lobbyist for the chemical sector, showing those numbers helps you to put your head down again and say, ‘Look, firstly I’m too important and valuable, and secondly, it’s really, really difficult to deal with me, so why don’t you deal with someone else first,’” Andreas said.Currently, that someone else refers to the cement and steel industries, said Andreas. The internal competition between the three industries to avoid scrutiny is unhelpful, he said, because they could benefit from developing an industrial strategy together.The exhaust gases from steel and cement plants could serve as valuable feedstocks for chemical plants. All three industries need large-scale renewable electricity or carbon capture facilities, which require significant investment. The financial risks involved in building these new facilities could be mitigated, Andreas said, if the new facilities serve multiple operations instead of a single steel mill or fertilizer plant.Governments could also help build the necessary infrastructure or help companies gain access to renewable feedstocks, said Rebecca Dell, who directs the industry program at the San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation.But with less than 30 years to 2050, time is short. If there are no delays, typically, it takes about seven years for companies to get a new process up and running, Dell said. “We have to move a lot faster.”Simplifying productsOne important, but neglected, lever for cutting emissions from the chemical sector is to simply use and produce fewer chemicals. “That would lead very directly to a reduction in CO2 emissions and also reduce the toxification of humans and the environment,” Scheringer said.The overuse of materials such as plastics, fertilizers and other synthetic chemicals has caused devastating effects on ecosystems and human health. Plastic debris chokes waterways and wildlife, fertilizer-laden runoff from fields can cause algal blooms and create dead zones in coastal areas.These impacts have led policymakers and consumers to cut back – for instance, many cities and countries now have prohibitions on some single-use plastics. “It’s an attempt to reduce plastic itself as a pollutant in the landscape, more than concerns about greenhouse gases, but we can make simultaneous progress on more than one front,” said Dell.Studies have also found that being more precise about applying fertilizer could save farmers money and keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.It is less straightforward to cut back on some of the chemicals that are used to make consumer products, but Scheringer, Wang and others have proposed a way to start. Alarmed by the dangers of some cancer-causing PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, researchers have suggested eliminating PFAS from their “nice-to-have” applications – such as nonstick cookware, long-lasting mascara, or water-repellent surfer shorts that don’t need the level of high performance that “forever chemicals” confer.‘Forever chemicals’: the hidden threat from the toxic PFAS on your shelfRead moreThe researchers recommend that “forever chemicals” be used only in really important products, such as protective gear or medical devices that save lives. The same philosophy could be applied to identify and eliminate other chemicals that have been unnecessarily formulated in products, such as adding antimicrobials to soaps that can already kill germs.Simplifying the chemical ingredients in products has an added benefit: they are easier to take apart or recycle when they are no longer useful. Wang points to the example of carbon black, the chemical used as a pigment in food takeout boxes. The pigment serves no technical function other than providing colour and it is used because food looks more appealing set against a black background, Wang said. But the pigment also means the takeout boxes are invisible to devices that use light to sort plastics at sorting facilities, making them impossible to recycle.The chemical sector is producing more than consumers need, Wang said: “The business model is driven by how many chemicals you sell, it’s not necessarily driven by the added societal value of the chemical.”But the “enormous demand” for products is also a big driver – and perhaps harder to address, said Kleimark. “We’re standing in front of a really, really big challenge because there we cannot rely on technologies, but on changing the way we do things today.”TopicsEnvironmentGreen lightClimate crisisGreenhouse gas emissionsChemistryCarbon capture and storage (CCS)PlasticsOil and gas companiesfeaturesReuse this content

British beaches plagued with ‘plastic pollution which looks like just like pebbles’

Pyroplastics look just like real pebbles. (University of Plymouth)Campaigners have warned that British beaches are being inundated by a form of plastic pollution that looks exactly like rocks.The so-called ‘pyroplastics’ are believed to be remnants of plastic that has been burnt or melted, researchers said. They have been spotted this week in Wales.Hilary Rowlands, a founding member of Tywyn Beach Guardians in Gwynedd, told North Wales Live: “It’s only when you pick them up, and feel how light they are, that you realise they are not stones at all.”There’s not a single beach I’ve combed where I haven’t come across them. Sometimes they are covered in oil or impregnated with the toxins that come from burning plastic.”It’s all dangerous, both to the environment and the marine life.Read more: Melting snow in Himalayas drives growth of green sea slime visible from space”The longer-term concern is that they will break down into microplastics and threaten marine food chains.”Pyroplastics look almost exactly like pebbles, and are created when plastics are heated during manufacturing processes.Researchers began to analyse the ‘rocks’ in recent years after people spotted them on beaches in Cornwall – initially thinking they were real pebbles.The lumps of plastic also weather like real rocks, and shed microplastic into the environment.Some of the lumps could be as much as half a century old, according to Andrew Turner of the University of Plymouth.Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly rightTurner writes: “Pyroplastics are derived from the burning of plastic. Some may look like various burnt pieces of plastic amalgamated together, while others look remarkably like pebbles once they have been eroded down by the elements.”They have probably been in existence since we started burning plastic to dispose of it (perhaps 80 years or so). Some of the now restricted chemicals we find in pyroplastics suggest they have been around since at least the 1960s.Story continues”Burnt plastic on beaches is likely to be derived from many sources, including burning waste on the beach itself, collapse of old landfill sites, historical burning of waste at sea and contemporary burning of plastic waste on small island states.”Pyroplastics are found worldwide, with samples having been located on Atlantic beaches in Spain and the Pacific beaches of Vancouver.Watch: Nigerian artist’s installations draw attention to world’s plastic waste

Microplastics in household dust could promote antibiotic resistance

PLASTICS ARE man-made materials that are unnatural to this world, but that does not stop the natural world from interacting with them. Indeed, dozens of studies show that when plastics get into the sea many ocean-dwelling microorganisms aggressively colonise them. This might help break plastics down, but these oceanic colonies are also hotbeds of antibiotic-resistant genes. Now, it seems, something similar might be going on in the dark recesses of your home.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on

Margaret Wertheim: Even plastic coral artwork can't survive climate change

While world leaders dither about how to tackle climate change, an eerie echo of global warming’s destructive power has been playing out in a project created as an artistic response to this apocalypse. Even art can be destroyed by the toxic effects of our runaway carbon emissions. Even plastic art.In 2005, around the time scientists were recognizing that abnormal patterns of coral bleaching were related to rising ocean temperatures, my sister and I started to crochet simulations of living reefs. It was art meets science meets environmental catastrophe channeled through the medium of a handicraft we’d grown up with. Crochet wasn’t an arbitrary choice, for the frilly, crenelated forms of real coral organisms are biological manifestations of hyperbolic geometry — a mathematical structure easily emulated with crochet.To our surprise, our “Crochet Coral Reef” has blossomed into a community art project spread across the planet, with now nearly 20,000 crocheting participants in 50 cities and countries, almost all of them women. We have worked with crafters to create crochet reefs in London, New York, Chicago, Melbourne, Abu Dhabi, Latvia and many other places. Woolly reefs are currently underway in Germany and Canada, and in New York state and North Carolina. But it was in Finland where the forces of destruction recently played out.

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As part of the Helsinki Biennial this year we were invited to work with citizens there, and an astonishing 3,000 Finns took part. During COVID-19 lockdowns many people everywhere turned to crafts as a calmative force, and crocheting corals also offers a purposeful rejoinder to environmental devastation. Just as living reefs are made by millions or billions of tiny coral polyps, so our reefs are generated by thousands of crocheters working together. Both biological and crafty reefs exemplify the power of collaboration at scale. The Great Barrier Reef, which served as the inspiration for our project, is the largest living thing on Earth, and one of a few organisms visible from outer space.

A detail of the plastic crocheted coral.(©Institute for Figuring by Margaret Wertheim)

In addition to crocheting in yarn, we asked the Finns to use plastic. My sister and I have been crocheting plastic into corals since we learned about the horror of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2006. How ironic that as living reefs disappear, giant whorls of plastic trash are forming in the ocean, as if a kind of synthetic replacement were going on.It’s hard now to buy anything not packaged in plastic. Remember those pandemic months when we stockpiled toilet paper, each jumbo pack swaddled in a see-though plastic membrane? This emblem of viral infection became a feature of the Helsinki project when local reef organizer Lotta Kjellberg approached a manufacturer of toilet packaging about possible crafty byproducts.

As toilet paper packaging film rolls off the production line, an inch-wide strip is cut from the edge, making a perfect medium for crochet. Two hundred kilos of the stuff was delivered in a dumpster to Kjellberg’s door. In a time-consuming act of devotional recycling, she distributed it around Helsinki to libraries, craft stores, community centers, schools and senior citizens’ facilities. Tinted an elegant blueish-violet and dotted with pale splashes of ink, its availability in such quantity enabled the creation of a huge number of color-coordinated plastic corals. We could not have wished for a better scenario.

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In my first foray out of Highland Park in 15 months, I flew to Helsinki in May to work with a team of local ladies to shape thousands of individual crocheted pieces into large-scale sculptures. Along with the violet and whites of the loo-paper packaging were sparkling black videotape corals, plus others in reds, yellows and blues made out of gift-wrapping ties, grocery bags and various synthetic detritus. All of it recycled material.The four resulting artworks were magnificent testimonies to community-centered art. Gorgeous, absurd, lavish forms bursting with life — together they formed a faux ecology that rehabilitated rubbish through female craft.But over the summer, Finland experienced one of the hottest, wettest periods in its recorded history. Farther north, the Greenland ice sheet was also drenched in rain, an unheard-of phenomenon — it never rains in Greenland — and an ominous sign of the forces being unleashed in our atmosphere.At the Biennial, most of the artworks were displayed on an island off Helsinki in a series of stunning abandoned fortifications. Unfortunately, the rooms became infested with mold. Other artists’ projectors burned out, sound systems fritzed, video screens dripped with slime. But these were solvable problems. For the corals a more permanent tragedy ensued.Blobs of mold blossomed on the pedestals and understructures of the works. Possibly it had creeped into the crochet stitches too. Now, instead of traveling on to other exhibitions, these beautiful monsters have had to be destroyed. Art has imitated life. Even crocheted plastic sea creatures can’t withstand the consequences of humanity’s petrochemical ensorcellment. Killed off by climate change, this unique colony of Helsinki corals has disappeared, echoing the fate of its living cousins who also soon may be mere memories.Margaret Wertheim is a science writer and artist. The “Crochet Coral Reef,” created with Christine Wertheim, has been exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale and many other international venues. crochetcoralreef.org

Single-use plastic plates and cutlery could be banned in England

Single-use plastic plates and cutlery could be banned in England Ministers launch public consultation and will also investigate limiting wet wipes, tobacco filters and sachets Single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups could be banned in England as the government seeks to eliminate plastic waste. Under proposals in a 12-week public consultation, …

‘Drowning’ in waste: Australia recycled just 16% of plastic packaging last year

‘Drowning’ in waste: Australia recycled just 16% of plastic packaging last year Report described as ‘sharp wake-up call’ finds recycling has flatlined since voluntary plan was introduced in 2017 Get our free news app; get our morning email briefing Australia is failing to meet its own plastic reduction targets, with just 16% of plastic recovered …

US throws support behind treaty to curb plastic

Issued on: 18/11/2021 – 10:04Modified: 18/11/2021 – 08:59

Nairobi (AFP) – The United States on Thursday threw its support behind negotiations on a treaty to curb plastic pollution, ending a key holdup in international efforts to clean up the planet’s oceans and save marine life.

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On a visit to the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would back talks in the Kenyan capital in February on a treaty to address plastic.”Our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution,” Blinken said.”As we know, our health — our survival — is bound up in the health of our oceans. We have to do more to protect them,” he said.About eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year, killing or injuring one million birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals, according to UN figures.Blinken’s statement is the latest US effort to ramp up environmental protection under President Joe Biden, who has made the fight against climate change a key domestic priority.Likely mindful of political realities in divided Washington, where treaties need ratification by the Senate, Blinken called for a plastic treaty in which countries would come up with their own plans of action.The United States, however, has seen bipartisan calls to clean up oceans with former president Donald Trump signing an act aimed at curbing plastic pollution in the oceans.But environmentalists say that the previous administration stymied international efforts by opposing a treaty and blaming the problem squarely on China — a major source of plastic processing but of material often coming from the West.In 2019, the United States did not join around 180 governments which agreed in Geneva to create a legally binding framework to regulate plastic waste.The United States did not vote as it is not party to the Basel Convention, a UN treaty reached in 1989 that regulates the movement of hazardous waste.
© 2021 AFP

COVID's retail riddle: Is e-commerce better for the environment?

.cms-textAlign-left{text-align:left;}.cms-textAlign-center{text-align:center;}.cms-textAlign-right{text-align:right;}.cms-magazineStyles-smallCaps{font-variant:small-caps;}As millions of Americans hunkered at home during Covid lockdowns, the internet became more than a way to do their jobs or pass the time — it became a central way they shopped for goods like groceries, hot meals, furniture and clothing.
The pandemic, in effect, hit overdrive on a decadeslong shift toward online shopping. E-commerce sales jumped nearly 32 percent in 2020 compared to the prior year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. So far this year, online sales are on track to outpace that record. To meet the demand, delivery companies such as Amazon, FedEx, UPS and food delivery services wrapped millions of purchases in layers of cardboard and plastic and hired thousands of new drivers to bring them to our doorsteps.

Now, cities, climate scientists and companies are trying to figure out the consequences for the planet.

The answer isn’t clear-cut. Consumers drove fewer miles to and from stores, while delivery companies drove more — so what was the net effect on greenhouse gas emissions? Offices and restaurants generated less waste, but all that food and packaging delivered to homes added to trash pickups from residential neighborhoods. Which is worse for landfills? And does it even matter, when overall we are consuming more than ever before?
“People have been asking this question since the Internet was invented,” said Scot Case, vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at the National Retail Federation. “But it probably isn’t helpful, because e-commerce is happening, period, and people are shopping online, in-store or some hybrid of the two. So, I think the real question is, how do we make all of those options as sustainable as possible?”
In the decade or so prior to Covid, fewer than 10 academic studies explored whether e-commerce or in-person shopping is better for the environment. In general, the studies that were done found that online shopping produced fewer carbon dioxide emissions than traditional brick-and-mortar retail.
However, few accounted for the enormous variability in those supply chains, from consumer behavior to logistics to waste. For instance, whether an in-store shopper bought one or multiple items affects the climate calculations. So does the type and amount of packaging, along with whether those items were later returned. The distance to and from stores and distribution hubs is key, as is the mode of transportation: A gas-powered vehicle, a bike, or an electric car? What if that electric car was powered by a grid running on fossil fuels? What is the different impact of heating and cooling stores and warehouses?
These questions became more urgent during Covid as people shopped more and, perhaps paradoxically, became more concerned about sustainability.
Online shopping surged during the pandemic
E-commerce sales, as a percentage of total retail sales
The most recent research is starting to incorporate more of the complexities of retail. In January, MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab published a study that simulated hundreds of thousands of those kinds of scenarios and found online shopping to be more sustainable than traditional retail 75 percent of the time.
But consumers today aren’t choosing one or the other, underscoring just how tricky this assessment is. So the MIT researchers recommended how shoppers and policymakers could instead help reduce carbon footprints at various steps of the supply chain, because either way, people are buying more.
“This is so much more complicated than, ‘E-commerce is better than brick and mortar,’” said Andrea Chegut, director of the lab. “We’re not on a good trajectory, because everyone is using both strategies. So on the aggregate, there will be more emissions.”

However theoretical it might seem, the question of the environmental impact of shopping has real consequences. The entire supply chain of everything we consume — from the extraction and processing of natural resources into products that are shipped to us and then used and disposed of — accounts for half of global emissions, according to the United Nations. The U.N. also estimates that global material use could double in the coming decades.
Brands and retailers are at the nexus of those supply chains. And only recently have major companies started mapping the entire carbon footprint of their sprawling networks, identifying sources of emissions and setting goals to reduce them. For many, third-party suppliers and customers account for the majority of their climate pie.

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There are millions of retailers in the U.S. Of those, nearly 40 top companies have either set science-based targets to slash their total carbon footprints in alignment with the Paris agreement, or pledged to do so, the National Retail Federation found. Those retailers include Amazon, H&M, Ikea and Walmart.
At first brush, it appears that there are three key areas where e-commerce and traditional retail diverge: the last mile (whether a product was delivered or a consumer made a trip to buy it), the buildings (storefronts or warehouses) and the packaging waste.
Most research suggests that ordering goods for delivery is more beneficial for the environment because it means people are making fewer individual shopping trips. The average U.S. consumer goes to the grocery store at least 300 times a year. If they drove there, it was likely in a gas-powered vehicle. Plus, there tends to be higher energy demands at storefronts compared to warehouses.
But that scale “could easily tip in the other direction,” according to a study of the U.S. market published last spring by the sustainable investment firm Generation. The firm’s researchers found that e-commerce is 17 percent more carbon efficient than traditional retail, but could change with a few tweaks to their assumptions, such as the number of items purchased in a single visit, the amount of packaging and the efficiency of last-mile delivery.
In January, the World Economic Forum also found that growing demand for delivery could spike emissions and traffic congestion by more than 30 percent in the world’s top 100 cities by the end of the decade. The report accounted for the emissions saved from fewer individual shopping trips but didn’t consider packaging, and recommended that companies switch to electric vehicles, consolidate hubs for packages and boost nighttime deliveries.
But increasingly, the lines between online and in-store are getting blurred.
A lot of e-commerce growth is within the “omni-chain,” the supply chain shared by both in-store and online components, said Mark Matthews, NRF’s vice president of research development and industry analysis. Retailers are selling products via multiple channels, and consumers are using all of them — items bought online can be delivered to doorsteps or to a physical store for pickup. Americans might return it online or bring it back to the store. The way companies report that data makes it difficult to parse what is truly online and what is blended, Matthews added. He also noted that the second quarter of 2021 marked the first-time brick and mortar sales grew faster than online in decades.
It might be why climate advocates have focused less on the impacts of online shopping, and more on decarbonizing specific industries in the supply chain.
“It’s not really about which one is better, because both have pluses and minuses,” Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at the Environmental Defense Fund, said. “We’ve seen momentum from companies, but I do think there is more to do in terms of turning sustainability commitments into real results.”

In the United States, no retailer is more synonymous with online shopping and delivery than Amazon, which argues for the environmental benefits of online shopping. In an interview, Amazon spokesperson Luis Davila pointed to findings by company scientists that suggest online shopping produces fewer emissions than driving to shop at a store; for instance, the company estimates that a single delivery van trip can take 100 round-trip car journeys off the road, on average. During the pandemic, customers made fewer trips to Whole Foods Market stores and other brick-and-mortar Amazon locations and shifted to home delivery, which also lowered emissions.
But take a step back, and a bigger, more complex picture emerges.
From 2019 to 2020, Amazon’s U.S. sales jumped 36 percent to $263.5 billion. By the company’s own account, its overall emissions spiked 19 percent, equivalent to running 15 coal plants for one year. More fossil fuel use and investments in buildings, data servers and transportation were key drivers.
That figure reflects its response to consumer demand during Covid-19, but doesn’t capture progress Amazon made, Davila said. He said the company tracks the amount of carbon per dollar of gross merchandise sales — a concept known as carbon intensity — and by that measure, Amazon decreased the amount of carbon per purchase last year by 16 percent. In a blog post in June, a company scientist argued that this metric allows high-growth companies like Amazon to identify efficiencies.
Amazon also reduced emissions from the electricity it bought by 4 percent due to new investments in clean energy, despite expanding its buildings‘ square footage. The company is about two-thirds of the way toward 100 percent renewable energy — a key pillar of the company’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.
Emissions from deliveries are expected to decrease as Amazon deploys 100,000 electric vans in the coming decade. Davila did not disclose what portion of the company’s fleet that accounts for today.
Big-name retailers such as Target with storefronts across America also are aiming for net-zero emissions by 2040. Target, which has an annual carbon footprint slightly larger than Amazon’s, had an overall increase in previous years driven by rising sales.
While Target has slashed emissions from its own operations and reduced the electricity it buys by 26 percent since 2017, that was not enough to offset the increase from activities in its supply chain — like transportation and consumer use of the products it sells — which jumped 16.5 percent.
To address that, a Target spokesperson said the company remains committed to net-zero emissions. To that end, the retailer is pushing for 80 percent of its suppliers to set their own science-based climate goals by 2023, and is making progress toward its goal of slashing emissions from its own buildings and vehicles in half this decade.
These calculations are top of mind for officials in cities like Santa Monica, Calif., who are concerned about the impact of last-mile deliveries on the environment and public health. There isn’t hard data on that, but Ariana Vito, the city’s sustainability analyst, said anecdotally she’s seen traffic congestion increase, especially during the pandemic.
Southern California is home to the country’s two largest ports. Moving goods is responsible for half of the region’s nitrogen oxide pollution and nearly 11 percent of particulate matter, according to government data. Both are precursors to the formation of greenhouse gases, and long-term exposure can cause the kind of respiratory problems that left so many Americans more vulnerable to Covid-19.
As of October, those ports are running 24/7 to ease supply chain bottlenecks. Companies including FedEx, UPS and Walmart expanded night shifts to get more goods on the road.
Months before, Santa Monica launched the country’s first zero-emissions delivery zone spanning one-square mile of its downtown, where electric delivery vehicles get priority at certain loading zones. They also are testing last-mile deliveries on e-cargo bikes and scooters.
The initiative, in partnership with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, is in the early stages of measuring the effect on emissions, congestion and delivery efficiency. The goal is to expand it to other cities in Southern California before the 2028 Olympics.
“E-commerce is increasing emissions. There is no doubt about it,” said Matt Petersen, CEO of the Cleantech incubator. “It’s no longer just FedEx, UPS and the Postal Service on the road coming once a day. There are multiple deliveries to the same address every day for anything you can imagine.”

The growing number of deliveries arriving in cardboard boxes, plastic bags and other packaging has raised an alarm that online shopping leads to more waste, like the garbage patches floating in the world’s oceans.
Chegut, the director of MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab, said one of the most striking findings from her team’s research concerned packaging; they found that cardboard boxes accounted for some of the largest carbon pollutants in the system regardless of the method of delivery. Removing layers of packaging, changing boxes or even removing them altogether could slash carbon emissions by up to 36 percent, the report found.
The packaging problem is exacerbated by the fact that America’s waste infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle all these materials. Most food and packaging ends up in a landfill or is burned to produce energy, generating 105.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, according to federal data. These facilities are often located in marginalized communities disproportionately exposed to the pollution that incineration creates.
By some estimates, the U.S. may have produced less waste in 2020 because of shutdowns on the commercial and industrial side, from office buildings and restaurants to manufacturers. Those sectors are rebounding, however.
Waste Management, the largest trash and recycling hauler in North America, has more than 4,000 contracts with municipalities across the country and recently reported that it collected fewer tons of waste last year. The company said only about 13.5 percent of it was recycled — a slight boost over the previous year in part because Waste Management has recently invested in recycling facilities.
Brent Bell, the company’s vice president of recycling, said the online shopping craze during the pandemic generated the most amount of cardboard he’d ever seen. There were a lot more bottles and cans and plastic films and takeout containers, too.
While paper and cardboard are recycled at the highest rate of any materials nationwide — 68 percent — plastic is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Only about 9 percent of it is recycled, according to federal data. That’s because flexible plastic films and pouches and many take out containers still aren’t recyclable. Neither are plastic bags, unless consumers bring them to the grocery store. Only then can Waste Management bail them up and sell them to be made into new bags.
Local officials from Baltimore to Minneapolis told POLITICO they saw similar trends last year.
Covid overtaxed Baltimore’s sanitation system. By August of 2020, the city’s waste haulers were overworked, falling ill with Covid, and trash was piling up in neighborhoods across the city. Officials halted curbside recycling for six months so truck drivers could focus on trash collection; all that recycling instead ended up in landfills or was incinerated.
The city got its curbside recycling up and running again in January and hopes a new $9 million investment in new blue recycling carts will boost recycling rates.
In Minneapolis, local processor Eureka Recycling handled 35 percent more aluminum, nearly 24 percent more cardboard and 13 percent more plastic in fiscal 2020 compared to the previous year, according to internal data.
“E-commerce has definitely led to more packaging,” said Kate Davenport, co-president of Eureka.
On the bright side, companies including Amazon, PepsiCo, Coca Cola and Walmart have made promises to buy more recycled materials to use in packaging in the coming years and reduce the amount of material they use, such as virgin plastic, Davenport said.
Amazon’s Davila said the company is working on using as little material as possible, in part by investing in technology that custom-sizes boxes to products so it can eliminate single-use plastic padding.
These are steps in the right direction, but still not enough to create a circular waste stream that eases the strain on natural resources, Davenport said. That will take new public policy.
Eureka and other environmental groups advocate for a policy known as “extended producer responsibility,” which puts companies — rather than taxpayers — on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the packaging and other waste their products create. Maine and Washington enacted laws this summer and at least 10 other states are considering them.
After longtime opposition to extended producer responsibility, business groups such as Ameripen, which represents packaging makers, and the American Beverage Association had a change of heart earlier this year. In order for member companies to achieve their own sustainability goals, they need access to more recycled commodities. That means making sure more of their own products get recycled.
The revenue from the laws could be reinvested into local recycling systems to help process more plastic and other materials. An estimated $17 billion investment over five years is needed to boost recycling rates to at least 70 percent, according to May analysis by The Recycling Partnership.
To date, companies have invested a small fraction of that.
At the end of the day, global consumerism has had the single-largest environmental impact of any human activity and no one actor alone will solve the problem, said Brown-West of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Companies can make a big dent by improving the sustainability of their products and using their enormous influence over supply chains to help decarbonize the energy, transportation and building sectors. They can work with city officials to locate distribution centers closer to people. They also should support new climate policy, Brown-West said.
Consumers also have more power than they may realize, said Chegut of MIT.
In study after study, taking fewer trips to the store, bundling purchases and avoiding returns can all make an impact. Just owning an electric vehicle isn’t a silver bullet.
“We learned that, if you own a Tesla in major coal energy states, that’s almost as bad as going to the supermarket every day,” Chegut said. “So, my biggest takeaway is to be a more mindful consumer. Try not to get in the car to go shop. If you do, make it a big shopping trip to avoid multiple trips. Walking and biking always wins.”
And then there’s simplest solution, regardless of whether we shop online or in person: “We could also buy less,” she said.

How does Germany′s bottle deposit scheme work?

German consumers religiously return their bottles under the bottle deposit scheme. But how exactly does it work? And is it a model other countries could follow?
It’s Saturday morning and people are queuing with bags full of bottles and cans at a supermarket in the German city of Cologne. But they’re not buying. Instead, they are returning them. The process is easy. When they bought their drinks, the shoppers paid a deposit on top of the cost of the beverage itself — the so-called Pfand. When they return their bottles and cans to the store, they get their money back. “Before 2003, some 3 billion disposable beverage containers were dumped in the environment every year,” Thomas Fischer, head of circular economy at NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH), told DW. These days, the country boasts a returns rate of above 98%. “It’s impossible to reach a higher rate,” Fischer said.  There are two types of bottles in Germany’s Pfand system. The first, which have producer-set deposit prices ranging from €0.08 to €0.25 ($0.29), can be reused multiple times and can be made from glass or PET plastic. The second are single-use containers, which as the name suggests, are only used once before they’re recycled. On these, the deposit price is fixed by the government at €0.25. Though for consumers, the Pfand system is a simple case of putting empties into a machine, what happens thereafter is a bit more complex. Adventurous bottles When a refillable bottle of, say, cola, is returned to the supermarket, it marks the start of a long journey. The horizontal white line (left bottle) is a sign that the bottle has been reused A drinks wholesaler transports it to a sorting facility with a truckload of empties, where it is put with other bottles of the same shape before being taken to a producer that uses that particular type of bottle. There, it is cleaned, refilled and delivered back to a shop shelf for repurchase.  Such a glass bottle can be refilled up to 50 times without losing quality, the state-run German Environment Agency (UBA) says. For reusable plastic bottles, it puts the re-use rate at 25.  Single-use bottles follow a different path. Once they’ve been collected in-store, they’re packed off to a recycling plant, where they’re shredded and turned into pellets to be made into new plastic bottles, textiles or other plastic objects, such as detergent containers. Which option is better for the environment? The deposit system for both reusable and single-use bottles saves raw materials, energy and CO2 emissions — mainly because it reduces the fossil fuels used to produce new bottles, Gerhard Kotschik, packaging expert with UBA, told DW. And recycling single-use bottles — as opposed to a sack of mixed plastics — results in food-grade material. On this basis, discount supermarkets, such as Aldi and Lidl, mostly sell single-use containers, claiming their recycling activities are good for the environment.  “Compared to the situation a few years ago, we use up to 70% less virgin PET material,” a Lidl spokesperson told DW. This is what returns machines look like in most German supermarkets This, however, has led to the growing popularity of single-use items. “If we want to be competitive, we have to offer our drinks in discount stores,” Uwe Kleinert, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola Germany, told DW. Coca-Cola’s use of reusable bottles slipped from 56% to 42% in 2015, according to figures from the DUH. The company joins PepsiCo as one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, found  Break Free from Plastic, a coalition of NGOs working to reduce plastic waste. In Germany, however, many of Coca-Cola’s beverages do appear in reusable plastic bottles, and some in glass.    The Schwarz Group, to which the discounter Lidl belongs, now produces single-use bottles for its own products. According to the company, it uses recycled PET. Only the labels and the lid are not made of 100% recycled plastic, they say.  Nevertheless, environmentalists say that reusable bottles are generally more environmentally friendly than single-use packaging. According to the DUH, single-use plastic bottles made from 100% recycled material still only make up a small share of the market. In addition, material is lost in every recycling process, according to the DUH. There is no closed loop whereby material can be converted into a new product indefinitely without losing any of its properties.  Production of most of these bottles also still requires raw materials derived from fossil fuels. “On average, single-use PET bottles in Germany contain 26% of recycled material,” Fischer said. In addition, reusable plastic bottles are also shredded into reusable PET granules, said Gerhard Kotschik of the UBA. This happens when a bottle has reached its refill quota, i.e. when it can no longer be reused in its original form.  “We always recommend buying reusable beverage containers from the region,” Kotschik told DW, adding that recycling only becomes the best option once a bottle has reached its refill quota. “Even better, however, is to avoid waste altogether.” Confusion over labeling Unlike for single-use bottles, there is no mandatory uniform symbol for reusable bottles and labeling may vary to include terms like “returnable bottle,” “deposit bottle,” “returnable” or “reusable bottle.” Retailers must mark whether bottles are single or multi-use on their store shelves, but for a shop or supermarket selling only single-use bottles, one sign in-store is enough. Environmental organizations such as the German NGO Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) criticize this as insufficient. Deposit systems’ infrastructure, particularly for reusable bottles, makes its introduction challenging While most consumers in Germany now recognize whether a bottle is single or multi-use, 42% of people still think that all deposit bottles — including single-use bottles — are refilled, according to a recent survey.   Who benefits from the deposit-return system? Stores that only sell single-use bottles avoid the logistic costs connected to reusables and they also benefit from the recycling and onward sale of high-grade PET. “You have to pay more for recycled PET than for virgin PET made from oil,” Kleinert said, but it’s key to achieving environmental targets. The business is becoming so lucrative that Lidl has even set up its own recycling group. Fischer said “every bottle is a gift” for discount stores.  Stores must clearly write down if the bottles are single-use (einweg) or reusable ones (mehrweg) Even unreturned empties — both refillable and single-use — spell profits for the stores that sold them. With 16.4 billion single-use bottles flooding the German drinks market every year, the 1.5% that are never taken back can translate into profits of as much as €180 million for retailers. A model for other countries?  German state environment agency UBA said there is no silver bullet for all countries and that each context has to be closely evaluated to decide what works best. But big companies that have long opposed the introduction of deposit systems are beginning to change their position. “We support well-designed, industry-owned deposit return schemes across Europe where no proven successful alternatives exist,” Wouter Vermeulen, senior director of Coca-Cola public policy center for Europe, told DW in an email. Cesar Sanchez, a spokesperson for Retorna, a Spanish NGO pushing for bottle deposit schemes, believes this is a response to social pressure and stricter European legislation on single-use plastic — by 2029, 90% of plastic bottles must be collected separately for recycling. “Society is demanding solutions and I think deposit return schemes will soon arrive in Spain and all other countries,” he said. Even in Germany, environmental groups are pushing for the deposit scheme to be rolled out to include all kinds of glass and carton packaging, such as Tetra Paks.  “It would also be possible to develop these containers for jam or honey,” Fischer said. “All products can be reusable, and that’s what we want.” 

In the food system and beyond, plastics are the problem

Plastics, as we all know, are central to our food system and to our economy. Each year more plastics get made from raw materials, and each year more enter the environment or end up in landfills. The EPA estimates that in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), only about 14 percent of plastic was recycled, which means that the other 86 percent either becomes litter, landfill, or burned for energy—and needs to be replaced with new virgin plastics next year.The Story of Plastic is an Emmy Award-winning documentary first released in 2019 and currently streaming online through the Discovery Network. Created by the Story of Stuff Project, the documentary shines an uncomfortable but much-needed light on the impacts of the plastic industry on people and ecosystems, and our reliance on plastics in the food system and elsewhere.“Ninety percent of the dialogue is about 10 percent of problem,” explains Stiv Wilson, the co-director of the Peak Plastic Foundation and the creator and producer of the documentary. “But most of the coverage focuses on downstream problems of packaging and waste,” such as the communities around plastic production facilities (such as “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana).”“It’s our goal to use story to elevate people working at the front line, tell the stories from a perspective of lived experience of harm, and create intersections and bridges for people from different walks of life to be a part of the overall narrative shift, so we can transform power and engage with this issue more systematically.”Civil Eats spoke with Wilson earlier this month to learn more about the size and shape of the plastic problem, how the pandemic reshaped the plastic landscape, and how food fits into the puzzle.Food is a part of the problem—you’ve mentioned that consumer goods packaging represents about 50 percent of all plastic packaging—but that’s not all. Can you say more about that?One of the issues with plastic pollution is that, living in a privileged, rich country, you may hear about the problem writ large, but if you are going to the grocery store, and you’re buying things [that are almost inevitably in plastic packaging], and you dispose of them—whether in the garbage or even in recycling—you wouldn’t think you’re part of the problem. You’re not exporting waste personally, you’re not littering. Most consumers aren’t aware that people literally died [from the toxic chemicals emitted into their neighborhoods from plastic-producing factories] so they could have that potato chip bag.Our goal is to shift the narrative so people understand the full life cycle of plastics and make more informed choices. Ultimately, we want to move away from this material, since we see plastic as the vehicle of globalization and capitalistic growth.“Most consumers aren’t aware that people literally died so they could have that potato chip bag.”In terms of food and beverage packaging specifically, how much of the global plastic industry does that represent?Packaging in all consumer goods is approaching 50 percent. That’s the sector of growth and a lot of that is food packaging. That’s how Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, and other conglomerates are selling their products in the developing world and opening markets: By selling smaller amounts that are on a lower price point [but require as much if not more packaging per ounce].So now, all kinds of products—from soy sauce to shampoo to coffee—are all coming in these [multi-layer] single-serve packages that are fused materials, which makes them nearly impossible to recycle from an economic standpoint; it costs more to actually process them than the end product is worth.And the economics don’t work because the infrastructure doesn’t exist to do it at scale, or to do it cost-effectively?The infrastructure for [some] recycling doesn’t exist, because it’s not profitable to do it. Recycling was never meant to address a waste stream this large. And for 40 years, the plastics industry has said the solution to plastic pollution is recycling. But if recycling was actually cutting down on the amount of plastic being made, they wouldn’t be promoting it—they full well know recycling isn’t cutting into their profits from virgin plastics.There is a massive pivot by the oil and gas industry underway, shifting from fossil fuels for energy and transportation to plastics. And I fear that climate advocacy is not tracking this bait and switch.